Short Wing Cutey
Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, circa 1972

Here's an example of a super early pirep from yours truly. Around 1972. In those days magazines had very few pages alotted for color. The big ones had four pages in a middle series of pages and that was it. If you look through some of the other Airbum pireps you'll see photos that you'd kill for them to be color, but they aren't because those pix fell on pages other than the middle form. They are usually conversions of color slides to black and white and they suffered in the process. In the case of the little Clipper, I probably shot it in both black and white AND color, a quaint way of doing things in today's digital age. Anyway, read on for some 35-year-old- prose from a 30-year-old-writer. Wow! Was I ever that young?

It looks like everybody's model airplane. Everytime I see a Piper Clipper or Pacer fall out of the sky and make its stiff-legged way down the runway, I half expect to see a great big kid appear from nowhere, pick the airplane up, and wind the rubber band in preparation for its next flight. Not too big, not too small, the lines and proportions seem to fit together in a very comfortable way, producing an airplane that looks so right, so terribly ordinary, that the feeling it gives is usually an extreme combination of apathy and quiet excitement.

Chronologically speaking, the Clipper falls between the Vagabond (what a neat name for a Sunday pilot's airplane) and the Pacer. In the true Piper tradition of design-stretch-redesign-add-subtract-shrink-modify, the Clipper owes most of its lines to the Vagabond and most of its imagination to the J-3. It was built for one short year, 1949, after which it received a 125-hp Lycoming in place of its 115-hp 0-235, its little control sticks were replaced by wheels, and it was renamed Pacer. But it was still a Clipper (or was it a Vagabond) . When the gear Vs were turned around and a nosewheel added, the model airplane look disappeared, and the Clipper/Pacer gave birth to a bastard child, the Tri-Pacer.

Clipper Air Rear
The quick clue this isn't a Pacer is that is has no flaps, even though it has the rear, left door.
Bob Cacchio of Mendum, New Jersey, apparently had this same it's-just-the-right-size feeling I have because the care and cash he has put into his Clipper have produced an outstanding example of a not-quite-classic airplane. Cacchio bought 92H in 1966 and proceeded to strip, clean, and refurbish. Almost everything looks new, from the fabric to the black pleated Naugahyde interior. Cacchio even went so far as to design and build his own instrument panel covers. The work involved is obvious, so it was understandable that Bob was a little apprehensive about letting a complete stranger play with his toy. I promised not to break it, but I'm not sure he was convinced.

With a span under 30 feet and a length of 20 feet, the mileage logged doing a preflight is mighty small. Coincidentally, the wing panels are exactly the same (except for attach points) as a Clipped Cub. When a Cub is clipped for aerobatics, one bay, 40½ inches, is removed from the inboard end of the wing, which makes the ailerons nearly full span. The Clipper has these long ailerons. Which came first, the Clipped Cub or the Clipper (I wonder if the name is significant) ?

The wings carry their primary loads through aluminum spars and beefy struts, but the air loads are carried through the fabric into built-up aluminum ribs. A popular conversion is replacing the fabric with light gauge aluminum. There is an STC for this conversion and helps eliminate that awful ache in the budget every seven years or so. (Ed note: you'd never do that today.)

After a short walk-around (well, it's a short airplane!), Cacchio and I had a little powwow as to the best method to check me out, since only the left stick was installed. We didn't feel that his kibitzing from the right seat would do much good, so I would ride shotgun and visually follow him through one trip around the pattern. I wanted to see how the airplane felt with weight in the back seat, so I asked if we could take my friend along. Cacchio readily agreed, but he almost swallowed his gum when John Mead, my portable ballast, darkened the sky. John weighs in at 270 pounds, bone dry! The back seat of a Clipper/Pacer is a typical 1940s Piper afterthought, but John said he was "fairly" comfortable, although I noticed his voice sounded squeezed.

Our first takeoff was at max gross, thanks to our grinning sand bag in the rear. It was cold out, which undoubtedly was a large factor in the way the little PA-16 got off the ground and climbed. Cacchio said that if it were a hot day, he couldn't fly it at gross. He says it's a darned good two-place airplane, but those tiny wing panels have the makings of some hairy experiences if you load them down on hot days.

When I took over the driver's seat, I was immediately taken by the obvious family resemblance of the Clipper and the TriPacer. The fat, flat starter button is under the left seat, the same tubing comes out of the wing root and disappears into the panel top, and the visibility is the same as trying to fly a 6-foot length of culvert pipe from the inside. The center of the wing root is almost eye level, and the leading edge juts a foot or more in front of you. Visibility ahead is fine, even in a three-point position, but that's about it.

Clipper Panel
The Clipper's panel shows that Piper was working toward building airplanes that held enough stuff to be practical for longer cross countries. The Pacer/TriPacer would benefit from the one-year experiment that the Clipper represented.

The stubby tail makes itself felt in the quick rudder response on the ground. It's a long way from being sensitive, but I noticed that on takeoff I could feel the rudder and tailwheel nibbling through the rudder bar. It takes very little pressure to keep it headed straight; it wanted to react to the weight of my feet resting on the pedals.

As with the TriPacer, it's best to go charging down the pavement until a particular speed is reached, and forcibly yank the machine off the ground. While the tail is being lifted, directional control is simple, and when 65 mph shows up on the gauge, you pull. It will fly itself off, but the push-then-pull method gives it plenty of margin and makes sure the bird won't decide it really didn't want to fly after all. (Ed Note from 2007: Gheeze was I young and stupid!! I’d do just the opposite today.)

With full tanks, and just the two of us aboard, the takeoff roll was noticeably shorter, and climb-out was faster. The VSI showed an overly optimistic 1,000 fpm, so I timed it and came out with about 750 fpm. Holding 85 mph, the nose was so high that the lack of visibility became annoying, what with the wings killing off so much sunlight. I found a 90mph attitude to be much more comfortable; the climb didn't suffer much, and I could look around a lot better.

Once at altitude, I found the long span ailerons to be very enjoyable. The stick forces are fairly light and the roll rate faster than most pasture puddle-jumpers. I expected a lot more adverse yaw out of those big ailerons and the short tail, but there was very little. Actually, it's hard to check for yaw because the Clipper has the same bungee connection between rudder and aileron that the TriPacer is famous/infamous for. Personally, I hate those bungees, but they make the airplane very easy to fly on cross-countries.

Clipper Inside Air
Although very similar to the Pacer, the Clipper uses sticks instead of wheels and has only 115 hp, so it's marginal as a four-seater.

Because of the higher-than-average wing loading, penetration in turbulence is very good. It doesn't ride over the bumps, it kind of chops through them, smoothing the ride as it goes. You're thundering along at 110 to 115 mph so it makes a good Saturday morning cross-country mount, providing you, your baggage, or your mother-in-law doesn't weigh too much.

The stalls are typical Piper. In a glide, I never did get it to break, no matter how hard I horsed it back. The stick would come back and the airplane would just mush forward, not really flying, not really stalled. With power, I had to suck it into a really tight climbing turn to get it to break, and then it rolled level and started mushing again. The stall is so docile, it could almost be considered dangerous, if you figure that the airplane can be above stall, showing no indications or buffeting, and be dropping like crazy. In slow speed glides, the VSI drops toward a crowbarlike minus 2,000 fpm. It's difficult to get it to really stall, but there's no problem at all in getting it to fall like a soggy bean bag.

While entering the pattern, the visibility, or rather the lack of same, became obvious. I could feel 727s and Bonanzas bearing down on me from every angle, and I was constantly lifting a wing, or dropping the nose, to ease my cautious curiosity. I just knew I was going to get run down. I made it to downwind without a midair (obviously) and set up an 80-mph glide. The nose attitude required to maintain 80 mph is really amazing. The nose was so high that I felt as if I were lurching along in a three-point attitude. I visualized uslooking like an F4U on a carrier approach, hook out, looking for number three wire.

It's imperative that the recommended 80 mph be held, because if even 5 mph is lost, the sink rate goes up rapidly. I held exactly 80 mph, and the descent was a Cherokee-like 500 to 700 fpm. On Cacchio's advice, I carried a little power until I was just about ready to flare. At no time on final did I have any feeling that the little fabric flivver was going to fall out from under me, but as I started to flare, the runway seem to suddenly jump up at us, and I had to rotate quickly to get a three-point attitude before I ricocheted off the pavement. It was more than a little surprising because everything looked normal until the last 10 feet when it practically fell out of the air. As the nose comes up, and the forward speed diminishes just a little, the rate of sink skyrockets, so it might be advisable to break the glide a little lower or carry power. (Ed Note: I don’t remember this drama in later Clipper flights, so I probably just caught some down moving air at the last moment and didn’t realize it. I was sooo young!)

Once on the ground, the Clipper is there to stay. A dump truck has more tendency to float, so the ground contact is solid, with good directional control from both the rudder and the tailwheel. I had no trouble at all, but I'd bet a month's pay that if you put this little dude on the deck crossways, it would keep you busy.

In all honesty, I have to say that the PA-16 Clipper is not the most exciting piece of machinery I've ever kicked around, but it does have a kind of homey charm that makes it fun to fly. The Clipper seems to be in the middle. It's a good cross-country bird, but not a 200-mph scorcher. It isn't really a four-place, but it's more than a two-place. It's not expensive, but its $2,500 to $3,000 price keeps it from being the lowest priced plane around (Ed Note: figure $25K in 2007. I should have bought a dozen or so. ).

I would say that the Piper Clipper is such a wonderfully ordinary air machine that it should do a good job of satisfying the needs of the mass of American airmen. In short, it's a great little dream machine for the weekend dreamer. BD