““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
The 1932 Piper Cub sold for $1,300 and embodied everything Bill Piper thought an airplane should be: affordable to own and operate, simple, rugged and fun to fly. You can land it in a short farm field, a small lake or a tiny patch of gravel in the middle of a river. For many a bush pilot today, the Piper Cub remains the ride of choice for these reasons. There’s no drama here.
The same cannot be said for the company itself. It has been battered by multiple bankruptcies, fire, flood, hurricanes, questionable management from time to time and chronic undercapitalization. Most recently, Piper abandoned its plans to build a single-engine jet and laid off hundreds of workers because of that and weak overall demand for some of its products. The company still employs 700 and is holding distressed-debt talks with Florida governments that gave Piper millions to maintain minimum employment levels it can no longer afford. Never mind that Piper is currently owned by the oil-rich sultan of Brunei (technically, by that country’s Ministry of Finance). The sultan reportedly expects his investments to make money and be self-supporting. Apparently a new $200 million jet-development program did not fit into that financial model.
Nevertheless, Piper has made some terrific airplanes over the years. As a neophyte pilot, I was amazed–and grateful–to discover just how much ice you can carry on the “Hershey Bar” wing of a single-engine Piper Cherokee.
Another fine Piper is the twin-turboprop Cheyenne, particularly the Cheyenne II. These models are great because they hold true to Bill Piper’s philosophy of what an airplane should be. Like the lowly J-3 Cub with its 40-horsepower engine, the Cheyenne is simple and affordable. It uses the same basic fuselage “M Class” cross section, albeit at different lengths, that Piper has employed on all its cabin-class twins and pressurized singles, pistons and turbines, since the mid-1960s: Navajos, Chieftains, Cheyennes, Malibus, Matrices, Mirages and Meridians. Piper Aircraft designed the twin- turboprop PA-31T Cheyenne to go head-to-head with Beechcraft’s ubiquitous King Air 90. And on paper, it looked like a winner: cheaper and faster than the Beech, the Cheyenne was also easier to maintain.
“This is the most inexpensive twin turboprop in the world to operate as far as I am concerned,” said Mike Gick of Lafayette Aviation in West Lafayette, Ind. Gick has been working on Cheyennes since 1975 and currently maintains nine customer aircraft. “Anybody can work on them. They are so simple.” Gick added that, compared with the King Air, the Cheyenne has fewer life-limited parts or parts with metals, such as magnesium, that are prone to corrosion.
However, the Piper is not a panacea. Its fuselage is narrower than the King Air’s. Getting into a Cheyenne isn’t quite like doing a limbo dance, but with a full load the quarters can get a little tight. Of course, most operators don’t regularly fly the airplane with anywhere near full seats. (With full fuel, a Cheyenne II has an available payload of only 591 pounds.) But this is not the ride of choice for a claustrophobe. There is seating for five passengers (if you count the belted potty in the back, opposite the air-stair door) and two pilots. The main cabin incorporates four facing single seats in club configuration and a pair of foldout tables that deploy from the sidewall. Overall cabin space is a sparse 151 cubic feet–about what you’d find in a very light jet such as an Eclipse or a Cessna Citation Mustang. Baggage space is pitiful–22 cubic feet behind the cabin cargo net and another 20 in the nose. This is not the airplane for a clothes horse with wardrobe in tow.
The airplane comfortably operates out of short, 2,000-foot-long runways and can be flown quite competently by a single pilot. (Most of them are operating this way.) Range with seats full is 720 nautical miles and the maximum cruising speed is 243 knots. You can easily bag another 17 to 20 knots out of the airplane if it has the American Aviation (Hailey, Idaho) cowl/ram air and speed (exhaust) stack aftermarket kits. About half of all the Cheyenne IIs and IIXLs already have them, according to American vice president Jim Christy.
Seriously consider these options. First, they just look cool. The cowl kit pushes the intake closer to the prop and gives the airplane more of a raked, menacing appearance. They also serve an important purpose by increasing the head pressure of the air “rammed” into the engine’s compressor. You get more power at lower engine temperature, which means you can maintain takeoff power to a higher altitude–say 20,000 feet as opposed to 15,000. You can also climb to a higher cruise altitude, about 27,000 versus 24,000. The stacks not only cut aerodynamic drag, they keep engine soot off the wings. You can add both options for about $50,000.
Refitting the Pratt & Whitney PT6A Dash 28 engines with Dash 135 engines at overhaul will turn a II into a real screamer, giving it a top speed of 280 knots, but this is a pricey proposition–about $600,000 and your old engines. The Dash 135s also deliver more power to higher altitude. They are standard on the Cheyenne IIXL, a two-foot-longer version of the II. Piper built only 81 IIXLs. Forty-six remain on the FAA registry, and they sell for a premium of between $250,000 and $500,000 over the price of a straight Cheyenne II. A stock IIXL will cruise at approximately 275 knots.
The decision to convert a Cheyenne II to Dash 135 engines can be a difficult and vexing one, but generally makes sense only if you plan on holding onto the airplane for some time, said Mike Shafer, president of Mercury Aircraft Sales in Sarasota, one of the most prolific resellers of Cheyennes. Shafer estimated that roughly 10 percent of the 228 Cheyenne IIs on the FAA registry have been converted to Dash 135 power.
“From a performance standpoint, what you get out of that conversion is tremendous,” he said. But it is more than double the $250,000 cost of just overhauling the stock Dash 28s on the airplane. Given that you can get a really nice Cheyenne II for $500,000 and that most owners fly them less than 300 hours per year, the conversion is unlikely to pay for itself over the time you own the airplane.
However, there are other upgrades that make sense for just about any buyer. They include replacing the stock M4D autopilot with a King KFC300. The KFC300 is smoother and has more features. Many owners also have opted to refresh their avionics with a Garmin GPS/com stack that includes satellite weather. Together, the autopilot and the Garmin stack run around $50,000. Paint and interior on an airplane of this vintage also is usually a good idea and that can cost another $60,000.
There’s one more thing you may read about this airplane. The Cheyenne II (but not the IIXL) was fitted with something called a “stability augmentation system” (SAS) because of concerns about the aircraft longitudinal stability when it was loaded too heavily toward the aft limit for the center of gravity. If you balance the load per the flight manual, the SAS never comes into play. Modifications made to the SAS over the years have corrected past problems with it.
Compared with the now 48-year-old King Air 90 series, the Cheyenne II and the IIXL were short-lived. Over a decade, Piper built 607 combined. Frequent ownership changes and bankruptcy at Piper led to erratic production, marketing and product support and the model never gained real traction. By 1984 the “twos” were out of production.
Even though Cheyennes are getting a little long in the tooth, most airframes out there are relatively low-time. Gick said he never has problems getting parts for the airplane, either directly from Piper or from a well-established network of aftermarket providers. The Cheyenne’s relative lack of popularity means it can be had at bargain prices. “It’s the best bang for the buck,” said Mike Shafer.
What our readers had to say
Just a note to compliment you on your Cheyenne II article [Used Turboprop Review: Piper Cheyenne II, April/May 2012].
As a former 20-year Piper factory guy, I agree that the original PA31T is/was the best-overall-value model of the Cheyenne family. It survived the early SAS [stability augmentation system] bad rap and has withstood the all-important Aviation Test of Time, even though it’s been out of production for so long. The 31T2XL is/was my other favorite, but its production run was way too short.
Great field-service folks were key to the Cheyenne II’s early success.
Douglas H. Smith (via email)
Mark Huber wrote a decent article about the Cheyenne II, but his research came up short. Production was stopped on the Cheyenne I, II and IIXL when the plant in Lock Haven [Pa.] was shut down. The Cheyenne III was always built in the Lakeland, Fla. plant. This occurred well before ownership changes and bankruptcy were factors in Piper decision making. I was a Cheyenne marketing manager and sales demonstration pilot during the Cheyenne years and our competition was always the King Air 200.
Huber is correct that the II was a fine airplane.
Bob Brewer (via BJTonline.com)
Charles Lindbergh said, “The question is not how short a runway an aircraft can use, but how long it needs to be in order to operate safely.” A Cheyenne II cannot comfortably operate from 2,000-foot runways. On landing, with a 50-foot threshold crossing height and 3-degree descent path, touchdown occurs 1,000 feet from the threshold, leaving 1,000 feet for stopping. On takeoff, 2,000 feet is nowhere near enough for accelerate stop or accelerate go.
I grant that it is physically possible for a Cheyenne II to use a 2,000-foot runway on a nice day, and that the Cheyenne II is not subject to the stringent runway requirement of jets, but your readers deserve better advice.
Daniel Herr (Murray Hill, N.J.)
Mark Huber replies: Regarding Brewer’s comments, never in my article do I mention where the Cheyenne II was manufactured, nor do I ascribe the end of its production to corporate bankruptcy. The Lock Haven plant and Cheyenne II production were both shut down in 1984 and the company’s dismal finances played a big part in the decisions to take those actions. At the time, Piper was owned by conglomerate Lear Siegler and was losing buckets of money–$90 million between 1984 and 1985 alone. Lear was subsequently sold to investment bank Forstmann Little, which promptly sold Piper to what turned out to be an undercapitalized entity. Piper made numerous missteps during this period and Brewer alludes to one of them: marketing the Cheyenne II as direct competition to the King Air 200. The 200 was bigger and faster than the II and, to use an automotive analogy, saying the two aircraft are competitive is a little like trying to steer a BMW 3 series customer into a Fiat 500.
As to Herr's comments about landing distance, several Piper owners told me that they operated in and out of 2,000-foot strips at minimum weights. Now, is this a wise thing to do? Probably not. We printed the book numbers with the Conklin & de Decker data. From now on, I will stick with that.