Tuesday, March 1, 2005
Piper’s First Retractable Single
There are a few airplanes that deserve better than they got. The Comanche 250 is one of them.
The Comanche was conceived in the late ’50s when Piper and the rest of the industry was playing catch-up with the premier four-seat retractable, the Beech Bonanza. Piper’s Comanche was introduced as both a 180-hp and a 250-hp model, sporting four- and six-cylinder versions of the same engine. The former was planned to compete with Mooney’s wood-wing and tail Mark 20A, the latter with Beech’s successful V-tail, along with the dark horse Bellanca 260 and Meyers 200.
The Comanche was remarkably successful, selling almost 1,000 units in the first 18 months. The PA-24 would evolve to fuel injection, turbocharging and even an additional 150 hp, but sadly, its production run would be cut short by a natural disaster. In 1972, the Susquehanna River that ran through Lock Haven, Pa., a few hundred yards southeast of the Piper plant, overflowed its banks and flooded the airport and the Piper production facilities. The Comanche’s tooling was ruined when the river put the Piper plant underwater, forcing the company to discontinue production of the Comanche and Twin Comanche. When it was all over, Piper had built nearly 5,000 Comanches of all varieties in 15 years of production, impressive, although not spectacular by the standards of the 1970s.
For some pilots, however, the first Comanche was perhaps the best. Twenty-five years ago, a good friend who loved his pristine 250 Comanche died unexpectedly in his sleep, and his wife couldn’t bear to sell her husband’s beloved airplane. I wound up with a set of keys and a directive from the wife to fly the Comanche whenever I wished. I put probably 70 hours on the Comanche 250 during the next year and came to respect the airplane as a wonderful people mover. Jack’s widow finally sold the Comanche 18 months after his death, and I was sorry to see it go.
Robert Wall, a USAF retiree from Ocala, Fla., purchased his 1958 Comanche 250 in 1983, and he’s not liable to sell it anytime soon. Wall’s Comanche is technically only his third airplane, but he has flown a little of everything during his professional flying career.
“I got my private license in 1947 and almost immediately bought a surplus BT-13 for $450 as my first airplane,” says Wall. “The old Vultee Vibrator had been assembled by a WWII pilot from the best parts of three BT-13s, so it was a reasonably good airplane, but it was expensive to own and operate, even in those days.“
In search of better economy, Wall went to the opposite end of the scale and purchased a Culver Cadet in 1953. He flew the Cadet until 1956, then sold the little Culver and didn’t buy another airplane for nearly 30 years. He had plenty of other airplanes to fly, however. In the late ’50s, Wall became the chief pilot for Sky Roamers, a co-op flying club with 250 members and 22 airplanes based in Burbank, Calif. In 1958, when Sky Roamers was considering stepping up to its first retractable model, Wall supervised a fly-off between a 1957 H35 Bonanza and a 1958 Comanche 250.
“We were looking to buy four retractables, so the stakes were pretty high. We decided to test the two representative models available at that time. On paper, the airplanes were pretty evenly matched, 240 hp in the Bonanza, 250 hp in the Comanche,” says Wall. “We decided to fly an out-and-back from Burbank to Phoenix with four people in each airplane and fuel to gross weight.
“The Comanche was the winner in almost every category hands down,” reveals Wall. “Everyone loved the way the Bonanza handled, but the Comanche out-climbed the Bonanza at all altitudes and out-ran it at all power settings. I was impressed. Eventually, the club wound up buying four Cessna 210s instead of the Comanches, and that turned out to be a big mistake.”
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