For a very long time the training fleets of the Western world were pretty well divided into two camps-those that operated Pipers and those that flew Cessnas.
Words Dave Unwin Images James Lawrence
For a very long time the training fleets of the Western world were pretty well divided into two camps ? those that operated Pipers and those that flew Cessnas. While visiting Piper’s Vero Beach facility to test the Malibu Mirage (see Pilot June 2012) the opportunity arose to evaluate the latest version of the venerable PA-28, a brand-new 180hp Archer LX. Now, usually I jump at the chance to flight-test an aircraft, but on this occasion I was at first less than enthusiastic. The problem was that this is an aeroplane that first flew 52 years ago and, although it has benefited from numerous upgrades, it is essentially the same machine ? and is clearly recognisable as such. However, any type that is still being produced more than half-a-century after its maiden flight must have something going for it, while sales of well over 37,000 are also pretty impressive.
The PA-28 was designed in 1960 by John Thorp and Fred Weick, entered production the following year and proved to be an immediate success with both flight training schools and private owners. Over the next fifty years Piper produced more than forty different variants, which featured numerous changes to both the size of the wing and engine, alterations to the airframe and variations on the undercarriage. In fact, the Type Certificate covered a remarkable range, from 140hp two-seaters to 235hp four-seaters, turbocharged retractables and even a seaplane version. Furthermore the marque has earned an enviable reputation as an honest, hard-working, safe and reliable aircraft.
Nevertheless, it is irrefutable that fifty years is a long time ? and things have moved on. Just picture the kinds of cars and motorbikes that were in the showrooms when the first Cherokees started rolling off of Piper’s Vero Beach production line… Could a brand-new Archer really be a suitable machine in the 21st Century’s second decade? I soon realised that there was only one way to find out?fly it!
Although I have flown many different variants of the Cherokee tribe over the years, it had been a while since my last flight in one, so I decided to reacquaint myself with the type by approaching the preflight inspection as if I’d never flown one before. An all-metal, low-wing monoplane of relatively clean design, the Archer has a rather business-like, no-nonsense look about it. As mentioned previously, there have been numerous changes over the years but, apart from the small dorsal fin that merges into the slightly sweptback fin and the number of windows, from a distance, it really does look essentially the same as the original 1961 Cherokee 160.
The engine is an even older design than the airframe ? it’s a version of probably the best selling aero engine of all time, Lycoming’s O-360. The LX uses the A4M variant, which puts out 180hp at 2,700rpm and spins a two-blade, fixed-pitch Sensenich metal prop. It is fed from a pair of tanks located in the leading edges of the wings. These have a combined capacity of 189 litres, of which 182 is useable. A small hatch in the top of the cowling provides access to the oil dipstick, while a more thorough preflight does require the top half of the cowl to be removed. On very early models, this was secured by over-centre latches, enabling either side to be hinged opened easily. However, the cowling has been redesigned quite extensively over the years, and the three-piece metal upper cowl of yore has been replaced by a single item made of composite. The square air intakes of earlier aircraft have given way to smaller, circular inlets, promising better aerodynamic efficiency. It all looks much better, although the downside is that it does take a lot longer to remove the cowl.
Peculiarity of the breed
One of the peculiarities of the breed is that Piper opted to use an all-flying tailplane, or stabilator, instead of the more usual fixed tailplane and elevator. I have always wondered why: although the origins of the stabilator can be traced back quite a long way, it really came to prominence with the first transonic aircraft. Due to the wide speed range that they operated over, and also the influence of shock waves at high Mach numbers, these machines required greater pitch authority than can be provided by a conventional, fixed tailplane and separate elevator. Although jetliners, supersonic fighters and even some high-performance sailplanes use an all-flying tail (the latter purely as a means of reducing drag) I’ve never fully understood why a machine such as the Cherokee ? which has a Mach limiting number of around M0.25 ? really needs one. It may have been lighter, simpler or even cheaper to make, but I’ve yet to unearth the definitive answer.
The stabilator features considerable span but a relatively narrow chord. Of note is its anti-servo/trim tab, which is almost as large as a conventional elevator. One thing that distinguishes the Archer LX from early PA-28s is the Cessna-pattern tapered wing, that in 1975 replaced the original constant-chord ‘Hershey Bar’ wing.
Although tapered wings do generate less drag, interestingly there is only a couple of knots difference in cruise speed between a straight- and tapered-wing Archer. At the time, Piper said the change had been made to improve pilot control in crosswinds and slow speed flight. This well may be true, but the company had the competing C172 in its sights and you have to wonder if at least part of the tapered wing’s advantage was cosmetic.
Another rather strange design choice is that, although early taper-wing PA-28s used Frise ailerons, for later versions this was changed to piano-wire hinged, flat-plate ailerons ? a retrograde step if ever there was one!
Manually-operated flaps extend over the length of the trailing edge of the centre-section, with the ailerons being carried on the outer wing panels. The flaps have four settings, 0, 10, 25 and 40�. The control surfaces are corrugated for extra stiffness and are operated via cables, pulleys and bellcranks.
The undercarriage remains unchanged from earlier models, with the wheels (which are all the same size) being carried on fully-faired telescopic struts. The aircraft appears to be very well made and also nicely finished ? although I was a bit surprised that in 2012 the landing and taxi lights weren’t LEDs.
Pre-flight complete, it was time to get in and go flying. Access to the cockpit is only possible from the starboard side, as in common with many other Pipers there is only the one door. You have to wonder if sales have been lost through this, bearing in mind that the PA-28’s principal competitor, the Cessna 172, has a door on each side. On the plus side, the Piper’s is a pretty big door (and the cockpit is also wider than a C172’s) while the non-slip wingroot walkway is also sensibly sized. (I hate it when the section that you’re supposed to walk on resembles a tightrope.) Access to the generously-sized baggage area is via a reasonable-size door, which is also on the starboard side. The baggage bay can accommodate up to 90kg although, as with most other four-seaters, if you then put an adult male on each seat you will definitely not be able to fill the fuel tanks to their maximum capacity. The cabin is quite spacious and also well-lit, while an excellent feature is that the floor is flat as Piper’s engineers were able to run the main spar under the back seats.
The front seats offer a respectable amount of adjustment (which I liked) and inertia reel seatbelts (which I didn’t). I began to familiarise myself with the control layout. Thus far, I hadn’t really spotted any significant changes from earlier Archers, but the instrument panel is very different. It is dominated by a Garmin G500 PFD and MFD, with a block of nine annunciators immediately above. The standby analogue AI, ASI and altimeter are arranged in a neat column to the right of the G500s, with the engine and fuel quantity gauges towards the bottom.
The avionics stack (dual GNS 430 Nav/Com/GPS units, a GTX330 transponder and GMA340 audio panel) is centrally mounted, with three rugged-looking rocker switches for the autopilot, avionics master and pitot heat directly beneath. Incidentally, although I thought that the LX was very well equipped ? the avionics options include an S-TEC55X autopilot, synthetic vision, Skywatch TCAS, a Stormscope ? one option I’d certainly exercise is the Jeppesen ChartView, but unfortunately it’s not approved by EASA.
Below the avionics stack is the throttle and mixture quadrant, then the rudder trim knob and indicator. The parking brake is at the base of the panel, just to the left of the throttle quadrant, with the carb heat lever to the right of the mixture control. Rudder trim is provided via springs, although I must say I’ve never quite understood the rationale behind it ? the Archer is only an 180hp single and the pedal forces are never that heavy. Furthermore, its indicator is not intuitive, as it moves vertically when it should really move laterally.
A centre console between the seats carries the elevator trim wheel (electric trim is on the yoke), trim position indicator and large, mechanical flap lever. On the left side of the cockpit wall is the large rotary fuel selector. It features three positions: Left, Right and Off. A good safety feature is that a small safety catch has to be pressed before Off can be selected. The majority of the electrical services ? such as the mags, fuel pump and lights ? are controlled by a neat row of rockers set into the cabin roof, directly above the windscreen. I liked this arrangement and, along with a command yoke that positively bristles with buttons, knobs and switches, it gave the impression that this is a much larger aircraft. Indeed, at a glance it’s only the carb heat lever and the absence of an undercarriage selector that indicate that this is a simple SEP.
Talking of the carb heat lever, some people claim that as it is ‘down for on’, it is at odds with the electrical services’ rocker switches and is thus ergonomically unsound ? but I would disagree. Rather than think of needing to turn it on, consider that in most phases of flight the normal, ergonomically correct position is ‘off’. So I’d say Piper has got it right.
With Piper’s Chief Pilot Bart Jones in the other seat we set off on the long taxi out to Vero Beach’s Runway 11R behind the Seneca camera ship. Nosewheel steering is provided via springs that are linked to the rudder pedals and these, combined with toe-actuated hydraulic Cleveland disc brakes, make the Archer a very easy aircraft to taxi. The undercarriage runs on oleo-pneumatic shock absorbers, which certainly provide a very pleasant ride. Having completed the run-up checks I rolled out onto the runway, lined up with the centreline and opened the throttle smoothly.
I would estimate that we were probably around 200kg below the maximum takeoff weight and the acceleration was perfectly respectable. As afternoon was turning into evening the ambient conditions were pretty close to ISA, particularly as Vero Beach has an elevation of only 24ft. For short-field operations Piper recommends using 25� of flap but, as we had more than 2,200m of runway in front of us, it was obvious that a normal ‘flaps-up’ takeoff was the way to go. There was absolutely no problem keeping straight and I eased the control yoke back gently at around 55kt and let the Archer fly itself off.
As we settled into the climb the VSI indicated a climb rate of around 1,000fpm at the Vy of 76kt and in only a few minutes we were above the inversion and joining up with the camera ship. The light was wonderful, and with the endless seascape of the Atlantic Ocean beneath us and some equally impressive cloudscapes forming inland, it was a truly beautiful evening to go flying.
Eventually photographer Jim kissed us off, we broke off downwards and away from the Seneca and I commenced a qualitative assessment of the Archer’s handling characteristics with some steep turns and reversals. My initial impression, having spent the previous week testing several Euro-designed LSAs, was that control is quite heavy around all three axes. Evaluating each of the primary controls in isolation, I have to say that the ailerons are nothing special ? although at least the Archer is not quite as lethargic in this respect as a 172. Pitch control is fine, and the LX does appear to have better pitch damping than some of the other, earlier PA-28s (although we did have a fairly forward C of G). The electric pitch trim is nicely geared. When rolling into a steep turn, I found the rudder to have plenty of authority, albeit it is slightly on the heavy side. I don’t recall ever using the rudder trim.
Throttle response was good, and I must say that I did appreciate having a proper throttle quadrant. (The plunger-type throttle may free up panel space, but it is not nearly so precise and easy in operation.) The view is fine, although not up to the standard of some of the more modern aircraft that I have flown recently. Having assessed control, we moved onto stability. As you’d expect, the Archer is very good in this respect. In common with many other American-designed light aircraft of the 1960s, the PA-28 was definitely designed with the average pilot in mind ? it is almost a sort of ‘flying car’. Along with its biggest competitor, the Cessna 172, the 28 has been designed with the emphasis more on stability than control. It has no peculiar traits or unpleasant vices, and as long as you keep the weight and balance within limits (and it is easy to exceed both inadvertently) and use the speeds promulgated in the POH, it won’t let you down.
As already discussed, we had a well forward C of G, making the longitudinal stability markedly positive. After just two long wavelength low-amplitude phugoids it had returned to the trimmed speed. The aircraft also possesses positive stability both directionally and laterally. The Archer is marketed as both a trainer and a tourer, so I decided to take a look at it from the perspective of a flight school. As long as the W & B schedule falls within the ‘utility’ section of the envelope it is cleared for turns of up to 60� bank, chandelles and lazy eights. This is a big plus, as many modern machines are not approved for any sort of aerobatic manoeuvre. Furthermore, when flown at the light weights required to keep W & B within the published ‘utility’ limits, the 180hp engine gives the Archer an excellent climb rate ? useful when practising stalls and other upper air work. Another fine aspect of the aircraft is that it can cover a wide range of the flight school syllabus, from trial lessons through first solo to an instrument rating.
Finally, I believe that the Archer’s inherent strength (in the utility category, it’s stressed to +4.4g) and also the robust fixtures and fittings mean it is better suited to the rough and tumble world of the flight school than most Light Sport, or European Very Light Aircraft: While the LSA or VLA is very much built to a weight limit, the PA-28 gives the impression of having been designed first, and only weighed when it was finished!
The Archer as a tourer
Although the Archer makes a fine trainer, I was also very interested in its performance as a tourer, for as one grizzled old pilot once told me, “what really matters is how much you can take how far, and how fast”. The test aircraft had a useful load of 393kg, and could carry up to 136kg of fuel. This leaves 257 for bodies and bags and actually allows quite a bit of flexibility.
However (and as the POH points out) with this flexibility comes responsibility: the ‘useful load’ may truly be useful, but it is imperative that care is taken when loading the aircraft as, in common with most four-seaters, it is quite easy to overload it. For example, if you put an 80kg adult on each seat you’ve only got 73kg left, which is just over 100 litres. Those 100 litres will actually give you a pretty good radius of action, but you’d better make sure that baggage bay is empty.
As for speed and range, 75 per cent power at 5,000ft gives a range (with IFR reserve of 45 minutes) of just over 520nm at 128kt TAS. Pull the power back to 65 per cent and the range increases to around 560, although the TAS drops to about 120. A very handy feature is that the recommended power settings for various flight levels are printed on the back of the pilot’s sun visor.
By now the Archer was really beginning to grow on me. The aircraft is aimed at the same corner of the market as the Cessna 172, and in many ways displays similar handling traits and performance figures on the same engine. Handling, while far from sparkling, is solid and safe, while respectable cruise speeds and fuel flows are achieved without the complexity and additional expense of a constant-speed propeller or a retractable undercarriage. It really is a solid, dependable all-rounder.
Benign slow-flying characteristics
An exploration of the slow side of the speed envelope revealed that the stall, either flaps up or flaps down, is perfectly benign, with plenty of buffet before the wing finally quits flying, and no tendency to drop a wing. With 40� of flap and a little power, the speed tape was dropping below 44kt before the wing finally quit flying; flaps up, it’s nearer 52.
Back at Vero Beach a selection of different circuits confirmed that this is a very easy aircraft to fly. One aspect that I particularly liked is that ? unlike many LSAs ? the flap limiting speed is usefully high at 102kt. Speed control all round the circuit was easy. I used 70 on base and 65 on final and, with absolutely no fuss, the Archer slid down the approach and rolled its tyres onto the tarmac just past the numbers. If you apply yourself, you can easily get it down and stopped in less than 300m, although ? as with most light aeroplanes ? you’ll need considerably more runway to get back out again. After a few more touch-and-goes it was just about sunset and, as I’d met Bart that morning at sunrise, we decided that we’d both had about enough for one day.
I must admit that, despite my initial misgivings, I ended up with a grudging respect for the Archer. As with any flying machine, it is best evaluated when being flown as it was intended to be flown, and its less-than-perfect handling characteristics would probably never even become apparent to most pilots. It’s essentially a light tourer and trainer, good for carrying up to three people and their baggage over a reasonable distance, or four adults over a reduced range. Taken in this context, it rates highly in doing the job that it was designed to do. But don’t just take my word for it: This aircraft is still in production some 52 years after it first flew, more than 37,000 have been sold and there are still around 1,000 of the various types of PA-28 on the UK register. These simple facts say more about how successful the series has been than I ever could.