Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Improbable Pacer

A rebuilt classic in a class by itself

pacerThere are few aircraft type organizations in general aviation more enthusiastic than the Short Wing Piper Club. That’s, perhaps, ironic in view of the inexpensive prices of most short-wing Pipers. The compact, little two- to four-seaters are among the cheapest entry-level airplanes available. Many sell for less than $25,000, especially the minimalist Vagabond, Clipper and Colt. As the last of the non-Cub Piper taildraggers, the Pacer enjoys a similar price advantage. Even the last of the Pacers, the 1954 model, sells today (in stock configuration) for well under $20,000. The PA20 was introduced in 1950 as a follow-on to the Piper Clipper after Pan American World Airways claimed it owned the name “Clipper” (apparently ignoring the fact that hundreds of sailing ships in the 19th century were called “clippers”).

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Frank Sperandeo’s crimson and white PA20 has been upgraded with a 160 hp Lycoming O-320, offering an improved climb from the original configuration.
With all the mods and improvements, one of the world’s top Pacers sports an empty weight of about 1,150 pounds against a 2,000-pound gross weight, 50 pounds more than the stock airplane. Standard fuel on the original Pacer was 36 gallons, but the highly modified test airplane features 66 gallons to feed its 160 hp engine. That boosts fuel weight to 396 pounds, so payload with full tanks in Sperandeo’s airplane now works out to about 450 pounds.

That turns out to be no real limitation, as the four-seat airplane is more accurately a 2+2 machine, more consistent with its actual payload. The Pacer is only about 40 inches across at the front elbows, adequate but not exactly spacious for two.

To fly Sperandeo’s Pacer is to visit another aviation era while enjoying all the benefits of modern technology. In 40 years of writing for this and other magazines, I’ve flown quite a few rebuilt classics, but I have to agree with Bill Piper Jr. that this one is in a class by itself.

pacerIt’s no big surprise that the big engine and aerodynamic mods place Sperandeo’s super-clean Pacer a definite step ahead of standard airplanes. I’ve flown a few other PA20s, and there’s little question that N3383A is well ahead of the pack. The most obvious beneficiary of more power is climb, and the test airplane showed considerably more enthusiasm than I might have expected during the test flight and air-to-air session in Plant City, Fla.

Both climb and approach work well at 70 knots, and Sperandeo’s Pacer manages upward mobility on the order of 1,000 fpm compared to a book spec of 800 fpm. The extra 25 hp in Sperandeo’s airplane probably also generates a higher service ceiling, but the owner hasn’t had occasion to climb much above 11,000 feet.

Straight and level at 7,000 feet, the pristine Pacer manages to log a quick 120 knots at max cruise, meanwhile burning only about 8 gph. This gives the PA20 a theoretical seven hours’ endurance plus reserve.

During our photo session, we had no trouble keeping up with a new Skyhawk 172R flying at full cruise. Sperandeo suggests a full-throttle, low-altitude run yields more like 139 knots.

Control forces are consistent with the airplane’s 2,000-pound gross weight, not much heavier than a 150’s but considerably more effective. Throw the Pacer into a turn, and it tracks like a phonograph needle, partially a function of controls made sinewy smooth by the owner’s meticulous attention to detail.

pacerLandings aren’t any special challenge, provided that you’re tailwheel-proficient (which I wasn’t, despite 3,000 hours in conventional-gear airplanes). As you might imagine, Sperandeo flies the Pacer like breathing—natural and without effort. It’s a fairly easy machine to fly, a little short-coupled and narrow of gear, but anyone with even a modicum of taildragger proficiency shouldn’t embarrass themselves. My marginal performance during transitions to and from the ground weren’t the airplane’s fault.

Sperandeo’s better-than-new Pacer isn’t for sale, and it probably never will be. The owner has willed it to the Piper Aviation Museum ( in Lock Haven, Pa.

If you’re into antique or classic airplanes and you enjoy attending the EAA shows around the country, be on the lookout for Frank Sperandeo’s impeccable crimson and white Pacer. You’ll probably find it in the winner’s circle.

Labels: Piston SinglesSpecs


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