What you need to know about buying and owning a Piper Comanche.
When some pilots think of Piper, they think of the Cherokee line and its derivatives which are still in production today. The Piper Comanche is a different design and preceded the first Cherokee by three years.
While Cherokees were designed and built in Vero Beach, Fla., the Comanche is a Lock Haven, Penn. aircraft. Lock Haven was Piper’s original factory. The Comanche was the first all-sheet-metal, semi-monocoque aircraft that Piper designed and produced.
Piper opened the Vero Beach facility to devise and assemble a line of aircraft that were less expensive to produce than the Comanche. A combination of design choices for ease of manufacture and the lower labor rates in Florida led to the Cherokees eclipsing the Comanches. Comanche production ceased in 1972.
Strong airframe, good performance
The Comanche is said to have about 50 percent more parts than does the Cherokee. I believe it.
It clearly took more manpower to build the parts and assemble the aircraft. One result was a particularly strong airframe.
The Comanche was designed to withstand 7.5 gs rather than the 5.7 gs required by FAA regulations.1 Though the aircraft was only officially certified in the normal category for 5.7 gs, the reserve of strength allowed for bigger engines and increased gross weight as the design was refined over the years.
So why is there any interest in an aircraft that has not been produced in almost half a century? The answer is in the specifications.
When a pilot starts to look for an honest four-place traveling aircraft with good speed and range, they usually find the performance numbers of a Comanche attractive. I developed this guide for those who are not immediately repelled by the idea of an older airplane and are intrigued by the performance.
The Piper Comanche is a classic. It’s one of the nicest planes to fly and own—and also one of the hardest to try and find a truly nice one for sale.
Comanches tend to be loved to death. By that I mean that owners hang on to them long after they should have sold them. So many have been sitting idle for too long because the owner keeps hoping to get that medical back and just can’t bear to sell the plane that he or she has had for decades.
Designed to compete
Piper designed the Comanche to compete with the Bonanza. Arguably Beech won that competition, but Comanche owners are every bit as dedicated to them as Bonanza drivers are dedicated to the various models.
The “Bo” generally wins on fit and finish. They are both nice flying, with the “Bo” generally faster down low, and the Comanche often faster in the low teens where the Comanche wing starts to strut its stuff.
The “Bo” is nicer landing, but the Comanche is cheaper to buy and maintain. I have well over a thousand hours in various Bonanza models, and prefer the Comanche—especially when I am paying the bills to keep the plane running.
The cabin is roomy and comfortable, and the wing is optimized for operation at higher altitudes which increases their efficiency and range.
In its 14-year production run, Piper made numerous changes to the Comanches. Initially the Comanche was certified and produced as a 180 hp version powered by a Lycoming O-360-A1A. The first 100-plus aircraft produced were all Comanche 180s.
The 180 had a maximum gross weight of 2,550 pounds, and today typically have a useful load of between 900 and 950 pounds. (Keep in mind that these specifications are approximations based on my experience.) Comanches are often very highly modified with speed kits, etc., so each aircraft really has to be treated as its own design.
The Comanche 180 demonstrates the soundness of the aerodynamic design. A stock 180 in good condition will typically outrun an Arrow, carrying the same load on 20 less horsepower—a 75 percent cruise of 140-plus ktas on 10 gph or so.
Applying all the possible speed mods has brought the cruise speed of a Comanche 180 to over 150 ktas and close to that of a Cirrus SR20, the latter of which has the benefit of composite construction and computer-aided design.
The Comanche 180 carries 60 gallons of fuel, of which 56 gallons is usable. This gives a four-hour endurance with a very comfortable reserve. It is also the nicest handling and nicest landing of all of the Comanches.
There is nothing from the outside that identifies a Comanche 180, save for the insignia. They have the identical appearance to the 250 and the early 260s. The hallmark of the early Comanches is the two windows on the side. The cowling is even the same for the four-cylinder 180s as it is for the six-cylinder 250s/260s.
In the spring of 1958, Piper received its certification for the Comanche 250 and started making deliveries. The 250s had a maximum gross weight of 2,800 pounds. Stock airplanes commonly has useful loads around 1,100 pounds.
They are generally equipped with an O-540-A1A5 engine. The 250s would cruise at around 155 ktas at 75 percent power and burn about 14 gph at optimal altitude.
Like all Comanches, if you take it up higher, you’ll be rewarded with big fuel flow decreases with only small decreases in speed. Cruising above 10,000 feet will only cost a few knots in speed, but the fuel flow will drop to 12 gph or less. Keep climbing and the efficiency just keeps improving.
With 56 gallons of useable fuel, 500- to 600-mile flights with reserve is easily possible. Tiptanks are an STC’d option that increases the fuel capacity by 30 gallons and in most models, increases the gross weight.
The 180/250 came originally with the instrument cluster toward the center of the panel and the avionics on the left side. This was apparently so that the copilot would have easy access to the flight instruments. This configuration was fairly common in early aircraft, but was going out of fashion even in the 1950s.
Early Comanches had manual flaps and an arm that serves as the emergency gear extension lever that sticks up from the floor and lays down when the gear is raised. More than one unwary pilot has lost an iPad to that arm by putting the device on the floor in front of and between the front seats.
In 1961, Piper made significant improvements. The company increased the fuel capacity to 90 gallons with 86 useable by adding two optional 15-gallon auxiliary tanks outboard of the mains. This was only available for the 250 Comanches. That much fuel gives the Comanches a range of 900 to 1,000 nm. With tiptanks as well, 116 gallons of usable fuel could make a 10-hour flight a reality.
Also for the 1961 model year, toe brakes were added to the pilot side in addition to the handbrake, and the panel got a center stack configuration for the radios. To make sure that the additional fuel did not eat up too much of the cabin capacity, Piper increased the gross weight to 2,900 pounds.
For the 1962 year, Piper replaced the manual flaps that mostly just pivoted downward with Fowler-type flaps that moved back and down, thereby increasing the wing area. That in turn reduced the stall speed and takeoff roll.
At some point in 1962 or 1963, apparently with the 1963 model year2, fuel injection became an option.
By the end of 1963, Piper quit producing the 180 hp model except upon special order, and then stopped the 180 altogether in 1964.
Comanche 400, Comanche 260
Big changes were forthcoming in 1964. Piper introduced the 400 hp version of the Comanche, and by mid-year, started producing the 1965 model year—the first of the 260 hp Comanches.
The 400 Comanche was the brainchild of Howard “Pug” Piper who wanted a Comanche that would cruise in the high teens and low flight levels without the complication of turbocharging. The 400 has an eight-cylinder IO-720 engine that indeed will climb up and cruise in the flight levels.
The aircraft came out in 1964 powered by an IO-720-A1A engine with 400 hp. The fuel capacity is 130 gallons. Cruise speeds range from 190 ktas or so at 75 percent burning around 22 to 23 gph, to 160 to 170 ktas at higher altitudes burning 15 to 16 gph. (Again, speeds depend a lot on what speed modifications are installed.) The gross weight is 3,600 pounds, with a typical useful load of 1,350 to 1,400 pounds.
Piper made 147 of the 400s—all in the 1964 model year—and they are still prized as a niche aircraft. They climb like a homesick angel, but the engine is expensive to overhaul, running $60,000 to $70,000 for a quality rebuild.
The 1965 model was the first of the 260 Comanches which were delivered from late summer 1964 through 1965. With a new prop and a fuel injected engine (which was now redlined at 2,700 rpm instead of 2,575 rpm), an additional 10 hp was gained.
Piper also improved the aerodynamics by changing to a single-fork main landing gear which tucked the strut and the brake caliper into the wheel well, reducing drag.
Another desirable improvement was the installation of dual exhaust. These removed the muffler from the rear of the engine which had a tendency to overheat the cabin through the firewall. The new dual exhaust was also less prone to exhaust stack cracking which was, and still is, all too common, especially on the right side stack of the 250 Comanches.
Arguably the largest cosmetic and functional change in the Comanche took place with the 1966 B model Comanches. The fuselage was altered to make it possible to install a fifth and sixth seat in the baggage compartment. To accomplish this, Piper removed the back bench seat and replaced it with individual seats.
The baggage compartment seats are essentially three- to four-inch pads that attach to an anchor and sit on the floor. A padded back also attached and rested against the back bulkhead. Two little foot wells were placed under the rear/middle to accommodate these passengers’ feet. Piper was also required to move the baggage door to the left side of the fuselage so that it could act as an emergency exit, and added an additional window.
The B models and later are easily identified by the three windows down each side as opposed to the two windows for earlier Comanches. This made the fuselage appear longer, but in fact that is an optical illusion. The fuselage deimensions for all Comanches are the same. The overall length can change due to differences in prop and spinner. The B model was produced from 1966 through 1968.
For the model year 1969, Piper made a number of significant refinements. The main improvement was a much more modern-looking instrument panel in the standard six-pack configuration. Gone were the old toggle switches and the overall look that seemed to come out of an Ernie Gann novel. Lighted rocker switches and a power lever quadrant replaced the push-pull engine controls and made the Comanche C a more modern-looking plane.
Also gone was the classic Comanche “smiley face” cowling. In its place was the “shark’s nose” cowling with an extended prop hub. Cowl flaps were added in an effort to reduce cooling drag. The gross weight was increased 100 pounds to 3,200 pounds, but the majority of that was eaten up with the changes.
With the Comanche C, Piper also made factory turbocharging an option. The PA-24-260TC was actually the fastest of the Comanches when it was taken up into the flight levels. The manual wastegate controlled the manifold pressure once the aircraft could no longer maintain the desired power setting. These are the rarest of the Comanches with only around two dozen produced.
Turbocharging does provide significant altitude capability, but it comes at the expense of low altitude performance. The back pressure in the system caused by the manual wastegate means a reduction of about an inch in manifold pressure on takeoff. The turbos also come at a financial cost, as they increase the maintenance expenses and the engine overhaul expenses.
Successful ownership and enjoyment of a Comanche generally requires the owner to take a role in the maintenance of the aircraft and take responsibility to obtain training from a knowledgeable instructor.
There are few shops in the country that truly know how to care for a Comanche and know what the current availability and lowest cost options are for parts. Most shops don’t see more than a few Comanches every decade, and their design is significantly different from the Cherokees and their derivatives.
When a known Comanche-savvy shop is not readily available, a partnership between a local IA and the owner can bridge the gap to help keep a Comanche in good airworthy condition.
There are online Comanche communities, such as the Airworthy Comanche Forum and the International Comanche Society, plus training programs by the Comanche Flyer Foundation.
One or more of these in combination with resources from your Piper Flyer Association can provide an owner with ready access to the information necessary to get any Comanche back in the air expeditiously.
When purchasing a Comanche, it is important to have a pre-purchase inspection by someone who actually knows Comanches, not just one who claims to know them based on having done a few annual inspections over the years. There are a couple of areas where any old mechanic will not do.
The landing gear is the chief area where lax maintenance can cause a significant problem—and a significant expense—for a new owner. Failure to ensure that the landing gear has been properly maintained can be a $10,000 mistake if the entire system needs to be restored.
The Comanche landing gear is robust and perfectly safe, but it is not idiotproof. It does not have mechanical down-locks, which means the system needs to be rigged properly to keep the drag links overcenter so that no bounce or side load will allow the retraction of gear.
Because mechanics often do not have a good feel for how much play in a landing gear system is too much, Piper came up with a detailed inspection with Service Letter No. 782, and the FAA mandated that inspection to be done every 1,000 hours with Airworthiness Directive (AD) 77-13-21, paragraph (a).
That same AD also mandates the replacement of the landing gear bungees which help unload the landing gear transmission as the gear comes up. Replacement is every 500 hours or three years, whichever comes first.
AD 77-13-21 creates one of the first gotchas for potential owners, because it mandates two actions at different intervals. Mechanics rarely miss the paragraph (b) requirement to replace the bungees, but not so the 1,000-hour inspection which calls for partial disassembly of the landing gear and checking the bolts and bushings for excessive wear. This wear inspection is often overlooked—or even occasionally signed off without having been performed.
An experienced Comanche mechanic can tell in less than an hour what the condition of the landing gear is, but that is knowledge that comes from having performed a number of the 1,000-hour inspections to learn the before-and-after condition.
AD 2012-17-06 on the stabilator torque tube horn requires a 500-hour repetitive dye penetrant inspection for each horn with more than 1,000 hours time in service. The inspection takes about six hours. There is an STC to permanently comply with that AD by installing a new horn.
The STC’d horn runs close to $1,000 and will take eight to 10 hours to install, and then is subject to a 100-hour visual inspection that requires no disassembly.
Piper Service Bulletin No. 1189 provides more information, but fortunately, the AD is not as strict as Piper’s Service Bulletin. Thanks to some dedicated Comanche owners, one of whom is an aeronautical engineer, the FAA was convinced that longer inspection intervals were appropriate.
The two ADs detailed above are only a few of the ADs that may apply to a particular Comanche. In my experience, maintenance logs may state an AD has been permanently complied with, when it was only partially complied with—and repetitive inspections are, in fact, required. Research and verify the status of every single AD on the airframe before buying.
The Comanche is a great traveling machine. It hauls a good load, quickly, over a long distance. Comanches have been prominent over the years in racing circles, and numerous Comanches and Twin Comanches have circled the globe.
If are looking for a airplane that can haul a family, a Comanche is worth a look. It is frequently the last plane someone buys—and it could be the last plane you ever need to buy.
A&P/IA Kristin Winter has been an airport rat for almost four decades. She holds an ATP-SE/ME rating and is a CFIAIM, AGI, IGI. She has over 8,000 hours and owns and operates a 1969 C model Twinkie affectionately known as Maggie. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.
1Author Ted Durosko is quoting Piper Chief Design Engineer Fred Strickland in “Check Pilot Report: The Piper Comanche.” Flying, Feb. 1958.
2Piper followed the same protocol as automobile manufacturers who usually started the next model year in the fall of the previous year.
Owner information and assistance
Safety and training
Comanche Flyer Foundation
AD 77-13-21, “Prevent Landing Gear Collapse”
Piper Service Letter No. 782A
“Landing Gear Manual Extension System Inspection and Nose Gear Down Lock Spring Installation”
Piper Service Bulletin No. 1189
“Stabilator Horn Assembly Inspection”
“Stabilator Horn Assembly Inspection and Replacement”
All three documents are available at piperflyer.com/forums under “Magazine Extras”