Carl Miller and his wife Donna are lucky people who, when it came to finding their perfect light twin, didn’t have to compromise—they just went shopping for a Piper Twin Comanche.
One of the things I really enjoy is getting old photographs and drawings of “classic” aircraft bloodlines and seeing how the designs transformed over the years to meet their expanding roles. Piper’s designers and marketers were some of the best at following this Darwinian philosophy. Nothing varied too far from its predecessor, but each design kept evolving.
Take the Piper Apache, for example. As Piper’s first light twin, it had a lot of the same family traits as its single engine cousin, the Piper Tri-Pacer. My uncle had a new Apache in the mid-1950s, and while all I really recall of it is from photos, one thing always struck me. The airplane’s design was pretty much round.
The nose was round. The engine nacelles were rounded. The prop spinners were round(ish). The wings and tailplanes were rounded off. And from the front, the fuselage was pretty round—well, oval—in the nose area, anyway.
But you get the idea. From pretty much any angle you looked, the venerable Apache could have been designed by the same guy that sketched out the original egg.
So when it came time to design the next of kin in Piper’s light twin offerings, legendary designer Ed Swearingen and his team got all angular with it. They started with the straight lines of the then-radically-styled Piper Comanche and evolved the Twin Comanche’s design from it.
After Swearingen was done, he had the new PA-30 Twin Comanche—and it was, and is, a real looker. Gone was all the roundness employed by the Apaches and in its place was a taut, lean, sleek and, well, sexy new aircraft.
Look hard at the Twin Comanche, though, and you can see the Piper family resemblance.
Wild thing, you make my heart sing…
The ramp appeal of the new Twin Comanche cannot be overstated. This plane inspired no quick glances. If one pulled up on the ramp, it surely got all the attention. It was a stunning transformation. And the beauty wasn’t only on the outside. Also gone was the Apache’s—as my uncle used to describe it—“milk-stool handling.”
The new PA-30 Twin Comanche, or “TwinCo,” provided pilots with performance that pretty much fit the package it came in. Pilots who flew both aircraft often said that the Twin Comanche was everything the Apache wasn’t.
Of course, achieving that goal was not much of a stretch for Mr. Swearingen. He had already done some pretty cool things performance-wise for the single engine Comanche.
The TwinCo, with its pair of Lycoming 160 hp IO-320-Bs, proved to be a great platform. (Piper was offering a PA-23-160 version of the Apache powered by these same engines in 1957, prior to the advent of the TwinCo. —Ed.)
Piper later upgraded the Twin Comanche with optional turbocharged four-bangers. An even later version, the PA-39 C/R, offered a further safety upgrade to a pair of counter-rotating engines, which eliminated the critical engine issue.
And while there were other incremental changes, the TwinCo’s scene-stealing good looks stayed pretty much true throughout its production life. Another thing the TwinCo had going for it was the fact that it was relatively affordable to buy and feed (compared to other light twins, anyway).
Carl Miller’s Piper connection
Like most of you reading this magazine, Carl Miller was born with, as he put it, “an addiction.”
Yes, he was born with a love of flight. And like many, his symptoms started while he was in kindergarten. “When I turned five all I wanted for my birthday was to go for an airplane ride,” Miller said. “We lived fairly close to an airport outside of Richmond [Va.]. My aunt took me because my mother was afraid to fly.”
That first flight was enough to advance Miller’s dreams even farther aloft. “I just loved the perspective—the bird’s eye view—from up there,” he said. “I still do. It’s really the only thing I don’t like about the Twin Comanche. You just can’t get that view downward like you can in a Cub.”
In fact, Miller missed that view so much, he and his wife Donna eventually bought a prewar Cub and restored it.
(See the sidebar on page 50. —Ed.)
Miller said that his love for aviation grew and he earned his private certificate in 1977, right out of high school. “Today, I have logged around 2,700 hours and about 1,700 of it is in the Twin Comanche. I currently hold an Airplane Single-Engine Land, Seaplane, Multi-Engine Land, Instrument Airplane and Glider ratings. I’m working on my commercial pilot certificate just to stay proficient.”
Like many of us, although Miller loved aviation, he knew a career as an airline pilot wasn’t for him. His path lay along a more creative bent. “I was a partner in an advertising/marketing agency with offices in Chicago and Vero Beach,” he said.
“We did a lot of aviation work, but one of our biggest and longest-standing clients was Piper Aircraft. Along with all their marketing and advertising material, I did the majority of their air-to-air photography for years. That’s one way to develop a real appreciation for Piper design.”
“In my opinion, the Twin Comanche is the best-looking twin Piper ever built,” Miller said. “The design of the airframe still looks modern today in spite of the fact that it’s over 40 years old.”
With feelings like that, when it came time to buy their first twin-engine airplane (they had owned a couple of singles prior), the Millers’ wish list was pretty darn short. There was the Twin Comanche and not much else.
Fortunately, as Miller explained it, their search was even shorter than their list. “We found the one that would eventually join our family located across the state in Sarasota,” he said. “It belonged to a local surgeon and had been very well maintained by Bill Turley at Aircraft Engineering, Inc. in Bartow [Fla.].”
“The engines were just past TBO and it needed new paint and interior,” Miller said. “Basically it was in good shape, but it was tired and needed someone to bring it back to life.”
The Millers’ efforts to bring it back to life would make Dr. Frankenstein envious. What they did was basically remake an old Twin Comanche into what is today one of the finest examples flying anywhere in the world.
Along with overhauling the stock Lycoming IO-320-B engines, propellers and governors, Miller’s immediate fix-ups included a stunning paint job and leather interior.
While the entire airplane is a showpiece, Miller is understandably proud of his paint scheme. “It’s pretty unique and was inspired by a photo I saw in Roger Pepperell’s book of a Piper prototype. (This book,“Piper Aircraft,” was published by Air-Britain in 2006. —Ed.)
“I don’t think it was ever used on a production airplane [and] I think the design is absolutely perfect for the Twin Comanche from an aesthetics point of view,” Miller said.
“I’m especially happy with our decision to paint the wings red to match the fuselage. People pushed us to paint the wings white, but I went against their thinking and we’re really happy with it.”
Carl and Donna Miller aren’t the only ones who like it. “We get a ton of compliments wherever we go from other pilots, line personnel and even controllers,” he said. “In 2003, we won the Best in Class award at the International Comanche Society convention in Tampa.”
Along with its signature paint scheme, the TwinCo also got its interior redecorated. “Back when the airplane was built, the style was to overstuff upholstery—and Piper did that with the skirts on the two front seats and the bench seat in the back,” he said.
“We redid the upholstery the same way. In fact, the backseat is so comfortable that most people can’t stay awake for 15 minutes.”
Miller also explained that while there are lots of reputable paint and interior shops in Florida, he and his wife decided to fly the Twin Comanche up to a paint shop in Cadiz, Ohio because of the quality of their work on Pipers. They had the interior done in Zanesville, Ohio for the same reason.
“We made several trips between Vero Beach and Ohio during the months it took to complete all the work,” Miller said. “But in the end, it was well worth the time, cost and trouble.”
The best just keeps getting better
Another thing, or more accurately a whole lot of things, that make the Miller’s Twin Comanche so unique is that over the years they have added pretty much, in Miller’s words, “every speed mod and upgrade available” to the exterior. (For an abbreviated list, see page 47. —Ed.)
“We have pretty much all of the LoPresti and Knots 2U speed mods installed,” Miller explained. “The LoPresti folks actually used my airplane as their flying beta test rig for many of their Comanche upgrades.”
While space prohibits us from giving the details of all the add-ons, mods and enhancements N17CM has installed, a couple in particular deserve description. The first are the LoPresti Wow! Cowls.
“They make the Wow! Cowls for the entire Comanche line, but the Twin Comanche benefits most from the upgrade,” Miller said. “Besides looking really cool, the new cowlings improve the airflow so well that I never have to open the cowl flaps. It’s that good.
“I’ve only ever had one near-overheating issue, and that was coming out of Death Valley with the ambient temperature at 107 degrees,” he recalled.
Miller explained that another benefit to the LoPresti cowlings is easier maintenance because of an access panel at the bottom. Should you have a problem with the alternator belt or something at the front of the engine, you no longer have to remove the propeller like you would with an original Piper cowl.
His second favorite LoPresti upgrade is the addition of flap track covers. “There are three on each flap and they not only clean up the aerodynamics, but more importantly, they help keep dirt and debris from getting caught up in the flap tracks,” Miller said.
“I’ve heard of stuff building up in there and causing a flap to get hung. There’s nothing there—other than the springs—to pull the flaps up. If you get dirt in the tracks, that can be a problem.”
Miller operates off of a 2,600-foot turf runway at the Indian River Aerodrome (FL74), a very nice fly-in community just five miles south of Vero Beach airport. While the Cub is really at home on the well-maintained turf, Miller says he has to be a bit more aware of dirt and debris on his TwinCo.
So with all the speed-enhancing gap seals, fillets, wingtips, tail strobe, tire slippers and whatever else you can hang on a Twin Comanche to make it go faster and look cooler, you’d think that Miller would be satisfied.
“It’s a flying showroom for aerodynamic and speed modifications, but it’s still not fast enough,” he said with a smile. “We push the 200 mph mark at 7,000 feet, burning 19 gph. But if I pull it back to Skylane speeds, we see an amazing 11 gallons total.”
“We can fill the tanks, fill the seats, add 200 pounds of baggage and go 700 nm with IFR reserves,” Miller said. “That’s really hard to beat.”
It’s just that close to perfect
While his beloved Twin Comanche has lived up to every one of Miller’s expectations and needs, it’s not without its foibles. (Nothing serious, mind you.) His number-one point—like any aircraft owner—are spare parts. Number two is a bit more specific to the airplane.
“I really like the size and stance of the Twin Comanche—it’s smaller and lower than the 310 series. In fact, I’ve heard that Mr. Piper directed that the airplane would sit low enough to not require a retractable step,” Miller said. “Of course, that low stance has its own challenges.
“It can be tricky to land. Not hard, but tricky,” he explained. “You’re always landing in ground effect, so it wants to float. If you try to push it down you can touch the nosewheel first, and if you don’t know what you are doing that can be a lot of trouble. If you do know what you are doing it can just embarrass you.”
“I installed the smaller nose tire STC. It helps,” he explained. “But I’ve had landings where I couldn’t have been more than six inches off the ground and was sure I had it nailed, only to have the nosewheel touch first,” Miller said. “At that point you just have to add a bit of power and start the landing over again, or go around.”
He said that overall the Twin Comanche’s landing gear is very rugged and that’s another reason why he has total confidence when operating off of his home field’s turf runway.
As for what’s still on his Twin Comanche wish list, Miller said that, when he wins the lottery, he’d like to add a second and possibly third Aspen EFD to the one he has now and upgrade his legacy autopilot with a new S-TEC unit.
Miller said that now that he and Donna are retired, they get to spend time enjoying their two airplanes a lot more: doing owner-assisted annuals and the like.
“We still have a small company and do aerial photography, which is fun. But, most of our flying is for pleasure around Florida and up and down the East Coast to visit friends and family,” he said. “We’ve flown the Twin Comanche to California twice. It’s a great traveling airplane. Very comfortable, and with the range to make both Donna and me happy.”
While owning and flying his beloved Twin Comanche does indeed make Carl Miller very happy, he and Donna also look for ways to use it to help others.
“We believe it’s very important to give back to society when you can,” he said. “We have recently joined two organizations: Pilots N Paws and LightHawk.”
“LightHawk is an organization that needs volunteer pilots to take reporters, Corps of Engineers personnel and elected officials out over the Everglades to see the impact of projects and how it’s affecting the environment in the area,” Miller said. “Pilots N Paws transports rescue and foster dogs in need.” (For more about LightHawk’s missions, see Dan Pimentel’s feature story on page 58 in this issue. For details on Pilots N Paws, see Pimentel’s Affirmative Atttiude column in the June 2014 issue of Piper Flyer. —Ed.)
“We got interested in Pilots N Paws through Patty Wagstaff. She was performing here at the Vero Beach airshow. Donna and I were flying our Cub as the lead aircraft in Piper’s Parade of Planes that started the show,” he said. “I like to tell people we were the opening act for the Blue Angels.”
“Patty came out to the Aerodrome after the Friday practice show and she told Donna about Pilots N Paws and it sounded like something good we could help with, so we signed up,” Miller said. “We have not made any flights as of today, but we’re looking forward to helping a great cause.”
Dale Smith has been an aviation journalist for 30 years. When he’s not writing aviation articles, Smith does commission aircraft illustrations specializing in seaplanes and flying boats. Smith has been a licensed pilot since 1974 and has flown 35 different types of General Aviation, business and World War II vintage aircraft. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.
Speed Mods – PFA supporter
Knots 2U, Ltd.
Cowls, flap track covers