POAL #18: 1977 Piper Archer PA28-181 – Planes Of A Lifetime

“Good day ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to CloudSide Classic Airlines inaugural Flight #1.  In preparation for departure, please ensure that your seat belt is fastened and your tray table and seat back are in their full upright and locked position.  Any items weighing on your mind may be placed either below your seat or in the overhead compartment above.  All cellular telephones and other portable electronic devices (except the one you’re reading on), must be stowed for departure.”

“Folks, we’ve been cleared for takeoff, so please remain seated until we’ve turned off the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign.  We expect a smooth flight today, so sit back, relax and enjoy your flight”.


From my earliest memories, automobiles and airplanes have been inexorably intertwined.  Like many of you, I have memories as a child of racing cars on the floor, or swooping model airplanes thru the sky.  From the time I could ride a tricycle I’d be on my dad’s lap in the car, “driving” to the local drive-thru dairy.  I spent hours as a boy sitting in our 1964 Corvair, practicing my shifting and clutch coordination, waiting for the years when I could finally do it on my own.  Southern California was hotbed of automotive obsession and an incubator for car crazed youth, including yours truly.

Aviation also coursed through my veins, as both my father and father-in-law served in the Air Force in World War II, my father-in-law piloting B-26’s across Europe and living to tell the tale.  We moved to Long Beach, CA. in 1963, just one mile from the Long Beach airport.  Southern California at that time was the epicenter of the greatest collection of aeronautical companies in the world, with Douglas, Lockheed,  Rockwell, Northrup, North American Aviation, Convair and more having a presence.  From my backyard I could watch the planes take off and land at the airport, and frequently heard the thundering of the DC-8’s as they were completed and tested.

At ten years old, my Dad took my sister and me to the airport and rented a Cessna for my first flight.  Wow!  The freedom and sensation of flying grabbed me and never let me go.  The only question was how it would express itself.

The two seat flying VW Beetle of the skies – the Cessna 150/152

As I turned 30, my stable consisted of the Audi 4000S, two Datsun Roadsters and the Porsche 914.  The flying itch had grown stronger, and I finally decided to scratch that itch and enroll in flight school.  Ground school breezed by, but as I began building flight hours toward my license, I realized that flying costs were adding up pretty quickly.  For training, you normally used small two seat Cessna 150/152’s as they were the least expensive to rent.  Now, a 152 has about the same room as the front seat of a VW Beetle – meaning enough to sit in but not spacious.  On a hot day with two people aboard, a 152 also has the climb performance of a partially deflated balloon heading lazily into the sky.  Maybe there was another option…

In running the numbers, I realized that a larger, more comfortable plane could be purchased and leased back to the flying school.  Doing so meant that they would be paying for use of the plane, and my flying costs would go down dramatically.  I preferred a low wing aircraft like a Piper versus a high wing like the Cessna, but that’s just personal preference, like preferring an Accord over a Camry.  A better equipped plane able to fly IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) would also command a higher rental rate and attract more experienced pilots.  After researching all the various options, I decided on a Piper Archer.

Obviously not great photos and on old film; most are near the end of my ownership

An Archer is a low wing, single engine, four place aircraft made by Piper Aircraft.  If you ask the average five year old to draw a picture of an airplane, they’ll draw something that looks like an Archer.  I searched the entire Southern California area for a plane, but ended up finding one at a tiny, soon to be closed airport right in my backyard (so to speak) in Huntington Beach.  Real estate prices were skyrocketing in the 80’s, and land was much more valuable for homes & townhomes than a small, rundown airport.

One spark plug on the upper side of each cylinder, another on the bottom for redundancy

The Archer was a 1977 PA28-181 model with a Lycoming air-cooled, horizontally opposed, pushrod four cylinder engine.  So far so good, just like a VW Beetle, right?  Right, just the same – except this four cylinder is 360 cubic inches – bigger than a Chevy small block with only half the cylinders.  In fact, if we take all four cylinders of that VW 1500 cc engine, they’ll fit just fine in one cylinder of the Lycoming.  Propellers on aircraft can only turn so fast before the tips go supersonic, lose efficiency and make incredible amounts of noise, so the Lycoming makes its 180 horsepower at a reasonable 2,700 rpm.

Compared to a car, the Archer looks large with a wingspan of 35’ 6” and a length of 24’.  For the same reason that 250 pound Ostriches can’t fly, planes must be light, with N3204Q (my Archer) weighing in at about 1,505 pounds empty and 2,550 pounds fully loaded with fuel, passengers and luggage.  That ends up being a few pounds less than the best selling Ford F150…

The Archer had good performance with a cruising speed of 120 knots or 138 miles per hour.  It burned a little over 9 gallons of fuel per hour, which translates to about 15 miles per gallon in normal use.  You’ll note that I’m hedging on the figures, as each airplane is slightly different as is each pilot’s technique.  Small aircraft like the Archer typically have one large carburetor, not fuel injection, so the pilot is responsible for leaning the fuel/air mixture based on altitude & temperature.

Speaking of fuel injection, let’s talk about how cutting edge most small airplane technology was back then.  In a word – it wasn’t, as reliability is valued far above the latest technological fad.  Where possible, small aircraft like to use redundant, stone-age simple systems.  If the engine stops on your car, you pull over to the side of the road and call it an “inconvenience”.  If the same thing happens in an airplane, we call it an “emergency”.

Magneto #1 & magneto #2

An example of this emphasis on reliability is an airplane’s use of two magnetos for two separate ignition systems to two spark plugs per cylinder.  A magneto is like a combination alternator & distributor.  It generates its own electricity to fire the spark plugs, so no battery power is actually required to keep the engine running.  We’ll see that this can be pretty valuable at times…

We were all in our early 30’s at one time…

So the Archer was purchased and leased back to the Long Beach Flying Club.  After earning my private pilot’s license, I added an Instrument Rating to allow for flight in poor visibility – important when flying in the frequently hazy LA or foggy SF bay areas.  Getting my Instrument Rating was one of the most stimulating and personally rewarding things that I’ve done.  I found that when I was flying I would filter out all of the extraneous stuff in my mind and concentrate on the task at hand, working to perfect it (not that I ever did) and to do it better than I did the time before.

They say that a smart pilot views his pilot’s license simply as a license to learn.  The focus and challenge in that learning was invigorating and pushed me to grow as a pilot and a person.

At the time, I worked for ADP (Automatic Data Processing) as a Consultant and had an office next to the Long Beach Airport where I also kept the plane.  My division’s headquarters however, was in San Ramon, CA, east of the San Francisco Bay area, and I traveled frequently between Long Beach and the Bay area for work.  I convinced the company to pay for me to fly my plane between the two areas instead of taking expensive last minute commercial flights.  Even though a commercial jet is about four times faster than the Archer, my actual time door to door was virtually the same due to all the parking, lines, waiting, flying to a more distant airport, etc.

With the Archer, I could park 75 feet from the plane, fly to Livermore Airport and then walk 100 feet to a rental car.  A short 12 mile drive brought me to the office, thereby avoiding all the traffic and mess of the SF Bay area.  This is just slightly different than today’s typical commercial flight experience…

On one trip, I was flying at 9,500 feet headed up to Livermore when a red light caught my attention on the panel – alternator failure!  I was still 90 minutes away, so I cut all electrical power and flew merrily on.  Remember that magneto discussion above?  The plane didn’t care whether the alternator worked or not – it just flew.  About 20 minutes before Livermore I turned everything back on so I could use the radios and navigation.  I landed and parked the plane at the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) for repairs.  A couple of days later, my business was done as were the repairs.  I turned in my rental car, hopped in the plane and flew home – no muss, no fuss.

Proven redundant systems meant that I didn’t have to find a place to land and be stuck somewhere – an “inconvenience” didn’t turn into an “emergency”.  And that’s a little different from my Audi A6 experience in the middle of the prairie in nowheresville Nebraska.

Slightly more instrumentation than your typical Toyota Camry…

The instrument panel was well equipped for the time, which made this a favorite among the IFR certified pilots at the club for training and long cross country flights.  In addition to normal radios and such, this had a LORAN receiver, a precursor to today’s GPS (but based on ground stations).

What a difference 40 years makes…

Archers are still made today, but advances in flat screen technology have dramatically changed the panel, kind of like comparing the dash of a 1977 Dodge D-200 to a new RAM 2500.  The rest of the interior has also been upgraded with leather and other niceties not available 40 years ago.

A new Archer with an updated interior, but the same spaciousness

The interior of an Archer was a good place to be.  Private aircraft in the 70’s & 80’s weren’t broughamtastic luxury liners, but they weren’t penalty boxes either.  I might equate them to the Porsche 914 from last week – functional but not cheap.  Every pound of brougham in a plane is one less pound of payload that can be carried, so pilots need to choose wisely.  Seats in the Archer were comfortable and sat relatively high, versus a low slung sports car stance.  This gave good room for both front and rear passengers, and legroom in back was good even for adults.  The baggage compartment had a separate door for loading on the right side, and like a station wagon or SUV you could reach over the back seat and access things while flying.

The Archer had a fuel capacity of 50 gallons, of which 48 were usable, resulting in a range of about 550 nautical miles, or about 630 statute (regular) miles.  Realistically, the Archer would fly for as long as you’d want to sit in one place without stretching.  Because you didn’t have to follow roads, that 630 miles of range might be the same as 800 miles in a car.  And you never had to be frustrated by being stuck behind that slow moving motorhome ahead.

Trips to friends that would have previously been long and tedious drives became short adventures.  Seeing friends in Chico, CA went from nine hour drives to three hour flights – and I didn’t have to plan the trip to avoid LA’s infamous traffic.  Trips to friends in Sedona, AZ also went from eight hours to three hours – easily doable for a quick weekend trip.  The freedom afforded by the Archer was liberating, and being in control of my own flight intoxicating.

On long trips east, I would normally make Farmington, NM a mid-day fuel stop.   I’ve written before that naturally aspirated engines, whether in a car or airplane, lose about 3% of their power for every 1,000 foot increase in altitude (re: Vanagon climbing at 11,320 feet).  Another factor for airplanes is that as the air temperature increases, it becomes less dense and the wings generate less lift.  On a hot day at altitude, a plane needs more runway to take off and, in some cases, may not be able to leave the ground at all.  For this reason, density altitude and runway length must always be checked before takeoff.  Farmington is at 5,506 feet already, and throw in a hot afternoon and a fully loaded Archer, and the takeoff roll was very, very long.

I eventually got off the ground, but I think that the gain in altitude was due more to the earth curving away from the plane then any actual climb performance.

My daughter looks slightly different now, but then, so do I…

My daughter, now 31, began her flying adventures when she was less than nine months old.  On long trips, the Archer was perfect for two adults, one child, one car seat, and all the luggage, playpens and strollers necessary for a three week adventure.  That trip took us from California to see family in Denver, Kansas, Nebraska, the Quad Cities, Chicago, Minneapolis, then back across the northern states to tour Yellowstone National Park.  From there it was an overnight in St George, UT then home.  This is the kind of trip that wouldn’t have been possible in a car or by commercial air, and I still cherish those memories from 30 years ago.

Owning an airplane also gives you the opportunity to enjoy some rather pricey meals if you’d like.  In the 80’s these were called “the $100 hamburger” – $5.00 for the hamburger, $95 to get there and back.  I remember taking my Dad from Long Beach to Santa Barbara for lunch or going to dinner at a terrific Chinese restaurant in Big Bear Lake.  I had to fly a minimum number of hours and at certain times to remain current for my licenses, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

When returning from Big Bear, we would time it to see the fireworks that Disneyland shoots off every night.  I didn’t fly directly over Disneyland at those times of course (slightly embarrassing to get shot down by fireworks), but flying five miles away could be spectacular.

As for expenses, fixed costs such as insurance and tie down space can be pricey, so the more hours the plane flew the better those costs could be amortized.  The Archer flew 60-100 hours a month for the flying club.  Planes used for rental purposes also required an inspection by a certified A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) mechanic each 100 hours, and each 100 hour inspection would cost somewhere between $500 to $1,000 depending on what was found.  The Archer’s Lycoming engine was rated for 2,000 hours between overhauls, with overhauls costing about $12,000 (late 80’s).

You’ve heard the saying that a boat is a hole in the water where you pour money?  The same thing is true for an airplane but it’s a bigger hole.  In my case, the income from the flight school was slightly cash flow positive including all the expenses.  I wasn’t getting rich from the Archer, but I wasn’t going broke, and in aviation that’s a pretty big win.

Flying Cloud Airport, Eden Prairie, MN

As I’ve shared in other COAL’s, by 1992 I had decided to move to Denver and had sold the Datsun Roadsters to avoid subjecting them to the weather.  Although I could take the Archer’s business model to Denver, I was skeptical that it would fly nearly as many hours.  That meant that the nice positive cash flow would turn negative while I also needed cash to start a new business.  I sadly placed the Archer for sale in Trade-A-Plane, a national newspaper for aviation.  A buyer in Portland was found, and a pilot flew down on a commercial airline to fly it back.  By this time the plane had years of use, could use new paint and had a runout engine that needed overhaul.  With all that, I sold the plane for $29,500 – $500 less than I paid for it years before in better condition.  Yes, the Archer appreciated nicely, and I benefited from that appreciation.

For many children, flying is a fantasy explored right behind that of driving a big person’s car.  Flying became a passion for me and allowed me to focus on becoming better each and every flight.  I made thousands of memories and it gave me a sense of personal satisfaction.  I don’t regret selling the Archer, as starting businesses and raising children became a much greater priority.  But I did get to push myself and make memories that I’ll never forget.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of your flight crew, I’d like thank you for flying CloudSide Classic Airlines.  You are now free to stand up and walk about the cabin.  We hope that you’ll fly CloudSide Classic wherever your travels take you. Thank you, and we hope to see you again on your next journey”.