by Bruce Menzies

There was a time when almost all light airplanes were “tail-draggers.” Tricycle-gear airplanes were rare, mainly because tail-draggers generally were better at dealing with the unpaved and grass runways at most regional airports. This common kinship amongst light aircraft continued into the early 50s, when Beech Bonanza and Navions came on the scene (just to pick two). In the 1940s, the Piper Aircraft Corporation was making planes like the Cub, still utilizing fabric stretched over a wood or metal frame. Over in Wichita, Cessna and Beech were just beginning their transition to all metal frames with tricycle gears. (I wonder if that produced sweat on the necks of Piper engineers.) Yet, the Piper Tri-Pacer was developed ahead of many others.

To help introduce more pilots to easier, safer flying, Piper introduced the Tri-Pacer with a nose-wheel instead of the tail-wheel landing gear. Sales sky rocketed as the airplane became “brain-dead simple” to take off and land. Due to the near-tripod appearance of the nose-wheel installation it was sometimes called the “Flying Milk Stool.”

Humble in appearance, intent, and execution, the Tri-Pacers were the last steel-tube fuselage, fabric covered Pipers, and with an exception or two, the last to evolve directly from the Cub.

The Tri-Pacer is one of the few airplanes that has a right door for the front seat and a left door for the rear seat. The upside to that is the rear passengers have their own door. The downside is the pilot has to be in before the front passenger. Fortunately, boarding through either door is fairly simple.

Once inside the smallish size of the cockpit is exaggerated by a window that is smaller than on modern aircraft. For someone coming out of a four-place Cessna, for example, the cabin is going to feel dark and claustrophobic. Fortunately, that feeling disappears in minutes. And in spite of its stubby appearance, there are many pilots who speak fondly of these sturdy little birds.

While doing research for this article I found an interesting tidbit: seems back in 1962, the first manager of the Walton’s “Five and Dime” store in Arkansas, was flying a Piper Tri-Pacer with store owner Sam Walton to Fort Smith, Arkansas. The manager suggested to Sam the new store Sam was building should have a short name which would require fewer letters on the front of each store and save money. It was in that Piper where the name “Wal-Mart” was coined. The rest is history.

Senior Aviation

The Tri-Pacer: Piper’s “Flying Milk Stool”

Click for larger image. Read more about Piper's Tri-Pacer

Back in the day, Dad, right, and Rev. Bert Webb, ready their Tri-Pacer for flight to a church meeting.

The Piper Tri-Pacers weren’t designed to win any beauty contests; they were designed to carry four people through the sky from point A to point B, and they do just that very well.

In his biography, Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn, page 286, Jimmy Stewart gives the following account of ending his days of flying: “I had to give up flying, and that was a huge disappointment because I loved flying just about more than anything. I loved being at the Piper Cub, which I used to own. I could go out there and take off in my little plane, fly up over the mountains, land on the tiny strips ranchers had laid down for me. But my hearing go so bad that I couldn’t understand anything the tower was communicating to me. They got kind of tired of having to keep repeating themselves, and I got tired of having to ask them to repeat things. So I had to give it up…after forty-five years.”

Read more about Jimmy Stewart Click here to see a larger image.

This page is dedicated to my father, Major Homer Menzies (1920–2007) USAF Retired.

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