Longtime Piper pilot and Piper twin owner Kristin Winter discusses the cream of the crop in entry-level VFR Piper aircraft.
Photos by James Lawrence
My introduction to flight came in a Cessna 152, in which I did most of my primary training. As a leggy Norwegian from the Upper Midwest, it was not a great fit; it was a barely fit. Add springtime convective turbulence and a flight school that had us plan all of our cross-country flights at 3,000 feet, and that poor little Cessna and I never quite hit it off. I learned what airsick was before I learned what airspeed was.
A chance flight in a Piper Arrow II transported me upward in my eventual flying career—in more ways than one. I was smitten with the solid stability of the Arrow even in our brief dalliance. (For details on this flight, take a look at “Saved by the Arrow,” published in Piper Flyer in June 2016. —Ed.)
After passing my private pilot checkride, I cast longing looks at the two Arrows nestled among the gaggle of Cessna 152s and 172s. Unfortunately, the evil stepmother in this fairy tale—in the person of the FBO manager—decreed that I must have 100 hours before I could snuggle into one of the Arrows without a chaperone. This sent me in search of something similar that satisfied my urge for stability.
Discovering the Piper Cherokee 140
Back in the 1970s, there were seven FBOs on this suburban airport, a condition unheard of in the 21st century. A couple of hundred yards down the taxiway was a small FBO owned by a long-term instructor and airline pilot.
For a reasonable price, there I could explore the charms of what I consider the best entry-level Piper for local flying and short cross-country flights: the PA-28-140, commonly known as the Cherokee 140.
Here was a pair of 1967 models sporting Mark 12 navcoms, the greatest tube navcoms ever made. (For those less fossilized than myself, glowing vacuum tubes were what powered electronics until transistors and other solid-state circuitry took over a few years after these aircraft were produced.) One of the 140s had a coffee grinder-style ADF that required the pilot to carefully tune and listen for the ident to have any hope of finding the right frequency.
For night flying, the instrument panel was lit by a red floodlight on the ceiling, just behind the trim crank, which was also on the ceiling and looked like a window crank from a 1950s Chevy (and probably was). It was perfect. I felt like I had stepped into an Ernie Gann novel.
I put at least a hundred hours on those two planes as I forged toward my instrument rating, which was back when one needed 200 hours to qualify for it. I have flown numerous 140s since, and they are honest, straightforward little airplanes.
The Cherokee was the replacement for the Tri-Pacer. It was designed to be simple to fly, simple to manufacture, and simple to maintain. This new model also got a new home as Piper opened up a factory in Vero Beach, Fla., which has been the home of the Cherokees and their derivatives ever since.
Originally the aircraft was produced in 150 and 160 hp models and was called the Cherokee until the 1963 model, when it became the Cherokee B. With the B model, the buyer could choose a 150 hp engine, a 160 hp engine or a 180 hp engine. For the 1965 model, it became the Cherokee C, with the same engine options as the Cherokee B.
The aircraft got its “Cherokee 140” moniker when Piper decided to promote the basic Cherokee as a trainer. Piper removed the rear seats and tweaked the prop, and Lycoming tweaked the engine slightly to reduce the horsepower from 150 to 140 hp.
The PA-28-140 came out in early 1964. In 1965, the horsepower was upped back to 150 and it was offered with rear seats. (Piper sold a kit to add the rear seats to the 140s sold a year earlier.) About the only thing that remained was the name.
For 1964 and most of 1965, buyers could purchase a Cherokee 140 with 140 hp and thereafter, with only 150 hp engine as an option. From 1964 through 1967, buyers could also get a Cherokee B or Cherokee C with their choice of a 150, 160 or 180 hp engine.
It was a confusing mishmash of models that Piper simplified with the 1968 model year, when the company trimmed the offerings to two: the Cherokee 140 with the 150 hp engine, and the Cherokee D with the 180 hp engine.
The Cherokee 140 did not undergo too many significant changes over its run, which ended in 1977. The most notable changes included going from push-pull engine controls to a throttle quadrant; a standard “T” configuration instrument panel; and moving the pitch trim from the overhead crank to the wheel on the floor next to the Johnson bar for the flaps.
Various minor and cosmetic changes and refinements were made too, but these Cherokees are all the same basic airplane and they all fly the same way. Cherokee 140s were kept simple on purpose, as they were aimed at the trainer market and designed to keep the hundreds of Piper flight centers equipped back in the heyday of General Aviation training and activity. The production run only ended when the Tomahawk was introduced as the new Piper trainer.
If I had to describe a Cherokee in one word, it would be “honest.” They are simple and straightforward to fly, to land, and to maintain. In smooth air they can be trimmed to hold altitude so well you would think it was on autopilot.
For northern pilots, it is nice that Cherokees are warm in the winter. The heater and the insulation are adequate to keep the cabin comfortable, even when it is below zero outside.
They pretty handle well in a crosswind due to the low center of gravity and the wide stance of the landing gear, though the roll response is not stunning. The manual flaps also give you instant and immediate control, so if one needs to dump lift after touchdown, it is easy and quick.
I have a blast flying Cherokee 140s, but never flew one that had 140 hp. I doubt any that were made have not been converted to 150 hp. My first choice for an entry level, VFR, fun airplane that is a realistic option for a 200- to 300-mile trip carrying a couple of passengers would be a Cherokee 140.
Cherokee 140 considerations
Today a Cherokee 140 can be had for the price of a new Toyota. It would be hard to spend more than $40,000 on one, and many are available for $30,000 or less.
Maintenance is simple and annual inspections should not much exceed $1,500 even in an expensive part of the United States, provided the aircraft is maintained as it goes and flown regularly.
It is also one of the cheapest aircraft to insure, even for low-time pilots. At 7 to 8 gph, fuel burn is reasonable and the aircraft can be STC’d for auto fuel if it is available in one’s area.
Most Cherokee 140s will have a useful load around 820 to 850 pounds, which means you can fill the tanks with 48 gallons of useable fuel and still put almost 600 pounds in the aircraft. That makes it a good three-person aircraft, though there are some limitations on back seat legroom.
At maybe 110 ktas burning about 8 gph, it has on-paper a range of around 450-plus nm with a VFR reserve—though backseat passengers might not be able to stick it out for four hours. Three hours is a reasonable maximum for these planes, yet they are also an economical choice for local flights and the proverbial hundred-dollar hamburger run.
The PA-38: also a good choice
My second choice for an entry level VFR aircraft might surprise some. I will make a pitch here for one much-maligned Piper, suitable for those who only need two seats. The Tomahawk is a very nice little plane. I have hundreds of hours in them.
The poor Tomahawk got a bad rap as the tail structure needed some beefing up and a few pilots got them into a spin that they couldn’t get out of.
Of all the planes I have flown—which covers most everything Piper has made in the last 50 years—the Tomahawk is the most fun just to do touch-and-goes. There is no other airplane that I can consistently grease on the runway than a Tomahawk.
It is also just a fun little airplane, if you stay off soft strips. It would be a good choice to learn to fly in and to just bop around in. The visibility is unmatched with the bubble canopy and the panel is logical and well-laid-out.
The Tomahawk was designed as a trainer, so don’t expect it to be a great traveling machine. As it happens, I have flown as much as 400 nm in one leg, which is about as far as its 30 gallons of fuel will take it. It will cruise between 100 and 105 ktas burning 6 to 6.5 gph.
The Tomahawk deserves a more complete treatment than I can give it here. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the little Tomahawk, despite disparaging names like “Traumahawk,” typically uttered by pilots who have never flown one. It is by far my favorite two-place trainer, and I would love to have one just to go around the patch and do touch-and-goes.
Compare and contrast
The Cherokee 140 and the Tomahawk are two excellent starter aircraft for VFR or light IFR, if properly equipped.
The 140 has more capability and is more expensive to buy and feed gas than the Tomahawk. There are also a lot more of them out there. For that reason, the Cherokee 140 gets my nod over the fun little Tomahawk, which is somewhat rarer to find in the market.
Both of these airplanes are great entry level choices for a first-time buyer looking for an economical plane for fun local flying and short trips.
Look for Winter’s further explorations of the best Pipers for other missions in future issues of Piper Flyer. —Ed.
Kristin Winter has been an airport rat for almost four decades. She holds an ATP-SE/ME rating and is a CFIAIM, AGI, IGI. In addition, Winter is an A&P/IA. She has over 8,000 hours, of which about 1,000 are in the Twin Comanche and another 1,000 in the Navajo series. She owns and operates a 1969 C model Twinkie affectionately known as Maggie. She uses Maggie in furtherance of her aviation legal and consulting practice; she also assists would-be Comanche, Twin Comanche, and other Piper owners with training and pre-purchase consulting. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.