The year was 1961. John F. Kennedy succeeded Dwight Eisenhower as the 35th President of the United States of America. Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space aboard Mercury-Redstone 3 and Piper Aircraft Co. introduced the world to its first low-wing single-engine airplane, the Piper Cherokee.
Karl Bergey, who led the Cherokee design team at Piper, was the special guest of the West Coast Cherokee Fly-In, which coincided with this summer’s Arlington Fly-In, held at Arlington Municipal Airport (AWO) in Washington State.
“We’re very excited!” said Wade Sullivan, chairman of the West Coast Cherokee Fly-In. “How many times do you get to talk face-to-face with the guy who designed the airplanes you grew up with and fly now?”
During the fly-in, Bergey was the guest of honor. When not lecturing about his storied career at Piper — in addition to the Cherokee he helped design the Commander 112 and 114 series — Bergey could be found sitting in the shade surrounded by Cherokee owners eager to talk about their airplanes.
Bergey, now retired from Piper, talks about the development of the Cherokee with the air of a man recalling the exploits of a favorite child.
“The Piper Cherokee was designed specifically to replace the Tri-Pacer,” Bergey began.
The Piper PA-22 Tri-Pacer was introduced in 1951. According to Jane’s Encyclopedia of Aircraft, 7,668 were built between 1951 and 1963. They sported Lycoming engines ranging from 125 to 150 horsepower. Like its predecessors, the airplane had fabric control surfaces.
The Tri-Pacer evolved from the four-place Piper Pacer, which was introduced with a tailwheel in 1950. The combination of the relatively short wings and tailwheel made the aircraft somewhat challenging in a crosswind, so Piper introduced a tricycle-gear option and the Tri-Pacer was born.
According to Bergey, the design work on the replacement design began in September 1957.
“It was felt that the Pacer was getting a little long in the tooth and not really competitive with Cessna aircraft,” he said. “Piper needed a replacement. They wanted an aircraft with better performance, and that led to the new design.
“I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to get in on the first part of the design of the Cherokee,” he continued. “We spent about three-and-a-half or four months on the preliminary design, doing the structural analysis, aerodynamics, the layout — all of that sort of thing. The following January we started hiring a couple more engineers.”
He noted that other notable members of the Cherokee design team were Fred Weick, designer of the Ercoupe, and John Thorp, designer of the T-18. “We never had more than eight (engineers) on it, but we worked very hard on development,” said Bergey.
The design team knew that the new airplane had to be more modern — that is an all-metal airplane — similar to what Cessna was producing.
Among the modern aspects of the Cherokee were the weight-saving design of the stabilator, designed by Thorp, and the fuel tanks similar to those used in Ercoupes, which formed the leading edge of the airfoil and structure of the wing, saving weight and reducing the number of parts used in construction. In addition, Fiberglass was used for non-structural complex parts, such as the wingtips and cowlings.
There was no edict to go with a low-wing design, said Bergey.
“Piper had built other low wings — the Apache and the Comanche — so low wings were in the gene pool,” he said. “We were looking for an airplane that would be simple and inexpensive and would have good performance, as well as be easy to handle and have reasonable cabin space for passengers.”
As Bergey remembers it, Piper was in a sweat to get the airplane off the drawing board and onto the production line as fast as possible. “We determined that we could get it done by January of 1961 but Pug Piper (son of Piper Aircraft Co. founder William Piper) came up with a scheme to get it done faster. He said, ‘every day you can shave off that date we will give a bonus.’ And it was a generous bonus for everyone, from the guys in the shop to the engineers — everyone involved with the airplane! Let me tell you we worked day and night and weekends and holidays. We got the type certificate on Sept. 15, three months ahead of schedule and we made money. And let me tell you, Piper is a parsimonious company, so this was unusual.”
One of the most important aspects of designing an airplane is making sure that it is sturdy enough to handle what pilots will put it through, Bergey said.
“Not all pilots read the POH,” he said with a laugh. “When you design an airplane you know that it is going to be flown by pilots who will not always follow the regulations as to how the airplane should be flown, so you have to make sure there aren’t any traps in there for them.”
One of the major traps pilots can fall into is overloading the airplane.
Because of weight limitations, some “four-place” planes can only hold two, perhaps three, adults with limited baggage, although the manufacturer touts it as a four-place airplane, Bergey noted.
“The Cherokee is not one of those,” he said. “It is a true four-place airplane.
“I have always been amazed at how much people are willing to load up that airplane,” he continued. “It troubles me a little bit … particularly up in Alaska, where they load barrels of oil and gasoline in a Cherokee Six.”
The Cherokee Six, with six seats, is a later variant of the original design. Other variants include the Cherokee Cruiser, Archer, Warrior, Cruiser, and Dakota. Today, Piper Aircraft produces just the Archer, reintroduced to the market in 2010 to help it recapture the entry-level market. Priced at around $300,000, it features the Garmin G600 avionics suite, Nexrad weather, and air conditioning as standard equipment.
Of course, with more than 32,000 PA-28 series airplanes built, there are still quite a few flying. And many of those showed up at Arlington this summer.
During the show, Bergey enjoyed walking through row after row of Pipers.
“It is nice to see them.” he said. “And it is nice to see how well kept they are and how the owners care about them.”