There 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”).
The Pacer was technically approved as a four-seat machine with 115 to 135 hp Lycoming O-290 engines out front. As the name implies, the Pacer was the predecessor to the first production tri-gear airplanes from the Lock Haven, Pa., company: Piper’s four-place Tri-Pacer and two-seat Colt trainer. The short-wing Pipers were an attempt to improve on one of the few things the venerable PA18 Super Cub didn’t do well: cruise cross-country. The PA18’s big, fat USA-35B airfoil obviously provided gobs of lift, the better to leap off unimproved strips in ridiculously short distances, but the long wing also produced more drag. The Cub’s 178-square-foot wing spanned some 35 feet and 2 inches, and the short-wing Pipers did their job with three feet less span per side and 30 less square feet of area. For a given horsepower, the reduction of wetted area and drag helped generate at least another 15 knots of cruise. Pilots who didn’t need the Super Cub’s spectacular short-field performance were attracted to the more compact Piper.
Frank Sperandeo of Fayetteville, Ark., is certainly one of the world’s strongest devotees of the short-wing Pipers. An A&P mechanic, authorized inspector and designated airworthiness representative (DAR) for the FAA, he has the mechanical expertise to repair and restore a variety of airplanes, and he also signs off newly constructed homebuilt projects for first flight. A pilot since the ’70s, Sperandeo began his personal aviation avocation by totally renovating a Piper Tri-Pacer, then stepped up to his present Pacer.
|Though Miss Pearl has been extensively modified and improved from its initial configuration, it maintains many of its original details.|
As you may have guessed from Jim Lawrence’s photos, Sperandeo’s brilliant red and white Pacer is a definite cut above the average 56-year-old PA20. That’s partially because it’s the beneficiary of nearly five years of restoration, a complete rebuild from the ground up. Since acquiring the airplane in 1989, Sperandeo has dedicated nearly $40,000 and 4,200 hours of labor to the renovation of his 1953 Pacer, dubbed Miss Pearl.
Lavishing so much money and attention on an antique airplane hasn’t been without its rewards. In addition to winning Grand Champion at the Short Wing Piper Convention in 1995 and 2002, the A&P’s fully restored PA20 won Grand Champion at Sun ’n Fun (1995), Best Custom Classic at Oshkosh (1995) and the Oshkosh Charles Lindbergh Trophy for Best Customized Classic (2003). In addition, Sperandeo’s Pacer has won awards at virtually every other classic and antique aircraft show he has attended.
In total, the airplane Sperandeo spent so much time rebuilding has also chocked up a staggering 50 top finishes at virtually all the regional shows—Arlington, Copper State, Merced, Southeast, Virginia, Colorado and most of the others. (Upon seeing Sperandeo’s handiwork, William T. Piper Jr. commented, “I personally have never seen any Piper that can compare.”)
The numerous awards have served to verify Sperandeo’s reputation for quality construction, but he still has other mountains to climb. “There’s no question Miss Pearl is far from original,” comments Sperandeo, “but the upgrades I’ve made have as much to do with safety and reliability as with comfort and performance. Apparently, some judges feel that maintaining the original configuration is more important than safety, and for that specific reason, Miss Pearl doesn’t always win the top prize. But I’m working on it.
“It’s never made sense to me to restore an old airplane without incorporating as many upgrades as possible to improve reliability,” says the A&P. “It seems unrealistic to cling to the original configuration religiously, and then be afraid to fly the finished product because the technology is 50 years old.”
In fact, Sperandeo’s Pacer maintains the original configuration but has been modernized in virtually every area. The Lycoming engine has been revised to an O-320 rated at 160 hp, the alternator has been improved to a 60-amp unit, easily capable of driving modern avionics. A lightweight B&C starter has replaced the original, and custom NACA air vents have been installed.
|After five years of restoration and a complete rebuild, Miss Pearl has garnered numerous awards at air shows around the country. But the 56-year-old PA20 isn’t strictly a show plane; it’s flown about 200 hours yearly, including trips with Grace
Flight and the Young Eagles Program.
Sixty-six-gallon tanks have replaced the original 36-gallon containers, 400,000-candlepower landing lights now supplant the original, etc., ad bankruptcium. There’s no area that Sperandeo hasn’t updated and improved. (For more specific information on Miss Pearl, visit Sperandeo’s website, http://members.cox.net/mspearl.)
In total, Sperandeo has made some 95 mods to the Pacer, most of his own design and all approved with appropriate Form 337s in place. “This is definitely not a strict show plane or hangar queen that only emerges from its hangar to enter competitions,” says Sperandeo. “I fly the airplane about 200 hours a year, from Fayetteville to all corners of the United States, so Miss Pearl truly is a working airplane.”
The builder is especially active in the EAA’s Young Eagles Program, and he has taken some 100 kids for first flights in the classic Piper. He also flies the Pacer on Grace Flights, transporting children and their parents from remote locations to doctors and hospitals for treatments.
When the A&P/AI isn’t transporting kids or competing at aviation displays with his Pacer, he’s sometimes judging other airplanes, another of his multiple talents.
|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.
It’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.
Landings 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 (www.pipermuseum.com) 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.