Little Big Twin
When most twins disappeared in the ‘80s, the Piper Seneca soldiered on. Twenty years later, it’s one of only four piston multis still in production.
Right up front, at the risk of compromising my alleged objectivity, I have to confess to a soft spot for the Piper Seneca. Back in the late ‘70s, I spent two years with a then-new Seneca II company airplane. I logged 500 hours in that twin; flying all over the U.S., Bahamas, and Canada, operating solo or with six on board, and bouncing off strips from below sea level to the highest airport in America, Leadville, Colorado, at nearly 10,000 feet MSL.
One benefit of having spent several hundred hours with the old Seneca is that I have a special appreciation for the newer ones. I won’t bore you with the long list of improvements in an airplane that looks structurally similar to its grandfather, but take my word for it; the current Seneca V is several generations removed from that first turbocharged PA-34.
For those pilots who’ve been living on the dark side of the moon for 40 years, the Seneca is essentially a Cherokee Six with retractable gear and two, 220-hp Continental engines. Piper has always been one of the most innovative manufacturers in adapting existing designs to new applications, and the Seneca was exactly that.
The then-Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, company had a deserved reputation as a strong advocate of moderately-priced, multi-engine airplanes. The bulbous Apache and Aztec of the late ‘50s evolved to the Twin Comanche and Navajo of ‘60s. Senecas came along in the ‘70s, and few would have guessed the airplane would survive the general aviation crash of the ‘80s, much less march on into the next century.
The Seneca V is one of only four remaining piston twins and a considerably more refined and functional machine than the Seneca II I used to fly. The current twin market includes only the Piper Seneca V and Seminole plus the Beech G58 Baron and the newer Diamond DA-42 Twin Star.
Over the years, the six-cylinder Continental, TSIO-360 engines have evolved from 200 to 220 hp, and they’re now intercooled and employ automatic sloped controllers to avoid overboost and maintain even power. TBO has increased to its current 1800 hours, and what was once a marginal powerplant has become envied and reliable.
Max takeoff weight has increased almost 200 pounds (a good thing since empty weight has gradually increased over 500 pounds, from 2840 to 3393 pounds), wing span has increased by two feet, and single-engine service ceiling has stepped up from 13,400 to 17,400 feet.
Well, duh! It’s not as if you wouldn’t expect some improvements in 30 years. Fact is, however, the Seneca’s very survival in a marketplace that hasn’t looked all that favorably on twins is at least a partial vindication of the airplane’s configuration and mission. (Perhaps incredibly, there were well over a dozen piston twins in production at the end of the ‘70s.)
The Seneca has managed to stay in more-or-less continuous production through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The PA34 and Malibu Mirage were the only models to survive the partial shutdown of the company in the early ‘90s.
The current Seneca remains essentially a multi-engine Saratoga. Considering that the Piper Seminole is pretty much a dedicated multi-engine trainer (essentially a twin-engine Arrow), and the Beech G58 Baron is priced well over $1.3 million, the Seneca V is virtually alone in its class. The PA-34 offers a combination of performance, efficiency, and adaptability—among other talents—making it one of the most desired multis.
Perhaps the most notable of these talents is simply the airplane’s large, comfortable cabin. Size matters, especially when you’re traveling in a machine that can’t be conveniently pulled over for a break. Airplanes, like people, tend to gain weight with age, and the Seneca is typical, but at least, the Seneca’s cabin is a pleasant constant.
While payload has shrunk as empty weight has increased, cabin size remains among the best in the industry. Cabin width is a spacious 49 inches, slightly wider than a Mirage and roughly the same dimension as the old, cabin class P-Navajo. The cabin does begin to taper toward the tail abeam the second row of seats, but there’s still enough room to load anything from a coffin to a piano to six live people.
Piper loves to tout the Seneca’s excellent quick-change cargo capability, and it’s true the PA-34 will accept a variety of loads. The reality, however, is that the airplane will most often be used to carry people rather than things. Pilots board in the conventional manner via the right wing walk and luxuriate in the front office, but passengers relegated to the rear need not feel like second-class citizens.
Boarding the aft cabin is probably easier than in any other airplane I can think of. Climbing aboard through the twin, aft left doors hardly deserves the term “climb.” You merely step over the low floor and lever yourself into one of the big seats. Separation between the conference-style second and third row of seats is generous to minimize overlapping legs. If you’re flying with no one in the opposing seat, you can put your feet up and feel like a business-class airline traveler with a luxury foot rest. There’s even a side-mounted writing table on the right side of the airplane.
You do have to make some accommodations to carry a full six-pack of people, however. (Technically, the rear bench seat can seat three, so absolute max seating is for seven.) Over the years, useful load has declined from over 1700 pounds on the Seneca II that I used to fly to more like 1400 pounds on the later Seneca V. Subtract 122 gallons worth of fuel (732 pounds), and you’re left with about 670 paying pounds.
Leave 50 gallons in the truck, and you’ll have nearly six folks-worth of payload with two hours of fuel aboard. An odd-shaped nose baggage compartment wrapped around the nose gear enclosure and a large space behind the rear seats accommodate cargo.
In apparent recognition of the fact that most buyers rarely if ever load up a full hockey team, Piper continues to offer its Seneca V with your choice of a second row right entertainment/ executive console or a sixth seat.
Whatever the payload, the Seneca V’s turbocharged Continentals allow you to lift it easily and efficiently. The airplane comes off the ground and starts uphill cleanly without hesitating to catch its breath. Initial climb is listed at 1462 fpm, but most pilots prefer a 130-knot cruise climb, sacrificing perhaps 250 fpm of ascent in exchange for improved forward visibility.
There’s little to do on the way up except admire the view and marvel at the Seneca’s simplicity. Automatic waste gates keep the power stable to the airplane’s critical altitude (19,500 feet) where the horses begin to tire. If you’re climbing to any altitude below about 16,000 feet, you can usually plan on averaging at least 1000 fpm. Sixteen minutes after liftoff from sea level should yield 16,000 feet MSL. Simple, huh?
In theory, the Seneca’s turbochargers allow cruise as high as 25,000 feet, and if you’re willing to strap on the mask and climb to the flight levels, you can see speeds near 200 knots. Realistically, Senecas spend most of their time at lower altitudes that don’t demand supplemental O2. At 11,500 feet with the engines dialed in at 75 percent, for example, you can expect an easy 180 knots on about 26 gph. That will deliver just under four hours endurance for nearly 700 nm range. For those strange people who buy fast airplanes to fly slow, 55 percent yields max range over 800 nm.
However long you elect to sit in the Seneca V, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy the experience. The airplane we tested a few years ago came standard with an Avidyne Entegra flat panel display that incorporated all flight instruments, moving map, navigation and systems readouts on two, large, 10.4-inch glass displays. Entegra offers overlays of weather uplink thru WSI Inflight and a full-time air data computer to display enroute wind vectors. The system also can be interfaced with Stormscope to survey electrical activity ahead, as well as Active-Surveillance Traffic Advisories, an active system that monitors possible traffic conflicts. TAWS information reads out on the glass panel and C-Max electronic charts offer a world-wide library of approach and enroute IFR charts. Finally, as if all that weren’t enough, the autopilot is coupled to the Entegra to make the inflight environment as convenient and effortless as possible. (Newer models have switched to the Garmin G1000.)
The Seneca V is quiet with minimal vibration and excellent ventilation (including air conditioning if your budget will allow), and the cabin is so friendly, you’ll make the trip with minimal fuss. The PA-34’s fat, untapered, high dihedral airfoil is as gentle as on any twin, past or present, the Frise ailerons impart plenty of roll rate, and both engines turn inboard to offset the critical engine problem. The combination produces a stability and gentle controllability more reminiscent of the Saratoga HP than a middle-weight multi.
At 4750 pounds gross, stall speed is a highly predictable 64 knots, so approaches are silly simple at any speed between 85 and 110 knots. The Seneca makes an excellent instrument platform, too. In the two-and-a-half years I operated “my” Seneca II, I flew it into snowstorms in Calgary, torrential rain in the Bahamas, and ice fog in Maine. The airplane forgave my transgressions and consistently delivered me from evil, no matter how poor my decisions or rusty my technique.
One approach I made to Janesville, Wisconsin, in the late ‘70s certainly demonstrated the airplane’s docile nature. I was shooting an ILS in miserable conditions. Weather was right at minimums, and I was being beat around pretty good trying to maintain the glideslope. The airplane was going to Janesville for maintenance, and one of the squawks was the left electric fuel pump. The left engine-driven pump failed about three miles out, and without help from the electric pump, so did the engine, but I was so busy just trying to hold the needles in the low level chop, I hardly had time to worry about it. I broke out over the runway, and touched down as the left prop windmilled to a stop.
Landings also fall into the “if-you-can-walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time” category. The now-electric flaps deflect to a full 40 degrees, allowing the Seneca to sneak into short strips with relative ease, and the long stroke oleo gear cushions the actual touchdown. Also, unlike the vast majority of airplanes, the Seneca can leap off the ground in slightly LESS runway than it needs to land. Both numbers are well under 2000 feet, and that may be one reason PA34s sometimes wind up working for a living on dirt or grass strips. Main gear doors only cover the top of the wheels, so there’s plenty of ground clearance with little risk of damaging a door.
In operating my Seneca out of the 2000-ft, grass strip at Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin, – now long since paved and extended – I was sometimes intimidated by the tall corn at the south end. During one takeoff on a hot, July day with the manual flaps set at the recommended full up position, the corn was approaching way too fast. I reached down, grabbed the manual flap lever, and pulled for one notch to get me into the air. Unfortunately, I pulled too hard and got two notches. The huge flaps promptly rotated the lightly-loaded Seneca’s main gear off the ground and balanced the airplane on its nosewheel. I hauled back on the yoke and cleared the corn by just a few kernels. (I won’t do that again!)
The Seneca V fills a niche that no other model can. The airplanes’ big cabin, easy loading, and good short field performance allow them to serve in a variety of missions; mail and package hauling, freight and corporate transport, charter, and as many other jobs as you can imagine.
By any measure, the Seneca V is a flexible, talented machine, simple to fly and fairly easy on maintenance (compared to other twins). Add to that good short-field performance, quick cruise, and enough creature comfort for most normal sized creatures, and you have all the ingredients that have kept Piper’s tough little Seneca in production for a surprising four decades.
Specifications & Performance – 2007 Piper PA-34-220T Seneca V
All specs and performance numbers are drawn from official sources, often the aircraft flight manual or the manufacturer’s web site. On used aircraft, common sources of information are Jane’s All-The-World’s Aircraft or Intertec’s Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest.
Engine make/model: Cont L/TSIO-360-RB
Horsepower@altitude: 220 @ SL to 18,500’
Horsepower on takeoff: 220
TBO – hours: 1800
Fuel type: 100/100LL
Propeller: Hartzell 2-blade CS
Landing gear type: Tri/Retr
Max ramp weight (lbs): 4773
Gross weight (lbs): 4750
Landing weight (lbs): 4513
Std empty weight (lbs): 3393
Useful load – std (lbs): 1380
Usable fuel – std (gal): 123
Payload – full std fuel (lbs): 648
Wingspan: 38’ 10”
Overall length: 28’ 7”
Height: 9’ 11”
Wing area (sq ft): 208.7
Wing loading (lbs/sq ft): 22.8
Power loading (lbs/hp): 10.8
Wheel size: 6.00 x 6
Seating capacity: 6
Cabin doors: 2/3
Cabin width (in): 49
Cabin height (in): 42
Cruise speed (kts): 75% 197 65% 190
Fuel Consumption (gph): 75% 26.4 65% 22.8
(Est @ .48 lbs/hp/hr sfc)
Range (nm – FL185): 55 % 819
Best rate of climb, SL (fpm): 1400
Maximum Operating Altitude (ft): 25,000
Single Engine service Ceiling (ft): 16,500
Stall – Vso (kts): 64
TO ground roll (ft): 1143
TO over 50 ft (ft): 1707
Ldg ground roll (ft): 1400
Ldg over 50 ft (ft): 2180