• SFC Archer TX over Sydney. (Simon Taylor Photography)
    SFC Archer TX over Sydney. (Simon Taylor Photography)

Sydney Flying College has injected some youth into its fleet with six new 2021 Piper Archer TX trainers. Steve Hitchen visited SFC to see how the latest Archer stacks up against its very popular and capable ancestors.

It's not until you fly a new Archer TX that you understand how old Australia's legacy Archer fleet really is. That much was obvious to me as I strolled out to VH-XHE parked under humid skies at Bankstown in early January. The aeroplane was gleaming-new on the outside, crisp and unscuffed on the inside and had that warming, delightful smell that comes only with new-born upholstery.

When I thought about the time-worn and weary Archers still plying Australian skies after anything up to 50 years and then seeing XHE close-up, it was like finding a sepia photograph of a grandparent that shows them young, energetic and way cooler than you thought they could ever have been.

With only eight Archer TXs in Australia, the type is in the embryonic stage of its flying career here, and finding one will prove elusive. Six of those have only recently entered service at Sydney Flying College (SFC), so I was very pleased to receive an invitation to get up to Bankstown and fly one.

What I found was not a new version of an old aeroplane, but rather a re-born airframe that is finding a new niche for itself as an advanced trainer and tourer rather than the carry-all workhorse it has traditionally been.

In context

Piper Aircraft went through some soul-searching in the mid 2000s, which resulted in the Warrior disappearing from the range and the Archer becoming the standard offer to the training market. Four new models emerged: TX, LX, DX and DLX. The TX was designed to be the primary training offering, but since then a little brother has emerged: the Pilot 100, which is an Archer by another name but with only three seats and G3X avionics rather than the G1000 NXi.

The Piper training line-up is strong, so when it came to evaluating where to spend the dollars, SFC looked at Diamond's DA40 and the Cessna C172SP, but in the end there just wasn't enough incentive to ditch the Piper brand that has served them faithfully for decades.

"It's a proven product that has stood the test of time," SFC CEO Joe Pilo told me. "We originally brought Pipers and 95% of our fleet are Pipers. To keep that standardised fleet we chose to continue on with the Piper brand.

"Piper put up the Piper 100 to us, but for the style of training we want to do, the TX has a G1000 NXi and autopilot in it and is designed for IFR flying. It has the right avionics and systems on board to allow us to do that safely."

Embarking on any bulk order of new aircraft is stressful at any time, let alone placing the largest order for Archers seen in Australia for nearly 50 years. But for SFC, the time was right for the investment, and is the beginning of a program that will modernise the fleet.

"We see this as a rejuvenation program, " Pilo said. "If we can get to a position where we can buy potentially 12-16 aircraft then we will have replaced the current fleet, but with only six at the moment it will be an addition to the fleet. Hopefully we'll be in the position in the next 5-10 years we can modernised the entire fleet.

SFC has ordered another four TXs, but at the time of writing the production slots hadn't been allocated, so Pilo and his team are in limbo when it comes to their dream of running 10 new Archers for the membership.

Off the blocks

Grade 3 instructor Tristan Chiem is SFC's avionics wizard. He’s also a career-minded instructor with an unashamed passion for aviation that is more infectious that a dose of COVID. He was charged with chaperoning me through the TX.

"The Archer TX is perfect for ab-initio training or cross-country, although on cross-country flights is when the Archer TX really comes into its own," he said as we strapped into XHE. "You can run the autopilot or fly manually when you need to; it gives you that flexibility.

"It allows the overlay of maps such as the VNC onto the Multi Function Display (MFD), which is a awesome feature to give you fantastic situational awareness, and with traffic warning you consistently feel safe."

The avionics suite was one of two areas that for me were very un-Archer-like. With twin G1000 NXi screens, a coupled GFC 700 autopilot, Terrain Awareness Warning System type B (TAWS-B), GTS 800 traffic alert system and Garmin G5 stand-by, what was laid out in front of me was more reminiscent of single-engined turbo-props or large twins.

Further foreign feeling was added by the sculptured control yokes, white-on-black overhead switch panel and a pull-to-change fuel switch designed to stop it accidentally being selected to off in flight. The seat adjustment was also smooth, easy and didn't make a squeaky song and dance about being moved.

The other area of non-familiarity was the engine: a fuel-injected Lycoming IO-360 that was a cut above the O-360s that have occupied the space under Archer cowlings since the late 1960s. However, the start procedure was very familiar, being exactly the same as most Piper Arrows, which also have injected engines.

Set throttle to open one centimetre, mixture rich, run fuel pump until fuel flow registers, mixture to ICO, crank until start and advance mixture as the engine begins to fire. It fired easily, which is what you would expect from sure-start system and magneto boosters SFC circled on the order form.

Chiem ran his practiced fingers over the avionics to make sure everything was set as desired and gave me the thumbs-up to start taxying. Being completely unfamiliar with Bankstown, I abdicated ground navigation and radio work to Chiem and followed his lead to the run-up bay for runway 11L.

We lingered in the run-up bay for much longer than I would expect of a standard Archer pre-take-off. The G1000 NXi has a checklist far more involved than TMPFISCH. That done, Bankstown Tower nonchalantly cleared us to the keys; despite the outrageous sunshine and light breeze the traffic in the circuit was surprisingly sparse.

It was on climb-out that I felt the first effects of the Archer's newness coming through my hands: the controls had a stiffness to them that I'd never felt in an Archer before. Time had imbued a certain looseness to all the Archers I'd flown before today, so this was something new, but not unpleasant.

Under Chiem's guidance I steered a course for the upthrusting high-rises of Parramatta before turning north for Hornsby. Once clear of the step, we set the GFC 700 autopilot to take us up to 2500 feet at 87 KIAS rather than a using defined rate of climb.

"That's our cruise-climb configuration: 87 knots, full power," Chiem explained. "It keeps the nose a little bit lower so you can see what's ahead of you. You get a respectable rate of climb and the engine stays nice and cool."

Not that engine cooling was ever going to be a problem. SFC had their new machines fitted with secondary oil coolers as part of a hot-weather package. They were also on the ball with specifying air conditioners, which we put to good use during the test flight.

SFC's standard teaching is to use the Flight Level Change [FLC] mode when changing levels, which holds a reference air speed and adjusts the rate of climb to maintain the set air speed.

"That minimises the risk of an autopilot-induced stall where the airspeed gets too low whilst trying to maintain a set rate of climb, which is a problem especially at higher altitudes," Chiem points out.

Coastal with traffic

It was a beach sort of day, and we couldn't resist a right turn to head for the coast. That would also give us the chance to see what the traffic alert system and TAWS-B could do for us in what is traditionally a busy sector of the Sydney basin.

We descended to 500 feet AGL and hit the beach just north of Narrabeen. The traffic system had already detected a Beaver floatplane coming south coastal, but it was the TAWS-B that was making the most noise.

"The TAWS-B compares the terrain database with the aircraft's relative position and calculates a projected closure rate to a particular piece of terrain," Chiem explained as we turned northward. "If there is a collision risk, you'll get a terrain warning. There are two levels of alert: Caution and Master. Caution level is the 'Terrain, Terrain' announcement. The Master level is the 'Pull up, Pull up' command that you hear."

At this time, the TAWS-B was satisfied with only a Caution, but as we crept closer to the 472-foot spot height near Newport it became uncomfortable about our intentions and switched into Master mode. With "Pull-up, Pull-up" filling our ears, we attempted to break the alert by turning out to sea. We had to turn through a good 45 degrees before the TAWS reverted back to Caution.

Add to that the red terrain display on the G1000 NXi and we were in no doubt there was high ground in the vicinity.

We climbed back up to 1000 feet and engaged the autopilot, cruising up past a glimmering Barrenjoey towards Box Head. All this technology was pampering an old PPL like me, but I wondered if it was diluting the ab initio training for which SFC was aiming the Archer TX.

"Part of what we teach here at SFC is the scenarios when you disconnect the autopilot and when to engage the autopilot," Chiem responded. "That covers when and how you set up the autopilot. That understanding of how you set-up the autopilot; putting it into specific modes before you engage the autopilot, is very important. Then you confirm the autopilot is doing what you want.

"Having this amount of technology on board the aeroplane is good in the sense that you might get yourself into a situation that you need the technology to get you out of it, if you use it correctly.

"What we generally do with ab initio students to have a talk about it logically; discuss with them how they can use it and when they can use it."

What should never occur with an Archer TX is confusion how to get the autopilot off (it does happen). As well as the customary red button on the peak of one yoke horn, the autopilot will disconnect if you touch the trim or the take-off/ go-around (TOGA) switch in the throttle lever. If that's not enough you can also over-ride it using the control-wheel steering (CWS) button or simply flick off the autopilot master.

One point: the TOGA in the Archer TX does nothing more than turn off the autopilot. There's no connection to the throttle as there is in large turbine aircraft and it won't command the aircraft to climb. In essence, it's just another way to disconnect the autopilot.

Cruise climb

Box Head forced a climb to 2500, so with the heading bug set to north, Chiem and I experimented with the cruise performance. The OAT was 17°C– ISO+10–and we chose to set power at 2600 RPM. That returned to us a TAS of 125 knots. The fuel flow meter revealed the Lycoming was drinking 50 lph with those settings, largely because we left the mixture at full rich. Leaning to 100°C rich of peak rationed the motor to 43 lph.

I frowned at even this. Most operators of older Archers plan for around 36 lph, so the extra fuel demanded by this new engine could only be down to the injection system.

Chiem didn't raise an eyebrow.

"That's about right," he said firmly. "We plan on a fuel consumption of 42 lph because mostly they are run below 5000 feet and fully rich, which is what the manufacturer recommends. We plan to burn that at 75% power, but at 2600 RPM you're going to be slightly above that.

"The injection system means you don't have a carburettor so there's no chance of carby icing. Also, the fuel distribution to the engine is more even, so the there aren't any huge differences between the exhaust gas temperatures."

I accepted the umpire's decision and transitioned us to the climb. Chiem dialed 4000 feet into the autopilot and issued it with a command to climb at 76 KTAS. With FLC selected, we were rewarded with a climb rate of 600 fpm, which did not upset me given that it was a pretty warm day and XHE wasn't running on empty.

Suspect steep turns

After leveling out at 4000 and cruising sleepily on the autopilot all the way to Warnervale, we turned right and positioned ourselves over Tuggerah Lake. It was time to switch off the autopilot and try some steep turns. I approached this with hubris; I had a logbook full of Archer steep turns. But as aviation will do to you, I finished the exercise somewhat chastised.

All my Archer steep turns had been done in aircraft inflicted with the control looseness that comes with time. XHE was taut and terrific, so I found myself unable to judge exactly the right back pressure on the stick. The first orbit was nothing to write home about, so I shall also not write of it here. The second pass was much better as my hands began to bed themselves into the control inputs.

I got there, but it taught me that aeroplanes with long careers behind them can handle very different from the day they were born.

And then we got lazy. With such a beautiful day afforded us and all the work done, we swanned back to Bankstown via Brooklyn Bridge and Prospect. Automation did the bulk of the work, although the old Mark I eyeballs were still employed when it came to the busy traffic zones.

But I wanted to return to the issue of teaching ab initio with an aircraft that performs best on automation, especially if the school fleet is a mix of old and new.

"We haven't had many problems with students switching between the new aircraft and the older ones," Chiem countered. "We train our student to fly on attitude, so the picture outside is reflecting what you feel and what you see. We are on the lookout for that problem, but found nothing yet.

"All the students that fly the Archer TX solo have to do an company engineering paper and a check flight before they even touch the aeroplane. We need to make sure they're competent in it."

Full stop

Had I been offered, I would have done that flight again in a milli-heartbeat! Although the Archer TX is heavier than its ancestors, never has the type carried so much capability, comfort and style. Once a private operator's bread-and-butter, the Archer is now expected to carry Piper's training load, and just as training demands have swung towards a focus on technology, so the Archer has evolved to match.

It's still a great cross-county touring machine, but now does it with a style befitting the demands of the modern day pilot.

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