Rampside Classic: 1957 Piper Tri-Pacer –
Shades of La Femme?

For hard-core aviation enthusiasts, the last week in July means only one thing – OSHKOSH! This is when the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) hosts their annual Airventure event at Wittman Field in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and for the week of the show, it’s the busiest airport in the world.

A good friend from my active flying days in Georgia always rents a home right on the runway and I usually find time in my schedule to drive up for one or two days. Steve and I enjoy getting up at “o’ dark-thirty” and after a hearty breakfast at LaSure’s, we head out to the Classic and Vintage airplane camping areas to take in the sights.

One of our interesting finds this year was a 1957 Piper Tri-Pacer, the colors of which immediately made me think of the Dodge La Femme.

While CC has a few articles that mention the La Femme, I couldn’t find anything in the archives where we’ve done a proper CC on it (and this is not that post, either!). So for reference, here’s a 1956 La Femme:

You’ll notice that our subject Tri-Pacer sports a very similar paint scheme, which happens to be the actual factory colors:

I find it too much of a coincidence that this one-year-only color scheme for the Tri-Pacer was introduced the year after the La Femme (itself having only a two-year run from 1955-56) was removed from the Dodge lineup. Was Piper trying to cash in on what looked to be a trend? Well, if so, at least they quickly realized the trend was no more than a brief-lived fad, and they returned to marketing the Tri-Pacer to businessman who wanted to travel faster (and probably in more conservative colors).

The four-place (e.g., the number of seats) PA-22 Tri-Pacer, introduced in 1950, had it’s roots in the two-place PA-17 Vagabond, which was introduced in 1948. Along with the car industry, which was just really beginning to introduce new models after the end of WWII, aircraft manufacturers were trying to cash in on servicemen returning home and wanting to continue (or learn) flying, either for fun or as a faster means of transportation.

To offer a plane with more utility, the Vagabond was redesigned as a four-place taildragger and renamed the PA-20 Pacer. Construction was typical for the day, consisting of a steel tube fuselage and aluminum tube wings, all covered with fabric. Power came from a four cylinder, air-cooled, horizontally opposed Lycoming engine making 125, 135 or 150HP.

In an attempt to make the learning and flying process easier, Piper offered the Pacer in a nose-wheel configuration, thus the name Tri-Pacer, which also came with a power bump up to 160hp.

The Tri-Pacer has a useful load of a touch over 650lb (295kg, or .5 VW Beetles), and can cruise at 116kt. (134mph). Stall speed is 49mph, which translates into your approximate landing speed. The service ceiling is 16,000ft (4,877m) with endurance of about 3.3 hours with 1 hour reserve at 65% throttle.

As an explainer for non-pilots (or “steering wheel at the wrong end” pilots like myself), there’s virtually no difference between flying a tailwheel and nosewheel aircraft – while in the air!

Takeoff, landing and taxiing are a different story – the nosewheel aircraft is literally like steering a tricycle – very easy to maneuver on the ground. The tailwheel aircraft, on the other hand, must be “flown” until it’s shut down and tied down – the center of gravity is behind the center of rotation, and it generally wants to be out in front – a lazy pilot who allows this to happen experiences what’s called a “ground loop.” This event is embarrassing and usually expensive.

Sales of the Tri-Pacer were six times higher than for those of the Pacer, lending credence to the theory that folks were very interested in personal aircraft that were easy to learn and fly.

Piper manufactured numerous variants of the Tri-Pacer over its fourteen year production run, resulting in 9,490 copies, many of which are still flightworthy today. In fact, it’s become popular to convert the Tri-Pacer back to a tailwheel configuration, which brings all the later improvements of the PA-22 to a “real men fly taildraggers” configuration.

The mid-Fifties were heady days indeed, and the optimism showed up everywhere, including the aviation industry – I’m sure you could find numerous other photos of a car and airplane together being used to sell one or the other to a population ever-growing in affluency and “taste.”

While aircraft manufacturers are generally a very conservative lot, it was a lot of fun to discover and learn about this particular gem. The owner said he takes a lot of ribbing from his friends for flying a “pink” airplane, but he’s cool with that.