One of the largest names in aviation, Piper Aircraft, has reached the 75-year mark in its history, and is holding week-long celebrations at Oshkosh this year. The milestone was marked with a mass fly-in of Piper Cubs.
Once a leading light in US aircraft manufacturing, the company has been relegated to a more modest position in the last 25 years, but in no way does that lessen the richness of its history. Although its flagship models are now the Seminole and M-series (Matrix, Meridian, Mirage), the plants at Lock Haven and Vero Beach were once alive with Cubs, Cherokees, Arrows, Aztecs, Seminoles, Comanches and Navajos streaming out the factory doors.
Testimony to the strength of their designs is the number of Warriors, Arrows and Archers still dotting the world’s airports today, and the fact that the Piper Cub was recently voted the most influential aircraft ever built by a panel of US experts.
All of this was going on amongst a history of unstable ownership, which makes the company’s 75-year achievement all the more remarkable.
Piper was founded in 1937, when oil man William T. Piper bought the assets of Taylor Brothers Aircraft Manufacturing Company. Over the years, the brand has belonged to several companies including Bangor Punta and Lear Siegler. Ultimately, Piper Aircraft went broke in the early 1990s, but re-emerged as New Piper Aircraft in 1997.
Perhaps the most telling event in Piper’s history happened in 1972, when rain from Hurricane Agnes swelled the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, which in turn all but destroyed Piper’s Lock Haven plant. Tooling for the Comanche, Aztec and Navajo was damaged, which prompted Piper to drop the Comanche and Aztec. The company relocated to Florida.
Today, the company is owned by Brunei-based Imprimis, and is a very different entity from that which Bill Piper set-up. Whereas rival Cessna has managed to keep its C172, 182 and 206 models in the market, Piper has had to all but delete their former cash-cows (the Archer and Arrow are still built in small quantities) from the offering.
Rather than pumping out thousands of cheap, reliable aeroplanes for the masses, Piper’s big winners have proven to be the up-market corporate aircraft, six- and eight-seat speed machines that sell for eye-crossing dollars.
With the Piperjet and LSA projects recently aborted, and sales lagging well behind their competitors, Piper Aircraft needs an out-right winner to secure its future. Is the solution hidden in plain sight?
When production of most light aircraft effectively ceased in 1985 thanks to US insurance laws, Piper still had a stronger offering. In 1995, the laws were modified to reinvigorate the industry, which began the modernization of the Cherokee range. Sales dived, and have stayed largely at the bottom.
Today, the Archer TX and LX are Piper’s basic offering, but the market still embraces the Cessna range first. It could be that buyers are wary of the financial position of the company, but the fact that the Piper range doesn’t have the capability of the pre-1985 models cannot be discounted as a factor in poor sales.