The Piper PA 38 Tomahawk – usually just known as the Tomahawk’ – is a fairly old aircraft, having been introduced in 1978, though it first flew in 1973. Generations of pilots have learned to fly on this two-seater single-engined aircraft, for it was designed as a trainer, which is mainly used for it.
When it comes to the Tomahawk, I have to admit to being a little bit biased! This is the airplane I learned to fly many years ago. Like many others, I had a kind of love-hate relationship with it, often referring to it as the ‘traumahawk,’ as many pilots still do. More about the reasons for that later.
It’s enough to say that I look back on my Tomahawk flying days with a certain amount of nostalgia, and I think I learned a lot from flying it. But let’s start by taking a look at its history.
History of the Tomahawk
In 1937, William T. Piper purchased Taylor Brothers Aircraft Manufacturing Company and changed its name to Piper Aircraft. The new company started production with its E-2 Cub. But next came the well-known and popular Piper J-3 Cub, which many pilots remember with fondness. Some of these are still flying today.
After World War II, Piper’s sales declined, but the company continued developing its range of aircraft. But when the PA-38-112 Tomahawk made its debut in 1978, it was one of the most affordable aircraft and grew in popularity. It is no longer manufactured but is still used today by several flying schools and a few private owners.
Piper Tomahawk Specifications
- Engine: Lycoming 0-235-L2C
- Horsepower: 112 hp
- Propeller: Sensenich 72-inch fixed pitch 2-blade
- Length: 23 feet 1.25 inches
- Height: 9 feet 1 inch
- Wingspan: 34 feet
- Wing Area: 124.7 square feet
- Wing Loading: 13.39 pounds/square foot
- Power Loading: 14.9 pounds/horsepower
- Seats: 2
- Empty Weight: 1,128 pounds
- Maximum Gross Weight: 1,670 pounds
- Useful Load: 542 pounds
- Baggage Capacity: 100 pounds
- Fuel Capacity: 30 gallons
- Takeoff Distance Ground Roll: 820 feet
- Takeoff Over 50 ft. Obstacle: 1,460 feet
- Rate of Climb, Sea Level: 718 feet per minute
- Top Speed: 126 miles per hour
- Cruise Speed: 115 miles per hour
- Stall Speed: 56.5 mph
- Fuel Consumption: 6.5 gallons per hour at 75% power
- Range: 539 miles
- Service Ceiling: 13,000 feet
- Landing Ground Roll: 635 feet
- Landing Over 50 ft. Obstacle: 1,544 feet
- Demonstrated Crosswind Component: 15 kts
Piper Tomahawk Prices
The only tomahawks available today will be secondhand ones. The aircraft only had a five-year production run, from 1978 to 1982, although as many as 2,500 aircraft rolled off the production line during that time. It was affordable when produced and remains so to this day, although prices increase with the model year, as might be expected.
Prices generally range from about $25,000 to approximately $33,000. Unlike for some old aircraft, parts are still available at fairly reasonable prices – more about this later. Annuals are also fairly cheap, at around $800. The Tomahawk II, the later model, is the preferred variant when searching for a secondhand Piper Tomahawk.
The Tomahawk IIs are also harder to find than the original Tomahawks because, in addition to their higher demand, fewer than 500 of them were produced. They are also, not surprisingly, more expensive.
Performance and Handling
Although the Tomahawk is not a difficult aircraft to fly, it does frighten a lot of low-hours students. It is renowned for its fairly dramatic stall characteristics, often dropping a wing in the stall.
I still remember this happening when I was a fairly new student pilot, and I literally shook with fright for quite a while afterward! This is the reason for the aircraft’s nickname of ‘traumahawk’.
However, the stall characteristics are intentional. In a survey of flight instructors, many said they wanted an aircraft exhibiting definite stall characteristics and could even go into a spin.
This was so that they could teach these maneuvers to their students. They wanted to be able to easily demonstrate spins, and – fortunately, or unfortunately – the Tomahawk delivers on this aspect as well.
As already mentioned, the Tomahawk also tends to drop a wing when it is in a stall. And if you perhaps add a little yaw, or mishandle the ailerons, elevator, or rudder, a spin is liable to develop. In aircraft such as the Cessna 152, the stall was so gentle that students did not really learn how to recover from an aggressive stall.
And it was almost impossible to spin it. But when the Tomahawk goes into a stall, it is designed so that the pilot must go through the entire textbook stall recovery procedure to get out of it. There are no shortcuts, and the plane is not built with self-recovery tendencies.
The merits and dangers of the Tomahawk’s stall/spin characteristics are its most debated attributes. Although some say that the accident rate of the Tomahawk is no higher than that of the Cessna 150/152 series, the number of stall/spin accidents is far higher, as might be expected.
Other Handling Features
The Tomahawk is also sometimes criticized for its relatively heavy handling characteristics. However, again that can be an advantage, as it can be an excellent stepping stone for a pilot who is working their way up to larger aircraft. But it does mean that proper training and current skills are necessary if a pilot is to fly the Tomahawk safely.
The Tomahawk II
The 1981 and 1982 models were designated as the Tomahawk II. They incorporated improved cabin heating and windshield defroster performance, an improved elevator trim system, improved engine thrust vector, better cockpit soundproofing, and larger wheels and tires for greater propeller ground clearance and improved performance on grass and dirt runways, among other enhancements.
These all made the aircraft easier to fly and more comfortable.It is preferred by most pilots.
Maintenance, Modifications, and Upgrades
Despite being a fairly old aircraft, maintenance manuals are still available on various websites. However, they are not always that easy to find.
Modifications and Upgrades
There are not many variations on the original design. However, as already mentioned, in 1981, Piper released the Tomahawk II. This was in response to a large number of airworthiness directives and service bulletins that had been issued.
Indeed, there were more than 36 airworthiness directives issued for the Tomahawk before this time.
The newly revised aircraft extended production for a while, but with the aviation industry slump in the early 1980s, Piper decided to suspend production altogether. The Tomahawk’s five-year production run came to a close with just under 2,500 planes produced.
Of those 2,500 aircraft, the vast majority are the original version, with only a few hundred of the updated Tomahawk II having been produced.
However, during those final two years of production, Piper made multiple modifications, enhancements, and improvements to the Tomahawk design in order to produce the Tomahawk II.
As explained above, the revamped aircraft’s design featured things like improved cabin heating and better soundproofing. The defrosting windshield performance also improved, as did the elevator trim system.
Airframe longevity was also considered and enhanced, thanks to the use of zinc-chromate anti-corrosion-treated airframes. The final upgrade was larger wheels and tires.
Where to Find Replacement Parts
Replacement parts for the Tomahawk are still relatively easy to find for such an old aircraft. The following companies all sell a large number of parts…
Knots2U, Burlington, WI53105
Aircraft Service and Speciality Company, various locations across the US
Sterling Aviation Technologies, Goodyear, AZ85338 – Claim to be Tomahawk specialists, stating on their website: “Our passion is the Piper Tomahawk”.
There are also a large number of parts available on eBay.
The main problems, as already explained above in some detail, are the stall/spin characteristics. Also, as discussed, correct training rectifies this as an issue. Nevertheless, it has been the reason for many controversies and numerous criticisms of the ‘traumahawk’ as a training aircraft.
Other than this, the aircraft seems to have few problems or major vices. Indeed, many pilots are very fond of Tomahawks. After all, they don’t have to stall or spin them every day and can usually avoid having to do so. Several people, like me, have learned to fly on them, and they tend to be lifelong fans.
AOPA Insurance Services estimates the average cost of a Piper Tomahawk flown by a low-time pilot will cost $1,000 to $1,500 per year to insure.
However, it should be noted that Piper Tomahawk insurance, like all airplane insurance, is broken down into two specific parts. The first is Liability Coverage, which is standard on every aircraft insurance policy, and the second is optional hull coverage, which covers damage to the aircraft itself.
Taking this into account, one source gave the following estimates…
As of February 2020, there were eight carriers quoting Piper Tomahawk insurance in the U.S. When considering qualified pilots with at least a private license, with 300 total hours and 25 hours in the make/model, the following figures were quoted…
For an annual policy with $1,000,000 in liability-only coverage.
Premium range for qualified pilots: $225-$275 per year.
Premium range for less than qualified pilots (low-time/etc): $325-$530 per year.
For an annual policy with $1,000,000 in liability coverage and $25,000 in hull coverage
Premium range for qualified pilots: $560-$740 per year.
Premium range for less than qualified pilots (low-time/etc): $850-$1,100 per year.
However, individual quotes may differ from the above, depending on the pilot’s experience and the aircraft’s details and age.
As explained above, the only Tomahawks available now are secondhand ones, as no new ones have been produced since the 1980s. This means that the resale value is likely to be very little different from what you originally paid for your Tomahawk.
As we said earlier, prices generally range from about $25,000 to approximately $33,000, which should be about the same when it comes to resale. Of course, the Tomahawk II will be at the higher end of this range.
Owner and Pilot Reviews
Opinions of the Tomahawk vary to a large extent, as has been explained. Here are a few examples.
The Flight Instructor
Rod Machado, Pilot and Flight Instructor, has been quoted as follows…
“It was designed by a committee in the sense that Piper began asking flight instructors what they would like to see in a training airplane. Ta-dah! A Tomahawk. This turned out to be one of the more peculiar training airplanes Piper invented. With its highly responsive T-tail, you could easily over-rotate on takeoff or landing and damage the empennage.
We had that happen at our flight school, and one little bump on the runway during landing and the entire empennage had to be reworked. When the airplane first appeared on the market I tried to spin one.
Its nose pitched up and looked like it was going to flat spin. Piper fixed this tendency, but I never spun one again. Perhaps the airplane got a bad rap but you certainly couldn’t say it was a hardy trainer like the Cessna 150 or the Cherokee 140/151.”
Another Instructor’s Opinion
“I like the Tomahawk better than the 152. Tomahawk is more comfortable (wider cabin) and carries more fuel, and I think the Tomahawk is easier to land than the 152 (wide gear). Tomahawk was slightly faster but requires a bit more runway than the 152. Excellent points for a trainer.
I could do four or five lessons in the Tomahawk before refueling. The 150/152, I had to refuel pretty much every other lesson. And I would much rather sit in a Tomahawk for 8 hours than a 152 … I think they are great airplanes; I have over 400 hrs of instruction time in them.“
A Pilot’s Opinion
“I fly my friend’s Tommy. I have over 260 hours in it and I like it. Generous cockpit, not cramped. Lots of legroom for the passenger… and you can see over the instrument panel, unlike many Cessnas. My only complaint is that prop hangs kind of low if you like grass fields, which I do. You won’t go wrong if the price is right.”
My Own Opinion
As I’ve said, I learned to fly on the Tomahawk. As I’ve already stated, I found it frightening when I first started training in it. Indeed, when we started doing stall training, I found it positively terrifying! But I gradually became used to it, and I began to like it. After I got my PPL, I still flew it for a while.
I never stalled it, and in regular flight, it had no real vices as far as I could tell. I liked the fact it was a low-wing plane, and when I began to fly the Cessna 152 much, later on, I really didn’t like its high wings, which made visibility in turns so difficult. So, on the whole, I am a fan of Tomahawk.
The Tomahawk is most often compared with the Cessna 150 or 152 since both of these are two-seater aircraft primarily used for training. Yet the Cessna is rather different.
It is a high-wing aircraft, which means visibility will be good on the cruise, but poor in turns, the complete opposite of the Tomahawk, in which the low wing obstructs visibility all the time except in turns.
Perhaps it is better to compare the Tomahawk with the Grumman AA5 or the Piper Cherokee or Piper Warrior. All of these are low-wing aircraft and fairly similar in-flight characteristics to the Tomahawk. Indeed, many pilots who learn to fly the Tomahawk later convert on to these types without much difficulty.
Clubs You Can Join
There are a number of clubs for pilots and fans of the Piper Tomahawk…
The Piper Flyers Association offers technical support, member online forums, gatherings, and a regular magazine. A large part of this seems to be for the Tomahawk.
There is a Piper Tomahawk Owners Facebook Group
There is an International Piper Tomahawk Club on the photography website ‘Flickr’
There are also a number of regional and local clubs which can be found online. And there are group-owned Tomahawks, providing an easy and inexpensive entry into aircraft ownership.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What is the Tomahawk like to fly, for an inexperienced pilot? I’ve heard it can be quite difficult.
Answer: As explained in some detail above, you do need training in order to fly a Tomahawk safely, mainly due to its stall and spin characteristics. This is the main reason for its nickname of ‘traumahawk’. But apart from this, it is an easy aircraft to fly.
There is really no need to be apprehensive about it, though it does need to be treated with respect.
Question: I have a choice between learning on a Tomahawk or a Cessna 152 at my local flying club. Which would you recommend?
Answer: The Tomahawk is a low-wing aircraft, so has poor visibility in the cruise, but it is easy to see out in turns. The Cessna 152, on the other hand, has a high wing, so provides excellent visibility in the cruise, but is poor in turns.
The Tomahawk has a definite and quite dramatic stall, often with a wing drop. The Cessna 152, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to stall and recovers almost by itself. But to be honest, you can learn on either; it makes little difference. I would suggest taking a trial lesson in each, and seeing which you prefer.
Question: Is it still possible to buy a Piper Tomahawk?
Answer: You cannot buy a new one, as it is no longer in production. Second-hand ones are still available, although they may be hard to find. If at all possible, buy a Tomahawk II, the later model, as it has some improvements and modifications which definitely make it better to fly than the original version.
Despite being an old design and having received some bad press over the years, the Piper Tomahawk is still an excellent aircraft, both for training and private flying. Although some people do not like it, the type has its fans, with good reason.
If you get a chance to fly one, do try it. You may well join the many people who have made friends with the Tomahawk and even become proud owners of one of them.