Are slow airplanes practical transportation?

Flying at 140 knots or less. . .

In a posting about the future and the relationship between present and past costs (see “Brighter Days Ahead?”), I referred to transportation airplanes as those cruising at 140 knots or more. At least one reader questioned this and noted the value of slower airplanes for transportation, at least over shorter distances.

I tend to base opinions on personal experience and am certainly no stranger to using slower airplanes, even for relatively long distance transportation. When I was really young, in my twenties, I flew my 125 horsepower Piper Pacer 800 hours, virtually all for personal transportation. Twenty years later I gave the subject another go in a new 1974 Skyhawk that I fitted with a custom panel and top-of-the-line King avionics. In fact, I think my Skyhawk was the first customer airplane to fly with the then brand-new KCS-55 compass system and HSI.

Most of my Skyhawk trips were 300-400 nautical miles but I did fly it all over the eastern U. S. and as far west as Albuquerque. I was working out of Little Rock at the time, for FLYING, and flew the Skyhawk for just about 1,000 hours.

Piper Pacer

The Piper Pacer, hardly a high performance airplane, was a reliable transportation airplane for Collins.

I’ll tell you about using the Pacer first.

My father bought it new in 1951 and flew it until 1955 when he got a new Cessna 180 for his business transportation at the original AIR FACTS, the one that used paper and postage and all that.

The Pacer was IFR-equipped when I got it and less than a month later I earned an instrument rating so I could use all that finery. I won’t bore you with all the details but the avionics included a Narco Omnigator, which was the first general aviation ILS/VOR receiver that achieved the accuracy necessary for IFR flying. There was also a Lear ADF-12, which was the gold standard in ADFs, and a Javelin wing-leveler.

The airplane had a vacuum system, rare in light airplanes at the time, and what we then referred to as a “full gyro panel.” The arrangement of the instruments was a little convoluted with the artificial horizon mounted in a bracket atop the instrument panel, in the middle.

One thing my Pacer didn’t have was a static system. Airplanes didn’t have to pass a static system check (or anything else) to be operated IFR at the time and I wonder how the FAA would now deal with an airplane that lacks a static system. In the Pacer the instruments were vented to the cockpit, much as is done now with an alternate static source.

The Pacer held enough fuel to go about five hours at a speed of 100 knots on a good day.

Piper said in ads that you could fly a Pacer for bus fare. That was fortunate for me because about six months into my ownership, friends and neighbors drafted me and I became a Private E-1 in the United States Army. My pay was well under $100 a month, paid in cash, and rations and quarters were provided.

That wouldn’t cover much bus fare, or flying, but I had an ace in the hole, an inheritance of about $4,000. After basic training I was assigned to the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and decided to use that four grand to enhance my Army lifestyle, mainly by running around most of the southeast in my Pacer plus trips home to Little Rock, Arkansas. It was also used as a shield against too much mess hall chow. It came out even and was worth every penny.

It was always possible to find a buddy or two who wanted to go along and would share the fuel costs. Those costs weren’t much. The average fill, when it needed it, would leave enough change from a ten to buy lunch for two or maybe three. In a liberal interpretation of the FAA (then CAA) rule about sharing expenses, my passengers would sometimes pick up my hotel bill and meals at the destination which was sometimes New Orleans. That was a fine city for soldiers to visit.

My Pacer would fly fine with three average troops but any more was out of the question.

The Army had a rule about how far away you could go on a weekend or three-day pass but I could rationalize greater distances by considering the distance as being applicable to cars. I never failed to get back on time so didn’t have to plead that case.

My IFR flying was limited to times when that was the only way to go so I didn’t build up a lot of actual instrument time in the airplane but I was never hesitant to fly it in clouds when needed. I found one two-leg flight in my logbook where I flew five hours and 30 minutes of actual in the Pacer in one day. I think I remember feeling like I had been pulled through a keyhole at the end of that day.

At that time we didn’t make log entries of instrument approaches so I have no idea of how many actual instrument approaches I flew in the Pacer but it was a good number.

When the weather was bad over a large area a careful plan was required and it had to be changed at the drop of a hat. There were relatively few airports with instrument approaches in the southeast and you had to always be sure to have the fuel to make it to an airport with minimums for an approach. That could give new meaning to the term “sniffing for asphalt.” No light airplanes had glideslope receivers at the time so the lowest minimums were for the localizer approach at ILS-equipped fields and 400 & one was about as good as that got. Alternates were based mainly on wishful thinking.

After I got out of the Army, I moved back to Little Rock, where I had a job, but the girl I left behind in Alabama (Ann, who became my wife for 55 years), had to be revisited frequently so the Pacer got a workout there. One night IFR trip through a rare snowstorm is still fresh in mind. Then we were wed and a bit after that moved to New York for me to start my long career in aviation publishing at the old AIR FACTS.

The limitations of a Pacer for long distance travel, especially in the wintertime, were underlined the first Christmas we were in New York. We flew the Pacer for visits in Little Rock and in southeast Alabama. There seemed to be a headwind for every leg and when I made one log entry for the whole trip it was for 32 hours of flying, two hours 30 of which was actual instrument and five hours 30 was night.

Cessna 172

The Cessna 172 is often thought of as a trainer, but it makes a fine traveling machine.

The night flying was for the trip from Linden, New Jersey, in the New York area, to Little Rock. It accounted for close to half the flying time on the trip. I had never actually figured it before but that was an average groundspeed of 54 knots. It kind of took all day and half the night. I mentioned in another post that my wife Ann was a perfect copilot. She never complained that day and when I offered to stop for the night in Bowling Green, Kentucky, she said to carry on. She was five months pregnant to boot.

AIR FACTS had faster airplanes to fly, a Skylane to start and later a 210 and 250 Comanches and Twin Comanches (all on short term leases) so I sold my beloved Pacer and moved up in speed. The proceeds also helped on the one-third down payment (required then) on our first house.

The increase in speed did wonders for my traveling. More about that in another post.

I stayed with AIR FACTS for over ten years before moving on to FLYING. There, I negotiated a deal where I could buy an airplane and got first a Skylane and next a Cherokee Six. Those airplanes were not as fast as the AIR FACTS retractables but they were mine and that makes a big difference to me. I always considered airplanes to be personal possessions. I could talk with mine but could never strike up a conversation with a leased airplane.

By that time we had moved back to Little Rock, which was at about the geographic center of the places I most often visited on business. I thought I would try a basic airplane once again and figured the twenty knots the Skyhawk had over the Pacer would make a difference. So I put all those fancy avionics in, got the N-number I used until I retired my P210 in 2007, and N40RC started charging around, mostly to places within 300 to 400 miles of Little Rock. (I also had N40RG reserved so when I sold the Skyhawk it was easy to change the “C” to a “G” and save 40RC for a future airplane.)

I flew a lot of no-autopilot IFR in this airplane and it gave good reliability except for two occasions when the Lycoming reverted to three-cylinder operation because of 100 octane lead fouling of the plugs. Three out of four is not bad on some things but it was disconcerting in this context.

I owned and flew that Skyhawk for just over two years and 1,000 hours and had only six weather-related cancellations in an area of the country not known for its excellent weather. One trip was not flown because of extreme surface winds, one was canceled for ice and four for thunderstorms. I flew 52 instrument approaches in conditions of less than 1,000 and three in the airplane.

I dealt with weather exactly the same way that I did in faster airplanes and some thought this was a little foolhardy but there was really no difference in the relationship between clouds and a Skyhawk or Comanche or whatever.

I do remember one day when a characteristic of the Skyhawk was limiting. I can’t recall the exact passage in the POH but there was word there that in very heavy rain, carburetor heat might be required to help manage the water ingestion. I learned that the effective ceiling of a Skyhawk in those conditions is about 4,000 feet. That only happened one time and fortunately it was over nice flat terrain.

Collins VFR-into-IMC

Collins flew his 172 for a fascinating FLYING magazine article on VFR-into-IMC.

I did some weather research flying and photography in that Skyhawk. Russell Munson and I came up with the idea of shooting a VFR entry into IFR conditions and showing the reader what it looked like when you pushed weather beyond the point of no return.

A good friend, Hank Newman, was head of the FAA Southwest Region and he told his folks to accommodate us in whatever we wanted to do. So, they would block the MEA over where we were poking around and we would press on into instrument conditions, snapping shots all the while. When we were actually in the soup, we would climb up to the MEA, call the controller, and he would clear us to go somewhere and fly an instrument approach.

In doing this series I was out poking around snapping pictures of some particularly mean thunderstorms and got the beginning of a tornado that later ripped a small town to shreds.

In retrospect, IFR flying in the Skyhawk was fun, interesting and educational. The airplane was so simple and easy to fly that I could concentrate on learning the characteristics of the clouds that I was flying in. I was completely comfortable with and in it and when we parted ways there were only a few really memorable slow trips. None of them came close to trips in the Pacer where I would look down at the cars going faster and wonder about an airplane/auto trade.

So, yes, I agree that an under-140 knot cruiser can be quite useful over distances of from 250 to 400 nautical miles. I did a lot of one-day out and back trips between Little Rock and Wichita, Oklahoma City and places in central Texas and other than a requirement for some night flying when the days were short, things worked about the same as in faster airplanes.

I would be telling a fib, though, if I said I didn’t fly along wishing mightily that I could be going at least 140 knots.

In a couple of additional posts, I’ll regale you with tales of using 140-plus cruisers and a pressurized single for transportation. For now, do you think I was nuts to be out flying IFR in a Cessna Skyhawk and especially in a Piper Pacer, and especially in a Piper Pacer at night in a snowstorm?

24 Comments

  1. AfricanEagle says:

    Enjoyed reading. I have a Skyhawk. Have flown all round Europe, from Italy to Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, Norway, Spain and all the countries in between. All VFR, with out gps. The C172 doesn’t excell in any specific field, but does everything well.

  2. Duane says:

    Thanks, Dick – interesting to see how it was done back in the 50s.

    I’ve flown my old (but updated) Cherokee 180 (with a panel mount Garmin GPS, XM Wx, & a new S-Tec autopilot) on several hundred cross-country trips of 200-300 nm, and occasionally longer trips (500-600 nm), mostly on weekly business missions. It was great – at 125 kts the airplane saved at least 50-60% on total portal to portal travel time over driving, allowing for occasional weather delays. Most of the time flying the Cherokee was way more enjoyable than driving in traffic, or flying the airlines. Those few exceptions to enjoyable flights were on those stormy or very windy (i.e., bumpy) days encountered from time to time flying over or near the mountains.

    I also made a couple of trips in the Cherokee between the southern Rockies and the east coast (roughly 1,500 nm one way). Those trips were a bit of a slog (6 to 8+ hours of flying per day), but still fun.

    Obviously, the longer the trip the more importance is assigned to higher cruising speeds. But also on long trips, you’re more likely to encounter weather somewhere along the route … which can easily nullify a few extra knots of airspeed when you’re forced to divert, or must land and wait out the weather.

    As one pilot friend told me years ago:

    “Speed is over-rated. The slower I fly, the more hours I get to spend having fun flying!”

  3. john dale says:

    no–i dont think you were nuts to do what you did. i did get spoiled when i started flying. went to a lot of places in the midwest with my dad in a 310-f. thought that was the best way to go. when i finally started taking some instruction for my license, i started in a 150. boy, talk about a change. got my license, flew anything i could get my hands on, fell in love with the 182, but could not afford to buy one. i finally bought a 1/2 interest in a grumman tr2. great plane for seeing the countryside. I flew that plane to oshkosh a couple of times for the eaa fly-in, and even a few times into ord–which is an experience because you had to do that at night. there is something to be said for flying a smaller slower plane. you really get to enjoy watching things go by-and yes, sometimes the cars!!

  4. Vinton says:

    Mr. Collins:

    I seem to have grown up with you reading Flying in the early days when your columns explained your adventures in the Skyhawk. Now that I have my own 73 Cherokee 180, I was wondering if you ever make public appearances at any events around the country? It’s on my bucket list to fly there in my own airplane, and thank you personally for the impact you have had on my personal flying and on general aviation. Thank you for still being there for us.

    • Dick Collins says:

      Thank you for your interest. I used to give talks at various gatherings but when I “retired” I stopped doing that.

  5. Cary Alburn says:

    Really, speed is over-rated, except on really long cross countries. The difference in time in a 500 mile flight between doing it at 115 knots and 145 knots is only 50 minutes, 4 hours 20 minutes vs. 3 1/2 hours. Whoopee-doo! And that’s a pretty long leg. Shorter legs have much less differences–or as I think you might have said, Dick, the slower airplane is in the pattern while the faster one is being tied down.

    For myself, my Skyhawk Powermatic (P172D) works great, does what I want it to do most of the time, gets me there if I want to go somewhere whether VFR or IFR, let’s me take others up sight-seeing, and she’s fun. What more can you ask of an airplane?

    Cary

  6. Dick, I don’t think you are nuts, I think you you have led a holy aeronautical life. You write as you speak and as you have eperienced and many of us have been with you over the years. Thanks.

  7. RobertL says:

    Great article – I remember very fondly your articles in the Six and 172 – these simple rugged IFR/VFR personal aircraft are great travelling machines. Unfortunately in Europe, and especially northern Europe, IFR routes are typically FL90 and above and therefore we may not be able to get the full utility out of the 172 or Warrior which they deserve.

  8. Stephen Phoenix says:

    As a current Pacer owner that has flown the thing from Seattle to Florida and back, I would say that going slow with lots of stops is a fun way to fly. I like stopping at all the little airports on the way, visiting and seeing the local sights; so the short range and slow speed works fine. However, when making regular business trips from Seattle to Ohio, the comfort and speed of the Skylane I had at the time, made it practical in a sense that the Pacer cannot achieve.

    I am curious if you ever had any P-static issues when flying in snow with the Pacer. Metal airplanes generally need static wicks; I can’t find anything about the need on fabric planes.

  9. Don R says:

    The first year I had my license (but no instrument rating), I set out for the Grand Canyon in our Cessna 175 with my wife, sister and her husband. In a weeks vacation, we spent several days in the Grand Canyon, visited the Glen Canyon Dam, and swung down to the Carlsbad caverns. It was a wonderful adventure, and a trip we could not have made by car in a week. The scenery was outstanding (no restrictions over the canyon back then). The Cessna had a climb prop, which was a good thing in the mountains and high altitude at gross, but only gave us about 110 knots. We were very lucky the weather cooperated.

    The following year I had my instrument rating for a trip to Florida, and logged about 6 hours of actual with a night approach into Nashville.

    When you are young and the flying is half the fun of any trip, speed is really not that important.

    I would suggest that additional range is an advantage for weather flying.

  10. Bruce says:

    I’ll be flying a 1973 Cessna 172 (not even the “Skyhawk” model) with no autopilot from Reno NV to Missoula MT over Thanksgiving, about 500 nm of hand flying, at 120 kts if I’m lucky. And over some serious mountains. Am I crazy? I think it sounds fun, and my wife is game…

    I have access to a T182T with G1000, but I just can’t justify the hourly cost. Sure would be nice though.

  11. Paul says:

    Thank You,Dick,for the memory jog.First my father and I soloed in our Vagabond,and later got our Private in the Pacer.The basics of flying in those two planes never left us. Golden days.These last fifty years in various types are well grounded in lessons low and slow-plenty of time to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

  12. ginny wilken says:

    I have a 1973 Skyhawk, upgraded almost beyond reason – but the one thing you can’t buy, past a certain point, is speed. I treat this lovely old bird as a true legacy aircraft, as if it were a cabin Waco or some such rare and wonderful beast, and don’t ask it to be anything it is not. Well-rigged, with VGs, fairings, pants, 180 horses, etc. as it is, I don’t see 120kt that often. I and the plane are IFR rated, but up here in the PNW the weather is often nasty enough that one really doesn’t want to try flying it in a plane without icing equipment – and then there are the winds. I fly all over the west coast, and have many actual IFR hours.

    It appears that the economy will not allow me another purchase at this level, so I and my bird, with whom I speak all the time, are stuck with each other. One could do far worse! Thank you for your observations; I agree wholeheartedly.

  13. Gary says:

    Richard: Great little article. The speed needed for traveling is defined by the time available and the urgency of the trip. I’ve flown fast and slow planes since I got my license in the 1970s. I used to prefer fast planes because it meant I was advancing up the complexity chain and that was one of the expected goals. I flew a series of Mooney aircraft (M-20C; M-20E & M20-J) all over the west coast. They were fine speed machines and I covered ground quickly. Nowadays I’m flying a Maule MX7-180, and I’m as happier than I ever was flying the Mooneys. I flew the Maule from Seattle to Manassas, Virginia this summer and it was a wonderful trip. I cruise at about 110 knots, but I see viable landing fields everywhere I look these days and I don’t have to plan my approaches from as far out. It is an easy plane to enjoy now that I’m in less of a rush to get where I’m going, so the trips are more enjoyable all around. Besides, the opportunity to land away from airports has opened up a whole new world of exploration. Traveling slowly to places I want to be is a whole lot more fun than traveling quickly to places I need to be! Now I’ll choose the slow plane with fat tires every time over a fast retract!

  14. John says:

    The thing about flying slow airplanes is, of course, that your progress over the ground can be really, REALLY slow!

    One of my less-than-favorite flying memories is the time I was flying SW in an older C172 right over I-95 (in NJ or DE, as I recall), with a very strong, right-on-the-nose, headwind. As we flew along, we developed a new game that involved tracking the *parade* of 18-wheelers that appeared under our nose – and then slowly pulled out ahead of us … one after another, after another! Had a bit of a medical emergency on that flight – we almost sprained our thumbs, twiddling them so much …

    On the other hand, I very *fondly* remember the time (while still a student pilot) that I hit 110 mph driving out to the airport to go practice slow flying in a C150 at 55 mph … just to be able to say that I had actually, truly, done it – I had driven my car that day at TWICE the speed at which I later poked along in the Cessna! I’ll maintain to my dying day that this was just a single aberration in a long life of safe, careful flying (and equally-safe, mostly cautious driving … honest!) – but I do (clearly) love to be able to tell this absolutely truthful story of a memorable moment of my “youth”.

    BTW, I’ve heard stories for years about people who managed to fly *backwards* in a slow aircraft (say, in a mountain pass) when the headwind speed actually exceeded their airspeed, so that their net ground speed was of course negative – but I’ve never met anyone who could tell me they had done this, or knew anyone who had. Anyone here have any stories of that sort to tell?

    • I’ve done it and have pictures to prove it. The surface winds were right down Runway 25 at 25-30 knots, and winds aloft at 3000 were from 270 at 45 knots, so I took a Flight Design CTLS (a light sport) up and did slow flight at 40 knots. They trim out nicely and will hold 40 knots practically hands-off for as long as there is gas in the tanks, so since it had a glass panel with a Garmin 696 GPS in between, I took a picture of the heading indicator showing west while the GPS showed a groundspeed of 3 knots on a southeast course. If the air is smooth, it doesn’t feel any different than slow flight on any other day if you’re facing into the headwind.

      After we’d amused ourselves long enough by watching school buses pass us below, we went over to I-80, which runs almost due east/west here, pointed the nose to the north so the wind was 90 degrees off our left, and decided to see how far sideways we could make it over the freeway. The plane didn’t like that nearly as much, but I did get a shaky camera phone video of the houses going sideways below us.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    Hey folks,

    I fly my Warrior between Central Illinois and Middle Tennessee 12 to 15 times per year – mostly in the summer. I’m usually out early so I miss the thunderstorms but lot’s of times I try to return in the afternoons – typically lots of scattered to widely scattered thunderstorms. Although instrument rated I always make the return trip down low VFR – I pretty much visually avoid the thunderstorms or land – works pretty well.
    I’ve got XM weather and sometimes the run up over Evansville looks bad so I try to get around things by going up through Dyersburg – Cape – Farmington and then just West of St. Louis. Seems like half the time I do it I get stuck in Farmington. Moral of the story, if I had a quicker plane (140 knots plus) I think this would work more often, but by the time I get there it often seems the weather beats me there. That’s the wonder of a jet that can fly 250 miles off course largely effortlessly – or for that matter a plane that’s 20 or 30 knots faster.

    • Eddie says:

      I too have a Warrior and am based in middle Tennessee…

      I have found that on average, I can fly two or three people on a 450 mile trip (legal fuel reserve but no bladder reserve) in less total time than the scheduled airlines…

      If you consider the mandatory early arrival for TSA screening, at least one plane change in a hub city, and the long walk and longer wait at Baggage Claim, my little 120 knot Piper beats the big iron every time. And the bonus is it usually costs less per person and I’m on my schedule, not theirs…

      As I said, this is “on average”. There will always be times when weather or other factors make commercial flight the better option, but never the more fun one…

  16. Michael Cowan says:

    John,

    I’ve heard the “backwards” stories too. I can’t say it happened to me but it got close a couple of times flying East over the Grapevine.

    It’s really frustrating watching semis passing under you while they are climbing a steep mountain with their flashers on! The worst part, we were indicating 125 Knots at the time!

  17. William Hodges says:

    I know I am late commenting on this, but I own and fly a moderately slow plane and I think you have missed an important point. Its not weather a slow plane is practical transportation compared to a faster plane, but compared to whatever other transportation would be used. Compare my trip to my in-laws by car at 11 hours on I-95 to 4 hours in the plane plus prep time. It takes us 1/2 the time and much less agravation

  18. Ron Cox says:

    Fly backward? Yes, I have. Back in the days of working on my ppl…fall of ’79, my instructor and I were practicing touch and goes into a stiff wind right down the runway. After a couple of circuits, he suggested we climb a few thousand feet and practice slow flight. A power plant four miles away
    enabled us to easily turn directly into the wind using the smoke from the coal fired plant’s smokestacks. The 150 properly slowed with flaps extended and the stall warning blaring intermittently, my instructor said he had the airplane and asked me to look down at the ground and tell me if anything looked strange. We were, in fact, flying backward and it did, in fact, look strange.

  19. Brad Subler says:

    I once had a 150 k Mooney that I really enjoyed. Flew that plane all around the u.s. I now have a 115 k Tecnam light sport and have flown that on several trips over 800 k miles and many trips of 400 k miles. Since I am retired now, a slower airplane is not the liability it would have been before and the Tecnam is a hoot to fly.