Who knew that the designer of the PA-28 was born in the 19th century and a friend of Orville Wright?
Fred Weick — who? From barnstormer to PA-28 designer; a real pioneer
Few people realise that the designer of the ubiquitous Piper PA-28 Cherokee was a true pioneer. Fred Weick was a barnstormer, who then got involved in ground-breaking research into propellers, wind tunnel design and low-drag engine cowlings, before designing an un-spinnable light aircraft, and fitting it with the first modern nosewheel undercarriage. He went on to develop the first purposebuilt crop duster, before being invited by Piper to design the most successful aircraft in its history. He even helped to design the factory in which they were built!
Born in Illinois in 1899, his passion for aviation was inspired when he was twelve years old, when he saw aircraft built by pioneering American aviators such as the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss flying at a nearby airfield. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois and, in 1922, joined the fledgling US Air Mail Service. A year later, he joined the Yackey Aircraft Company, allegedly a budding manufacturer but largely a barnstorming operation, where he worked on everything from refuelling and helping maintain the aeroplanes, to selling rides to passengers. Part of his payment included flying tuition and, like many of his contemporaries, Fred cut his teeth on the Curtiss JN-4D ‘Jenny’. His first solo flight came at the end of a barnstorming tour, when the company was left with one more aircraft than available pilots. Fred was simply told to take over the aircraft and follow another pilot home. Thus his first solo was also his first solo cross-country!
After adding this practical experience to his graduate studies, Fred then joined the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, DC, working on propeller research, His textbook on propeller design remains a leading work in the field even today. He worked closely with the scientists of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which he joined in 1925, helping to design their wind tunnel for testing full-scale propellers, and he also explored the interaction between propellers and the generally uncowled radial aircraft engines of the period. This research culminated in the ‘NACA cowling’ which surrounded the engine, both reducing drag and enhancing cooling.
Among the first applications of the new cowling was the Travel Air Type-r ‘Mystery Ship’ of 1929. Produced in Wichita, Kansas by a company established by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman, the aim was to prove that a civilian aircraft could out-fly the military. Weick watched with delight as the aircraft made its debut in the top air race of its day, the Thompson Trophy. It handsomely beat both US Army and Navy fighters, even despite its pilot Doug Davis accidently clipping a pylon and having to fly a 360-degree turn on his way to victory.
Weick also initiated research to reduce accidents caused by stalling and spinning. This led to his being asked to create an all-new light aircraft in 1936 for the Engineering and Research Corporation, ERCO. The Ercoupe was designed to give reduced elevator efficiency at high angles of attack to prevent stalling, and its control yoke combined the rudder and aileron controls. Two-seat, all-metal, and low-wing, powered by a Continental flat-four engine, and featuring a then-revolutionary steerable nosewheel undercarriage, the Ercoupe was the first light aircraft to be certified as spin-proof. It is said that none has ever been lost in stall-spin accidents. The design still looks contemporary today and about half of the 6,000 Ercoupes built are still flying.
During WWII Weick worked with ERCO to develop machine tools and riveting equipment, and then joined Texas A&M University, where he began work on creating an aircraft purpose-designed for crop dusting, to be more efficient and safer than previous conversions of aeroplanes like the Piper Cub and Boeing Stearman. This then led to his being asked by Piper to create the PA-25 Pawnee.
While using a low-mounted Super Cub wing, similar tubular fuselage construction and power unit, his specialised design incorporated a safety cage protecting the pilot, while the engine mounts and location were designed to allow the engine to shear off below the aircraft in a crash. Such was the success of the Pawnee, both in terms of sales and in reducing agricultural pilot casualties, that in 1957 Piper asked Weick to join the company as its chief engineer.
Piper had already designed a highperformance, all-metal single-engined aircraft in the PA-24 Comanche, but it was expensive to produce and deemed by some to be demanding of its pilots. Weick’s target was to produce a simpler light aircraft, which would be attractive and easy to fly yet cheaper to build than the fabric-covered high-wing designs which then were the mainstay of the Piper fleet.
The original ‘Hershey Bar’ parallel chord wing of the early PA-28S was produced using identical wing ribs, significantly reducing tooling costs. Weick also put his wartime industrial experience to use, developing cheaper and simpler riveting for the airframe, and even helped design the new Vero Beach factory in Florida where the aircraft was to be built.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Cherokee, named in the Piper tradition of American Indian tribes, made its maiden flight in January 1960, and since that date almost 33,000 of the type have been built. Variants have ranged from 140 to 300 horsepower, fixed and retractable gear, and four to six seats — and the story isn’t over yet, as the design is set to remain in production for some time to come. Not bad for an aircraft created by a man who was a personal friend of Orville Wright!
Fred Weick cut his teeth on the Curtiss JN-4D ‘Jenny’
STEPHEN SLATER Stephen is CEO of the Light Aircraft Association, Vice-chair of the General Aviation Awareness Council, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years helping restore the ‘Biggles Biplane’ 1914 BE2C replica