Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Saddling Up A Colt

A novice rebuilds a Piper classic

Miller earned his license in 1970. After his tour of duty, he went to college on the GI bill, earning degrees first in pharmacology and then dentistry, which left no time or money for flying. But he got back into the air after joining the Navy. Serving as a dentist in the Philippines, he rented Cessnas from the base club on his days off, and went flight seeing with his wife, Donna.

By the early '90s, Miller was back stateside with the Naval Reserve, living in Normandy and flying an Ercoupe. His plane shared a hangar with a Piper Colt. "I was always having to move it to get to the Ercoupe," Miller said. "I didn't think much about the Colt at the time."

But in 1994, when he decided to trade up from the Ercoupe and learned the Colt was for sale, he started thinking about it quite a bit. "One of my concerns was whether parts were hard to find or expensive," Miller said. "Once I realized that wasn't a problem, I bought it. I was real glad I got it."

Not that the airplane didn't have issues. The fabric was faded and nicked, the interior a little ratty. The fuselage had some corrosion. And the engine was starting to leak oil.

"It didn't look like much when he first brought it home," Donna later told me. That was a far different airplane than the one that stood before us that afternoon.

"Almost everybody mistakes it for a Tri-Pacer," Miller said as we started a walkaround. With good reason: The Colt was the two-place trainer variant of the four-place tricycle-gear PA-22 Tri-Pacer. The airframes are almost identical. Some telltale differences: The Colt has no rear side windows nor a hump atop the cabin (for extended headroom). Some modern touches, when it was introduced in 1960, were side-by-side instead of tandem seating, and a yoke rather than a control stick. Almost 1,900 were built by the time production ended in 1964 to make way for the PA-28 Cherokee family.

Miller chose the matte gray finish and the national aircraft insignia of a World War II-era Naval warbird on his Colt for both sentimental and practical reasons. "Being Navy, I liked some kind of military look," he said. "Plus, it's easy to do: Paint it gray and slap on a couple of Stars and Bars. If you have to paint three colors, it can get real detailed, and painting is not one of my fortes."

Like the rest of the Short Wing Pipers—the PA-15/PA-17 Vagabond, PA-16 Clipper, PA-20 Pacer and the Tri-Pacer (all with a wingspan of just over 29 feet)—the Colt has a fabric-covered steel fuselage and aluminum-frame wings.

It was only after he retired from the Navy in 2002 that Miller began his two-year refurbishment project. Miller's friend and IA (Inspection Authorization certificate holder) Bob Martin tracked the paperwork, including more than a dozen 337 Forms, the applications for FAA approval of major repairs and alterations to a certificated aircraft.

"I had a folder three inches thick" with documentation for the project, Martin said.

Miller sought approval to replace the electric fuel gauges in the panel with fool-proof sight gauges in the wing roots borrowed from a Piper Cub. He designed fasteners for the sheet-metal access panels over the gear bungees that used machine screws in place of the sheet-metal screws that typically came loose; he wanted inspection plates providing easier access to the fuselage; and since Donna didn't regularly fly with him, he dreamed up a desk for flight materials that could easily be swapped for the right seat.

"Paperwork is the biggest challenge," Miller said. To win approval, the FAA has to deem the alterations equal to or better than whatever they replace. Not all the applications were approved the first time.


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