All but one had a single goal…
It was my pleasure to fly virtually all the airplanes that were offered from the end of World War Two up to 2008, when I retired. I knew the people who designed, built and sold those airplanes and the combination of the people and the airplanes resulted in what I came to consider a personality. No, a Piper Comanche didn’t look like Mr. Piper but they did share personality traits because in those days folks created airplanes in their own image. There was no well-defined market so they built what they thought people would buy.
Over those years a number of airplanes impressed me as being “good” airplanes. I thought of many airplanes as “fads” because they burst on the scene and fizzled. A few were “ugly,” maybe because of their looks or maybe because of other things such as flight characteristics or poor performance. Rest assured that these are all personal opinions and I am sure many will differ.
I always thought that four/six place retractable single-engine piston airplanes offered the best possible balance of cost and performance. I thus paid special attention to what went on in this area. I will say that it was a lot of fun to fly and explore these airplanes when they were new and writing about them now kindles fond memories.
My “good” list here is topped by the Bonanza. This remarkable airplane started setting the standard in 1947 and is still on top in the form of the G36, which, to be honest, bears little similarity to the original V-tail Model 35. The last V-tail was built in 1982. The 36 offered a lot more utility for a little more money and won out.
Certainly every one of the many other airplanes I will mention here had the goal of besting the Bonanza. It still rolls off the assembly line, 67 years later, having shattered the dreams and fortunes of many others. It is the sole survivor of the first batch of airplanes in this class despite the fact that it costs about a hundred times as much today (in dollar dollars) as it did in 1947.
Some suggested that without the V-tail, no airplane should be called a Bonanza. What did those folks want them to call the 36, the Prince Air? I thought that continuing the Bonanza name after the V-tail was a fine thing to do because the newer airplanes were definitely evolutionary. Plus, if you have the best name going, why give it up?
Over the years, the Bonanza was stretched and improved and the horsepower almost doubled. Yes, it has changed but the fact is that the Bonanza has been in production longer than any other airplane. Ever. Over 17,000 have been built. More straight 1947 Model 35 Bonanzas, 1,500, were built than any other model of the V-tail and more than half the Bonanzas built have V-tails.
I became friends with Bonanzas as a kid charter pilot in the early 1950s. Subsequently, I flew every model of the Bonanza that was built before the G36. That would be all the 33s, 35s and 36s. Some of the 33s were called Debonairs but they were Bonanzas at heart. If Bonanza was the best airplane name ever, Debonair would be at least close to the worst. Later model Debonairs dropped that name and became Bonanzas.
On the occasion of the Bonanza’s 50th anniversary, in 1997, I got to put bookends of a sort on my Bonanza flying. The official 50th anniversary Bonanza was a 1997 B36TC. I got together with it and a beautifully restored 1947 Model 35 on a fine day to fly and enjoy both airplanes. I thought it was a nice thing for the Beech PR folks to do, especially for someone with Bonanza roots. They might not have been too impressed by the fact that I seemed more enamored with the old than the new.
When I mounted the old 35, N3307V, I thought back to an airplane that I flew a lot on charter flights, N3358V. The latter was probably 51 units down the line from 07V because they often used blocks of sequential N-numbers. They were building Bonanzas at a fast pace in 1947 so the age of the two airplanes was likely close.
When I was flying 58V some of the other pilots avoided it because it was a “light-wing Bonanza.” Those original airplanes did have some wing problems but all were modified and the wings looked just fine to a 20-year old Bonanza captain. I never really gave it much thought.
Legendary show-pilot Bevo Howard apparently didn’t think Bonanza wings were weak, either. Showmanship was the name of the game at that time and Bevo put on a show (in an A35) at the 1948 Cleveland Air Races. He did rolls, loops, snap rolls including one at the top of a loop, and a host of other maneuvers. Lore had it that he did an outside loop but I don’t think that happened.
I was working for Central Flying Service in Little Rock, a Beech dealer, and most of our charter flights were within the State of Arkansas simply because most businesses then were intrastate. Using our service, a customer could hit several job sites or prospects in a day and be home for dinner.
A lot of the towns that they wanted to visit didn’t have a formal airport. Those in the farming part of the state, the east and southeast, did have duster strips and we were always welcome to use those. Central was also in the dusting business and I guess there was some reciprocity at work.
The duster strips were plenty long for our Bonanzas and the landing gear didn’t mind the unpaved surfaces at all. If there was a drawback, it was the Bonanza’s low wing which was not ideal in the summertime. We also had a Cessna 195 with an air ambulance kit but it was occasionally used for regular charter. With it, I could take a folding chair in the baggage compartment and sit under the wing, in the shade, while waiting for my passengers to come back from town. With a Bonanza, I had to sit under a tree and feed the chiggers, or sit in the hot airplane. There were usually no buildings or other facilities at duster strips.
Few of our Bonanzas had other than a primary instrument panel. The restored airplane that I flew years later had a full panel. That was available as an option in 1947 but almost nobody flew IFR then so there was little demand for a full set of gyro instruments.
That first Bonanza did not have nosewheel steering, nor did it have an electric fuel pump. There was what was called a “wobble” pump that was combined with the fuel selector to put the pilot in charge of the fuel system. If the engine-driven fuel pump failed, the pilot had only to use one of his left hands to pump while using the other left hand to fly. The handle moved left or right to select the desired tank.
The allowable center of gravity range on all V-tail Bonanzas was rather small with the aft limit being the most restrictive as well as the most critical. In the 1950s we didn’t think a lot about that and CG was not even covered on the 25 true-false question private pilot written.
The Bonanza had a unique way of telling you about this. If you were loading two passengers in the back seat, large passengers would cause the tail of the airplane to settle to the ground. That meant moving a portly one to the front and putting a skinny one in the back. Once loaded, if the load was too far aft, the airplane was difficult to steer on the ground because when the nose strut was fully extended, the nosewheel locked in the center.
We actually had one pilot who, cognizant of degraded handling qualities caused by aft CG, asked his passengers to lean as far forward as possible for takeoff and initial climb. Maybe that helped or maybe it just made him feel better.
Beech did like to promote its airplanes and some of the flashiest early Bonanza promotions included long distance record flights.
The first was flown in 1949 by Bill Odom and was to be from Honolulu to New York (Teterboro). Nasty weather in the vicinity of Reno cut this one short but he landed at Oakland 22 hours and a few minutes after takeoff and set a record for the airplane class. He tried again a couple of months later and made it to Teterboro in just over 36 hours and set a number of records in the process. The same airplane, the fourth Model 35 built, was used for both flights. Sadly Bill Odom was killed in a P-51 at the Cleveland Air Races a few months after the last record flight.
I was not yet a pilot at the time, but I read about the flights and wondered what it would be like to sit in an airplane for 36 hours.
Then, in 1958, Beech upped the ante by sponsoring a 6,856 statute mile flight from Manila to Pendleton, Oregon. This one was flown by (airline) Captain Pat Boling and took 45 hours and 43 minutes. The takeoff weight was almost double the maximum allowable weight of the original Bonanza. Unlike Odom’s airplane, modified mainly by the addition of fuel tanks, Boling’s airplane was built up especially for the flight and included sections of the Model 95 (Travel Air) wing.
Beech decided that was enough and when Peter Gluckmann approached them about beating Boling’s record they declined to sponsor or support the attempt but they did sell Gluckmann the airplane. He and the airplane came to rest at the bottom of the Pacific, leaving the record unbroken, for the time being. More about that later.
The B36TC of 50 years later was unquestionably an entirely different airplane than the 35, including a longer fuselage and better CG range. A lot of basic shapes remained the same but few if any parts were likely interchangeable. The only one I could see was the little rod that props the door open.
I flew both airplanes and they were nice to fly but with a difference. Mainly the 35 flew like the lighter airplane that it is. The pitch forces were lighter but both airplanes were Bonanza-crisp in roll.
It was interesting that most of the speeds for the two airplanes were little different despite the difference in weight (2,550 v. 3,850 pounds) and horsepower (165 max continuous v. 300). The difference was that the 35 flew in miles per hour and the B36TC in knots. Even the cruise at 10,000 feet was about the same, at 175. The gear and flaps extension speeds on the old airplane were almost ridiculously low at 100 mph. Slowing down in advance was definitely a technique item in an old Bonanza.
V-tail Bonanzas had a safety record that was average at best. It was often a high-performance airplane in the hands of a low-performance pilot which put it at a disadvantage. When a pilot would blunder VFR into clouds and lose control, the airplane’s speed would quickly move outside the envelope and an airframe failure would often follow. No meaningful research was ever done into what role the degraded handling qualities caused by the CG being aft of the limit might have had in this context even though the passenger/baggage load in many of the accidents suggested that the CG was aft of the limit.
Much was made of the airframe failures by naysayers, one of whom will likely comment on this for you after it is posted. I did do enough research to learn that the Model 33 with a conventional tail had just as many loss of control accidents as the V-tail with the primary difference being the 33 breaking up as it hit the ground where the 35 would break before it hit the ground. That made little difference to the people inside.
Extensive testing was done on the V-tail and a mod was developed that strengthened the usual point of first failure. The mod was for C35 and subsequent models which had wider chord tail surfaces.
The old 35 and the new B36TC are both airplanes of their time and the Bonanza’s reign was a result of all Beech did to improve the airplane over the years that it has been built. They used to change the letter designation every year, A35 to V35 for example, and some models were changed a lot and others a little. My pick of the litter was always the P35 when they transitioned to a far more professional instrument panel and made other good changes. It still flew with the 260 hp Continental which I always liked.
One thing that never changed was the flying qualities that most pilots dearly loved. Flying a Bonanza was always a pleasant experience for most and well as for me. I would go back to the jargon of the 1950s and say “It was a joy to fly!” but that sounds hokey as all get-out in 2014.
Beech did build another retractable but it was definitely not a competitor for the Bonanza. The Sierra was a retractable version of the original Musketeer design, with a 200 hp engine and a lot of refinements. An oddity was that the main landing gear retracted outward. Can you think of another airplane that did this? Hint: Liberal, Kansas, where the Musketeer was built, was a B-24 base during World War Two. Must be something in the water.
The Sierra was comfortable and pleasant to fly. I once made an IFR trip through an occluding front in a Sierra and while the ride sucked, hand flying the airplane in the wind shear turbulence was not that demanding.
The Sierra was painfully slow. If you beat it with a stick, it might get close to 130 knots for cruise.
A lot of other retractables came along to challenge the Bonanza. Beech was dedicated to high-quality airplanes at correspondingly high prices so it was easy for other manufacturers to offer airplanes with similar performance at a lower cost.
The first direct challenge to the Bonanza by a similar airplane came from the North American Navion. This airplane was at a disadvantage from the start. Earlier I mentioned personalities. In 1950, Olive Ann Beech took the reins after her husband Walter Beech died. She had been involved with the company for years and was invested in general aviation. Mrs. Beech would accept nothing but excellence in quality and performance. I don’t think the Navion enjoyed that level of management interest.
North American was a big company that was famous for the P-51, one of the premier fighters in World War Two. I guess there was some feeling that this success could morph into light airplanes, thus the Navion.
The Navion was a great flying airplane but, using the same engine, its performance was quite far behind the Bonanza. To some, the Navion seemed more macho than a Bonanza but that didn’t translate into a lot of sales. I flew Navions from the first (actually an L-17 to begin that I converted from military to civilian for use in our Army Flying Club) to the last Rangemaster. My strongest impression was that, while nice to fly, it was not competitive.
North American gave up in 1948 and sold the design to Ryan. That company upgraded the design and built over 1,000 Navions but it ran out of steam there, too, and has passed through various owners since. There have been and probably always will be noises made about resurrecting the Navion but the usual result has been a flurry of activity that uses up a set of money and then goes away. Navion lovers love their airplanes and I don’t blame them, but as a product the Navion was a fad that passed in a few years after World War Two.
I did once fly one of the most unusual Navions ever. Two were operated by the Princeton Flight Research Laboratory, headed by my old friend Dave Ellis, and they were modified to be variable stability airplanes. Computers would drive all manner of different control surfaces to make them fly like anything the computer told them to fly like. Flying some of the things Dave loaded in for me to try in one of the airplanes made for some of the most intense aviating that I have ever done.
Last I heard, the variable stability Navions were at the University of Tennessee Space Institute.
The “Big Three” in post-World War Two general aviation were Beech, Piper and Cessna, always listed in that order for no reason that I ever understood.
Piper set out to defrock the Bonanza with a brand new airplane, the Comanche. It was flying in 1956 and the prototype was on the cover of the July issue of AIR FACTS.
The first Comanche flew with a 180 horsepower Lycoming where the Bonanza G35 of that year had a 225 Continental. The prototype Comanche had a little austerity in the form of a manually operated landing gear and the main gear itself looked almost exactly like a Mooney gear (which was also manually operated). Otherwise the Comanche that was produced looked just like the prototype except the gear was electrically operated and the main gear used oleo struts.
The Bonanza had a comfortable four-place cabin with plenty of room for baggage and the Comanche aimed to match that. I think the cabin was actually a little wider though the Bonanza was taller.
What was sensible about both airplanes was the fact that the cabin was designed for four and only four. The day was yet to come when manufacturers would cram more furniture into the cabins than might be found in a New York apartment. However, putting five or six seats in a four-place cabin didn’t really mean much because of weight and CG considerations. For a fact, one manufacturer used dummies instead of people on photo missions showing six occupants in what was really a four-place airplane. Trouble was dummies couldn’t smile for the camera.
The very first production Comanches were late 1957 models and the 180 Comanche was joined by the 250 Comanche in 1958. AIR FACTS leased first a 180 and then a 250 Comanche and we flew them until the Twin Comanche came out in 1964.
The 180 Comanche was short-lived. It wasn’t a bad airplane but, hey, more horsepower is better so the 250 outsold it by a lot from the start. I remember talking to the pilot of the first 250 Comanche I saw out in the field. I asked him how he liked it. He said “Anybody who doesn’t like this doesn’t like airplanes.” Of course, he was a Piper salesman.
The Comanche was a pleasant airplane to use and when the fuel supply was increased from 60 to 90 gallons it became a true long-range airplane. I was making frequent 900 nm trips at that time and a 90-gallon Comanche would almost always do the eastbound version nonstop.
There was a lot of family flying being done at the time and the Comanche was adaptable to this in more ways than you might imagine.
With really little kids, you could take out the right front seat, easily done, and put a baby carrier on the floor, right in front of the right rear passenger. That made diaper changing easier though the captain would usually choose not to have his peanut butter sandwich at that time. If there was another child, she could ride in the back, by her mother.
That right front seat that was removed would actually fit into the baggage compartment, along with quite a bit of luggage, so when you offloaded the kids with their grandmother and were taking another couple to the Cotton Bowl, the four seat configuration could be restored in minutes.
If it sounds like I did all that, I did, more than once, but not always to a game. If you want the Cotton Bowl score from that year, it was Duke 7, Arkansas 6. The Hogs didn’t “go” that day.
Competition is a wonderful thing and Piper had its eye on a Bonanza prize in the form of those long distance records.
Where Beech had enlisted experienced professionals for their long-distance flights, Piper took a different tack. They enlisted a flying grandfather, the legendary (at that time) Max Conrad who had earlier set a transcontinental distance record in a Piper Pacer.
Conrad’s first and longest record hop was in a 250 Comanche, from Casablanca to Los Angeles, 7,668.5 statute miles, easily beating the Bonanza record. He did it again a bit later, in a 180 Comanche, Casablanca to El Paso, 6,966.71 miles for a record in a different class. Conrad set a number of other records over the years.
I didn’t know the pilots who set the Bonanza records, but I did know Max Conrad and to know him was to understand how he could manage to sit in a Comanche (or a Pacer) for enough hours to fly those long distances. He had both great self-discipline and the ability to relax, or to zone out. I always imagined that at the end of one of those long flights he looked up at the destination airport and thought, “What, I am here already?” He was an interesting and fun person and he loved to square dance.
Flying IFR was becoming much more common in the early Comanche days and one with the top-of-the-line avionics package was well equipped for IFR flying. Only Narco radios were offered and that was really the only choice because King Radio had not yet become a big factor in the avionics world. You might say that Pipers of that era were all-Pennsylvania airplanes with Piper in Lock Haven, Lycoming in Williamsport, and Narco in Fort Washington.
I learned a couple of IFR lessons in our 250 Comanche.
The first came after an IFR departure from Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania. I had to get a clearance on the phone and so armed I launched into low clouds. Hello. Hello. I couldn’t make contact with air traffic control. On top of that the nav needles, while alive, were flopping about aimlessly.
I climbed to the assigned altitude and knew that it would be a safe altitude in the direction I was flying. Then I set out to see if I could identify the problem. This was distracting, I was hand flying, and at one point I noticed that I was inadvertently in a 45-degree bank. Whoa, time to just fly straight and level. A good friend and experienced pilot was with me but he was apparently as discombobulated as I was.
I knew the weather was better in the direction I was going so I quit trying to solve the problem and just concentrated on flying. The clouds came to an end and the radios started working, sort of. I did finally make contact with ATC and cancelled IFR and flew on home VFR and then called and explained the situation.
The airplane had sat out in heavy rain for a number of hours before takeoff. There was an air scoop atop the fuselage for cabin ventilation and the system had a drain at the low point to get rid of any water. The drain was clogged so a copious amount of water had dripped on the aft-mounted remote power supplies of the Mark V radios. Nothing worked until they dried out.
It’s easy to say that I should have ascertained that the radios were working before takeoff but there was no way to do that. I think they had Unicom at Mount Pocono but there was nobody there where we left. In later years, I never departed IFR without a radio check.
The other lesson learned came in one of the few substantial icing encounters I had in 57 years of flying. I was headed southwest, actually en route to the Cotton Bowl that I mentioned earlier. I had a one-on-one weather briefing at Nashville that suggested there would be ice-free altitudes all the way to a stop at Little Rock.
Not so and I broke a rule that I followed since. Treat ice like smoke in the cockpit. Do something now. I started picking up light ice first and changed altitude. I could tell by the outside air temperature that it was going to be close and it was. More ice started forming.
By the time I was just south of Memphis, it was clear that I had flown for too long in the ice and had to land as soon as possible. I flew the ILS to a long runway (9) at Memphis, left the flaps up, landed hot, and taxied a well-iced Comanche to the Memphis Aero ramp. They put the airplane in the hangar to deice it but I told them I would pass on further flying that day. The Collins family spent New Year’s Eve in one of the first, if not the first, Holiday Inns that was ever built.
Piper built 148 Comanches with an eight-cylinder, 400 hp engine up front. The increase in cruising speed was minuscule when compared with the fuel flow and noise. It was not a particularly pleasant airplane to fly. Increasing the horsepower does all manner of things to screw up the pitch stability of an airplane and the things that have to be done to offset that often result in degraded handling qualities.
I have fond memories of the 250 Comanche and always thought that while it certainly did not match a Bonanza, it was a good useful airplane. It lasted from 1958 to 1972 and a total of 4,857 were built.
One reason the Comanche came to an end was a historic flood at Lock Haven that ruined the factory and destroyed a whole lot of airplanes. After that, Piper shifted to Vero Beach and developed the retractable versions of the PA-28 and PA-32. They were the Arrow and the Lance (later the Saratoga) and while both were useful airplanes, they lacked the performance of the Bonanza. Currently Piper builds a few Arrows on special order for training institutions.
Piper put a T-tail on both the Arrow and the Lance and the less said about the flying qualities of those two airplanes, the better. Bad idea, and the airplanes went back to low tails.
I had a Cherokee Six for quite a while, a fixed-gear Lance, so to speak, and it suited our growing family perfectly. Each kid had a chair, with one to spare, and there was plenty of luggage room (but not more than you can carry, only the pilot got that allowance back in the days of heavy Jeppesen chart books).
Piper also developed the last piston retractable to be certified. Thirty years ago the pressurized PA-46 Malibu was introduced and while successful, it came after the general aviation boom had fizzled and a big market share didn’t mean much in the way of volume.
The Malibu was and is hands-down beautiful and has a handsome six-place cabin but it lacks the useful load to be a real six-place airplane. The handling qualities are nothing special and the ride in turbulence is a bit bouncy.
The Malibu had engine problems from the start and a Lycoming engine took the place of the original Continental. I don’t know how much better it worked but I do know that the vibration level in the Lycoming airplane seemed a bit higher.
The PA-46 is currently offered in three versions: piston unpressurized (Matrix), piston pressurized (Mirage) and turboprop (Meridian). All sell slowly and steadily with the turboprop usually the best seller of the lot.
The Bonanza’s Wichita neighbor, Cessna, offered the 190/195 as its high-performance single right after the war. It was a curious choice for the marketplace. It was a new airplane based on the prewar wooden Airmaster but of all-metal construction. The airplane had a fixed landing gear and used a radial engine of which there were thousands upon thousands available in the surplus market. The most-built 195 used a 300 hp Jacobs; the few 190s that were built used a lower-horsepower Continental. The round engine dictated a bigger fuselage to follow it around and the result was a spacious cabin for four or five (three across in back).
The Jacobs was reasonably efficient with a specific fuel consumption (pounds per hour per horsepower) that was much like the horizontally opposed engines. It was pretty standard, though, to add a few quarts of oil and then check it before further flight. If the Jacobs had a weakness it was the tendency to “swarm,” as we used to call a catastrophic engine failure. A friend was taking an instrument check ride in a 195, the engine swarmed, he landed it on a levee, and the FAA (then CAA) inspector promptly issued his instrument rating. If you are working on an instrument rating, do practice your levee landings.
I always thought the 195 was fun to fly. This was a time when most of us didn’t care whether the airplane had a tailwheel or a nosewheel. You had to pay attention to land both, but you did have to pay a little closer attention with the tailwheel. The 195 just seemed like a big, tough airplane and you could actually roll the pilot’s window down with a crank. For some reason, that was, to some pilots, a complete turn-on.
The military also bought the airplane, designated LC-126 for that purpose, but the 195 was short-lived, 1947-1954, with most built early in the period. It was simply not a competitor for the Bonanza.
It took Cessna a few years, a little bit longer than Piper, to come out with a true Bonanza-competitor. The 210 was introduced in late-1959 as a 1960 model.
That first 210 was basically a retractable 182 but with more horsepower, 260 v. 230. I have seen a picture of the first effort and it was literally a 182 with folding wheels. By the time the transformation was completed, Cessna had switched to a rakishly swept vertical tail and made other changes that gave the airplane an entirely new visual personality. It was a handsome airplane.
When the 210 was first introduced, everyone was curious about how the main gear went from extended to stowed in the belly of the airplane. Someone came up with a simple paper clip explanation. I actually still have a paper clip and just tried to do this but all these years later I couldn’t remember how. In the unlikely event you have a paper clip, see what you can do. It has to do with an angle.
AIR FACTS had one of those first 210s. My father flew it most of the time while I used the Comanche most, but I flew the 210 enough to come to like it. For one thing, it had fuel-injection which meant that for the first time I didn’t have to fool with carburetor heat. It was a good smooth-running engine, too.
The 210 lasted from 1957 until 1986 when it fell victim to the cataclysmic decline in general aviation aircraft sales. Cessna opted not to bring it back when they resumed production on the 172, 182 and 206. A total of 9,240 were built so while it was a good competitor for the Bonanza, and outsold it when both were on the market, it fell far short of Bonanza total production.
The 210 was altered greatly over its life. It went from being a retractable 182 to a full six-place airplane (with enough space and useful load to make that a reality) to a turbocharged and a pressurized airplane. See the post about my P210, N40RC, for more information on the latter.
One thing that I didn’t mention about the P210 is the fact that I flew the type with three different piston engines and two different turboprop engines. There was always interest in making it into something more powerful.
There was a P210 mod that fitted a Lycoming. This looked good but, in fact, little was gained from it. I flew a photo mission in that airplane, using a Bonanza 36 as the photo platform airplane, and was constantly asking the Bonanza pilot to power down so I could keep up. Some airplanes were converted under an STC. I suppose those who enjoyed the Lycoming v. Continental debate might have taken comfort in the fact that a switch could be made.
Cessna put a geared 421 engine in a P210, 375 horsepower, and I flew that off the Cessna factory strip with the chief engineer. The view out front was somewhat obstructed by the hump on top of the cowling that housed the gear box for the big prop. One advantage was the prop being farther off the ground so they could have a larger prop to take proper advantage of the horsepower. The ride was amazingly quiet and smooth. Cessna was apparently not serious about it as a product because they only flew it for a while and then put it back into the original configuration.
The Silver Eagle Allison turboprop conversion offered by O&N aircraft for the P210 is an excellent mod. Cessna actually did the same thing, built two airplanes that would have been the Cessna 250 if produced, and then the bottom fell out of the market. I always wondered if O&N had benefit from the work Cessna had done but could never get anyone to comment on this.
I also flew a P210 with a PT-6 turboprop. That was way too much engine for the airplane and the prop size dictated by ground clearance was far from ideal. The Allison turboprop was a much better fit for the airplane. The PT-6 mod did get an STC but it was never really marketed.
The 210 was, simply, an airframe that was adaptable to a lot of different things and it offered a lot of utility and performance at a relatively reasonable price. The handling qualities did suffer as horsepower was increased and CG limits were stretched out a little past where they should have really been set.
Right up until the end of production, the nicest 210 to fly was the plain old 210 with no turbocharging and no pressurization. Three of us from FLYING took one of each out for an evaluation, swapping airplanes for each leg, and everyone agreed on which was the most pleasant to fly: the plain old 210.
One curiosity about the 210 v. Bonanza competition relates to turbocharging. Both airplanes were offered with it and in later years the great majority of the 210s produced were T210s. Over at Beech, turbocharging for the Bonanza was far less popular. Maybe it was the personality of the buyer or maybe it was because Cessna did a better job of adapting their airplane to turbocharging.
There is evidence of this. Cessna never went for distance records with the 210 but the airplane was used to set notable records. On 1/11/1966, Walter Cable set an altitude record of 39,334 feet in a stock T210. Shortly after that, he did it again in a modified T210 (more horsepower) by climbing to 43,699 feet. Top that. I don’t know that Cessna actually had anything to do with these records.
In later years, airplanes had maximum certified altitudes but when those 210s were built there was no limitation.
Back in the 1970s Cessna was building an airplane for every conceivable niche and had RG versions of the 172, 177 and 182. I had a 177 (Cardinal) RG for a while and it served well. It was about five or eight knots faster than the Piper Arrow III I had for a while but it always seemed to lack spirit, whatever that might be in an airplane. Turbocharging was also offered for a while in the 182RG as well as in the Piper Arrow, Lance and Saratoga. None of these were too well done.
A lot of other companies tried to compete in the retractable single market and Mooney probably tried harder than anyone else.
Mooney Aircraft actually started in 1929 but that was a bad time for anything and it went bankrupt in 1930.
Mooney resurfaced after World War Two and I have heard many wonderful tales about how it wound up in Kerrville, Texas. No two were alike so I just always chose to believe the one I liked best. It involved old family friend George Haddaway, a consummate Texan and publisher of FLIGHT magazine. He sold the Mooney folks on Texas in general and Kerrville in particular and I am sure he helped arrange tax incentives and such.
Mooney’s first retractable single definitely did not target the Bonanza. The M-18 was a single seat airplane that looked like a miniature version of the Mooneys we have known and loved since the first M-20 was produced in 1955.
For some unknown reason, we had an M-18 at the FBO where I worked for a short while. To check a pilot out, we’d get some muscle, put the M18 up on saw horses, and show anyone who wanted to fly it how to retract and extend the landing gear.
The main thing I remember about my one M-18 flight was wondering how long it would take me to get it back on the ground. It did not feel right to me. I was surprised to learn these many years later that Mooney built more than 300 M-18s. I thought it was a much smaller number.
I rode in, but did not fly the first production M-20 in 1955, out of Linden Airport in New Jersey. My father was evaluating it for an AIR FACTS pilot report and my recollection of the flight was that I thought the cabin was awfully small for a four-place airplane.
The many entities that built Mooneys went in and out of business on a fairly regular basis. The question often comes up about how many owners Mooney as a company has had over the years. The only accurate answer would be “a lot.”
There were some good Mooney years in the 1960s and 70s and there were probably years when the company turned a good profit, or at least a profit. However, it always managed to run aground one more time.
For years, efficiency was the hallmark of the Mooney, I think more were built with four-cylinder Lycomings than any other powerplant but the Mooney got one six-cylinder Lycoming (the TLS), a six-cylinder Porsche engine (the PFM), and a whole host of six-cylinder Continentals. For the most part, the company did a good job of turbocharging on the airplanes offered with that feature.
Why, with the price of fuel going through the roof, did they abandon the 200 hp 201, which would cruise not much slower than a Bonanza on not much more than two-thirds of the fuel? Simple math. The fancier airplanes with the bigger engines could be built for not much more money (the increased cost of the engine and prop) than the 201 and they could be sold (in smaller numbers) for a lot more money. The Mooney airframe was labor-intensive and the man-hours of labor required to get one out the door was an expensive proposition regardless of which engine was used.
In the 1960s there was a lot of talk about Mooney overstating the cruising speed of their airplanes. When they came out with the Super 21 with a 200 hp Lycoming everybody wondered if the claimed speed was fact or fiction. Mooney wasn’t alone here as most manufacturers looked at performance through rose-colored glasses at that time.
I liked to race airplanes to get a true measure of speed so told the Mooney demo pilot that I wanted to race his airplane against our 250 Comanche. He agreed.
The rules of the race were simple: full power at 1,500 feet. Do that and there is no doubt about which airplanes is fastest. In relative terms, any difference would be the same as the difference at cruise.
The 250 Comanche was ever so slightly faster than the Mooney. This was pre-knots and I counted on 170 mph (145 knots) as the normal cruise for the Comanche so the Mooney would be about the same.
I’ll hasten to add that those old Mooneys had terribly inefficient cowlings and when this was addressed with the 201, the Mooney speed actually went up quite a bit and was as advertised.
Mooney developed a pressurized single, the Mustang, but it was expensive to build and was described by one pilot as “a slug.” Not many were sold and the airplane is often cited as the reason for one of Mooney’s many sinking spells.
I flew a lot of different Mooneys over the years and rented a turbocharged 252 for a month while my P210 was in for an engine overhaul. The 252 was a capable airplane that I enjoyed flying but I always thought the 180 hp Mooney with the manually-retractable gear was the most enjoyable to fly. It is rather like something simple that you put on and then fly away.
Mooney is running with new investors today and last I heard they projected a gradual return of Mooney production. I hope they make it. The good people of Kerrville, Texas, have stood by Mooney through thick and thin and renewed activity at the airport would be well deserved.
North American Rockwell badly wanted to be in this business and bought the Meyers 200, a mostly hand-built four-place airplane with a 285 hp Continental. It was renamed the Aero Commander 200 and was built in a new factory on the Albany, Georgia, airport.
The trouble with the 200 was the cost to build it. Like the Mooney, the airframe was expensive to build and what little tooling they got with the purchase was not of much help. They admitted to spending $4-milion to build $3-million worth of product but it was likely worse than that. The design was sold and another company put a turboprop engine on it but not much came of this.
I flew the 200 a couple of times and it was a pleasant airplane to fly. The ride in turbulence was a bit busy but that was all I really noticed about it. It was probably about the same speed as a Bonanza but the cabin was far from being as comfortable.
You have heard the old saying about throwing good money after bad. The art of doing this has been practiced almost to perfection in the general aviation airplane business. After the discontinued the 200, Rockwell set out to develop and all-new retractable. The first version was the Rockwell Commander 112, a 200 hp retractable. It was followed by the 114 with a 260 hp engine.
The 112/114 airplanes had a big cabin and flew reasonably well. They were both slower than like-powered airplanes but after a lot of airframe problems in the development and early production of the 112 they finally seemed to get most of that right.
The airplane was never a big success and the design has been sold several times and there have been good-faith efforts to revive it. So far, each has reached a conclusion that did not include producing airplanes on a regular basis.
Over time, a lot of smart (in other areas) people have looked at general aviation, decided that the manufacturers don’t know what they are doing, and set out to demonstrate how it should really be done. This was done on a massive billion-dollar scale with the Eclipse jet. The Aero Commander 112/114 program was on a far smaller scale but I’d still bet it was an expensive lesson. The inside joke then was that when a Harvard Business School grad showed up to run an airplane company, the end was near. (My father attended that school for a while and never argued with this theory.)
Another lesson was learned in Midland, Texas, where I once flew the Windecker Eagle, the first “composite” general aviation airplane.
First, are you ready for some corny? The FLYING blurb on an Eagle story: “A Resin in the Sun.” Barf.
The Eagle had a 285 engine and was actually quite pretty to look at. It was certified when I flew it but there were some rough spots.
The wing carry-through structure the FAA wanted all but dictated legless passengers in the back seat. Windecker was working to modify this but give the company credit for dealing with a bureaucracy that was gun-shy about certifying anything new especially a construction method. It is a wonder they got it certified at all.
The Eagle that I flew was incredibly noisy. One problem was that the main cabin door didn’t fit properly; the other was that nobody knew how to deaden sound in a composite airframe. I well recall Beech learning that lesson years later with the unconventional Starship composite turboprop twin. It was loud to begin, especially in the cabin. I likened it to being inside a bass drum with the band playing. I guess Cirrus and Lancair had this figured from the beginning because the SR airplanes and what later became the Cessna TTx have acceptable noise levels.
The Windecker Eagle had okay handling qualities and the performance was what would be expected from an airplane of this horsepower and configuration.
A few Eagles, nine, were built but like so many others, this airplane could never attract enough capital to become a competitor in the marketplace. The design has been sold and there have been the usual noises about bringing it back, turboprop power, and all the rest.
Walter Extra, of aerobatic airplane fame, designed, certified and built a retractable single. The pressurized composite Extra EA-400 used a liquid-cooled Continental that was barely used elsewhere (on a Cessna twin conversion) and everything else about it appeared unconventional. It did have a cavernous club-seating cabin.
Like the 210, the EA-400 main gear retracted into the fuselage. But where you could simulate the 210 landing gear action with a paperclip, it would take a top-of-the-line Erector set to match the complexity of the Extra landing gear.
As far as I know the EA-400 never could attract the capital required for production and the airplane is pretty much in limbo. A turboprop version, the EA-500, was developed and certified and, to me, it was a far better airplane but they are not rolling off a production line anywhere.
Look at the picture of an EA-400 and make your own decision about the appearance of the airplane. Personally, I would never call anything designed by Walter Extra “ugly.”
Bellanca is one of the oldest names in general aviation, dating back to 1927. To most today, Bellanca is or was the Viking, a four place retractable that, as the Super Viking, had a 300 hp Continental and Bonanza-like performance.
With its wood wing and steel tubing and fabric construction elsewhere, many felt like the Bellanca was still being built after its time had passed. The airplane had fans, though, along with the dedicated folks at the Alexandria, Minnesota, home of Bellanca, and production started and stopped as demand ebbed and flowed amidst financial upheavals.
The Bellanca Viking was neither pleasant nor unpleasant to fly. I remember once thinking it reminded me of an old Pullman railroad car. I guess that meant I felt it was a bit cumbersome as well as out of date.
As with so many other old names, Bellanca wound up attached to an all-new airplane, the Bellanca Aires T-250, in 1977. This metal airplane was designed in Texas, by Anderson, Greenwood and Company and was an FAA-certified T-tail four place with a 250 hp Lycoming. It became a Bellanca because of some connection between the two companies.
The T-250 was a nice airplane to fly and might have made its way if the capital had been around to fund it. Only five were built and the airplane was never really “produced.”
I vividly recall the first time I saw a T-250. I was with a photographer and Marvin Greenwood, a fine fellow and one the airplane’s designers.
Marvin showed us the airplane in its hangar. I raised an eyebrow but the photographer slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand and said something like “Holy Cow, you have got to be kidding.” His outburst in front of the person who designed it was embarrassing to me but Marvin just laughed.
The T-250 was a bit on the boxy side and the narrow track of the main landing gear was a bit different. Out of the hangar it looked better and in fight it looked even better though still boxy.
The Bellancas, both wooden and metal, are bits of history and I will say that I admired the tenacity of the folks who tried to make them a factor in the market. Tenacity, though, can get pretty expensive.
The more popular of those single-engine retractables accounted for tens of thousands of sales over the years. They were the darlings of manufacturers and airplane owners. Now, only three are in regular production: the two Piper PA-46s (Malibu Mirage and Matrix) and the Bonanza G36. A big-engine fixed-gear, the Cirrus SR-22, outsells the retractables by a huge margin and I guess it does so because it offers about the same performance without the complexity of folding wheels. As a purist, though, I have to say: “Yes, but it is no Bonanza.”