Those pilot reports – of the magazine variety

Editor’s note: This is the latest in Richard Collins’ series called “Logbooks,” where he looks back through his decades of flying experiences to recall some of the memorable airplanes he’s flown. You can read more here.

Actually there is not a lot of difference between a pilot report (PIREP) of conditions encountered on a flight and the pilot reports that have long been a staple in aviation magazines. Both report on what was encountered while flying though the ones about airplanes often go into all aspects of research, development and manufacturing.

Over my 50 years in the print magazine business I would estimate that I wrote at least 300 pilot report features plus a lot of other airplane coverage in columns. I started to go back and count exactly how many there were but decided that wouldn’t be any fun. Instead, I’ll tell you about some that were different enough for me to vividly remember.

I flew airplanes for reports as if I were considering a purchase. That way, I tried to see the airplanes as a real buyer. I couldn’t come close to affording a lot of them, but, hey, there is always the lottery and the dilemma of what to do with all that cash.

I do want to make note of one thing to begin. The technology involved in low speed aerodynamics and piston engines had reached a plateau when I wrote my first pilot report in 1959. That plateau had actually been reached in 1947 with the Bonanza.

The Bonanza was designed to cruise at the same speed as the dominant airliner of the day, the DC-3. The latest Bonanza will go a bit faster than the original, but the airliners of today cruise almost three times faster than a DC-3. The amazing thing about airliner technology is that they have seen that amazing speed increase with an actual reduction in what it costs to fly one seat one mile. Nothing in private aviation has even come close to that feat. So, what I wrote for 50 years was about, for lack of better words, a stationary target.

A note of irony to begin: Over the years I was branded as “anti-twin” because I often wrote about that fact that from a statistical standpoint twins can be less safe than singles. I did always hasten to add that this is not the case if the pilot is truly proficient. Trouble is, most pilots who buy twins fly them safely until an engine quits and then that is often the end of the story. They just were not proficient enough to handle the real thing.

Air Facts 1959 Commander review
Collins’ first pilot report, in the April 1959 edition of Air Facts.

The note of irony is the fact that my first pilot report, in the April, 1959 issue of AIR FACTS was about a twin, the Aero Commander 500, and my last, in the July, 2006 issue of FLYING was also about at twin, the Diamond Twin Star. The only significance is that it happened that way but a difference in the two airplanes reflects one of the few changes in light airplane engine technology over those years. The Twin Star uses Jet-A burning diesel engines. This would likely never have happened had 100-octane fuel remained available worldwide and had not been under fire domestically because of lead content.

I was 25 when I went to Oklahoma City to fly the Aero Commander 500. I was a hot-shot twin pilot, with a substantial amount of time in a Twin Bonanza as well as Travel Air and Apache experience. I had also instructed some in twins. I thus had no qualms about checking out in the airplane and flying it to its new owner, Reading Aviation Service in Reading, Pennsylvania.

I wrote quite a bit about the manufacture of Aero Commanders because their factory had burned down and the new factory was coming fully on-line at the time I visited. Because they didn’t yet have avionics installation capability, the 500 I would be taking east had a Narco Superhomer running off a cigar-lighter plug-in. That radio was VFR-only and provided a little navigational guidance plus the ability to talk to control towers and the FSS stations of the day. (I think they were called INSACs at the time, for Interstate Airways Communications Stations.) The desired avionics would be installed in the field.

I also wrote a lot about the ground school. The ground school covered all Aero Commanders of the day. The 500 was the runt of the litter, followed by the 560E, 680E and pressurized (barely) 720.

The big deal for the pilot report should have been the flying but I only wrote a little about the checkout and not a lot more about the trip from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania. I guess I got carried away with those other details.

Maybe the reason I didn’t give the trip a lot of ink was that it didn’t work out according to plan. It was a long VFR trip in late winter and plans for such are hard to make and even harder to follow.

I left after lunch and only got as far as Springfield, Missouri, before a combination of darkness and weather made a stop and hotel for the evening seem like my only option.

I was used to IFR flying and when I got up the next morning and looked out the window, I had to adjust my thinking from IFR to VFR. What I saw was obviously not VFR and I wasn’t surprised when a call to the weather bureau suggested that I enjoy the day and another night in Springfield.

Narco Superhomer
The Narco Superhomer – not a great avionics stack for a cross country in an Aero Commander.

The offending cold front passed, moved rapidly eastward, and deposited VFR weather over the route. As I was to learn, that wasn’t all it deposited.

Up to this particular winter, all I knew about flying in that season had been learned in the southeastern United States. My weather wisdom there was pretty good where it was nonexistent in the north central and northeast U. S.

The strong gusty wind at an Indianapolis fuel stop was no surprise. My first landing on a snow covered runway was and I was amazed at how fluffy the landing in the white stuff felt. I was also amazed by how much power it took to taxi.

At this time we got weather briefings from real people and the fellow I talked to in Indianapolis was clear and concise. It was a typical post-cold-frontal situation with strong northwesterly winds, snow showers over the mountains but with relatively low cloud tops, and clear to scattered clouds at my destination. No problem, in other words.

The flight went as planned. The clouds beneath were solid over the mountains but they broke up as soon as I got over toward the coastal plain. Gee, everything sure was white, though.

Reading Tower told me the runway had been cleared and the braking action was fair, as reported by a truck. I had never gotten a braking action report before but figured that “fair” was fair enough. The tower added that snow removal was just beginning for the taxiways and ramps. After I landed, the tower directed me to a cleared spot on a taxiway and said to park there and someone would be out to get me.

There was over a foot of snow and I could tell that the folks at Reading thought I should have waited another day before delivering their new airplane. That was water under the bridge and getting to our apartment in West Orange, New Jersey, was far more stressful and time-consuming than the flights of that day.

I agonized over that pilot report but finally finished. My father, the editor, said that it was okay and it was cast in print if not stone. I don’t remember what grade I might have given it at the time but I read it again just now and a C-minus would be a generous grade.

I spent days with that airplane. My exposure to the Twin Star many years later amounted to a couple of hours and a local flight. That was the way a lot of pilot reports worked and the drill was to learn about and report on the important features and differences in the airplane in that brief time. In my role as a potential customer, I did come away from the Twin Star with a strong feeling that it would make a fine personal airplane if trips were not too long. I did get a hoot out of flying a twin with a control stick and those diesel engines were fascinating.

Where I knew that the 500 was my first pilot report, I didn’t know at the time that the Twin Star would be my last. As a result, I didn’t go through the process of ruminating about all the ones in between. I think I have heard country songs about stuff like that and I do like country music. I have since done the appropriate ruminating and will share a bit of it with you.

Were there bad airplanes along the way? You bet:

Prescott Pusher
The Prescott Pusher: “Finally met one I didn’t like.”

February 13, 1986, Prescott Pusher, N41PP, 3KM – Local, Finally met one I didn’t like. Not good.

March, 4, 1986, Prescott Pusher, N41PP, 3KM – Local, Still not a good airplane.

The pitch control system of the airplane was modified after my first flight in it. That’s why I made my way from New Jersey back to Wichita to fly it again and give it the benefit of any doubt. It was still unsatisfactory in pitch.

Another FLYING staffer had written about the airplane and, while acknowledging some tenderness in pitch, he said it was acceptable. A little birdie told me that was a whitewash and, as Editor-in-Chief, it was my responsibility to check that out. I put my observations in my column and was criticized by some for doing so. One pilot who had finished one of the kit-built Pushers read me the riot act about my comments. He later sent me a picture of the wreckage. Even though he was an experienced pilot, the Pusher had gotten away from him on a go-around.

The Pusher was allegedly the first general aviation airplane that was computer designed and it allegedly met Part 23 standards though it was to be offered as a kit. The project never got off the ground and few kits were delivered. I guess that meant it was back to the old slide rule.

Over the years, I did not shy away from flying experimental airplanes though I did go at this with a great deal of caution. Some things are evident. The Prescott Pusher was a short-coupled airplane and by nature it suggested the pitch instability that was there.

When I opened the throttle of Ed Swearingen’s SX-300 kit airplane to go flying, I glanced at what were tiny-looking wings and thought that if I hadn’t known Ed since we were in our twenties and starting out, I might not have flown this airplane.

Swearingen SX-300
The Swearingen SX-300 was a “small airplane with tiny wings and a humongous engine.”

The SX-300 turned out to be fine and was an airplane I would liked to have had and used if the need for a speedy two-place had been there. The airplane had great handling qualities but there was no doubt that it had to be handled with care. A small airplane with tiny wings and a humongous engine can’t really keep a secret.

I also flew the Questair Venture, rather a direct competitor to the SX-300, and found the flying qualities to be good though there was some awkwardness in ground handling and the cabin was far from being as nice as the SX-300. Jim Griswold, who had done the Piper Malibu, designed the Vantage and he contended that it was a scaled down Malibu.

Neither the SX-300 nor the Vantage found any degree of success in the kit airplane market even though both were good airplanes.

The Glasair airplanes did find a market and I made my way to Arlington, Washington, to fly and report on that company’s offering with a big engine. With the Glasair, you could actually put bigger wings on by adding outer wing panels. I flew it with the short wing. The flying qualities were fine but a successful power-off approach and landing would have taken a lot of practice. Energy management there would have been similar to that found during an autorotation in the Hughes 300 helicopter that I tried to master at one point.

One experimental airplane I didn’t get to fly was the Piper Advanced Technologies PAT-1. Designed at least in part by Howard “Pug” Piper, it was a futuristic-looking canard. I didn’t get to fly it because the airplane was lost with three aboard on a demo flight at NASA Langley. My flight was to be next.

NASA has toyed with the general aviation business over time and I always got the impression that it did this when it didn’t have anything else to do. Some of the early research by NASA’s predecessors did result in good things but in later years they seemed to tilt at windmills.

I found an example of this at Lawrence, Kansas, in the form of the Redhawk. The airplane was developed at the University of Kansas under a NASA contract or grant. Cessna also participated by selling them a Cardinal for a dollar and offering other support.

University of Kansas Redhawk
The Redhawk’s wing was significantly smaller than the Cessna Cardinal.

To say that the Redhawk was a highly modified Cessna Cardinal is a bit of an understatement. At least I thought replacing the wings with ones of not much more than half the size (110 square feet v. 175 square feet) was pretty radical. The thickness of the new wing was also greatly reduced from the old.

The idea was that the smaller wing would allow for a better ride in turbulence and a higher cruise speed because of less drag. To keep the stalling speed down, full span leading edge Krueger flaps and 70-percent span trailing edge Fowler flaps were fitted. Primary roll control was with spoilers atop the wings. Small ailerons were also fitted, just in case, but they were controlled only by the control wheel on the right side.

Dr. Dave Kohlman of KU was my demo pilot. The airplane was experimental and if I remember correctly, we wore parachutes.

For my first takeoff, full leading and trailing edge flaps were deflected and Dave said to lift off at 65 mph and climb at 85. The airplane lifted off on cue but the rate of climb was poor to nil and my full attention went into dealing with rising terrain up ahead. I think I remember something about a tree, too.

Dave said that getting rid of the leading edge flaps should help and he started milking those up. When a little speed was gained he started retracting the trailing edge flaps and the airspeed moved up to 95 and the rate of climb increased. The drag from those flaps was apparently a bit much for a 180 hp engine.

I thought that initial climb was pretty precarious and for a few moments had been looking at good places straight ahead to put the airplane. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that.

Dave later told me that there was a problem with the spoilers floating up and spoiling lift at low speed with all the flaps out. Presumably they fixed that and finished the program though this project and another one like it that modified a Piper Aztec didn’t lead to any advances in the design of production airplanes.

As to my flight, I guess Dave and I both made a mistake in thinking that the other one was more of an experimental test pilot than he was. That was one of many things that I filed for future reference: In the BS session before such a flight, learn something about the other pilot.

Here I must digress for just a moment. I wrote about the Redhawk in the December, 1972 issue of FLYING. I also wrote the editorial in that issue about the user fees that we all felt were about to come down on us in the near future. Some things never change because while those fees have never come, they still loom 42 years later. Other things do change. The circulation statement in that issue showed that 466,420 copies were printed. The latest circulation statement I could find for FLYING was for December, 2012 and showed 200,737. Private aviation has indeed become smaller.

Cessna 402B
Collins flew a Cessna 402B on a very secret mission.

Where possible, I used to like to make pilot reports about trips, where I used an airplane as if it were my own. One of the more interesting reports I did was on the Cessna 402B in the March, 1974 issue of FLYING.

The significance of that point in time will not be known to you unless you are, as I am, older than dirt. It was one of the most precarious times in general aviation history because of the Arab oil embargo. (Yes, those are the same Arabs we are still buying oil from 40 years later.)

Our government had proposed Draconian allocations, or rationing, of fuel and precious little was to be available for our type of flying. Because of this, business flying was heavily stressed by our fact spinners. It was as if we had to carry a brief case and not smile while flying. In pilot reports we were devoting a lot of ink to fuel efficiency.

My evaluation of the 402B had been planned well before the fuel crisis so I went ahead with it. What I didn’t reveal in the pilot report was the nature of my mission. Because of the public sensitivity to fuel use, I thought it best not to write that I used the airplane to take my family to Disney World for Christmas. My mother, mother-in-law, and aunt-in-law also went along so all eight seats in the 402B were filled with five adults and three kids. That might have been passed off as efficient squandering of precious fuel.

As I often did, I flew my airplane to Wichita to pick up the 402B at the Cessna factory strip. In the interest of saving fuel, there was no checkout because I was current in Cessna twins.

Because of the fuel shortage and the rush to efficiency, Continental had approved the use of peak exhaust gas temperature operation so long as the power was set at 55-percent of less. That was hard to swallow for a person who always felt like his role in life was to go fast, burn all the fuel, eat all the steak, and drink all the Jack Daniel’s but, hey, patriotism wins out every time and I would fly slow at peak EGT. We were all serious about using as little fuel as possible.

Line at car station
A common sight during the oil embargo, one that resulted in serious restrictions on avgas.

There was a real shortage of fuel in some areas so I made sure I could get what I needed. It helped to have friends who were FBOs, Claud Holbert in Little Rock, Hugh Wheelless in Dothan, Alabama, and Bob Showalter in Orlando all assured me that I could get fuel at their places.

I was pleasantly surprised at the speed v. fuel numbers on the 300 nm first leg. The lightly-loaded airplane delivered 165 knots on 130 pounds per hour.

I had noted that draining the sumps on a Cessna twin of that vintage was a chore because there were so many drains and the ones on the tip tanks could send gas cascading down your arm if it wasn’t done just right. And yes, we did then let fuel run onto the ground (where it came from) because the PC police had not yet gone berserk on that subject.

On the second and longer leg of the trip I got into the complexity of the fuel system.

There were five tanks to feed the two engines and, no, that does not come out even, thus complicating fuel management. There were the two main tip tanks that Cessna used on its twins at that time, plus an auxiliary tank in each wing and, finally, a wing locker tank in the left nacelle. (Locker tanks were optional and you could install left, left and right, or none.) Total fuel capacity on this airplane was 1,080 pounds.

When the time came to get into that wing locker fuel I made sure I had used the prescribed amount out of the left tip and then turned on the transfer pump which would send the locker fuel out to the left tip tank. There was no gauge on the locker tank but a light did illuminate when it was all transferred.

The product of that was a lot more fuel in the left tip than in the right tip. To fix that, the drill was to crossfeed and run the right engine off the left tip tank to balance the fuel load. When I set up to do that, the engine protested, followed by a passenger protest, but the engine quickly smoothed out. There must have been some air in the long fuel line from the right engine to the left tip.

Twin Cessna fuel system
Twin Cessna fuel systems were notoriously complex in the mid-1970s.

That was the sort of thing that I felt had to be explained in a pilot report because if it wasn’t discussed you wouldn’t have much credibility with someone who learned about it by flying the airplane. It was a convoluted system and it was appropriate that I explored it on my way to see Mickey Mouse. Most all fuel systems became simpler later on.

I also picked on the autopilot because it was a bit unstable in pitch and it was all or nothing so you couldn’t opt to use just the roll function. I would add that I mentioned many time that I didn’t think much of the Cessna 400 autopilot. In fact, I don’t think I ever returned a Cessna with one of those autopilots still fully functional at the end of a trip.

I had harped on that so much that a Cessna executive insisted that I get a complete demonstration of the autopilot so they could be sure I knew how to operate it properly. Guess what? The autopilot that was demonstrated to me crapped out after about five minutes. When I got my P210 I ordered it with the standard 300 autopilot, which was equally worthless but weighed and cost less. I think mine was the only P210 built without a 400 autopilot.

The 402B had a good useful load but when the load got up to eight, fuel had to be restricted a bit. Any cabin weight over 770 pounds had to subtracted from fuel.

We had a good time at Disney for Christmas. The other day, John Zimmerman e-mailed that he was taking his wife and kids there after the 2014 NBAA Convention in Orlando and would be exhausted when that was over. I observed that three-generational trips there were something more than exhausting.

The TV weather map for the day we would start returning everyone and everything to its rightful place had the word “tornado” neatly positioned along the route.

The 402B had airborne weather radar and I knew the principles of using this for avoidance. I used one of the more basic principles after examining the path ahead in the vicinity of Albany, Georgia. I landed at Albany to get some lunch while the weather passed overhead.

After getting all the people back to the proper place, I had to return the 402B to Wichita, where winter had set in with a vengeance. There was a lot of snow so I called Chuck Hinson, who ran Cessna’s air transportation department at the time, to inquire about airport conditions. He called back a little later and said the runway was covered but he had driven it and conditions were not bad. It was one of those granular snows with a lot of water content in really cold air and not too much snow depth. I have only seen it in places like Arkansas and Kansas and, up to a point, it is quite manageable.

It was slow IFR going all the way to Wichita and when I broke out and started maneuvering for a landing on the Cessna factory strip, my then 9-year old son asked, “Dad, where is the runway?” It was hard to see because everything was a shade of white but it was there, I knew where it was, and the landing was uneventful.

The only ice we had collected was unusual. It was inboard of the prop heating elements, on the prop hubs. It looked like dry ice and when we made an effort to get rid of it, it would not budge. Chuck Hinson, who was going to take us back to Little Rock, wanted to know if the engines were smooth on the way in. They were and we had an uneventful last leg in the 402B.

I flew that airplane about 20 hours and felt like I really understood it. It was great that the manufacturers encouraged use of their airplanes for more than a local hop and I made many long trips in airplanes being evaluated.

Cessna 425
Is the Cessna 425 faster than the 421? Only one way to find out…

One thing I liked to do was, for lack of a better word, race competitive airplanes. We had short, wide open races in some more basic airplanes but when I wanted to explore something like the virtues of a pressurized piston twin and a turboprop on a 1,000 mile trip, Cessna furnished a 421 and Aero Commander a 690. When Cessna came out with the turboprop 425 we ran it against the piston 421 .

In most of the flights to compare airplanes there were no great surprises but we did learn a lot about the virtues of various types. One I remember well was a comparison of the Cessna P210 and Piper Malibu. The Malibu was definitely faster but when it came to dealing with the tumbleweeds racing across the runway at Dalhart, Texas, the P210 was hands-down more manageable in the strong crosswind.

A comparison that was done in 1975 further illustrates the good support we got on these flights. Everyone still had a fuel hangover from 1973 and we liked to show how even fancier general aviation airplanes could deliver seat miles per gallon on a par with jetliners. Piper furnished both a piston-powered Pressurized Navajo and a turboprop Cheyenne for us to use in comparing a top-of-the-line piston airplane and an entry-level turboprop.

Trips of 1,000 nautical miles were still the hot button so I decided I would look at the airplanes as they might be used to connect a small city in the middle of the country to the ultimate destination, the Big Apple. The small city chosen was Neosho, Missouri, and we used LaGuardia as the New York airport of choice.

I flew the trip in the Navajo first. It was January so the winter winds were blowing and it was a relatively quick nonstop to LGA. I worked in FLYING’s One Park Avenue (a fancy address but a grungy old building) office the next day and then headed to LaGuardia after work, to return the mythical Neosho businessman home.

Payback: The west wind that speeded up our eastbound trip was still there. That meant we could not fly non-stop back to Neosho. A fuel stop was made at Lexington, Kentucky, and we even picked up hot cheeseburgers and fries there to have for dinner on the next leg. That was arranged using an airborne telephone which was a relatively new thing at the time.

I flew the identical trip in the Cheyenne a couple of weeks later. At the time I thought that the big piston twins had a limited future and would be replaced by basic turboprops. A lot of people shared that thought. We were all wrong. It is true that 40 years later nobody is building big piston twins but only one basic turboprop twin, the Beech King Air 90, is rolling off an assembly line. Corporate America just has limited interest in airplanes like that.

The Cheyenne flew the trip in less time, 33 minutes less each way, and burned 166 gallons more fuel (663 v. 497). Both airplanes turned in seat miles per gallon that were comparable to Boeing jetliners.

Learjet 23
Pilot report on a Learjet 23? There are worse assignments.

In 1982 Learjet invited me out to Tucson to fly and compare some of their airplanes. First would be an original Lear 23, an airplane I always admired after seeing the first one fly at the Reading Air Show in 1964. In the true spirit of the airplane and the company, the demo pilot did vertical rolls into a cloud deck after a blistering low pass. In protesting his innocence to the FAA he said the airplane had gotten away from him.

Learjet wanted to demonstrate how far their product line had come since the beginning so I would be comparing the 23 with a turbojet 25 and a 35, the first Learjet with fan engines. They wanted realistic comparisons so I flew cross-country legs in all the airplanes for a total of four hours and 40 minutes of Learjet flying.

In comparing the 25 and 35 the obvious difference was in the greater fuel efficiency of the airplane with the fan engines. Learjet had also worked hard over the years at improving (taming) the flying qualities of their airplanes and that would be one of the reasons for the comparison with a 23.

While the airplanes looked a lot alike, there were substantial and important differences. Perhaps the biggest was the fact that the 25 and 35 were certified as transport category airplanes where the 23 was certified under the same rules as, say, a Piper Twin Comanche. At the time, some of its detractors even referred to it as a 500 mile per hour Twin Comanche.

The 23 was, though, a pleasant airplane to fly if you treated it gently. When it talked to you it was basically saying, “Treat me nice and I’ll respond in kind; treat me rough and I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

It was fun to revisit the airplane that, more than any other, set the pace for business jets. Yes, it was relatively small (some called it “Bill Lear’s executive mailing tube”) but it was comfortable, quiet and smooth in the cabin, and it went fast but not for too long because the fuel flow was high and the tankage relatively low. On the popular New York-Florida winter runs it could usually go nonstop with enough fuel remaining to fill your Zippo lighter.

An earlier Learjet flight, this one in 1979 in a Longhorn 28, was shorter but equally meaningful. A question from the Trenton, New Jersey, controller:

“Learjet Nine Kilo Hotel, say your filed altitude.”

“Flight Level Five One Zero.”

“Is that a modified airplane?”

“No, it’s a factory-built Model 28.”

Things look different at FL510.

It was the first airplane certified to FL510. The wings, with no tip tanks and with winglets, were the same that would be on the upcoming Model 55. It had turbojet (instead of fan) engines and was to be a limited production airplane because most of the wing production would go to the larger and more expensive 55.

Harry Combs, the eloquent head of Learjet spoke almost reverently about FL510. The sky would appear darker there and you would see the curvature of the earth according to Harry. He made it sound like this was just one step short of low earth orbit.

The 28 took five of us on a round-robin flight that reached FL510 and then brought us back to Trenton in an hour and 27 minutes. A substantial part of that time was spent at the low altitudes required to thread through the maze of Philadelphia terminal airspace before reaching a point where we could go higher.

Philly had finally given us a climb to 17,000 and on first contact with New York Center, the following: “Learjet Nine Kilo Hotel is cleared to Flight Level 510. I’ve never cleared an airplane to that altitude before but I could get used to it.” I had not been above the high 30s before that and I later flew other airplanes that were certified to 51,000 feet, but was never able to quite reach that altitude again. The Learjet 28 thus has a special meaning to me. I had my son along on the Learjet 23 flight previously mentioned and he was along on the 28 flight as well. At 14 he was probably the youngest who had flown at FL510. That too made it special.

I did a lot of comparison pilot reports when I was at FLYING but there have not been many since. They were a challenge to arrange because it meant doing two things (airplanes) at once so there was the requirement for two evaluator-pilots if the flights were to be flown at the same time. Still, I thought it was interesting and informative enough to do and it’s too bad it wasn’t continued.

I did a few pilot reports where the pilot who came with the subject airplane was as or more interesting and notable as the airplane itself.

I want to use these next pilot reports for something else, too. Some pilots feel that the primary purpose of these reports is to sell advertising to aircraft manufacturers. The ad-strokes, as we called them, might see it this way and there was some angst there when we devoted a lot of space to airplanes where there was little or no advertising possibility. Too bad. When I was in charge of editorial at a magazine, the potential for reader interest was foremost in choosing airplanes for reports.

Have you ever seen a Partenavia P.68 light twin? It was from Italy and was around in the 1980s. I am sure someone still dreams of making it a product.

Mira Slovak
Mira Slovak, a Czech airline pilot and “true aviation character.”

Have you ever heard of Mira Slovak? He has been gone for a while now, but he came onto the free-world aviation scene when, as a Czech airline pilot, he flew his DC-3 west and defected. After that he became an aerobatic pilot, airline captain, and true aviation character.

Mira was involved in Partenavia sales and when they hung a couple of Allison turboprops on the airplane and stretched the fuselage, the first one of those, called the Spartacus, came to Mira’s base at Santa Paula, California. I flew my P210 there to fly the airplane with Mira.

I had flown and reported on the piston-powered airplane, with 200 hp Lycomings, and enjoyed the extra performance with the turboprops. The cruising speed was somewhat higher and the rate of climb was a lot higher. The engine-out climb was pretty good too and, in all, the airplane was appealing as well as accommodating for as many as eight. It had a lot of doors with one for the pilots, one for the center club seating section and one for the two seats in the rear.

Mira asked me what kind of buyer he might find for the airplane. At that time, in 1985, a lot of people were asking the same question about any airplane. Airplane sales had fallen off a cliff about five years before that and there hadn’t been much recovery.

The Spartacus never got going and just sort of faded away. As in so many other cases, it was probably a lack of access to capital. Nobody with the required bucks was apparently able to see where those bucks would find a good return if invested in a program like this.

The main thing I got out of all that was flight in an interesting airplane and a wonderful day and evening with Mira Slovak. He was fun, witty and interesting with some fascinating stories to tell, both about flying and boat racing. On the latter, he said it was a good way to meet nurses.

Walter Extra
Walter Extra, famed airplane designer, built more than just aerobatic machines.

I had flown the piston-powered Extra EA-400 pressurized single earlier and was looking forward to evaluating the turboprop (Allison) Extra EA-500. I was also looking forward to doing so with Walter Extra. Walter is known primarily for his relationship to aerobatics and his EA-300 which many feel is the best all-around aerobatic airplane ever.

Some were surprised when Walter put his hand and mind to a pressurized single but the product does reflect the depth of his talent. He told me that the airplane was actually designed for the turboprop engine but the piston airplane came first and a few were built.

The most interesting thing about flying the EA-500 with Walter was that he provided the power settings and calculated the true airspeeds that were actually short of what had been claimed for the airplane. When things like that came up, the demonstrator pilots almost invariably said that when the airplane got into production, it would meet those speeds (never happened) but Walter never once mentioned this. He just sat contentedly in the right seat, let me explore his airplane, and did those true airspeed and fuel flow calculations.

It was interesting that the fuel flow read out was in liters per hour. I sure couldn’t convert that to gallons in my head and Water couldn’t either. The airplane flown was still under German registration and had not yet been certified by the FAA.

The Extra airplanes have been in limbo for almost ten years now and I am sure there will be efforts to revive and produce them though it is becoming ever more difficult to make a case that an investor can make a bundle by betting a bundle on something like this.

Another interesting demo pilot was F. Lee Bailey who I had known for a long while when I flew with him in his Bailey Bullet, a modified Twin Comanche.

The Bullet was a remanufactured airplane with all new systems, or, more accurately an all new system. With two large generators or alternators, I can’t remember which, the little 160 hp engines were cranking out a lot of electricity to cover heating and air conditioning and everything else.

Generating that much juice took horsepower and on the initial climb out of a Florida airport in Bailey’s Bullet with Bailey, my thought was that the airplane had two engines because it needed two to fly. Bailey and I are the same age and my other thought was about two old guys out having a lot of fun playing airplane. Nothing ever came of the Bullet.

Another airplane that never made it to production but that did prompt a pilot report was the Adam 500 push-pull piston twin. The demo pilot, Glenn Maben, was not famous but was a fine person and pilot and was later tragically lost while test flying an experimental jet.

Adam A500
Adam sunk millions into the A500, and even delivered a few units.

The Adam 500 was a big composite airplane that flew quite well though when I flew it certification seemed a lot more distant than what the Adam people were projecting. The airplane I flew wasn’t pressurized, it had no heat, some of the envelope had not yet been defined, and the performance fell short of projections. I was told that the cruise speed would increase by a lot when main gear doors were developed but it didn’t seem to me like they would make that much difference.

The Adam 500 also faced the ever-present battles with weight and cost and investor interest and, in the end, lost. Both it and the jet-powered version of the airframe joined the long list of airplanes that I wrote about but that never came to fruition.

All the pilot reports were not about airplanes. There was a lot of action and innovation in avionics 40 years ago and both Collins Radio and King Radio approached me for some ideas about the faltering acceptance of some of their new equipment.

Collins (no kin) proposed that I take their Beech Duke demonstrator for some days and see what I thought about their new system. The main difference was that most everything was controlled by push buttons and displayed on the screens of that time. Wizened old veterans were used to knurled knobs and white numbers on black backgrounds and most had no interest in the new equipment.

I did have a little background on this because King Radio had sent someone to demonstrate their similar system to me. He was a fine fellow but lacking in demonstration skills. He was like those service people you get on the phone after waiting for half an hour. There is a spiel and please don’t dare ask a question because they might forget their place on the page they are reading from.

Collins had a different approach: no demonstration, no checkout. The only requirement was that I leave their Cedar Rapids base on a perfectly clear day and not try to use the equipment in anger until I had it figured out.

I had a secret weapon. Our 11-year old son was with me and then, as now, kids can quickly figure out technical things that are mysterious to old fuds.

It only took him a little while to perfect his technique at tuning and selecting things with the system and after watching him for a while, I caught on and by the time I returned the Duke to Cedar Rapids some days and flying hours later I was pretty proficient with the new avionics system.

When they asked how to best market these avionics, I had no suggestion other than to sell to 11-year old kids. That wasn’t much of a market and the equipment didn’t go far. And looking at what has developed since, it is obvious that they were just 30 years early. The fantastically successful Garmin G1000 and subsequent equipment would probably not have flown off the shelves in 1975, either.

What I always thought was petty politics even had a role in pilot reports a couple of times.

In the early 1950s a person at another publication complained that favoritism was being shown to my father in the availability of airplanes for reports. AIR FACTS was a small magazine (in size and circulation) at the time and the person complaining wrote for a much larger magazine (in size and circulation). I never knew the basis for that complaint which fell on deaf ears.

Thirty years later a different editor from that same entity complained that the manufacturers were showing favoritism in generously providing airplanes to FLYING, and, basically he demanded equal treatment. His complaint was rather late because it was in the 80’s, the blush was off the rose in the airplane business, and pilot reports weren’t what they used to be.

The last complaint came up in regard to an evaluation of a specific airplane, a 58P Pressurized Baron. I wanted to use the airplane some because I was thinking about getting one and had a tentative agreement from my employer about expanding the old travel budget to fit. Beech was all for it.

When the other editor heard about this, he basically put Beech on the spot by suggesting that whatever I got to do, he should get to do.

I gave them a way out. I would pay an amount equal to a monthly lease or payment installment to use the airplane for that period of time. It was something like $6,600. They made the other guy the same offer but in the end I guess I had a bigger budget than he did. Then it got scaled back to a couple of trips for both of us. I had no ill will toward my competitor because in his shoes I might have done the same thing. The fact that the complaint was made twice from the same pulpit did however make me wonder if the folks there just didn’t like the Collins boys.

I think that everyone agrees that new things like airplanes, cars, TV sets, whatever, often have technical or mechanical problems early in life. Manufacturers acknowledge this with warranties. Such things can also be discovered while flying for pilot reports.

Beech Baron 58P
The Baron 58P, a great airplane – especially when the fuel caps are on.

I was headed southwest in that new 58P, en route from New Jersey to Oklahoma, when I noted that the left fuel gauge was going down faster than the right. I checked everything and the instrument panel offered no reason why this might be true. Next, I looked out at the left side of the airplane and, lo and behold, there was what looked like a vapor trail behind the left engine.

It could only have been fuel that was escaping from the left engine. My next thought was about what I should do. I ran through the options, considered all, and then decided that the prudent thing would be to shut the engine down and go to the nearest suitable airport and land. Why not leave the engine running and do that? I had flown Barons enough to know that when you retard the power to land they often belch and pop and I had no idea whether that could ignite the fuel that was streaming out of the engine. The thought of a blazing rollout was not appealing.

I shut it down, landed at Huntington, West Virginia, and finished my trip on the airlines.

The fuel pump had suffered an internal failure and was dumping fuel overboard. Beech sent a new pump, the excellent shop at Huntington installed it, and a Beech pilot came and got the airplanes.

The Beech pilot did ask if I would have shut the engine down on my P210 under the same circumstances. My answer was that I probably would if I smelled fuel but a later event suggested that I wouldn’t have smelled anything. The alternator fan on my P210 came apart one day, slinging stuff around in the cowling, and the primary fuel line got nicked in the process. I never smelled any fuel but when I landed about 20 minutes later it was flowing onto the ground pretty freely.

I had other engine problems with new twins while flying for pilot reports.

I was leaving Piper’s Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, airport in the third Twin Comanche they built and the right engine quit running soon after takeoff. I had turned off the electric fuel pumps (sooner than I should have) right before the engine failed so I turned the pumps back on. The engine didn’t spring back to life, the performance and the view outside (the airport is in a deep valley) was not encouraging so I thought I had best feather the prop and fly the airplane back around for a landing. That failure was related to a plumbing problem that they fixed.

In another event, we had gone to a nice grass strip west of Piper’s Vero Beach plant in a new Seneca to let our photographer shoot the airplane in an idyllic setting. Once that was done, we headed back to Vero. Soon after takeoff, the photographer, who was riding in the back, asked me if the airplane had a skywriting option, He was pointing at the right engine.

White smoke was really pouring out and my thought was that it had to be from a copious amount of oil coming in contact with the turbocharger. That was nothing I wanted to mess with so I shut the engine down and landed at Vero. The oil filter had actually fallen off.

That made it three v. none on twins v. singles in the engine malfunction department on flight evaluations. I would say that was nothing more than a happenstance.

When flying airplanes for reports, the demo pilot was always a key ingredient. Over the years, most I flew with were really good guys and pilots and they were pleasant to deal with. In all that time, there was only one glaring exception, a European pilot who had quite obviously gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. He didn’t really want to brief before the flight and during the flight all the wanted to do was be quite loud and shrill. Fifteen minutes into the flight I told him I had seen enough and we could go land. I later met up with the airplane at another location and with a calmer demo pilot and did the report.

To me, a briefing was absolutely necessary unless I had flown with the other pilot a number of times and we knew each other well.

To begin, unless there was a general understanding about this, which pilot would be in command? I always wanted that understood. In the case of the Seneca with the trailing smoke, I was with a Piper pilot but knew that the decision on what to do was mine. In another case, with a pilot I knew well, I knew it would be his airplane when a tire blew on a relatively short and narrow runway. In fact, he had said, “my airplane,” and had taken over within seconds after we realized what happened.

I also wanted it understood what we would be doing. Often, demo pilots would tend to over demonstrate airplanes and I didn’t really want to venture even close to the edges of any envelope. The most trouble I had with this was when modifying existing airplanes with STOL (short takeoff and landing) apparatus was the rage. Demo pilots would have you believe that they had all but repealed the laws of gravity.

To me, a lot of it was voodoo but I had no problem with other pilots opting for mods like that if it made them feel good. Basically when I flew mods it was mainly to see if any harm had been done. No harm, no foul, even if some of the claims were preposterous.

I remember one proposed demo flight in a turboprop. From what was proposed, I thought maybe the keeper of the airplane was aware of those 1,000 nm trip reports I had done in the 1970s and that was what he wanted to show me.

It was winter, the wind was blowing, and the trip was westbound. I did the numbers and decided that the airplane might or might not make the long trip with a good reserve. I didn’t know the pilot and had no idea how he felt about fuel reserves so I took the easy way out. I had a place I needed to go that was 450 nm down the line so I asked if we could fly there where I’d get off and he could go on his way.

Something happened to a FLYING staffer that made me insist even more on full briefings about everything before flight, with no exceptions. The demo pilot in this case was something of a hot dog and, in a Normal Category airplane, he started showing off to our guy by doing aerobatic maneuvers. Being responsible for FLYING things like that, I had no choice but to tell the demo pilot’s employer that this was completely unacceptable. There was agreement on this and to my knowledge it never happened again.

There were a couple of business jets lost 30 or more years ago because of low-level aerobatics by demo pilots. All the more reason to be careful.

I did pilot reports on everything from motor gliders to airliners and always thought that was one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Learning about the airplanes and then writing about what I had found was quite challenging.

Some thought that all pilot reports were flattery because we profited from advertising placed by the manufacturers. In closing, I’ll offer an example for the skeptics to mull over. It is also an example that new doesn’t always mean better.

Remember the Beech Starship? I do because a number of people told me they could sure tell from my pilot report that I did not like the airplane. I took some heat, but the airplane was noisy, it wasn’t that pleasant to fly, the performance seemed lacking, and it had some handling quality quirks, all of which I pointed out. Most of all, though, it was far from as good an airplane as the venerable King Air which it might have replaced had it been more acceptable.

I flew the first King Air 90 for a pilot report when I was at the old AIR FACTS, in the August, 1964 issue. King Air 90s are still in production and fly on where Starships are gone and all but forgotten. If I hadn’t retired from that sort of thing I might have recently written a pilot report about the latest model of a remarkable airplane I first reported on 50 years ago and that has outlived all challengers.


  • I have no experience in singles vs. twins, but the best comment I ever heard was from comedian Ron White. He tells of a flight in a twin commuter airplane in northern Arizone. When they lost an engine, the passenger across the aisle asked how far this airplane might be able to fly on just one engine.
    “All the way to the scene of the crash,” said White.

  • Richard,

    Complaining about flying with a Superhomer in 1959?

    In that era, I was lucky to fly with a Omnigator in a Tri-Pacer on occasion. The early one with 8 com channels. Part of flight planning was to determine what tower frequencies would be needed and populate the 4 or 5 available crystal slots with the needed frequencies. Fortunately, if you had to deviate, towers were still used to giving light signals.

    Gad, that makes me feel old.

    Today I fly a Cessna 340A and when flown more often than an out-and-back trip, the fuel management is no problem. Especially after I ran an aux tank dry early in ownership. Wife was a bit perturbed, so she now double checks the timing of tank selection. Oh, regarding the 400 auto-pilot, when the avionics were upgraded in 2005, the original 400 was retained. It has always been flawless. Can’t say why though.


    • Narco was liquidated in 2011 but had not dome much in years. Google “Narco Avionics” and you might find something of interest.

  • Mr. Collins,

    How did the 425 vs. 421 comparison turn out? I have a 414A now and am curious.

    I’ve been reading your articles since I was in high school in the ’80’s. I’m sure that makes me one of your younger fans, but I’ve read so much of your material that I feel like I almost know you. Thank you for passing on all your knowledge and experience over the years. I’m a better, safer pilot because of it. Loved your last book, “The Next Hour” too. Thank you.

    John Ewald
    Seguin, TX

    • The 425 was faster and burned substantially more fuel. The 421 was quieter inside. Both were nice to fly but in the end the greater reliability of the turboprop engines v. the GTSIO pistons in the 421 settled the matter even though the 425 was more expensive. On a 300 nm trip the speed made little difference.

  • Dick, I really enjoy the articles you write on the Air Facts Journal. I was a faculty member at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine in Little Rock for the last 19 years prior to my retirement 6 years ago and moving to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. We (my wife, Dr. Carrie Valentine) fly our Cessna 182 all over the country and are frequently back in Little Rock where I still have hanger space at North Little Rock Airport (now KORK). So I have especially enjoyed the article you wrote about flying in Arkansas and the Little Rock area. Also wanted you to know how much I have enjoyed the videos you made over the years for Sporty’s. We still watch them while doing our morning treadmill exercise.

  • Richard…..once again, an ‘our-of-the-ballpark’ grand slam, written in your inimitable way. Thanks and best wishes. jim

  • Dear Jimmie: Thanks for the kind words. It has all been fun. You might have known Dale and Jane Briggs (Dilday) at the med school. They were best friends when we lived in LR. Also, two of our grandsons live in Ocean Springs so it is indeed a small world.

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