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.
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.
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.