The Tomahawk was Piper's attempt at creating an affordable two-place trainer. Before designing the aircraft, Piper widely surveyed flight instructors for their input into the design. Instructors requested a more spinnable aircraft for training purposes, since other two-place trainers such as the Cessna 150 or Cessna 152 were designed to spontaneously fly out of a spin. The Tomahawk's NASA GA(W)-1 Whitcomb airfoil addresses this requirement by requiring specific pilot input in recovering from spins, thus allowing pilots to develop proficiency in dealing with spin recovery.
Another characteristic of the Piper Tomahawk that favors its suitability as a primary trainer is that the flight control forces mimic those of a much heavier aircraft. As a result, student pilots that learn to fly in a Tomahawk transition much more successfully to larger aircraft, hence the popularity of the Tomahawk with U.S. Air Force flying clubs.
The Tomahawk was introduced in 1977 as a 1978 model. The aircraft was in continuous production until 1982 when production was completed, with 2,484 aircraft built.
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, 100% airframe zirconium anti-corrosion treatment, better cockpit soundproofing, larger 6" wheels and tires for greater propeller ground clearance and improved performance on grass and dirt runways, among other enhancements.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Air Safety Foundation, which published a Safety Highlight report on the Piper Tomahawk, the Piper Tomahawk has a one-third lower accident rate per flying hour than the comparable Cessna 150/152 series of two-place benchmark trainers. However, the Tomahawk has a higher rate of fatal spin accidents per flying hour. The NTSB estimated that the Tomahawk's stall/spin accident rate was three to five times that of the Cessna 150/152.
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."
Airworthiness Directive 83-14-08 issued in September 1983 mandated an additional pair of stall strips to be added to the inboard leading edge of the PA-38 wing to "standardize and improve the stall characteristics".
Because of its stall and spin characteristics, the PA-38 earned the nickname "Traumahawk" from some pilots and instructors.
Besides being a widely used primary trainer, it is also 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. Common cruise speeds range from 90 to 110 knots (167 to 204 km/h).
Specifications (PA-38-112 Tomahawk)
Published - July 2009
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