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.
Every time I see something about an opposed four cylinder (especially air cooled) I think of my old VW. I guess I didn’t start thinking weird like that until I read the book “connections”. Whatever, from subaru to vagabond. Was VW a leader or did they actually copy someone else.
Air cooled engines go back pretty far, and certainly pre-date the Beetle. One of the most interesting configurations is the rotary engine, used on many WWI aircraft (which I’ll have to queue up for a CC sometime).
Stay tuned, as I have an upcoming post on the use of auto engines in aircraft in the queue.
The rotary was a very interesting design, with the cylinders rotating around a fixed crankshaft. This allowed for good cooling but the gyroscopic force of all that mass turning made the aircraft very tricky to fly. In a Sopwith Camel, for example, trying to turn left caused the nose to rise and right to drop. Needless to say, this caused plenty of spin related crashes and deaths. More pilots were lost training to fly Camels than in combat.
Hmmm, maybe I should do a piece of rotary aircraft engines!
Lots of R-985s in your neck of the woods. Beaver power!
I think you mean radial engine, not rotary. Radial engines were used in airplanes, rotaries were used in Mazda cars.
Nope, he means rotary! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Rhône
I’m “inactively” building a 7/8 scale replica of the WWI Nieuport 11 fighter plane, which was originally powered by the Le Rhône rotary. In this type of engine, the crankshaft is bolted to the airframe and the cylinders and crankcase are bolted to the propeller, all spinning around together.
The Wankel rotary is a completely different animal…
Aircraft used both rotaries and radials. WW-1 aircraft used rotaries (IIRC, the most advanced being the Bentley W-1. Not sure it saw combat). After that war, radials took over, with (among other feats) powering the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in 1927.
One of the biggest radial engines powered the B-29. 3350 cubic inches. If I’m recalling correctly, 4 rows of 9. Heat buildup at takeoff was a huge problem, with engine fires as a serious consequence. A later development added exhaust turbines that were coupled to the prop for more power.
The biggest radial engine was the P & W 4360 (28 cylinders!) that was used in the B-36 bomber. They had a lot of fires and trouble with those, too.
Looks like a corncob!
The B-36 was odd in other ways. Pusher props, and also some turbojet engines. The weirdest oddity was the prototype fighter that was supposed to be popped out of a bay, shoot down the Soviet fighters, then get back into the plane. Cooler minds prevailed, though I’ve seen a pic of the Goblin prototype.
Give me a nice, sane flying wing. 🙂
I always liked the B-49 Flying Wing. The USAF should have stayed with that, as proven by the B-2 which has the SAME EXACT WINGSPAN!!!! (according to my copy of squadron-signal’s ‘B-2 in action’) We had stealth and didn’t know it…
Good. Ive got a Corvair aircraft engine conversion project going.
Karl Benz built the first horizontally-opposed (“boxer”) engine in 1896.
Tatra was a pioneer in using air-cooled horizontally-opposed air-cooled twins and fours in cars. Maybe you missed this? : https://www.curbsideclassic.com/automotive-histories/automotive-history-hans-ledwinkas-revolutionary-tatras/
The 1931 Continental A-40 twin is the granddaddy of the typical air-cooled lightplane opposed-cylinder engine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_A-40
What a nice surprise. Love these old Pipers, and this pink one is a real gem.
Colors definitely have a “fad” component, and I think your “La Femme” theory is a very compelling one. Maybe it also an attempt to lure more women into flying.
So do you still fly?
I flew a little when we moved to the Middle West, but the farm and house remodeling (plus rearing our sons) moved that to the back burner.
When the house is done, I’d say there’s a good chance a Cessna 140 or 170 will find its way out to the farm.
It is amazing how many of these old planes are still in the air. I don’t imagine that many of the manufacturers of the 1950s imagined that the airframes would still be seeing active duty all these decades later.
My father was an accomplished pilot and I spent quite a bit of time in the air in private aircraft. But never in a Tri-Pacer. I later got my private pilot’s license, but was forced to choose between two expensive hobbies when a 1929 Model A became available for purchase. I chose cars and let the pilot’s license go dormant.
I really enjoyed this piece. I, for one, love the color combo on the plane. I suspect that in an era when you could buy pink cars, pink kitchen appliances and pink bathroom fixtures, it was not a stretch to offer a pink private plane. Hats off to the owner for restoring it to original rather than repainting in some other, more common color combo.
I had a subscription to Flying magazine for many years, and often got close to signing up for a training program, but the more I read, the more I realized that flying requires regular practice to keep up proficiency, and that occasional pilots had the highest likelihood of fatal accidents. I didn’t really have the time for that, for such a consuming hobby, so I dropped the idea, without regrets. But that’s not to say that it still doesn’t have a certain appeal. Maybe its really mostly the planes themselves.
You nailed it, Paul. A pilot really needs to put in ~100 hours annually to stay highly proficient. Even with flying kids in the EAA Young Eagles program, I was doing good to log 40 hours a year. Of course, I had also started my own business, too (*You* get to pick which 100 hours a week you work!).
Yeah, I dreamed about it, too. Thought about an ultra-light until I noticed in KitPlanes that a pilot over 160 pounds was considered “huge”. At 6′-2″ and 185 pounds, my lowest adult weight, I looked like a refugee from the Gulag, so I decided to find other ways to spend my time and money.
I still like the history and technology of aviation, along with things automotive.
Interesting article, not being much of a flying enthusiast, can’t add much here, but I had the distinct non-pleasure of flying in one of these (maybe it was a Cessna, can’t recall), out of Montgomery Field in San Diego about twenty years ago with some business associates. It was a majorly windy day, and for me, it was terrifying, as we pitched, rolled, and yawed in every which direction. Don’t ever want to repeat that gut-wrenching experience again.
Loved the comparison to the Dodge La Femme. I can just imagine the owner of this Piper takes a lot of heat from his friends. I actually ran across a 1955 La Femme a few years ago when I lived in San Diego, casually parked in front of a residence, a true Curbside Classic, but in perfect condition, whether original or restored. Couldn’t believe my eyes, these were rare as hen’s teeth even back in the day. To quote author James Flammang in “Cars of the Fabulous ’50s,” “Dodge reached the apex of misguided marketing to women with the La Femme–a daintily fancified Custom Royal Lancer.” A spot-on comment, if ever there was one. I do recall a lot of advertising placing cars and airplanes together, really eye-catching stuff. The 1958 “Air-borne B-58” Buick comes to mind, and the ’64-’66 Thunderbirds.
Pinks, corals and salmons were very popular during this era, its not just the LaFeme, I’ve seen pink/coral/salmon, Buicks, Cadillacs, Fords, etc, kinda like the brown/avocado/harvest gold,etc in the 70’s, and like the 70’s it filtered down to everything, there were pink stoves, blenders, etc. My friend has a 1957 vintage house that has an original all pink hallway bathroom, down to the tub sink and commode.
And my favorite automotive example, my grandmother’s 1956 Desoto Firedome Seville, jauntily done up in coral pink and charcoal gray. Just got a new Macy’s catalog, their Fiesta dinnerware features a new retro color, Flamingo Pink. It’s still filtering down!
Midcentury Modern design, which can encompass everything from the 30s to the 70s, but probably most frequently associated with Eichler homes and Googie architecture, has become very popular among certain segments of the 20s-40s age group. I can’t help but think the show “Mad Men” and interest in pin-up and rockabilly culture has helped fuel this.
There is a blog – Retro Renovation – dedicated to the preservation of midcentury modern homes. They even have a “Save the Pink Bathrooms” campaign.
I’m also a pilot and happy to see an older plane sporting a period paint scheme of any color, let alone something as unique as this. I can’t say I’d want to own it but I appreciate that someone has preserved it. The timing makes me wonder if Piper picked up the leftover paint from Mopar on the cheap.
My tastes run more to the Piper Comanche, an icon of midcentury modern design in its own right, and very fetching in red, black, and white. The line also included aviation’s answer to the GTO – the Piper Comanche 400, complete with a 720 cubic inch Lycoming flat-8 sporting 400 hp. Nice examples are worth six figures these days – but still cheaper than a Hemi ‘cuda!
My Dad flew a Twin Comanche in the mid 1970s. Red, white and black – it was a really cool airplane. He said that it was also a dangerous plane to fly because of what he called a hot wing, that was apparently not very forgiving and had a tendency to go into flat spins. He later sold out of it and bought into a larger Piper Aztec. To me as a 13 or so year old passenger, it felt like going from a sports car to a station wagon.
A twin Commanche; a hot plane in more ways than one.
For decades, twins were sold on the safety of having a second engine. But then the statistics clearly showed that twins were much more dangerous, and the piston-powered twin-engine plane pretty much disappeared. The problem (among others) was that actually flying a twin with an engine out was much trickier than gliding a dead single to a landing spot. That’s also why Cessna introduced the Skymaster, with both engines in the same thrust line.
Now, singles pretty much rule, some quite big too.
Exactly. Plus, piston twins have twice the fuel burn and twice the engine overhaul costs – we are talking tens of thousands of dollars per side – for far less than twice the performance. In new planes, it makes more sense to go with a single turboprop – it burns much cheaper Jet A rather than avgas, far longer TBO (time between overhaul), and far superior reliability. I’d feel much safer in a PT6 powered single than any piston twin.
I do think there’s some use to old piston twins – their drawbacks are so great that they can be very cheap for their hauling ability.
Then again, logic doesn’t always reign in airplanes any more than it does with cars. A fixed gear Piper Cherokee Six is in many ways a superior plane to the single engine Comanche, which is more cramped and has retractable gear, which can be more of a bother than they’re worth. But the Comanche, despite its drawbacks, has two things going for it – it looks like a million bucks, and it’s a genuine Lock Haven, PA built Piper.
What you say Paul is largely true, however, for night IFR, I’ll only fly a twin.
In my career, I’ve had two off airport landings when the only engine quits. Fortunately, both were during the day in VFR conditions.
Right on cue:
Touché – red and black on polished aluminum is MUCH prettier than red, black, and white. Probably adds 50lbs to the useful load, too.
Well, this aircraft brings back fond memories.
Beginning in third grade, I started building model airplanes from Revelle, Monogram, etal. Monogram had a great model of the Piper Tri-Pacer and of course, I had to have one. I felt the pants on the main gear really set off the plane’s looks and looks naked without them.
Mom and dad indulged my fascination with airplanes back then by taking me out to Chesterfield, MO to Lobmaster Field right along U.S. 40 when it was two lanes with a middle suicide lane!
Funny thing though – I was offered a brief ride one Sunday afternoon, but was scared and politely turned the offer down! Not sure if I would get into a light plane now, either…
Lobmaster Field eventualy closed and became Spirit of St. Louis airport across the street – er – 4-lanes-dual U.S. 40 now I-64.
For the record, Dad owned a 1955 Dodge Le Femme – not his choice; white top, black middle, pink lower! Photo below is similar but without skirts. I’ve told that story already…
La Femme without skirts? Ooh la la!
I learned to fly in an old Tri-Pacer back in ’72. Narrow landing gear with bungee cord suspension, stubby little wings with the glide ratio of a brick. Had lots of fun in that old thing. Then my dad traded for a Beech Debonair and I wound up at Ft. Rucker in flight school.
As far as air cooled cars go, don’t forget the Tucker. It had a flat 6 Franklin aircraft engine modified for automotive use.
Ahh…This brings back memories! My uncle owned a plane that looked a lot like the one in the first picture – except it was white and blue.
My uncle was an airline mechanic for TWA (Remember TWA?). Uncle Bob was (is, he’s still alive) the “cool” uncle. He was my Mom’s younger brother. He didn’t marry until later in life so we were his “kids”. Since he was single and had a good paying job he had all the cool stuff. Always drove newer Chryslers.
He got his private pilot’s license and bought a one-third stake in a Piper. He called it a Piper Cub but I don’t know if that was the exact model. I was eight, what did I care? He used to take all us kids flying around the Chicago area. Who ever was sitting in the other front seat of the Piper got to “fly” a little. By “fly” I mean straight & level with his hands always on the other controls.
Thanks for the “Runway”-side Classic
My parents owned this aircraft with the same paint scheme. We called her ‘Rosy’ and she was based out of Auburn, Washington. This was in the early 70’s.
Boy does this Tri-pacer bring back memories.
It is exactly like the one my uncle Dick Schwegel used to fly out of Moraine Air Park and Dahio Airport in the 50s and early 60s.
Back when Harold Johnson owned and managed Moraine Air Park, my uncle flew people up to Ontario for fishing and hunting trips.
One weekend as I heard the story, Dick flew up to Ontario to pick up 3 guys from their fishing trip and return to Moraine. Unbeknownst to my uncle, while he was gone, Harold Johnson had the grass strip plowed and disked to smooth out the strip which had been increasingly rough and rutted.
My uncle ask ways preferred the grass strip and returned to Moraine at around 2am. Just as he was flaring, he saw the freshly turned earth and tried to throttle up, only to grimly discover it was too late. The mains hit, stuck, and snapped the nose wheel down, which then dug in and the plane flipped tail over nose upside down into the ground.
All on board survived, but my uncle always felt Harold was at fault and Harold always maintained that Dick didn’t pay attention to current NOTAMs.
Dick and his brothers, Elmer (my dad), and Don rebuilt the “Bashful Bunny” as Dick had named her and she flew for years until Dick lost his ticket due to heart problems.
The “Bashful Bunny” was special for me, as I was working on my ticket at the time as a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, and Dick was a CFI at the time, and took me on a late afternoon flight. He told me that I was going to see something I’d never forget, something that always made him think of God and McGee’s “High Flight”. He took me above a broken cloud layer at sunset, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m 67 now – it was incredible! I was hooked and flying has remained my passion throughout my life. I’m a tail dragged guy, but if I had to pick a trike to fly, there is no contest — the Tri- pacer was the best.
From Dayton, Ohio
The only time I ever flew a Tri Pacer was towing banners. Not the greatest banner tow plane but it’s what we had and we made it work.