The Piper Pacer, designated the PA-20, is a high-wing taildragger built for 4 occupants. This guide looks at its features and strengths for prospective owners.

Piper Aircraft produced 1,120 Pacers between 1950 and 1954. In average condition, a Piper Pacer PA-20 costs between $25,000 and $40,000. It can carry 36 gallons of fuel, giving it a payload capacity of 714 lbs. At 75% power, it burns 7 gph and flies at 116 knots.

As a CFII and an aircraft enthusiast, I frequently fly and teach students in taildraggers like the Pacer. I am a huge fan of its simplicity and utility.

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Background

The Piper PA-20 was based on the PA-16 Clipper which is itself a development of the venerable Piper Cub. It is a high-wing, four-person conventional landing gear airplane with a two-bladed fixed pitch prop powered by an air-cooled, 4-cylinder carbureted engine.

It doesn't get any simpler than the Pacer, except for maybe the Piper Cub from which it descended. Of course, it has a much wider cabin than the Cub, with two pilots side by side, unlike the Cub's tandem seating. But a look under the fabric, and the same welded steel tubes prove ancestry.

The PA-20 Piper was designed to have a steel tube fuselage. Two kinds of steel are used for the tubes. Chrome molybdenum steel is used in sections of the fuselage that were considered high-stress. The rest of the tubes are 1025 carbon steel.

The fuselage is 20 feet long from the tip of the propeller to the tail wheel.

Similarly, the Piper PA-20 Pacer had an aluminum frame wing. The wings consist of a pair of extruded aluminum spars, to which aluminum ribs are attached and connected with drag struts crossed with compression struts. The leading edge is constructed of aluminum sheeting, but the rest of the wing is covered with the same fabric as the fuselage.

The landing gear uses a Hydrosorb shock absorber system that pairs with shock cords and a steerable tailwheel assembly. New parts for the replacement of shocks can still be found in the OEM market that is approved by the FAA.

As for the controls, unlike its predecessors and aircraft from the same period, the Pacer uses a control yoke rather than a stick. A yoke is provided for both the left and right seats, allowing each pilot to control the yoke.

The Piper PA-20 Pacer has three doors. The main door is located in the front by the co-pilot's side. The passenger door is located in the rear on the pilot’s side. This door provides access to the baggage compartment and is located furthest aft on the co-pilot’s side.

The Pacer’s fuselage cross-section is rectangular, tapering toward the empennage without the typical rounding of the edges.

The Pacer was built between 1950 and 1954 and in that time saw six variants including the original Piper PA-20. Piper continuously upgraded the engine but little else throughout the course of the variations. The first one to enter the market came in 1950 with a 125-horsepower engine and seating for four.

The first of the variations came in 1951 with a reduction of occupancy from four to three and the possibility of a landing-gear-to-floats conversion. Piper called this the PA-20S The same year, they released the PA-20-115. The ‘115’ signified the downgrade of the original 135 engine in the 1950 model to a 115-hp engine.

Then again in 1952, they added another variant, the PA-20S-115. This took the 115 and removed a seat making it a three-seater like the earlier S model, and allowed the attachment of floats.

In 1952 they upgraded the engine to a 135-hp engine to the PA-20-135 model and soon after that introduced the PA-20S-135, the 135-hp engine on a plane that could be fitted with floats and had three seats (as opposed to the two seats and traditional landing gear equipped on the standard PA-20).

Whilst not a specific variant, all traditional landing gear models could be equipped with tundra tires. This could be done by both Piper and aftermarket companies.

The one thing they all had in common was the clipped wings. Piper had cut 3 feet from both wings from the original Piper Cub design to reduce the total wingspan by 6 feet. That placed it in a sub-category of Piper aircraft known as “Short wing Pipers”.

Production of the type was completed in 1954 and the PA-20 was replaced in production at Piper’s Vero Beach facility by the PA-28 Cherokee 140.

When it was first certified, the Pacer was included in the normal category as a four place and utility category as a two place. Subsequent variants have been placed in the same/different categories depending on use.

Specs

Specification Piper PA-20 135 Pacer
Engine 1 x Lycoming O-290-D2
Engine HP 135 HP (101 kW)
Climb rate 620 fpm (189 mpm)
Service Ceiling 15,000 ft (4572 m)
Max cruise speed 137 knots (158 mph; 254 km/h)
Range 470 nmi (541 mi; 870 km)
Fuel capacity 36 gallons (216 lbs) / 164 liters (98 kg)
Fuel burn 7.7 gph (at 75% power)
Useful Load 740 lbs (336 kg) 1949 lbs (884 kg)
Max takeoff weight 1949 lbs (884 kg)
Landing Distance 780 ft (238 m)
Length 27 ft 9 in (8.46 m)
Wingspan 32 ft 10 in (10 m)
Wing Area 147 ft² (13.7 m²)
Height 9 ft 6 in (2.9 m)

Flight Characteristics

Whilst designing the Piper PA-20, the goal was to build on what had worked for Piper Aircraft when they released the Piper Cub. The formula was a fabric-covered tubular structure taildragger, otherwise referred to as a rag-and-tube. The company was on the brink of going under and so while they needed a new model to breathe new life into the company, they didn’t have the resources to do that.

To get a new model without having to retool, they altered the design of the Cub. The result was the Piper PA-20 Pacer, which was such a popular design that when people couldn’t get a Pacer on the market, they would buy the PA-22 Tri-Pacer - the tricycle landing gear variant - and convert it back to the tailwheel format.

In total, the Piper Pacer family, which consisted of the PA-20 Pacer, the Tri-Pacer, and the Colt, sold almost 13,000 aircraft and staved off Piper’s potential corporate demise.

One of the drawbacks of a tailwheel, however, is the lack of forward visibility when operating on the ground. The high deck angle blocks pilots from seeing what's in front of them, so Piper reduced the length of the great while sipping the top of the engine cowling. It was an improvement that mitigated some of the problems.

The PA-20 Pacer’s permissible forward center of gravity is slightly behind the point that the main landing gear makes contact with the ground and almost a foot behind the wing's leading edge. Its most aft position is 24 inches aft of the wing’s leading edge.

While aerodynamics and speed are important factors in aircraft flight characteristics, the Piper Pacer and other taildraggers are significantly influenced by the Center of Gravity (CG) location. The location of the envelope and the changing location of the CG within that envelope paint a picture of what the pilot would feel in the yoke under various conditions.

This makes it feel like the aircraft pivots around the pilot, giving you the feeling that the plane is a natural extension of yourself and making the Piper PA-20 Pacer a fantastic light aircraft to fly by the seat of your pants.

Being well-balanced aerodynamically, power-off stalls are graceful. Breaking left as it should when insufficient right rudder pressure is applied. Power on stalls, are just as gentle depending on how you practice them. The Piper PA-20 Pacer is easy to put into a spin with the help of a kick of the left rudder at the cusp of a stall.

The one thing that is different and what you won’t find in its spec sheet is that the Piper PA-20 Pacer’s ailerons and rudder are rigged to alleviate the effect of its shorter wings and stubby fuselage.

Price

When it comes to the price of a Piper Pacer, the used aircraft market will offer a wide selection. Whether you plan to buy one as a fixer-upper, or one that is in mint condition will dictate what price you will pay. Unfortunately, since production ended back in 1954, you can’t buy a Pacer brand new from the factory.

An unairworthy PA-20 Pacer without an engine and ripped fabric could come for as low as $9,000. Fresh wiring and cabling, VFR instruments, new fabric, a new engine, and everything else that will get the PA 20 airworthy will cost about $40,000. That’s not including the cost of your time.

Rebuilders reckon about 800 hours would be enough to get something like this flyable.

Another option would be to get a Pacer that is in the $15,000 to $25,000 budget.

For this price, there is still some work to do before you could consider this reliable. There might be a need for an engine overhaul, and/or a prop overhaul. There are numerous STCs applicable to the PA-20 and its sister, the PA-22.

Some of these STCs will allow you to get a more powerful engine installed. Even a 180-hp turbocharged engine, which will do wonders for performance. To purchase a $15,000 Pacer and spend another $25,000 on engines and modifications to get it up to good condition

Even if you purchase a $25,000 Piper PA-20 Pacer, you will still end up spending about $40,000 after the upgrades, modifications, repairs, and overhauls. And, of course, it will cost you time.

A 1950 Pacer with 220 hours total time on the airframe with some damage came up in the fourth quarter of 2022 with an asking price of $35,000.

The next price range for the Piper PA-20 is between $40,000 and $60,000. For this price, you will be able to find a well-maintained original, if the owner is willing to part with it, or a converted PA-20/22, which is the designation for a PA-22 Tri-Pacer that has been modified to become a PA-20 Pacer.

There are not many Piper PA-20s found at that price point and in good-to-mint condition. Two original Pacers from 1952 with 135 horsepower engines came onto the market in the third quarter of 2022. The owner was asking for $48,000.

Operating Cost

Owning any aircraft - be it the PA-20 Pacer, the Tri-Pacer or any other kind of aircraft - comes with a unique cost profile over the horizon of ownership. The price you pay for the Pacer and the work you do to get it up to spec is just the first chapter in the story.

Once you take possession there are different kinds of costs that begin to accrue. Some of these costs will have to be borne out of pocket, while some of these, like depreciation, will only be felt at the end of your ownership.

To simplify your experience, it is proven that the best way to structure your cost and expenses is to break them up into two categories. The first is Direct Operating Costs, or DOCs, and Fixed Costs.

Direct Operating Cost

DOC, or Direct Operating Costs, covers everything that you will spend that is directly attributable to the use of the aircraft at the time you’re flying it. Think things like fuel. To get an idea of your DOC, you will need to have a good grasp of your fuel burn numbers.

The Pacer burns an average of 8 gph. On a VFR flight that means you need to keep 4 gallons in the tank, and with a 38-gallon capacity, you can use 34 gallons. At 8 gph, the Pacer has an approximate endurance of 4 hours.

The cost of fuel at my field averages $6.50. That translates to 8 gph x $6.50 for an hourly fuel cost of $52.00.In my experience, it's never a good idea to assume lower costs and prices when it comes to ownership costs. And when it comes to DOC, especially with fuel consumption, the best way is to fly it a few times and average out your hourly cost of fuel. Before settling on an hourly burn rate.

You also have to consider how much oil your aircraft burns. This comes from experience. Every model has a different oil burn rate and every aircraft differs from one to the next. I keep an eye on my oil burn as it is a good barometer of engine health. A survey of Pacer owners using the 135-hp engine reveals that they typically burn a quart every hour.

My mechanic charges $10 per quart, so I have to add that to my hourly cost.

With fuel and oil, I am up to $62 per hour of direct cost.

The next item is a little different. While it does not come due at the end of every hour, it accumulates. And comes at the end of a couple of years. The biggest cost lament that will come at you is the overhaul of the engine.

That’s the reason that the TBOH number is important. It tells you how long you have after you buy an aircraft before you are going to have to fork out close to $20,000 for an overhaul - depending on the engine you’re working with. They are also required to be overhauled at 1,500 hours.

If you buy a Pacer that has just been overhauled, then use what time is left as your denominator when dividing the cost of the overhaul. Let’s just assume there are 1500 hours left. That means you would need to put aside $20,000 / 1,500 hours which results in $13 per hour.

While you don’t incur this cost each time you fly, you will put this amount away so that it accumulates until the time comes that you have to spend it on a new engine. Add that $14 cost to the $62 for oil and gas, and you now have a DOC of $76 per hour.

You need to do something similar to the prop. It costs about $1000 to overhaul the Sensenich prop. The prop has to be overhauled once every two years or 2000 hours, whichever comes first.

If you think you’re only going to fly your PA-20 Pacer 600 hours a year, or 50 hours a month, then you would have to assume that you hit the two-year constraint before the 2,000-hour constraint. As such, put aside $500 a year for the prop overhaul cost and since you fly 600 hours a year, you can apportion $500 into 600 hours to result in $0.85 per hour.

You are now at $76.85 an hour in Direct Operating Costs.

Fixed Costs

If you have never flown a taildragger, it might come as a bit of a surprise that insurance premiums for taildraggers can be a little higher than their tricycle counterparts. A Tri-Pacer and a Pacer, being almost otherwise identical, will have different insurance rates. Higher for the Pacer, and lower for the Tri-Pacer.

The premium for Tri-Pacers (assuming being done by qualified pilots) is between $450 and $600 a year. The Pacer, being a tailwheel, if insured for the same amount, has a premium of between $1,400 and $1,700.

At $1700 a year as I fly 600 hours, translates to $2.83 per hour.

In the last subsection, we assumed that you would fly the Pacer 600 hours in a year. Fixed Cost occurs regardless of the amount of time flown. Just like insurance premiums. Even if you parked it all year after purchasing your policy, you still pay the full premium.

Like insurance premiums, you will have to pay to hangar or tie your aircraft down. A T-hangar could be just the thing. For example, at my local airfield, T-hangars cost $600 a month which works out to be $7,200 a year. If I fly 600 hours a month, that's $1 for every hour.

With insurance, that’s $3.83 per hour.

Added to this, I would put aside $1200 a year for incidental maintenance, or $2 per hour, making the total $5.83 an hour.

That’s about all the costs that you would incur. Putting Fixed Cost and DOC together you have $76.85 + $5.83 for a total of $82.68 per hour to operate the Piper Pacer.

Speed

When you fly a taildragger, keep in mind that the speeds that occupy the colored arcs of your ASI take on special importance. You need to have all your speeds committed to memory, and experience should give you a good correlation between RPM settings and airspeeds.

The Pacer flies brilliantly when you fly it by the numbers. Make the approach at Vso + 5, or 46 KIAS. With your nose pointed at the numbers and descending at a 3-degree glide path, a stable approach until the threshold will set you up for a smooth three-point landing.

Once you cross the threshold and you are less than twenty feet p, bring the power back to idle, and gently pull back on the yoke till you have the cowling on the horizon in a way that gives you a three-point landing, and just hold that picture as the Piper PA-20 gradually comes to a stall and touches down.

The Pacer likes touching down at the point of its wings stalling. If your airspeed is a little higher, you will get some float but it won’t be too bad since the Pacer does have short wings and is not as susceptible to ground effect as the Piper Cub or other low-wing aircraft.

Fuel Burn

The Piper PA-20 Pacer can be flown as high as 15,000 feet but loves to get around at about 6,000 feet.

Fuel burn at 75% power is 8 gallons per hour at 3000 feet. If you get it to 6,000 feet, lean it back by pulling the mixture back until the engine gets rough, then push it back in till it turns smooth again.

The original model does not come with an EGT gauge. This is something that you should add to your upgrades in the aircraft.

Reduce fuel flow by pulling back on the mixture until you see the EGT need to reach its highest point. Then lean it back till the needle retards two notches.

With this 75% power, you will now have a burn of 7.5 gallons per hour.

Ascending to 12,000 feet, you will find that you can reduce the fuel burn even more by leaning it out in the same way as described above. At this altitude, you should be burning 6.5 gallons per hour.

About THE AUTHOR

Joe Haygood

Joe Haygood

After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.

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