Sean Sullivan’s Renovated Cherokee 235 Embodies Comfort, Class, and Style
By Stephanie Finnegan
There is a widely accepted mindset about the folks who reside in Texas. Compliments like “independent,” “adventurous,” “self-confident,” and “mavericks” are tossed around when discussing the Lone Star State’s citizens. In some cases, the terms are overstated, but there are certain instances when the adjectives fit a person like a pilot’s well-loved, broken-in flight jacket.
Sean Sullivan, of Fort Worth, Texas, is an example of these positive impressions actually matching the man. An entrepreneur in the construction and real estate fields, Sean has parlayed his take-charge attitude into his piloting experiences and plane ownership. “I definitely think being an entrepreneur and a pilot go hand-in-hand. I have a lot of time flexibility within my work life. This allows me the time to fly and work on airplane projects as I see fit.”
Sean had been exposed to private airplanes throughout his life, but always as a passenger. “Finally in 2008, I was financially able to take the plunge and earn my ticket.” He received his private pilot certificate, and then his instrument rating in 2014. Additionally, he has his high-performance and tailwheel endorsements, and has taken a mountain-flying course. He has approached his aviation endeavors with a passion for challenge and a devotion to always going a step beyond what he might have initially desired. Each of the planes that he has built and owned reflect his drive to find the right craft for his lifestyle and ambitions. Currently the owner of a Piper Cherokee 235, which he has renovated extensively and chronicled in meticulous detail, Sean is selfless in encouraging like-minded pilots to follow his example of seeing what they want and then seizing the opportunity to transform that into a dream aircraft.
First Things First
In 2009, Sean began his journey into plane ownership and experimentation: “I purchased my first airplane, a Slipstream Revelation. This is an open cockpit, two-place experimental light sport aircraft. I had to disassemble the aircraft and truck it home from Colorado. Rebuilding the aircraft was my first project in aircraft building.”
It also marked his first time making a flying video, which was a harbinger for his future YouTube channel. As always, one of his hands-on endeavors led to another learning experience and another outlet for his can-do spirit.
“I eventually sold that aircraft and purchased a Vans RV-10 kit. I never finished the RV-10 due to finances and decided to sell my assembled kit to someone else, so they could complete it. It is flying today. After the RV-10, I decided I could save money by building a scratch-built airplane instead of a kit. I decided to start building a composite Cozy MKIV. About halfway through that build, I purchased my Cherokee 235, N8949W, and building productivity almost stopped, since I was flying something. I lost interest and sold the project. It is flying today.”
Never hesitant to purchase the parts to tackle another building project, Sean acknowledges that this aviation construction is part of his essence. His experimental plane journeys mirror his personality and his gumption. “I have always been the type of person to create what I want, rather than just paying retail and buying it. This is evident in all areas of my life. This is one of the reasons I was drawn to experimental aviation. With kit planes, you get to build it exactly the way you want it while saving money versus a new certified aircraft of similar caliber.”
Sean definitely embodies the motto “if you want something done, do it yourself.”
A Match Made in Heaven
In 2013, Sean came across the aircraft that would morph into one of his most exciting and satisfying endeavors. He found N8949W as a new listing with a San Diego broker. After chatting on the phone, Sean placed a down payment on the plane, based on its photos alone. “The airplane was in fantastic condition and very well-equipped for 2013.” He hired a mechanic to do a pre-buy inspection, and the Piper Cherokee 235 passed with flying colors.
At the time of the purchase in October 2013, he had never flown a PA-28. Before he left for San Diego to claim his plane, he booked a few hours with a local flight instructor in a Cherokee 180. Once in San Diego, he hired another instructor to check him out in N8949W to provide the one-hour dual required by his insurance company.
Flying home in his new plane, Sean was thrilled with its capabilities. He familiarized himself with the plane’s systems and knew that he had made a great buy. “The only things that I wanted to add were main gear fairings, inertia reel shoulder straps, and a digital fuel flow computer.” Never one to sit around and let time pass idly, Sean made these adjustments quickly. “I never would have thought at the time that I would ever remodel this airplane to the level of what I have.”
Sean was content with the Cherokee 235 for many years. He spent years flying it before the need to build something new sparked inside him once more. He turned his attention to “a new sporty single-seat aerobatic plane called the SPA Panther.” He built the plane to show-quality standards and flew it to Oshkosh multiple times. “This project is where I really honed my aircraft-building skills. After some time, I decided to sell N485PA and move on to another project. This is when I decided to do the makeover on N8949W. I decided to roll those proceeds into the modernization of N8949W that you see today.”
Coming from a background of real-estate construction, Sean seemingly has the innate talent needed for building and overseeing a project. To an outside observer, it appears that his profession would have easily opened the door to renovating a plane without any undue drama or discomfort. Surprisingly, it’s his immersion in airplanes that’s honed his construction prowess. “I can 100% say that building airplanes enhanced my construction practices. When you build something you intend to fly, you become extremely meticulous. This attention to detail definitely rubbed off on the construction business.”
Sean’s home away from home — his hangar — is located at Fort Worth Spinks (KFWS), a 15-minute drive from his home. “I share my hangar with two friends who own and fly a C182 and an experimental SPA Panther. My hangar mates and I are always helping each other with maintenance, upgrades, and flying. In addition, I have a good friend next door who is an A&P/IA, DME, along with a handful of other A&P/IAs who can be very helpful. All in all, I have a great community of pilots and mechanics at Spinks who always keep me sharp.”
Making a Renovation Documentary
Never content to rest on his laurels, Sean is always finding new ways to keep active and engaged. Last year, along with his hangar mate Cody Abner, he launched PIREP Aviation on YouTube (youtube.com/@pirepaviation). The site’s “About” page introduces visitors to the channel with the message, “Welcome to the PIREP Aviation Channel! Our goal is to bring general aviation enthusiasts weekly VLOGs, product/STC reports, FBO Fridays, and flying adventures. We look forward to bringing new content to the general aviation community.”
Sean and his Piper Cherokee 235 have ended up becoming two of the breakout stars of this channel. When he decided to upgrade his plane, he recorded and broadcast the customization so subscribers could follow along. “My goal was to create a very capable IFR platform (single or dual pilot) with a luxury/sporty feel. In addition, I wanted to add modern conveniences that the older Pipers typically don’t have.”
During the years he flew the plane, he was never disappointed in its handling or maneuverability. Its original features and abilities continued to impress him. Simply put, he just hankered for more. “Mechanically, the plane was in pristine condition and well taken care of. In addition, the conservative paint job (painted in 2006) is remarkably nice. Quite honestly, the interior was pretty nice, too. That said, I wanted to transform the aircraft into a highly functional and luxurious PA-28.”
When he decided to undertake this remodeling/modernization of N8949W, he knew it would take a large amount of patience, labor, cash, and optimism. Never backing down, he was willing to dream big and foot the bill: “I know this will be my ‘forever’ airplane, so I decided to give it every creature comfort and make exactly into what I would want.”
Sean’s Pride and Joy
Sean’s renovation of his Piper Cherokee 235 is awe-inspiring. He created a stunning video of the transformation and posted it on his YouTube channel PIREP Aviation. Following are the highlights of his renovation, with Sean’s comments and explanations:
Paint Resotration and Ceramic Coating
The paint restoration and ceramic coating were done by SparrowHawk Mobile Detailing. In addition to the paint, they applied a protective product on the new leather.
New Wheel Pants Pain Scheme
When I installed the main gear fairings, I had the Wheel pants painted a solid color. I decided to repaint with a multicolor theme similar to when I bought the airplane.
One-Piece Windshield STC
This is an STC available from LP Aero, which converts the two-piece Piper windshield to a single curved modern-looking windshield. It’s one of my favorite upgrades and gives the airplane a really clean look.
New 1/4″-Thick Windows
I replaced the 1/8″-thick windows with LP Aero 1/4″-thick, smoke-tinted glass with UV protectant.
Baggage Floor Storage STC
I added a Bill Daileda baggage floor STC for PA-28s. This STC allows you to create a storage area under the baggage compartment floor and will hold up to 25 pounds.
New Leather Interior
The interior was upgraded with all new Airtex leather seats and side panels.
Building a Dream, Piece by Piece
Renovating the Piper Cherokee 235 took about half a year. Phase 1 constituted the airframe upgrades; Phase 2 focused on the instrument panel. Phase 3 included the interior and the interior and exterior ceramic coating. The ceramic coating was installed without Sean’s help.
“I provided much of the labor for the airframe upgrades under the supervision of my A&P/IA. I designed the new panel and layout, which was executed by the avionics shop. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted for the interior. The interior shop and I collaborated on the design, and they fabricated and installed everything with the exception of the carpet, which I installed.”
When he looks back on this undertaking, he regrets his carpet installation. “If I were to do it again, I think I would have let the interior guys install the carpet. I bought a carpet kit from Airtex and installed that myself.” After his video was completed, he installed the prop, so that upgrade isn’t recorded for posterity. The rest of the plane’s retooling is there for YouTube viewers to watch and possibly aspire to re-create on their airplanes.
Going forward, Sean has a couple of add-ons that will complete the plane’s overhaul. “I plan to add a SureFly electronic ignition in the near future. This will replace my impulse mag. I am also going to add a portable battery-operated air conditioner for summer use. The unit weighs about 48 pounds and would be perfect for hot Texas flying days.”
|Top Speed||166 mph (144kts)|
|Dimmensions (all approx.)||156 mph (136kts)|
|Economy Speed||137 mph (119 kts)|
|Fuel Capacity||84 gal|
|Range||935 sm (@cruise)|
|1,130 sm (@economy)|
|Gross Weight||2,900 lbs|
|Empty Weight||1,410 lbs|
|Ave. Useful load||1,490 lbs|
|Takeoff Ground Roll||600 feet|
|Takeoff Over 50ft Obstacle||1,360 feet|
|Landing Ground Roll||680 feet|
|Landing Over 50 ft Obstacle||1,300 feet|
|Rate of Climb||825 fpm|
|Doors||1 passenger, 1 cargo|
|Seats||4 standard, 0 optional|
|Dimensions (all approx.)|
|Fuselage Length||23 feet 8 inches|
|Fuselage Height||7 feet 5 inches|
|Total Wingspan||32 feet|
All vintage planes are different. Do not use these to plan a flight. Source: Standard Catalog of Piper Single Engine Aircraft (Piper Owner Society)
Why The 235 Flies High in Sean’s Estimation
Having customized his plane to evolve into a brand-new, nearly unrecognizable aircraft, Sean still swears by its basic bones. Unless a plane has a remarkable, reliable provenance, all the alterations won’t make a world of difference. He is a cheerleader for the Piper Cherokee 235’s pedigree.
“The 1964 PA-28-235 is one of the very few GA singles that had a higher useful load compared to its empty weight when it came off the assembly line. After all my upgrades, my useful load is 1,247 pounds. The 235 has a respectable cruise speed, and I routinely flight-plan for 140 kts. The 84-gallon fuel capacity allows for long nonstop flights. Finally, the operating costs, maintenance, and insurance are very affordable.”
Reviewing other staples of the Piper Cherokee 235, he points out that it makes for “a very stable IFR platform. It has the docile characteristics of the Cherokee family, but the added weight on the tip tanks make for a smooth ride in turbulent air. The 235s are actually fantastic for mountain flying and short-field operations. If I had to choose an affordable ‘must have’ upgrade, that would have to be the Door Stewards. I wish I had installed those years ago.”
Support For Sean’s Takeoffs
This year marks Sean and his wife Melanie’s 30th anniversary. He admits that he couldn’t have done all of this without her. “She has been very supportive of my aviation addiction since the beginning. Our daughter, Shea, turns 23 in April and she is currently working on her master’s degree in accounting. My wife and Shea are just passengers. Shea took a few lessons when she was 15, but decided she preferred being a passenger.”
Sean is delighted to have his wife and daughter aboard his transformed baby. It is a physical representation of his high hopes and always high ambitions for his aviation pursuits. “I am almost 100% recreational in my flying, meaning traveling and local flights. Every now and then, I use the airplane for business travel. I have built a couple of airpark homes over the years, and I would occasionally fly to the job site just for fun (even though it was only a 30-minute drive). I have made a few business trips over the years, but nothing routinely.”
Besides using the plane for fun jaunts and for short business hops, he has participated in philanthropic pursuits. “I have flown people for Angel Flight in the past, and I have used my airplane to deliver medical supplies to a mission team that was delivering them to Ecuador.”
He has also assisted other builders who have needed advice and encouragement. “I have helped a number of builders with their projects over the years, but simply to help them out. I had people help me when I started out, and I am just paying it forward,” he said.
All in all, Sean is content with what he has accomplished, and he still has those abstract and concrete aviation pinnacles to reach. “I want to focus more on flying and building up our YouTube channel over the next year. We have not done much since Thanksgiving 2022, due to a busy schedule, but will be ramping up again here very soon. If I do embark on another building project, it will likely be the SPA Cougar that will be a tandem-seat, larger version of the Panther. Hopefully, it will be released by SPA later this year.”
SparrowHawk Ceramic Dallas/Ft. Worth
LP AERO PLASTICS
BAGGAGE FLOOR STC
Professional Pilots Inc.
Thanks to the following people:
• Melanie and Shea, for being fantastic flight crew
support and putting up with all of my projects.
• Phillip Esparza, A&P/IA, DME, owner of Semper
Fi Aviation, for all your help and guidance.
• Cody Abner, for being my partner in crime and
cohost at PIREP Aviation.
• Brian Sowell, my lifelong friend, for being the one
who really motivated me to get my certificate and
pursue building/working on airplanes.
• Scott Perdue, A&P/IA, and my flying mentor, for
helping me with my projects and flying adventures
over the years.
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