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Piper Tomahawk versus Cessna 152

One of the challenges you’ll be presented with in your early flight training endeavours is the selection of an appropriate aircraft. Apart from the countless other crucial decisions you’ll have to make such as timing, courses, instructor or flying school – all of which we’ll talk about at some point – there will come a time when you may have to make a choice of one aircraft over another.

Although I’m offering my opinion on the Cessna 152 versus the Piper Tomahawk simply because they were the two aircraft available to me when I started flight training, and they were the two less expensive options available (at the same school) to my students once they started their elementary flight training early on in my career. You’ll likely have to make similar choices between other aircraft types offered by your flying school or airport. Over the course of my instructional career I flew several thousand hours in both types. Although my very early training was completed in a Tomahawk, I’d like to think that my own judgement isn’t clouded.

Not unlike Boeing versus Airbus or Apple versus Android, many pilots maintain a passionate preference of one type over another… often for nothing more than sentimental reasons or a bias with historical emotionally motivated roots. We tend to maintain affection with our initial training aircraft and support its place as the preferred trainer of choice regardless of what a critical analysis might suggest.

PA38 versus the C152

I would recommend the PA38 over the C152 for a range of reasons.

The PA38 was designed by Piper in response to a survey sent out to some 10,000 flying instructors in the mid 1970s. In essence, the survey participants requested everything that the Cessna 152 was not. The survey revealed a number of issues including, but not limited to; the need for an aircraft with ‘realistic’ spinning characteristics (more on this later), an aircraft heavier on the controls so it would make the transition to other touring types a little easier, a simple “in your face” fuel system, increased visibility and more cabin space.

The Tomahawk has a huge wraparound bubble canopy that provides virtually unrestricted 360 degree vision, and its small constant chord wing provides for excellent visibility both above and below the aircraft. Even in cruise the PA38 has a low nose attitude that permits excellent forward visibility. Sitting in the Cessna 152 you’re imprisoned by a confined space tiled with small, restrictive windows. When turning the C152 your lateral visibility is severely inhibited and the nose sits quite high relative to the horizon giving you a view of the engine cowl rather than the sky in front of you. In a training environment, you rely heavily on visual reference – and you’re contending with countless other machines that have the audacity to share your airspace.

Two Australian Piper PA38 Tomahawks in formation

From an instructor perspective, I always wanted my student to have good visibility when solo flying – particularly in the circuit. The lateral visibility was particularly important so the runway would remain visible when turning base. Simply put, the Cessna 152 does not come close to the Tomahawk when comparing visibility.

The Tomahawk is far more spacious and less ‘intimate’ than the 152. Apart from the positive psychological aspects of sitting inside a wide, spacious bubble canopy, there is a small partition (a few inches wide) between both seats. It houses the flaps and trim wheel – so it’s quite functional – but it also stops your backside and shoulders rubbing up alongside your passenger (or instructor) which is invariably the case in the Cessna. As an instructor in the Cessna 152, I often had to shift my body laterally so the student had sufficient room to fly uninterrupted. This certainly wasn’t the case in the Tomahawk where I could literally lounge out and enjoy the ride.

Three Cessna 152 aircraft in formation

The Tomahawk has two hinged inspection panels either side of the nose cowling that allowed students to actually check the aircraft’s engine and learn a little bit about it. In a Cessna 152 the entire cowl has to be completely removed by two people, making it a time consuming process. The 152 has a small hinged inspection panel for the oil dipstick, and for many pilots that learn to fly in the Cessna breed, that’s the only regular engine exposure they ever get.

I far prefer the Tomahawk’s cockpit. It has a true sliding throttle mounted prominently between both pilots with a single-mount friction handle that can very quickly be tightened. The Cessna has a push-pull system that doesn’t inspire the same level of confidence with an awkward twisty style of friction nut that isn’t overly intuitive to use.

The Tomahawk has an in-your-face style of fuel system that trains pilots to be more fuel-aware. Pilots can quickly and easily select between either tanks or turn the system off completely. The Cessna’s fuel control is underneath and in between both seats.

The PA38 Piper Tomahawk Instrument Panel. Fuel controls in the centre

The cabin doors on the Cessna are small meaning that boarding the beast is an acquired skill. The Tomahawk has large doors with easy over-wing access.

As silly as it sounds, the PA38 actually has a ramp presence; the C152 looks like a box kite. I completed my formation training in a Tomahawk and, even after the endorsement, I far preferred flying with an aircraft I enjoyed looking at. I never enjoyed flying alongside a shoebox.

Ventilation is better than average in the PA38. It has automobile-style vents that blow air either side of the instrument panel. Unfortunately, they only work with forward movement and the slipstream contributes little on a hot day. Fortunately, the PA38 door opens nicely so the prop wash cools the cabin down nicely on the ground. The 152 has flip-flop windows on each side of the cabin that are rather ineffective on the ground, and their big ugly wing – if good for nothing else – is like a big beach umbrella on a sunny day. Like most light aircraft, the ventilation in both aircraft leaves a lot to be desired.

In terms of handling, I prefer the Tomahawk. The survey sent to flying instructors indicated that they wanted an aircraft that handled more like larger types. I’m not sure if this is necessarily true with the Tomahawk… but it’s certainly not the case with the 152.

What the Tomahawk does offer (not totally unlike the Cessna 152) is a rationalised approach with regard to progression onto larger Piper types. I found those transitioning from the Tomahawk to the Cherokee seemed to do so more easily than the candidates moving from the 152 to the 172. I always attributed this to anecdotal evidence suggesting that the Tomahawk produced better pilots.

Performance

The PA38 has slightly better climb and cruise speeds. Endurance is roughly the same except when the C152 is fitted with long-range tanks (that, when used, basically excludes a passenger anyhow due restrictive takeoff weight). The PA38, by virtue of a big T-tail (which was a cosmetic first for its day in a trainer) delivers reduced elevator control response at low airspeeds. It’s not until about 35 knots where airflow is translated into the controls. The 152, with its lower horizontal stabiliser, achieves elevator authority quite quickly. The Tomahawk tends to loiter around the circuit about 5-knots faster than the Cessna.

The Tomahawk is certainly more of a challenge to fly than the 152. I found that rudder and balance appreciation was difficult to learn in the 152 – but it’s a skill that was derived out of necessity in the PA38. The PA38 is far easier to trim than its Cessna stable mate, but it’s harder to trim well… at least initially. The PA38 will make a better stick-and-rudder pilot.

The PA38 has a manual flap system while the Cessna has a small selector which applies power to an electric motor that turns a worm gear to a flap-actuating rod. The fowler flap system on the 152 is kind of cool and extremely effective (short field approaches are flown as slow as 55 knots compared to 62/69 in the PA38). For a trainer, though, I always preferred the student to have a feel for the flap lever (think of it as tactile feedback in a trainer)… and I liked the speed of the retraction to be at their discretion rather than limited by the speed of the motor.

Controversy

There was always a concern about the stall and spin characteristics of the Tomahawk. The old adage “be careful what you wish for” applies because an overwhelming majority of the PA38 survey respondents requested an aircraft that would stall with more authority than the 152. And they got it. You’ll hear many people talk about the stall characteristics of the PA38 like they’re referring to a demon, but it should be remembered that this was essentially a design feature to teach better pilots. Unfortunately, this led to a higher than average stall/spin accident rate that earned the PA38 a less than admirable reputation quite quickly (thus the nickname Traumahawk and Terrorhawk).

The PA38 accident rate ranged from 0.336 to 0.751 fatal stall/spin accidents per 100,000 flight hours, compared to 0.098 to 0.134 for the 150/152. Having said that, the Piper Tomahawk has a one-third lower accident rate per flying hour than the comparable Cessna 150/152 series of two-place trainers overall, suggesting that – for whatever reasons – it is the safer aircraft. These statistics (the only accurate ones I could find) don’t reflect modern day accident rates since the Tomahawk underwent some minor design modifications by way of leading edge stall strips that modified its stall characteristics and behaviour. It’s also likely that awareness training has improved since that data was published.

The wing design, the same basic section as the one on the less common Beech Skipper, was a cutting-edge airfoil – the NASA-generated GA (W)-1 – that, in part, contributes to its stalling idiosyncrasies. There was (and still is) debate as to whether the Tomahawk that was finally certified was the same machine used during stall certification tests. Some Piper test pilots said that the aircraft that rolled off the production line bore little resemblance to the aircraft that they flew during initial certification. There were allegations that the number of full wing ribs were reduced, lightening holes in the main spar were reduced and the tail had undergone redevelopment among numerous other minor design modifications. One test pilot said in a safety report, after flying a production PA38, that the aircraft was “… totally unpredictable, one never knew in which direction they would roll-off; or to what degree, as the result of a stall”. In a January 1997 interview with a Safety Board investigator, a six year Piper test pilot echoed similar sentiments by stating that “… the airplanes were very unpredictable in a stall. Each airplane did not perform stalls the same from one flight to the other”.

The FAA issued an airworthiness directive to install inboard and outboard stall strips on the leading edge of the wing to assist with the controversial controllability issues. In January 1997, a FAA Safety Board employee interviewed a former test pilot who was employed by Piper from 1973 to 1978 as their Chief Pilot. He stated that the production PA38-112 aircraft built at the Lock Haven facility were “nothing like the aircraft certified by the FAA – as far as stall characteristics are concerned.” He reported that Piper test pilots who performed post-production flight tests were “shocked at the stall characteristics observed”. He claimed that the additional stall strips did not eliminate the stall/spin defects that he observed. Read this FAA Safety Report .

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying for a second to talk you away from the Tomahawk… quite the contrary (regardless of how it might seem). I’m just rambling about its history (I’ve written another post on the trusty Tomahawk in response to criticism and I’ll post that sometime in the future). If nothing else, the PA38 has withstood the scrutiny of time. It has proven itself over and over as the preferred training platform by numerous organisations, instructors and flying schools. As far as stalls go, I always found the PA38’s stalling characteristics 100% completely and utterly predictable assuming the correct technique was applied. I found the deficiency existed in the pilot seat rather than the aircraft itself (a view supported by the USA AOPA Air Safety Foundation). It taught students a real ‘recovery’ from an incipient (or other) spin, unlike the Cessna 152 which was, in comparison, an aircraft with training wheels. The Cessna 150/152 seems to fly out of a spin with little pilot intervention… so it was essentially encouraging an unrealistic technique that may not apply in other types.

The AOPA safety foundation determined that “… in our assessment, the Tomahawk has a higher involvement in stall/spin accidents because it is unlike nearly all other light training aircraft by design.” Their statistical analysis concludes by stating, “Does this make the aircraft unsafe? We don’t believe so, but pilots must respect the aerodynamics and operational differences.”

To those that constantly criticise the Tomahawk over its reported unpredictable stalling characteristics, I suspect you’re not applying the appropriate technique. The aircraft requires – above all else – excellent balance… and sloppy handling won’t be tolerated.

The future of choice

You’ll probably find that the airport you’re training at tends to have aircraft commonality between schools – so your choice may be limited. In my day, the Cessna 152 and Tomahawk ruled the universe… but, over time that’s changed a little. Most of the local schools are pushing people into larger 4-seat tourers with semi-glass panels and modern avionics. Others are looking at profitability over “teachability” and offer quasi-GA aircraft such as the Technam (ultralight). Early model PA38’s are over 30 years old now – and they show their age. Early model Cessna 150’s – the predecessor to the C152 – are barely a few years older than my dad. Personally, I’m looking forward to the Cessna 162. So much so, I’m in the market for one if they can make it available quick enough.

In the end, no aircraft will compensate for a poor instructor, and a good teacher is probably the most critical decision you’ll have to make when learning to fly. A good instructor will manufacture an awesome pilot regardless of the tools he has to work with.

Your Thoughts?

If you have an opinion, we’d love to hear from you below.

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4 comments

  1. Ben

    Late on this one, but I love this article. The PA38 is a wonderful aircraft to fly. I find those who unironically call it the Traumahawk have usually not flown it!

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