Tomahawk Roll

No, the Tomahawk roll is not  reference to an Indian – native or Southwest Asian – type of bread. The Tomahawk was the name of a primary trainer designed by Piper in the 1976 -1977 to compete with Cessna’s 150/152 series of aircraft.  One of the complaints about the Cessna products were that the high wing restricted visibility and they were hard to spin.  Spin recoveries is a part of the private pilot training syllabus.

To recover from a spin in the Cessna, all the student had to do was release the controls and the airplane would fly out. This forced the instructor or student to hold the airplane in a spin which is not a habit pattern one wants to develop.

If you fully stalled the Tomahawk and let it roll left or right, the plane would enter a spin.  To recover, the pilot followed the standard spin recovery techniques – lower the nose, push opposite rudder until the rotation stops, neutralize the rudder and then ease back on the yoke to raise the nose and stop the descent.

The roll rate of the Tomahawk and its overall responsiveness also led Piper to consider an aerobatic version.  After all, Cessna marketed an aerobatic version of the 150 and 152 and Piper needed a competitor.

Piper beefed up the wing spars, reduced the span by a couple of feet to increase the roll rate, and made other modifications to one of the Tomahawk prototypes to strengthen the airframe.  For awhile, this particular prototype had the yoke replaced by a traditional stick which was quickly removed.  As Piper’s Director of Advertising and Sales Promotion, I flew the prototypes during product comparison tests and photo shoots.  Several times, I’d flown this particular airplane and spent a pleasant hour or two doing aerobatics.

Wingovers, barrel and aileron rolls were a delight.  Loops and Immelman’s were a challenge because the plan only had 125 horsepower and would run out of airspeed as you neared the top of the loop.  To complete a nice round loop, one had to dive to close to the airplane’s maximum airspeed before pulling back the yoke (or the stick).

One morning, I was bored with whatever I was doing and saw the aerobatic Tomahawk sitting on the ramp across the runway.  At that moment, one of my subordinates who was working on his private pilot’s license and was learning to recover from spins walked into my office and rather than talk about whatever business purpose, I said, “Do you want to fly the aerobatic Tomahawk?”

The yes was almost automatic so I called over to reserve the plane for noon.  What better way is there to spend a lunch hour than doing aerobatics.  When we pre-flighted the Tomahawk, I noticed that the stick had been replaced with a conventional yoke and the seat back parachutes were already in the seat.  Perfect.

One of the joys about flying out of Lock Haven, PA is that there’s no controlled airspace for miles around.  The closest is around the airport in Williamsport, PA, home of the Little League World Series and 25 miles to the east.  Once you are above the Appalachian Mountains that rise up to about 2,800 feet, you’re free to do what you want.  Just keep a sharp lookout for other airplanes.

We climbed up to 7,000 d feet and I let my co-worker do a couple of steep turns and then talked him through a wing over.  He wanted to spin the Tomahawk so we climbed up to 8.000 feet and he let the wing drop in a deep stall.  The airplane rolled over the top and entered the spin.  We both counted one turn, two turns, three turns and then he executed the proper spin recovery.  The airplane lost about a thousand feet so we climbed up and spun the airplane two more times.

I asked him if he like me to talk him through a barrel roll or an aileron roll?  To use a Texas saying, “does a bear poop in the woods?”  I described what he had to do during the roll and how to move the controls.  For a nose heavy, piston engine airplane an aileron roll is relatively simple.  Raise the nose 10 – 15 degrees above the horizon, apply full yoke along with a boot full of rudder in the direction you want to roll.  And, then as the airplane rolls inverted, take out the back pressure and apply forward “stick” to keep the nose above the horizon.  Then as the airplane passes through the inverted position and starts to come out right side up, you take out the forward pressure on the yoke.

There’s a lot of wheel movement throughout the maneuver, but it is still really simple.  If done properly, the airplane doesn’t lose altitude or change headings.

I demonstrated one to the right.  My roll wasn’t perfect because I was describing what I was doing but was acceptable.  Then I did another the other to the left before turning the controls over to my “student.”

With the nose of the Tomahawk lined up on a road to use as a reference, my student promptly applied full right aileron and rudder along with almost full back “stick.”  The airplane drunkenly rolled well out of balanced flight.  Worse, as Tomahawk approached the inverted position, the controls are reversed and my “student” never took out the back pressure.  The nose came down through horizon as we “split-S’d” out of the roll.  Unfortunately, he didn’t neutralize the aileron and we were headed straight down in a tight spiral.

We were already past the yellow line airspeed and approaching the airplane’s never to exceed speed to say nothing of having about two and a half g’s on the airplane.  Rolling pullouts put more stress on the airplane than just normally raising the nose.

I screamed at him saying “I’ve got it.”  My student froze with elbows locked and hands in a death grip on the yoke.  I yanked the throttle back to idle and slammed my fist down on his left elbow in an attempt to break the death grip on the controls.  Thankfully, my emergency procedure worked and my student let go.  I stopped the roll and eased back on the yoke to get us out of the dive.

Looking at the “g” meter, the telltale which shows the maximum g forces the plane underwent was right at 5gs, the plane’s limit.  Had we badly over-stressed the airplane, the Tomahawk could have become a write-off.  Thankfully we didn’t.

My “student” didn’t say a word on the way back to the airport.  After we shut down, the only words that came out  were “I’m sorry” which was repeated several times.  Calmly, I explained that the over use of the controls was not the problem.  Freezing on them was and could have killed us both.

The good news was that the airplane wasn’t damaged.  One of the company test pilots told me later that the “aerobatic” Tomahawk was beefed up to sustain nine g’s but they set the g meter tattle tattletale at five.  The reason they never told anyone because the company test pilots were afraid someone would get really ham handed with the airplane.

The really bad news was that one of the company test pilots flew it back down to Piper’s plant in Vero Beach.  I saw on the ramp there several times in the coming months and the stick was back in it.  When I inquired as to if I could fly it again, I was politely told that it was now a test mule and only company test pilots could fly it.

Oh well.

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