What Our Members Are Building/Restoring — Illinois Piper PA-20 Pacer

By Mike Crosta, EAA 725828

This piece originally ran in the September 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

It was March 2020, the pandemic was going full speed, and I found myself in the middle of an aircraft restoration with some choices that needed to be made. The aircraft was effectively torn apart, the interior was gutted, and the electrical system had been removed. There was no going back, and I found myself at a crossroads. Should I keep going or wait and see how current events would shake out? It reminded me of a famous quote by Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Quit? No way. Let’s take the fork and use it to complete this project.

In my situation, that “silver fork” was a unique gift. You see, it created time at home I wouldn’t normally have. It also increased my workforce, since my 7- and 4-year-old girls were now out of school for the remainder of the year! What dad doesn’t need free labor, especially from small ones who can crawl into tight places?

It was February 2018, when our family first met the Pacer. It had a solid frame and a beautifully done re-cover, but it couldn’t escape the inevitable effects of aging. The aircraft was completely original with a lot of its parts being 65-plus years old.

After a year of ownership, I knew it fit our mission as Pacers are a joy to fly and it could carry what we needed. Unfortunately, because of its age, it really couldn’t be trusted for longer trips, wasn’t comfortable, and lacked many safety items that I felt were necessary. It was time to finish the restoration and install modern upgrades.

Like most of us do, I started annoying my aviation family, posing every question under the sun. We started weighing options in an attempt to find that perfect balance of safety, functionality, utility and, of course, cost! Short-wing Pipers are truly amazing aircraft for their capability combined with lower cost, but because of the lower cost you don’t want to invest money into something and then be underwater. You want to create value, right? So, how do you work around that problem? In this case, it was a combination of people and help that’s too long to list, but I have to mention two in particular. I have one of the best A&P/IA mechanics in the area, Eric Dienst, EAA 454335, who provided just the right amount of guidance to allow me to learn throughout the process, and Mike Bargeman of J.A. Air Center, whose help was invaluable in so many ways.

We needed a base vision for the project. Something to wrap our heads around when decisions needed to be made. Ours was simple but effective — what would Piper do if it rebuilt the Pacer today? In other words, I wanted to keep it as close to the look and design of a 1953 PA-20 while upgrading it for safety, functionality, and utility. To accomplish this, a fresh panel was cut, and I installed a new Garmin G5, aera 660, GDL 52R data link receiver, digital engine instruments with data logging, and a completely new electrical system. This brought the aircraft up to more modern standards and increased safety. For comfort, a custom interior was created with better seat support and increased safety with enhancements like shoulder harnesses. Lastly, everything firewall forward was either cleaned, overhauled, or replaced as necessary.

The project as a whole was way more of a massive undertaking than I had ever thought it would be. Had it not been for that “silver fork” I can’t say as though it would have been completed as of the writing of this article. The coronavirus pandemic most definitely created some unique opportunities as well as challenges throughout.

We all know that in all aspects of aviation, we are consistently faced with situations where we have to do our best with a limited set of resources. We also know that our aviation group has a unique camaraderie that always comes together when work needs to be accomplished. In my opinion, when these two opposing forces face each other, it’s that camaraderie that has and will always prevail. This project, along with many others, is a reflection of that camaraderie over constraint. Had it not been for my friends in the aviation community in my area, this wouldn’t have been possible. So I say to all who played a part in this, I cannot thank you enough. For without that camaraderie this would not have been possible, and I thank you!

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