John’s blog: where have you gone, piston twin?

Pete Bedell’s recent article about the golden age of aviation sent me to my stack of old aviation magazines. Flipping through the December 1978 issue of Flying magazine, I couldn’t help but notice all the big, multi-engine airplanes: a Piper Aerostar on the cover, an ad for the Rockwell Commander 700 a few pages in and a Piper ad not for a Cherokee but for a Cheyenne.

Beech Duke ad

"People wait to see who steps out" of a Beech Duke, according to the ad.

The most arresting ad, though, is the two page spread lauding the Beechcraft Duke. We don’t know the pilot, but we know he’s successful–after all, the cabin class twin says it all. As if there were any doubt, the headline declares, “People wait to see who steps out.” Indeed, the ad seems to be selling the airplane’s looks more than its performance numbers.

If it’s true that the ads in a magazine reveal as much about our culture as the articles–and I believe they do–then this ad sums up what most pilots thought the pinnacle of general aviation airplanes was in the glory days of the 1970s. In a market that was all about stepping-up from one class of airplane to the next, a cabin-class twin was the ultimate “step up.”

For any new or aspiring pilot, those big, beautiful Cessna 414s and Piper Navajos were the stuff of dreams. Two engines, retractable gear, an air stair door, a whole handful of throttle quadrant–even tip tanks! These beasts looked like a mini-Constellation.

These dreams became reality for a lot of pilots, with over 2,000 piston twins shipped every year between 1973 and 1979. Contrast those heady numbers with today’s–less than 70 piston twins were delivered in 2010. And try to find an ad for a twin engine airplane in today’s magazines. The piston twin is just about dead.

The reasons for this disappearance are certainly no mystery (and have been clearly explained by Richard Collins before). Some popular causes:

  • Many of the pilots in the 1960s and 1970s had flown in WWII on bombers and transports, had multi-engine ratings and loved the second engine. It was just natural to add engines as you gained experience and went faster. But as these pilots aged, a new generation grew up that didn’t seem to have the same attachment to a second engine.
  • On top of that, fuel prices began to climb, forcing many pilots to take notice of the 30+ gallons/hour that their brawny machines burned. At $6/gallon, the extra engine really does get expensive.
  • Most interestingly, the received wisdom about more engines equaling more safety began to be questioned. In many ways, Collins started the conversation in a July 1965 article in Air Facts. He found that the accident rate in twins was actually worse than in singles–a shocking statement at the time. The reality was that piston twins could improve safety, but if you didn’t react quickly and properly to an engine failure they were fatally unforgiving.
  • But perhaps more than anything, manufacturers simply found ways to go fast while keeping the gear down and the engine out front. Look at a new Cessna Corvalis: single engine, fixed gear, no air stair, no pressurization. But it goes 230 knots at FL230, and it can be flown by a Private Pilot with nothing more than a High Performance endorsement. Who needs a second engine to overhaul and an additional rating when you can have those numbers?
  • The final nail in the coffin may be the rise of the single engine turboprop. The Piper Meridian, TBM 700/850 and Pilatus PC-12 have all become popular personal airplanes over the past decade, and the reliability of a turbine makes a Meridian a better way to spend $1 million+ than a piston twin. And if a new Baron costs over $1 million, we can only imagine what a new Duke or 421 would cost today.

More than anything, the piston twin became a victim of our culture’s relentless pursuit of efficiency. An additional engine, just like elevator operators and flight engineers, didn’t provide the necessary return on investment–for the manufacturers or the owners.

Cessna Corvalis

It's fast, but does it have personality?

So what? Four-course ranges are gone and nobody misses them.

Well I think the piston twin is worth mourning. Efficiency is great, but it usually comes at the cost of some character. And the older twins, especially the bigger ones, had real personalities. The Aerostar: brash pursuit of speed. The Duke: class, grace and swagger. Cessna 340: reliable and practical. What airplane you flew said a lot about what your priorities were as a pilot. There was also a refreshing variety of styles and technologies, and lots of new ideas at work.

Today’s airplanes are awfully similar, with the same engines, same construction and same avionics. Most non-pilots can’t tell a Corvalis from a Cirrus from a Diamond. They look like grown up kit planes (which of course they are), rather than mini-airliners. And the passengers certainly aren’t cradled in luxury the way they were in larger multi-engine airplanes of the ’70s.

Don’t get me wrong–there’s no doubt that a new Corvalis is a wonderful airplane, and is probably a lot safer than a twin for the average pilot. I would love to own one. But does it have the same ramp appeal as a Duke? Does it offer the same flying experience for a non-pilot that a Cessna 421 did? I wonder if we’ve lost just a little bit of the magic that GA used to have with those big, beautiful, inefficient twins.

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15 Comments

  1. Bob Thomason says:

    “The piston twin is just about dead.”

    John, this statement may be true when you look at newly manufactured airplanes – but the piston twin is far from dead. In fact, low purchase prices have created a flurry of activity among the 7,300+ Twin Cessnas on the FAA Registry. Membership in our owners group – The Twin Cessna Flyer – has grown 14% in the last year. And talk to any paint or avionics shop and they will tell you that business is good for piston twins. Many of our members move up to Twin Cessnas because they outgrow their HPSE. Sure, some singles are faster, but none (piston-powered) can fly 6 people plus bags in air conditioned and pressurized comfort at 25,000 feet. We have Cirrus and Corvallis owners who sold their airplanes, bought a 1980-ish cabin class Twin Cessna, put in a new glass panel, new paint and interior and had significant money left over for fuel!

    Single engine turboprops are great but the cheapest costs 3 times as much as a decent cabin class piston twin. That delta will buy a lot of fuel as well.

    Check out our website if you want to see what’s going on in the world of piston twins. http://www.twincessna.org

    Bob Thomason, President
    The Twin Cessna Flyer

    • John Zimmerman says:

      Bob, thanks for the comments. You’re right, of course–these older twins are fantastic airplanes. I’ve seen some totally redone Navajos that are nicer than they were the day they rolled off the factory line, and for less money than a new single engine plane.
      But I fear the days are numbered for these projects. Maybe not next year or even 5 years from now, but eventually the piston twin will fade away. They simply haven’t been made in any significant number in 30 years. They’ll go from reliable everyday transport to historic preservation projects.

  2. Robert Bready says:

    In the 40 years that I have been flying, the cost of buying, owning and operating an airplane has doubled (and that is after you factor-out monetary inflation). It doesn’t surprise me that the ranks of the piston twins have dwindled so much. Flying was never cheap, but it’s a lot more expensive these days.

  3. Joseph Chambers says:

    One has to wonder if the twin will resurface as alternative fuels and energy sources are explored. I could see running a twin with one gas engine running a prop and a generator powering the battery reserve for the second electric engine. These will probably be smaller twins, but I suspect as technology changes it will come and go.

  4. Jeffrey Hanson says:

    I began to fly in those heady days of the 70′s. Spent hours in a Duke on jacks awaiting repair at my local airport at the age of 12. It was there that my dream job of airline Captain was birthed and is now a reality as I pilot an Airbus 300 around the world.

    The Navajo’s, Baron, C-310/402/404 I flew had great memories. Wish I could own one today but alas the cost of ownership is so outrageous that it’s a dream. Sadly, I believe the author is correct in that the piston twin is not long for this world. Any aircraft ownership for that matter.

  5. Jaime Fabrega says:

    The truth is that in these days there is not a single piston aircraft of current production that can achive what you can do with the twins of The Golden Years. Being a twin Piper, Cessna or Beechcraft you had room, speed and payload at a price not as expensive as today turboprops.

  6. Kathy says:

    My dream is to buy a 1976 vintage Baron 55, a sweet flying plane. People who fly for fun will always enjoy the experience of flying piston twins even if the planes themselves are old. After all to get a multiengine rating, most pilots get the rating in a piston twin as I did in a Piper Seneca.

  7. A piston single just wouldn’t accomplish the mission without moving way up to a turboprop. Our wonderful turbo Aztec equipped for fiki is perfect for us. The all-in hourly costs are significantly higher than a turbocharged single but the purchase price was right. Piston twins are on sale. Just have to remember that the cost to maintain them is no different than the 1.3 million dollar Baron.

  8. Ron says:

    Has anyone noticed that Diamond’s best selling airplane these days isn’t the DA40 DiamondStar, but the twin-engine DA-42 TwinStar? I fly one for work, and they’re great airplanes. The Austro turbodiesel engine is very fuel efficient, quiet, and smooth. Burns less than the Corvalis and Cirrus aircraft.

  9. Stephen Phoenix says:

    Maybe twins will remain, but in a downsized version. Witness the new little Tecnam twin; it’s a neat little airplane and shouldn’t break the bank too badly. An RV sized airplane with two Rotax 914 turbocharged engines could give Corvalis/Cirrus type performance with no greater operating cost and it would have two throttles (and only two seats, which is ok for most). U.S. manufacturers probably won’t produce small twins since they are sipping the jetwater; but the new foreign manufacturers could perhaps make it as a step up from the LSAs.

  10. RSmith says:

    I started flying in 1981 for business purposes. Our family business entailed engineering and service of industrial equipment and I traveled throughout the NE corridor. At the local field where I did my flight training there were 2 computer service guys who flew Mooney 201’s nearly every day on the same type of missions that I anticipated. I purchased a Mooney 201 and flew it from 1981-1988 putting nearly 2400 hours on it. As our biz expanded my travel needs expanded to a 600-800nm range. At the time the Malibu was the hot plane. We seriously looked at them but Piper was having major engine problems and quite honestly the fit and finish of the early Malibu’s was pretty poor. I also looked at the P210 but following the problems R Collins was having with exhaust and accessories I just felt that these hi performance singles were not designed for the rigors of daily use. I started looking at twins. I started with Aerostars P Barons Navajos etc. I finally settled on a 1981 Cessna 340A with known icing and less than 500TT.For the next 23 years the 340 served us well. Typical mission was at Fl 180 burning 30gph doing just under 200kts. Compared to friends with hi perf singles burning close to 20gph and a good bit slower, on a per NM basis the fuel burn IMO was not that much more. Both engines and turbos made it past the 1600 hour TBO with no top or cylinder work. In fact when I had the engines overhauled at Zepherhills everything was still well within spec. Whether this was due to always having 15/50 Aeroshell synthetic from the start or the fact only 2 pilots flew it from new I don’t know.
    For a small business to pull up in a cabin class twin is a big plus impressing customers and growing the business. Many times when the customers would find we were flying into the local airport they would pick us up. If the FBO had a coffee shop we could sit down and develop a more personal relationship with the customer. Having seen the plane we were able to convince them to go see our other installations. I don’t think most would have flown with us in a single. The airplane was one of the biggest sales tools for us and directly contributed to the growth of our company.
    Sadly IMHO the death of the twin is more related to the death of small and mid size manufacturing in this country. With the advent of the internet video conferencing email etc the personal service and relationship building that was crucial to build a biz is gone. Gone too is the network of small airports with their always ready coffee and courtesy cars. After my Dad retired I plodded along for a number of years but finally succumbed to growing restrictions regulations and customers closing. I sold the biz a few years ago to a Fortune 500 co and they pretty much finished it off. I was able to keep the 340 for the last several years. A few weeks ago I gave in to common sense and sold the plane. Things will never be the way they were and one stroke of a pen at EPA could turn nearly all our planes into scrap aluminum overnight. Sad but true.

    • Bob Thomason says:

      RSmith, you make some good points. Videoconferencing and the like have reduced the need for some face-to-face meetings. And I agree the demise of small and middle market manufacturing companies has had an impact has reduced the demand for company airplanes, many of which were light and medium twins. That said, many of those companies have been replaced by IT and healthcare companies. The business mix in America has changed (for better or worse). The January issue of our magazine features an IT company CEO who flies his 340 on business. He could not be happier with it. These twins are changing hands from people like you, for whom they no longer make sense, to people who are thrilled to pick up an airplane that would cost over $1 million today, for a fraction of that. We certainly face some challenges with leaded fuel, etc. but the experts I talk to are fairly optimistic a suitable substitute will be found. The heyday for these twins is over, but they are a long way from dead.

  11. John Bleakley says:

    I’ve owned 4 twin Cessnas over the last 20 years, I currently have a 421B. It’s not the most glamourous airplane, but it does exactly what I want it to do. We don’t have any FAA 170 lb folks in our family, so hauling 5 or 6 full size people 2-3 hours is a challenge. For less than a $200K investment, and I use the term investment loosely, I have a 190 knot, 8 seat (6 really) air conditioned, FIKI, pressurized, airplane with radar, NEXRAD, a GNS 530w, an Aspen. Sure it burns 42 GPH, but when I need to load up the family and the dogs, it’s ready to go. :) Would I like to own another turbine powered airplane, absolutely, but for what I need/want right now, it fits my mission without spending $5-800K.

  12. Gregory Vivaldi says:

    I have had a Beech B55 a great sports car a C414 Cadillac limo of the sky a C404 the best pick up truck in the sky and now an A60 all I can say is what a SWA driver said when Itook the runway at RNO “WHAT A BEAUTIFUL AIRPLANE”

    noboby wants to spens more than 200k for this much fun!

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