It's been 45 years since Piper stretched the Cherokee fuselage to create the Six, and the much refined version of the airplane remains in production as the Saratoga II. That kind of production longevity is proof that Piper found an enduring market niche for the PA-32 family, and solid demand on the used market even in today's depressed conditions is additional evidence that the airplane can do what others can't.
The original four-seat Cherokee had been in production for only three years at Piper's then-new Vero Beach, Florida, factory when the first Cherokee Six was delivered in 1965. The Six fuselage was stretched more than four feet compared with the original PA-28 Cherokee, and engine power was increased from 160 to 260 to pull the heavier load.
Piper, however, added less than three feet to the wingspan of the Six, making the broad constant-chord "Hershey bar" wing look even chunkier. The extended span was mostly at the tips, where the Six had an additional fuel tank on each side, plus at the standard Cherokee tanks near the wing root.
The four-tank arrangement is one of the few pilot annoyances in the Six because your fuel reserve can end up spread over all four tanks. The only way to concentrate your reserve in one or two tanks is to run the others dry before switching. I can tell you that takes nerves of steel, particularly when flying in the clouds, because it can take an eternity of seconds for the engine to catch again after you switch from the empty tank.
Another fuel system quirk of the Six is a handbook requirement to burn down the inboard tanks first when flying at higher weights. The reason is to reduce the wing bending moment. With the weight of fuel concentrated at the tips, the load on the wing is spread a little more evenly than if both fuel and fuselage weight are at the wing root. All larger airplanes have zero fuel weights that require all weight above that limit to be fuel, not payload in the cabin. The Six was among the first light airplanes to have a fuel weight limit. Many larger airplanes have fuel systems that drain center tanks first, but those systems are usually automated. In the Six, it's up to the pilot to keep track. And the fuel selector is mounted down below the seats on the forward edge of the wing spar where you can't easily see it, so tank switching is done mostly by feel.
Since the beginning the PA-32 family has had a passenger door on the left side of the fuselage in addition to the standard entry door over the wing on the right side for access to the pilot seats. The passenger door is aft of the wing's trailing edge, making it one of the easiest of all piston singles to enter and exit.
In a stroke of design foresight that pilots have praised for decades, Piper also put a baggage door on the left side. The baggage door is about half the size of the passenger door and is hinged at the top, while the passenger door has forward-mounted hinges. But when you open the passenger door and lift the baggage door, there is an immense amount of room to load long and bulky objects. The door arrangement, probably more than any other feature, has made the PA-32 a favorite for cargo haulers and, for obvious reasons, was the No. 1 choice for flying funeral directors before steep insurance requirements stopped them from routinely transporting the departed.
Many years ago Flying columnist Gordon Baxter wrote about flying funeral directors and their work to comfort the living and hit upon the idea of why, in a flight plan or at the request from controllers, we always say "souls on board," not persons. Most of us had never thought of that before.
The PA-32 cabin is the roomiest of the popular six-seat singles. Most of the series have club-style seating with the center row of seats facing aft, and there is plenty of room for full-size adults to find space for their knees. The cabin is wide enough that there is an option to add a third seating position in the middle row. It's tight for adults but ideal for adding children to the payload. Most of the airplanes have a storage container or cooler between the middle seats instead of the third belted position.
The original Cherokee Six had a six-cylinder 260 hp Lycoming with a fixed-pitch propeller as standard. The fixed-pitch prop produced barely enough thrust to lift the Six off the runway, but the weight savings allowed Piper to claim a useful load greater than the empty weight for the basic model. Few, if any, Sixes flew with the standard fixed-pitch propeller, which was replaced by the optional constant-speed prop. The engine also has a carburetor, so carb ice is always a threat. By the second year of production, the Six was offered with a fuel-injected 300 hp version of the Lycoming 540 engine with a constant-speed prop standard.
The Six 300 turned out to be much more popular than the 260 version. The original price difference was $3,000. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it did bump the base price from $18,500 for the 260 to $21,500, a significant percentage increase. The Six 260 remained in production until 1978, and surprisingly, the price difference between it and the 300 on the used market is about the same as it was when the airplanes were new. Most of the difference in performance is in takeoff and climb, with higher weights amplifying that difference. Both models were approved for 3,400 pounds maximum takeoff weight.
Most of the Cherokee Sixes have 84-gallon fuel capacity. At maximum cruise, the Six 300 on a good day can make 145 knots, and the 260 around five or six knots less. More typical cruise speeds are around 135 knots true, and the 300 will consume around 15 gph while the 260 burns a gallon or two less. With full fuel the Six is a five-hour airplane with minimal reserve, but four hours is very comfortable.