When Piper introduced its popular four-place PA-28 Cherokee in 1960, it didn’t take long for the company to realize that a significant number of customers (and potential customers) had a need for more space and more load-carrying capability. By 1963, Cessna had responded to that market segment by introducing its six-place 205, and Piper followed suit in 1965 by introducing the PA-32 Cherokee Six.
The Cherokee Six was designed with simplicity and utility in mind. While it later evolved into the Saratoga, Lance and “Six”—all with various blends of retractable gear, turbocharged engines, T-tails and tapered wings—we’re focusing on the original version, built from 1965 to 1979.
With fixed gear, a normally aspirated engine and the traditional non-tapered “Hershey bar” wing, this generation of Cherokee Six is prized by owners as the most economical means of transporting a large amount of people and cargo. Here, we investigate what the Cherokee Six is like to own, maintain and fly.
The design process for the Cherokee Six was straightforward: Using the existing four-place Cherokee as the starting point, Piper added approximately 4 feet in fuselage length and 7 inches to the cabin width. To handle the additional size and weight, the engine was upgraded to a larger, six-cylinder Lycoming. Though a small number were built with fixed-pitch propellers, virtually all have since been upgraded with constant-speed propellers.
The massive rear cabin is what sets the Cherokee Six apart from the rest of the Cherokee family. It accommodates four passengers in a club-seating configuration or, alternatively, two rows of forward-facing seats. With the latter configuration, a small seventh seat can be added between the two second row seats for a child or small adult. The forward-facing rear seats are easily configurable and can be installed or removed in seconds without tools.
Baggage capacity is outstanding, with a dedicated forward baggage area between the instrument panel and firewall, as well as a larger baggage area aft of the third row of seats. Both areas have a 100-pound weight-carrying capacity. A large two-part door provides access to the rear cabin and aft baggage area, making it easy to load and unload oversize items.
Overall, Piper engineers exercised restraint when designing the Cherokee Six and successfully created an airplane nearly as basic and straightforward as the existing PA-28 Cherokee—but with far more space and power.
The Cherokee Six family is a simple one. The initial PA-32 that was produced prior to the advent of the Lance and Saratoga came in only two variants, and they differed only in horsepower.
The original Cherokee Six was given the designation PA-32-260 and came equipped with the carbureted 260-horsepower Lycoming O-540. Later, enough buyers requested more power that Piper acquiesced and offered the PA-32-300 with the fuel-injected 300-horsepower Lycoming IO-540. Both engines are well-liked by pilots and maintainers, but those who own the 300 hp version invariably appreciate having the additional power.
A survey of Cherokee Six models listed for sale at the time of this writing found 17 examples ranging in price from $67,000 for a 260 with dated paint, interior and avionics to $225,000 for fully restored examples with thoroughly updated panels. The median price of the group was $129,900, and the median airframe time was 5,150 hours.
It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a Cherokee Six for less than $100,000. One charter operator who owns, restores and maintains several of them reports that it’s becoming nearly impossible to find clean, trouble-free examples for under $125,000. The type nevertheless remains one of the most economical means of transporting such a volume of passengers and cargo, particularly when compared to twins.
A total of 1,647 Cherokee Sixes are presently listed on the FAA register, made up of 661 PA-32-260s and 986 PA-32-300s.
One owner jokingly advises, “During preflight, make sure nobody left a baby grand piano in the rear cargo area.” In fact, Piper did run advertisements showing an actual piano being loaded into the cabin to demonstrate the airplane’s ability to swallow oversize cargo.
The ability to carry a vast amount of weight can transform the airplane’s flight characteristics entirely, however. Lightly loaded, a Cherokee Six behaves like an overpowered muscle car, firmly pressing occupants into their seatbacks during the takeoff roll, climbing out at 1,300 to 1,400 feet per minute, and responding enthusiastically to blips of the throttle.
Heavily loaded, the airplane demands attention and a thorough understanding of how greater weight and inertia can affect performance. Owners strongly recommend seeking out an experienced CFI, then training at both ends of the weight-and-balance envelope to learn just how differently the airplane flies when fully loaded with an aft center of gravity. While never precarious or dangerous, trim requirements become vastly different, and one must think further ahead when making power adjustments.
A look at the 260 and 300 information manuals reveals admirable takeoff and landing performance even at the 3,400-pound max takeoff weight—listing 1,400 to 1,500 feet required to clear a 50-foot obstacle at sea level on takeoff and only 1,000 feet to do so on landing.
When it comes to fuel burn, no Cherokee Six will ever be described as thrifty. At typical cruise speeds of 135 to 145 knots, fuel burns of approximately 14 to 17 gallons per hour can be expected. Powered back for maximum economy, however, owners report seeing fuel burns as low as 11 to 12 gallons per hour.
If there is an aspect of the Cherokee Six operation that is prone to error, it’s the fuel system. While it isn’t overly complicated, it is somewhat clumsy from a design perspective and requires special attention. Two tanks per wing (inboard and outboard) hold a total of 84 gallons. The outboard tanks should always be filled first, and all weight in excess of 3,112 pounds must be in fuel weight only. The 1979 Cherokee Six went to a simpler two-tank system with a 94-gallon capacity.
To prevent an imbalance in flight, many owners opt to switch tanks every 15 to 30 minutes, emptying the mains before the outboards per the flight manual. Each main tank provides roughly one and a half hours of endurance, and each outboard provides about one hour more.
Cherokee Six owners stand by their decision to stick to the fixed-gear PA-32 over its retractable gear cousins, reasoning that the increased speed offered by the retractable gear is negligible. One owner whose Cherokee Six is outfitted with an aftermarket cowl and wheelpants reported that when flying side by side with a friend in a Piper Lance, the Lance was only able to cruise about 5 knots faster despite having retractable gear. When we add the additional insurance premiums and maintenance expenses to the equation, it seems the retractable gear struggles to make a compelling case for itself.
The size, weight and inertia of the airplane make it an ideal instrument platform, and the conventional tail provides familiar, predictable handling during takeoff and landing, particularly compared with the later T-tails in the Lance series. If speed is allowed to decay on final approach, the sink rate will quickly increase, and the airplane will rapidly slice through ground effect to an abrupt end. The long nose can obscure forward visibility in the flare, but landings are otherwise simple and straightforward.
A significant number of Cherokee Six owners began their primary training in smaller, four-place Cherokees and later progressed to the Six as their needs evolved. Because the handling characteristics and systems are fairly consistent among the PA-28 and PA-32 fleets, the progression from the smaller models to the larger ones is considered to be straightforward and easily accomplished with proper training.
Because of the six- to seven-seat capacity, insurance premiums are quite a bit higher than comparable four-seat aircraft. Some lower-time owners have been able to negotiate a reduced rate with their insurance provider by agreeing to remove two passenger seats, thus limiting their airplane’s total seating capacity to four. After logging enough time in type to bring their premiums down to a more reasonable level, the insurance company reinstated the original policy, and the owners returned the airplanes to their full seating capacity.
The seating capacity can also present a challenge to Cherokee Six pilots wishing to operate under BasicMed. Because the airplane has the potential to carry seven with the additional center seat, it’s possible to interpret this as exceeding BasicMed’s six-seat limitation. Fortunately, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and Aeronautix have created inexpensive STCs that restrict the airplane to six seats via paperwork, qualifying it for operation under BasicMed. If the owner later wishes to utilize all seven seats, the STC can easily be removed.
Unlike some less-common types that demand technicians with specialized knowledge and experience, the popularity of the Piper Cherokee family makes it easy to find parts and service for both the airframe and powerplant. ADs are fairly straightforward, the most serious of which concern corrosion and the relatively recent wing spar AD that applies to many Pipers.
Owners and maintainers alike praise the Lycoming O-540 and IO-540 engines for their reliability and parts availability. Both engines boast a lengthy 2,000-hour TBO, though the O-540 is considerably less expensive to overhaul. A survey of several engine shops found that, at $30,000, the average overhaul cost of the less powerful O-540 is $12,000 lower than that of the injected version.
Many owners only typically transport four passengers but enjoy the airplane’s ability to also transport as much baggage as those individuals ever want to bring along. The low aft cabin door and ease of entry makes the Cherokee Six a favorite of passengers with limited mobility, and the close proximity of the aft baggage area provides a convenient place to store wheelchairs and mobility aids.
Most Cherokee Six airplanes boast useful loads in the 1,400-pound range, with early lighter models approaching 1,500 pounds. With a fuel capacity of 84 gallons, this equates to full fuel payloads in the 900- to 1,000-pound range. The 1979 model has a 94-gallon usable-fuel capacity.
Owning a Cherokee Six is like owning two airplanes at the same time. Empty and light, it is effectively a very powerful and roomy PA-28 Cherokee that loves to accelerate and climb. Fully loaded, it’s a personal airliner, capable of bringing enough friends and luggage for comfortable weekend trips away.
Large-cabin utility doesn’t come cheap in aviation and most often comes in the form of light twins. With fixed-gear simplicity and the utilitarian reliability of the Cherokee family, the Cherokee Six is perhaps the easiest and least-expensive means of attaining that level of capability.
From The FLYING Archives
From FLYING’s report in the July 1965 issue, managing editor Richard Weeghman waxes eloquently about the Six’s charms—and ability to carry odd-size loads.
“Cleopatra wrapped in a rug, 17 skis and poles, one grandfather clock, three fishing poles, a full-grown tuna fish, and maybe my Great Dane. That’s what Piper Cherokee Sixes are made of.
“To fly the Cherokee Six is to displace a great cylindrical column of air—but at an airspeed quite respectable for a fixed-gear airplane. Cruise speed (at 75 percent power, 7,000 feet gross weight) is 137 knots (158 mph). To fly in hazy weather is to peer out over an engine nacelle without end.
“To land the Cherokee Six is to invite the drumroll of little feet upon your wing after you have parked, the press of nostrils against the plexiglass, and the moist touch of curious hands upon the rear door.”
A true “throw anything into it” kind of airplane.