Piper Tomahawk vs the Beechcraft Skipper

By:      Norm Goyer

Piper introduced the Tomahawk in 1978. Spin problems plagued the aircraft from the very beginning.

Piper introduced the Tomahawk in 1978. Spin problems plagued the aircraft from the very beginning.

The Beechcraft Skipper was released to flight schools in 1975, a few years ahead of the Piper Tomahawk. The Skipper originally had a conventional tail but was changed to a “T” tail on production versions. It is evident that the same designer had a hand in both of these aircraft. They even had the same airfoil. Both aircraft were designed for the same reason. Piper and Beechcraft, needed an airplane with a smaller engine to compete with the Cessna 152 which had dominated the trainer market for many years. Piper and Beechcraft did not have a small economical to operate trainer. Piper had tried removing the rear seats of the Cruiser and suggested that the flight schools not run the 140 hp Lycomings at high power settings. This procedure could come close to the fuel use per hour of 100-110 hp engine in the Cessnas. I don’t know about other pilots, but it is pretty much “balls to the wall” when I am flying an aircraft for fun. The Piper Tomahawk had an unusual situation which caused most of its  spin recovery problems. The long high aspect ratio wings had a a special airfoil (same as the Skipper) which had to be very rigid for it to be effective. For some reason, that I have not found out about as yet, Piper drilled holes in the main spar after the design had been certified by the FAA. According to engineering types this weakened the wing causing it to flex when spinning or during other maximum maneuvers. This affected the lift and incidence of the wing causing weird flight characteristics. This problem is suspected as being the main cause of the group of fatal stall spin non recoverable accidents that plagued the Tomahawk from the beginning. The Beech did not suffer this problem even though it had basically the same wing minus the lightning holes in the spar. This is the language the feds used to describe the problem.

The cabin of the Tomahawk was very large with a modern instrument panel.

The cabin of the Tomahawk was very large with a modern instrument panel.

“According to the NTSB, the Tomahawk’s wing design was modified after FAA certification tests, but was not retested. Changes included reducing the number of full wing ribs and cutting lightening holes in the main spar. The aircraft’s engineers told the NTSB that the changes made to the design resulted in a wing that was soft and flexible, allowing its shape to become distorted and possibly causing unpredictable behavior in stalls and spins. The design engineers said that the GAW-1 airfoil required a rigid structure because it was especially sensitive to airfoil shape, and that use of a flexible surface with that airfoil would make the Tomahawk wing “a new and unknown commodity in stalls and spins.”

The Beechcraft Skipper looks almost identical to the Tomahawk but is completely different, more or less.

The Beechcraft Skipper looks almost identical to the Tomahawk but is completely different, more or less.

It is also interesting that other than the stall spin accidents the Tomahawk had a better safety record than the Cessna 150/152.  The FAA also issued some ADs for the Tomahawk which mandated installing more stall strips on the leading edge of the wing to tame the stall or  spin entry. Many pilots found another use for the Tomahawk. Besides being a widely used primary trainer, it proved to be an effective budget cross-country aircraft for two persons with its spacious and comfortable cabin. Though it shares similar performance and costs of operation to the Cessna 152, the PA-38 has more shoulder room. It also has good cabin ventilation, using automotive-style air ducts. practical cruise speeds range from 90 to 110 knots. I also discovered this and would routinely take one of our Tomahawks on my weekly tour of our airports. It was a fun airplane to fly and fast enough for short cross countries for very little expense.

The Skipper has a typical Beechcraft panel with room for all needed instruments.

The Skipper has a typical Beechcraft panel with room for all needed instruments.

In today’s competitive business environment a product must meet certain sales numbers or it is discontinued, no matter how great a product it is. Neither the Skipper or the Tomahawk sold in numbers needed to keep it alive so they were discontinued. I liked the Tomahawk but  never flew the Skipper.

Specifications for Piper Tomahawk

Performance

 

Specifications for Beechcraft Skipper

Performance

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