The Piper PA-24 Comanche was one of the most incredible aircraft of its time.
Commercial production of the Piper PA-24 Comanche series aircraft commenced in 1957 and lasted for only fifteen years. The first models were fitted with four cylinder, 180 horse power Lycoming engines. Further variants followed rapidly. These were fitted with six cylinder engines which produced 250 horse power and then the fuel injected version of the same engine which developed 260 horse power. In 1964 Piper launched their ultimate Comanche, the PA-24 400, powered by a 400 horse power, eight cylinder engine.
In 1972, after the aircraft had been in production for 15 years, torrential rains from Hurricane Agnes caused the severe flooding of Piper’s manufacturing plant. Airframe parts and much of the tooling necessary for production was either destroyed or simply washed away. Rather than rebuild the tooling, Piper chose to abandon the production of Comanche and to continue with the development of two newer designs that were already in production at another of their plants, these being the Seneca and Arrow series.
The most famous Comanche of all
In June, 1959, Max Conrad, already well known for many long distance record breaking flights, flew a Comanche 250 non-stop from Casablanca in Morocco to Los Angeles on the West coast of the USA, a distance of 7668 statute miles or 12340 kilometres. The elapsed time from take-off to landing was 58 hours and 38 minutes. To put these figures into perspective, his flight was about the same as getting airborne from Johannesburg and flying to Cape Town and back five times over, maintaining an average ground-speed of 131 only miles per hour.
An amount of fourteen 200 litre drums of fuel was carried.
To accomplish this feat, the interior seats were removed and replaced by fuel tanks. In all, the equivalent of fourteen 200 litre drums of fuel, was taken on board. This amounted to 2800 litres, some 2570 litres more than the aircraft’s standard fuel capacity of 230 litres, which was what the wing tanks for that particular model of Comanche carried.
The aircraft weighed three times its empty weight on take-off.
On take-off the aircraft weighed about three times its empty weight and flew close to the surface of the sea for a long time before it was light enough to climb. Even so, Max Conrad flew the daylight portions of the flight at 300 feet above the sea and during the night at 500 feet. His rationale was that it would have cost him too much in fuel to climb a heavy aircraft to higher cruising levels. On landing at Los Angeles, he still had 113 litres left in his tanks, enough for almost another three two and half hours of flight! The average fuel consumption worked out to be about 46 litres per hour.
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I flew exactly the same model extensively
My pride and joy was a 1959 Comanche 250 that I shared with my father and then with members of my aerobatic team, all in all, for sixteen years. This was almost exactly the same as Conrad’s aircraft, except that our aircraft had wing tip tanks, which increased the aircraft’s endurance to about seven hours. It also had the same colour scheme. Apart from the retractable undercarriage and a constant speed propeller, the aircraft was quite basic. Braking was effected by a hand brake that applied equal pressure to both the left and the right wheel simultaneously and the flaps were activated manually by a lever between the two front seats.
The Comanche is no slouch on take-off
There are still plenty of Comanches flying around in South Africa, despite the fact that they are all between 48 and 61 years in age. I flew many long distance flights in the Comanche, often carrying four fully grown males, full tanks and plenty of baggage all over South Africa and its neighbouring countries. When it came to taking off, the Comanche was no slouch. It certainly was not a “ground runner”. On the other hand, as a result of having fairly weak brakes, after landing she would run quite a long way before stopping. Also, because of the fact that the aircraft is low slung and sits fairly close to the ground, I was never really comfortable taking it into strips that were short, narrow or on the rough side.
Good cruise performance figures
The average speed achieved on Max Conrad’s record breaking flight was only 131 m.p.h., mainly because the aircraft was so very heavy for most of the flight and also because at all times he was having to nurse it so as to achieve best value of distance travelled for fuel used. In all the hundreds of hours that I flew Comanches, cruising at altitudes between 8000 and 10000 feet, the aircraft gave me an honest 160 mph and a fuel burn of about 46 litres per hour.
Considering the comfort and room that exists in the Comanche’s cabin, and its performance figures, the aircraft has a lot to offer, particularly as some of them are now up to 63 years old!