Plane & Pilot
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. " />

Wall went on to become a corporate pilot for Lockheed and Disney, flying Cessna 310s, Gulfstream G1s, Learjets, Falcons and a variety of other aircraft. He didn’t start thinking about buying another airplane of his own for several years. When he did begin shopping, he remembered the evaluation he had done at Sky Roamers and started looking for a Co-manche 250 in good shape. Wall knew there were plenty of new retractables available—the Commander 114, Piper Arrow and Lance, Cessna Skylane RG and Cardinal RG and Beech F33 Bonanza—but Wall was still attracted to the Co-manche 250.

“I finally found my ideal airplane, a nice 1958 Comanche 250, up in Minnesota in 1983 and decided that was the one I wanted,” explains Wall. “It’s far more stable than the others, it’s about the same speed or perhaps a little quicker than the Bonanza, but it will carry far more than the V-tail of the same vintage and horsepower. And it certainly didn’t hurt that it was less expensive than the Bonanza or most anything of comparable horsepower on the market.”

One of the reasons for the Comanche’s success was simply its laminar-flow wing, a remarkable compromise between high speed and high lift. Specifically, the wing is a NACA 64(2)-A215 airfoil with five degrees of dihedral. Another feature that made the first Comanche popular was the carbureted, 540-cubic-inch Lycoming engine that was to evolve to a 2,000-hour TBO. It’s a fairly simple mill, carbureted for easy starts, underworked and happy to deliver full power forever if you need it.

Climbing up onto the wing is a short step, as the airplane’s oleo gear snuggles close to the ground. In fact, the low stance is a common complaint of some pilots who tend to flare high and drop the airplane in during landings. The Comanche’s cabin was well-fitted for crew and passengers, a reasonable enclosure measuring 44 inches across by 43 inches tall, more than coincidentally, wider than any of the competition.

By today’s standards, the early Co-manche’s panel looks like something out of a South American locomotive, with instruments and switches scattered seemingly at random around the panel. Wall has updated his airplane’s radios and instruments to more modern equipment, but he has retained the original configuration for the sake of authenticity.

Wall’s Comanche is one of those airplanes we love to test here at P&P, a nearly half-century-old machine that could have been built last month. The owner is an A&P mechanic who does most of his own maintenance, and he’s convinced the Comanche is one of the easiest general-aviation airplanes to work on, especially from the firewall forward. Accordingly, the owner has overhauled the Lycoming engine, rebuilt the gear, replaced the windshield and all the side Plexiglas and reupholstered the interior. Throughout the ground-up rebuild, he has tried to remain true to the original configuration whenever possible. “I’ve been through every system in the airplane,” laughs Wall, “so if anything breaks, I have only myself to blame.”

Wall’s son, Jack, an American Airlines 737 pilot, painstakingly researched the paint scheme, and Ada Aircraft in Ada, Okla., did the meticulous strip and paint job that resulted in the authentic 1958 scheme.

The finished product was about as close as it was possible to come to an all-original 1958 Comanche 250, and it’s interesting to contrast how that airplane compares to the competition of the time.


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