By S. Clayton Moore,
You, too, can fly the Ultimate Arrow. Plenty of souped-up aircraft are out there in the aviation world, but most are in the hands of private collectors. One aircraft owner in America’s heartland wants to share his treasured and distinctive airplane with the world by letting any pilot fly it.
A completely refurbished Piper Arrow III, the Ultimate Arrow, has an unusual history. It was one of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s prizes in its annual sweepstakes. Each year, AOPA completely rebuilds a unique aircraft and gives it away to a member.
It’s now in the hands of Norman Grant, a computer programmer and avid pilot who lives near Bolingbrook, Ill., where the aircraft is based at Clow International Airport. Unlike most rare aircraft, the Ultimate Arrow is available for any pilot to rent from its caretakers, A & M Aviation.
“I believe the Ultimate Arrow belongs to everybody,” Grant said. “She’s America’s plane, not just mine.”
Grant proved the Ultimate Arrow is as good as her name, In February, a spontaneous challenge led to a race between Grant and a fellow pilot in a Diamond DA40, a contemporary composite aircraft. The Diamond’s pilot was convinced that his newer, sleeker aircraft would beat the pants off Grant’s aging Arrow, but he was wrong.
A work of art
AOPA decided the Piper Arrow III was the perfect choice for its 1997 Sweepstakes, because of the aircraft’s terrific balance between power and stability. A retractable-gear aircraft with 200 horsepower, the Arrow is a little faster and sexier than the traditional Cessna, but doesn’t have quite enough power to get a novice pilot into too much trouble.
It took a few months, but AOPA finally came up with a 1978 Piper Arrow III with 1,750 total hours. It had only one owner, who had bought it new from Piper in its year of manufacture. The plane had been hangared in dry country, so it was in good shape even before AOPA got their hands on it. It was originally purchased for approximately $67,000.
AOPA’s efforts truly transformed the plane. With donations of time and service from dozens of manufacturers and service providers, AOPA tricked out the plane with a factory-remanufactured Lycoming IO-360 engine, LoPresti cowling and speed mods, a Hartzell three-bladed propeller and 77-gallon extended range tanks. Refurbishment parts and labor totaled thousands of dollars.
Its paint scheme is slick, too. The distinctive look is executed in Pratt and Lambert Jet-Glo silver and white, with red and blue accents. The plane also came with specially created Ultimate Arrow logos on its tail and even on the headrests!
It’s also lit up like a UFO, outfitted with a Precise Flight Pulselite system, boom beam lights, position lighting and Whelen Comet-Flash Strobes. The aircraft’s new owner says air traffic control often asks what kind of plane it is. It’s so bright coming in for night landings, it’s easy for other pilots to see, but it’s not always easy for controllers to identify because of its dazzling illumination.
A new owner
A flight instructor in Massachusetts won the Arrow, newly designated N97UA. He sold it to another pilot in North Carolina, who then sold it to Jason Wolfson of Massachusetts.
Ironically, Norm Grant had actually been afraid to fly, but a colleague encouraged him to come for a lesson.
“It’s an interesting thing, because flying is an addiction,” Grant said. “Once you start flying, you never stop.”
But there were plenty of challenges in Grant’s way. His first lessons ended when his flight school had its fleet grounded after an accident. He took three weeks off work in order to get his ticket in Florida, where an instructor encouraged him to solo despite incoming foul weather.
“I thought, ‘This is how Norm is going to die,'” Grant said, remembering the turbulent flight. “I’ve never seen a plane do what that one was doing. It was like a bucking bronco, bolts and screws flying everywhere.”
He was finally able to get his license with the help of Jim Harvilchuck of A & M Aviation. He soon accumulated a few hundred hours and started looking to buy a plane. After a new Cessna appeared too costly, he managed to buy the Arrow from Wolfson.
“My skill was improving in leaps and bounds, so I wanted an aircraft with which I could continue learning,” Grant said. “She’s a very complex aircraft. It suited my goal to find a plane with a very solid foundation and build on it.”
The plane isn’t for sale, but interest in it is so great that Grant finally had to put an artificially high price tag on it–over $200,000–just to ward off potential buyers.
Since its purchase, Grant has meticulously kept up the aircraft’s maintenance, upkeep and upgrades. John Blaha, president of A & M Maintenance Services, takes care of the aircraft’s internal plumbing. John Dendekker, avionics manager at JA Air Center, at DuPage Airport, maintains the Arrow’s electronics and charts. Jim Harvilchuck and his wife Jolan make sure the plane is available for rent through A & M Aviation.
“The Ultimate Arrow isn’t ‘ultimate’ for any other reason than the combined hard work and professionalism of the people who have helped me get her where she is today,” Grant said.
He recently installed a brand new Avidyne EX500 multifunction flight display with onscreen Jeppesen plates and MX graphical weather, as well as a new GPS, altimeter, XM radio and even sheepskin seat covers.
“It’s typical for owners of rental aircraft to spend the minimum amount required to keep a plane in the air to generate revenue,” Dendekker observed. “Norm is a rare individual. He wants to make sure that the Ultimate Arrow is a safe and exciting aircraft for anyone who wants to fly. He’s always interested in what else he can do to make his aircraft better.”
While its rentals help offset some of its costs, the altruistic Grant rents the airplane because of his personal view of the Arrow’s importance. It rents for just $130 an hour from A & M Aviation. Grant doesn’t hover over it like some possessive owners.
“I stay away from my renters and I take myself off the list if I get in their way,” he explained. “I want my renters to love the Arrow as much as I do, and having it available means a lot to them.”
With a desire to inspire future pilots, Grant also takes children and their parents for free flights in the summertime. He credits his hero, Jacques Cousteau, with the original idea.
“The purpose of the Ultimate Arrow is similar to that of the Calypso or the Enterprise: to boldly go where no Arrow has gone before,” he affirmed. “I always feel that if someone hadn’t taken the time to take me flying the first time, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Grant can often be found at Charlie’s at Clow International Airport. At the restaurant, he talks aviation with a bunch of friends including Mike Jinia, Dan Simanaitis, Jim Harvilchuck and Jim “Trigger” Triggs. That’s how the great race to Peoria started.
It was at Charlie’s that Triggs first proclaimed that A & M Aviation’s new rental airplane, a Diamond DA40-180 Star, was the fastest plane at the growing airport. Triggs, an experienced pilot in both helicopters and airplanes, was convinced the new Diamond was faster.
“It will beat yours,” Triggs told Grant, betting $100 that the Diamond would beat the Ultimate Arrow in any race.
The DA40, a relatively new composite aircraft loaded with a Garmin 1000 all-glass display, is equipped with a Thielert Centurion power plant with a maximum cruising speed of 147 knots. Grant expected the Diamond, marketed for its lean, speedy nature, to win hands down over his vintage, single-engine aircraft, but was forced to back up “his baby” after months of Trigger’s boasts.
“Within a tight circle, you get this kind of ribbing; the tension was up,” Grant laughed.
On a cold day in February, the group of pals decided to set out for Peoria. Triggs rented the Diamond and the race was on.
“Why don’t you take off first because you have the slower airplane?” Triggs taunted.
It’s a short hop from Clow to Peoria, a distance of less than 80 miles, but a 12-knot headwind presented challenges for both pilots. They taunted each other that the loser would forfeit his “man card,” a fictional card proving their masculinity.
In the end, the Ultimate Arrow beat the high-tech Diamond by more than 10 knots per hour. Grant’s estimates put the Ultimate Arrow at 133 kts compared to the Diamond DA40’s 122 kts.
“It was just a bunch of fun for us, but it put the issue to rest of which plane was faster,” Grant said. “It’s not winning or losing that counts, but flying and landing safely and having fun. The Arrow’s win is a real tribute to AOPA and everybody else who has worked on it.”
For Grant, the Ultimate Arrow represents freedom, not only for himself, but also for any present or future pilot who feels the same joy he does about flying.
“She’s as much yours as she is mine,” he said of the Ultimate Arrow. “In my opinion, everyone should own this plane. There are hundreds of thousands of pilots out there in America, and I don’t need a plane this beautiful just for myself. AOPA created her and she’s for everybody.”
For more information about the Ultimate Arrow, visit [http://www.ultimatearrow.com]. To find out about renting the aircraft or other services available from A & M Aviation, visit [http://www.aandmaviation.com].