Six Seat Stalwart: Used PA-32 Review

The six-seat Piper singles deliver a lot of utility for the price on the used market.

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.

In 1976 Piper retracted the landing gear on the Six and renamed the airplane the Lance. The Lance was built with only the 300 hp engine. The fuselage and cabin were unchanged from the Six, and the wing was essentially the same except for the structural mods necessary to create the wheel wells for the main gear to retract into. The fuel was also contained in only two tanks in the Lance, one per wing mounted farther outboard than in the Six.

Eliminating the drag of the fixed landing gear added 10 or maybe even 15 knots to typical cruise speed, not as much as many expected. There were rumors around Piper at the time that an aerodynamic cleanup and new streamlined landing gear and wheel pants cut the drag on the Six enough that it matched the cruise of the Lance. In the used market the Lance carries no price premium over the Six of similar vintage and condition, even though the Lance cost around 25 percent more when new. The weight of the retractable gear system in the Lance cut into useful load, which helps explain the market pricing, because most PA-32 buyers are very interested in available payload.

In 1978 Piper made what many believe is the only misstep in the progression of the PA-32 family — it put a T-tail on the Lance. Piper management was in love with T-tails at the time and claimed that the high position of the horizontal got it out of the propeller slipstream where it could operate more efficiently. To take advantage of this hoped-for efficiency gain, the tail was smaller than on previous models. The result was a loss of pitch control authority at low airspeeds that was most noticeable during takeoffs. The T-tail Lance has to accelerate to a higher airspeed before it will rotate nose-up, and even at that point it has a less satisfying response than the Cherokee Six or first Lance did with the conventional tail.

Piper also used the T-tail Lance as the launch platform for the first turbocharged PA-32. The engine uses updraft cooling with a huge oval opening in the lower part of the cowling to scoop in air and force it upward over the cylinders. Updraft cooling has some theoretical advantages in lower drag and higher cooling efficiency, but the theory didn’t deliver well in actual practice, and the turbo had significant cooling problems. Also, the gaping hole in the cowling makes the turbo T-tail Lance the most unattractive airplane to roll off Piper’s assembly line.

What About Engine Time?
The Lycoming 540 engine in all models of the PA-32 carries a recommended TBO of 2,000 hours, which is at least 300 hours more than for the engine in some other six-seat singles. Higher TBO is a good thing, but you can’t take it to the bank.A TBO recommendation is negotiated between the engine manufacturer and the airframe maker and is only an estimate of how many hours on average the engine can operate before major overhaul if flown regularly. Most pilots think only of the flight hour component of the TBO — 2,000 hours in this case — but there is also a calendar time consideration. The TBO hour number is typically based on flying the airplane 40 hours per month, or 480 hours a year. That means a 2,000-hour engine reaches its calendar TBO in less than five years.None of these numbers has any regulatory significance for pilots who fly under FAR Part 91 rules, which are those that govern personal and business flying not for hire. All that matters under Part 91 is that an FAA-authorized inspector (IA) examines and signs off the engine during an annual inspection. Some IAs become concerned when an engine is operated beyond its hourly TBO, but as long as oil consumption, compression tests and other checks are within limits, the engine remains legal to fly. There are also no insurance implications for flying an engine beyond its hourly TBO, because as long as it is signed off at the annual inspection, the engine is airworthy by definition.On the other hand, if problems are discovered at inspection, it doesn’t matter how little time is in the logbook. So TBO neither damns you nor saves you during the annual inspection. Only the condition of the engine matters. The engine in the PA-32s costs an average of around $30,000 to overhaul, with the turbocharged version costing as much as $20,000 more on average. So admire the Lycoming’s 2,000-hour TBO, but bank your engine reserve, not the number of flight hours, in the engine logbook.

The T-tail Lance was not a hit with pilots, and Cherokee Sixes of the same vintage sell for at least a little more in the used market even though the Lance was priced many thousands more when new. After two years of T-tailing — 1978 and 1979 — Piper corrected the situation by introducing the Saratoga, the biggest improvement in appearance in the entire PA-32 history.

The Saratoga has the same basic fuselage and cabin as the Six and Lance, but the fat constant-chord wing is replaced by a slender tapered wing with more than three feet of additional span. The wing taper begins where the flap ends, providing space for a longer-span aileron that improves control effectiveness and, most pilots report, makes control feel and harmony better. I could never decide for certain whether the Saratoga is that much nicer to fly, or if I imagined it is because the tapered wing just looks so much more attractive and aerodynamically pleasing. The Saratoga proved to be a sales success even though the general aviation market was starting a long swoon when it was introduced in 1980.

Piper built the Saratoga in both fixed- and retractable-gear models, and turbocharging was available in both. The horizontal tail was back in its traditional position, and the cowling on the turbo used the standard downdraft cooling. The retractable model is called an HP to insinuate high performance. The Saratoga proved to be five knots or so faster than the Six, and the turbo HP could hit 165 knots at the top end. The Saratoga pulled ahead of Cessna’s six-seat 206 in cruise performance, and the turbo got within shouting distance of the six-seat A36 Bonanza.

Over the years, the Saratoga was refined in many ways, particularly in the quality of materials and fit-and-finish in the interior. In 1994 the Saratoga II was introduced with tiny, axisymmetric cooling air inlets in the cowling. The size of the inlet is a fraction of the previous cowling, but the conical shape of the base of the inlet and its precise position on the cowling proved to be as efficient as, or even more efficient than, the larger openings. The Saratoga II gained a little speed from lower engine-cooling drag and also gained some panache with the high-tech look of the new cowling.

The Saratoga II was the last significant external change in the PA-32 family, but all aspects of quality in and out of the airplane continued to improve, along with avionics advances. The big change in the panel came in the 2005 model, in which Avidyne’s Entegra flat-glass displays replaced conventional instruments. Garmin GNS 430s handled navigation and communication, and the Entegra system contained the nonmoving electronic AHRS that replaced the standard gyros.

Piper tried to pump up PA-32 sales in 2004 with introduction of the 6X model, a stripped down version offered with both naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines. The base price was $100,000 lower than for the Saratoga II, but there were not a lot of takers. New airplane buyers wanted the glass avionics and other advances the 6X lacked.

Single-Engine Airliner
As I taxied the airplane onto the runway, the nose-high attitude of the long snout was still giving me cause for concern. I turned my head and glanced behind at the four other passengers seated comfortably in two separate rows. I offered a sheepish grin to the man sitting beside me in the copilot seat. Six people. Six standard-size adults. Would the airplane really fly? I had been methodical in the weight-and-balance calculation. The dot on the chart put the airplane well within CG limits. I drew in a deep breath as we rolled down the 3,000-foot runway at the Skaneateles Airport in upstate New York. Using barely half of the runway, the Cherokee Six leapt into the air. I was impressed.The year was 1976. I was a 19-year-old flight instructor. My passengers, like myself, were employees of a local FBO in Syracuse. We were bound for Vero Beach, Florida. Our mission was to ferry five brand-new airplanes back from the Piper factory. As far as I was concerned, my PIC assignment on that day might as well have been the cockpit of a 747. My fondness for the Cherokee Six has remained ever since.For countless years I had threatened to buy an airplane. My friends had rolled their eyes wondering when I would shut up and get it done. Although most of my window-shopping extolled the virtues of twin-engine redundancy, the Cherokee Six always seemed to creep back into my thoughts. Why?Granted, my airline mentality is more comfortable with at least two of everything. I agonized over the never-ending single vs. twin debate. But two of everything is expensive. Could I mitigate the risk with new parts, proper maintenance and well-equipped avionics? The answer was yes.With that rationale in mind, there was no better or more operationally affordable airplane for me than a Cherokee Six. It is my single-engine airliner. Although the airplane has seven seats, the useful load allows four adults and their baggage to ride in comfort with full fuel tanks. And if I choose to stuff more people into the airplane, the aft entry door makes climbing aboard easy. A forward baggage compartment and an aft baggage compartment keep cabin clutter to a minimum. Stability, even in choppy air, is never an issue.Is it slow? Yup. I move along at only 145 knots. But I get there in style. And the gear is always down. Once the approach is stabilized, as in a good Boeing, it’s hard to make a bad landing.I am positive that no one has found the perfect airplane, but for this airline pilot’s wallet, a Cherokee Six comes as close as it gets.—Les Abend

During the past few years, the number of Saratoga sales has tapered off, particularly with introduction of the Matrix, which led Piper’s six-seat sales. But there are hundreds of PA-32 models on the used market to choose from, and their prices, well down substantially from a year or two ago, are holding up as well as any piston singles. The cabin room and ease of loading through the big doors that made the original Cherokee Six a success continue to be major assets for the airplane. The Lycoming 540 engine is highly regarded by many pilots, and the PA-32 airframe has proven to be durable with no unusual maintenance issues.

Prices for early Cherokee Sixes are down around the $50,000 mark, while the earliest Saratogas are in the $100,000 vicinity. Of course, when considering airplanes 30 and even 40 years old, there is no way to generalize, because condition and equipment make enormous differences in value. But no matter what you pay, you won’t find more cabin room and utility than in a member of the big PA-32 family.

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