Six Classic Utility Aircraft
PIPER PA-32 CHEROKEE SIX 300
The Cherokee Six is yet another example of a relatively pedestrian airplane that underwent a transformation when it got more power and more room, the classic recipe for utility heaven. Piper launched the Six in 1965 as the Cherokee Six 260, a stretched Cherokee with a Lycoming IO-540 six-cylinder engine. It was a hit, but the designers at Piper quickly figured out that if an additional 80 horses was good, another 40 ponies would be even better, and they were right. The resultant airplane, the Cherokee Six 300, was faster (better than 140 knots consistently on about 15 gallons per hour) and a better load hauler. Predictably, the 260 hp model faded into the background as buyers opted for the more powerful model, for all the right reasons.
As time passed, the PA-32 got a tapered wing and other refinements, but for my money, Piper captured the essence of the model with the late ’60s and ’70s Hershey-bar-winged 300 hp model. It was nothing pretty, but it earned its keep. In later years, Piper introduced turbocharged and retractable-gear models, including for a couple of years the Lance, a near-160-knot retractable-gear airplane with good payload despite its hoity-toity club seating. Later models, dubbed Saratogas by Piper, boasted a new tapered wing, greatly “improved” (read: heavier) interiors and enhanced avionics. Again, “enhanced” or “improved” almost always means more weight, which is anathema to utility.
Unlike its 260-horse forebear, the higher-power model was also a reasonable six-place airplane. If you leave off a little fuel, the plane can actually carry six 170-pound adults. Or take a few seats out, and you can carry a boatload of cargo, even heavy stuff. When I was a kid, my family’s business used our Cherokee Six to haul cases of aircraft oil from our distributor, which was located at an airport 60 miles away. The business later used a Lance for short-haul charter, running customers to LAX or Las Vegas to catch a flight or roll the dice. It was the classic example of a lightweight utility aircraft.
Years ago, I did a story on AmeriFlite, the California-based freight-hauling company that, for a couple of decades, plied the airways of the American West with a motley assemblage of utility aircraft including — for short hauls and smaller loads — the Piper Cherokee Six. The company knew its operating costs to the penny, and it knew that for hauling checks over short distances, the Six simply couldn’t be beat. Another part of AmeriFlite’s calculus was that the PA-32 was tough as nails and that what needed to be fixed from time to time was relatively cheap to service. The company went so far as to remanufacture dozens of Sixes over the years to better-than-new condition, ferreting out any corrosion, beefing up the wing structure, overhauling the gear and gear attach points, and buttoning it all up with a fresh coat of paint (for corrosion resistance and free advertising, not for any style points). The end result was an airplane that worked hard, carrying near its empty weight in cargo and making a lot of money for its operator in the process. AmeriFlite eventually retired its PA-32s in favor of larger airplanes, which I’m told had more to do with a changing business than with the capabilities of the Cherokees it operated. The downside of the Six is that it is a low wing, putting it at greater risk of hitting brush and other obstacles, and the nose gear of the Cherokee line is tough but not as ideal as a taildragger setup for the really rough stuff.
For private owner-operators, the Six makes a lot of sense, especially if you don’t need a lot of speed. I owned a share of a 1974 PA-32 for a few years and used it for business travel, family vacations and air-to-air photography. It was a remarkably utilitarian airplane, and with a fuel burn of right around 15 gph, it was only slightly more expensive to operate than a 182. The family loved the room to stretch out in back and the big easy-loading side-entry door. I loved the twin cargo holds in front (between the firewall and the cockpit) and in back behind the rear seats as well as the easy flying manners Cherokees are known for.
I know the aileron response on the Six is often called “trucklike,” but again, owners of airplanes like the Six tend to gloss over their rough spots.
It’s a habit that’s easy to forgive. — ROBERT GOYER