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.”
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.
Compared to most airplanes of the era, the Comanche 250 was a relative economy model. It’s important to remember this was the ’50s when the CPI was about a seventh of what it is today. The Comanche did essentially the same job as the others at an acquisition cost of $5,000 to $7,000 lower. What cost $7,000 in those days is priced more like $50,000 in 2005. Some buyers probably found the Comanche’s 20% to 25% lower sales price compelling.
The comparison chart suggests the Comanche’s cruise is the slowest in the class, but Wall feels the gap may be considerably narrower in the real world, as speeds for some of the other models are probably overstated. It’s interesting to note that even today, most modern production airplanes of comparable horsepower don’t fly much faster than the Comanche.
With well over a thousand hours in the PA-24, Wall acknowledges the 1,350-fpm climb spec is little more than a PR man’s dream; 1,000 fpm is more like it, but the quoted cruise number is accurate. “I’ve run the Comanche at max cruise several times, and it seems to do pretty much what Piper claimed for it, 158 knots or so at 6,500 feet,” explains Wall.
The owner doesn’t push his airplane at 75% most of the time, however. He prefers to throttle back to whatever power will yield 140 knots.
“I like to fly as high as possible, and the Comanche does that well,” says Wall. “I’ll typically climb to at least 10,500 feet, perhaps even 11,500 or 12,500, strap on an oxygen mask and cruise at about 2,000 rpm and all the manifold pressure I can get. That usually allows me to see a true airspeed of 140 knots on a little over 10 gph.”
Later Comanches offered as much as 90 gallons in long-range tanks, but the first 250s, Wall’s included, were limited to 60 gallons. That means Wall can fairly easily plan on slightly more than four hours of endurance plus reserve, enough to traverse nearly 600 nm at a sitting.
Like those who have flown Comanches and learned to appreciate their talents, Wall’s only disappointment is that there’s nothing left to do. He’s convinced the Comanche 250 was the best of its vintage, and he’s determined to keep it for, oh, probably the rest of his life.
SPECS: 1958 Piper Comanche 250