6 min read

Admittedly trivia…

Names for various airplanes have always been interesting to me. After WWII, Beech came up with the hands-down best name ever for an airplane: Bonanza. It flies on 67 years later and is, and has always been, a survivor. That is probably because the airplane is as good as the name. My second choice in the name game is Gulfstream.

Most other Beech airplanes got names that stuck. Barons and King Airs are staples in the fleet as well as still being quite viable production airplanes.

Apache warrior

You named an underpowered piston twin after me?

Right after the war ended, Piper airplanes were usually called by their names, like Vagabond and Clipper and Pacer. Then, in what would probably not be politically correct today, they started naming them after Indian tribes. The first was the Apache, followed by Comanches and Aztecs and Navajos and Cheyennes, among others. Most everyone refers to Pipers by their names.

Today, Piper still does Senecas and Seminoles but most of their other airplanes got unrelated names like Malibu and Meridian.

Cessna used numbers, with the 120, 140, 195, 170 and 180 coming along after WWII, in almost, if not quite that order. When they made a trike out of a tailwheel the last digit became a “2” as in 172 and 182.

Names started coming to Cessnas with deluxe versions of the 172 and 182, the Skyhawk and Skylane. Some airplanes got names that were not as popular, like Centurion, Skywagon, Golden Eagle and Chancellor. Those airplanes were more often referred to as 210s, 206s, 421s and 414s. The Citation name stuck to their jets but was modified many times to reflect different capabilities and they did name a larger jet the Sovereign though I have also seen it called the Citation Sovereign. Maybe Citation, not Cessna, is the true brand name of their jets.

In any case, if you bought it or flew it you could always call it whatever pleased you. I have even heard a few airplanes referred to as turkeys.

The plot gets thicker with trivia when you get to the four letter identifier used for flight plan filing. There are never more than four digits but there can be fewer.

A while back the FAA fiddled with flight plan designations to better identify airplane climb and descent capabilities to controllers. I had some interesting conversations with controllers about this. (The FAA has a publication on this: Order JO 7340.2C, Contractions. This contains all contractions used by the FAA. If you want to peruse flight plan designations, they start on page 439.)

Originally, all 210s were filed as C210 but in its infinite wisdom the FAA decided that pressurized and turbocharged versions were different enough that they should become P210 and T210.

I dutifully started filing my airplane as a P210. Apparently little effort had been put into telling controllers about the change because when I was given as traffic something like this would follow: “It is a Pilatus or a Piper, I don’t know what it is, but it is out there so look out for it.” That went on for several years. More than one controller suggested that I should just file as a C210 to avoid confusion

It’s up to the pilot to know how to identify his airplane on a flight plan but there are some quirks that are not totally logical. Any Aerostar is an AEST. A Beech King Air F90 is a BE9T, presumably because it has a t-tail. Cheyennes used to be PAYE but because of the differences in performance they became PAY1, PAY2, PAY3 and PAY4. The Piper Aztec is a PA27 which was the original drawing number for that airplane. It is really a PA-23-250 and I would lay odds that most Aztec pilots file them as a PA23.

If you are filing for a hop in your U-2, just U2 will do on the flight plan. In your Collins Dipper (whatever that might be), DIPR will do. The most obscure airplanes all have a designation so it is easy to see why the FAA list of contractions is not a memory item for controllers.

The flight plan equipment suffix that comes after the slash takes many different forms, related to navigational capability. The owner pays for all the good things and surely the avionics shop tells him what suffix to use. I can remember, years ago, when the suffix came into being to identify airplanes with and without transponders.

The plot (and the amount of available trivia) really thickens when you consider official type designations.

These can be found on the FAA web site, www.faa.gov  by clicking on Type Certificate Data Sheets (TCDS). Then you can look at them by the make of airplane and can open pdf files on the sheets which contain, among other things, the operating limitations of the airplanes.

There is a lot there. For example, I learned from the TCDS on my P210 that the windows, windshield and deice light lens have a life limit of 13,000 hours. That was well buried as a footnote and it took a while to find after I heard a rumor to that effect and wanted to verify it.

When CAA was running things, we had Civil Air Regulations. When the FAA took over in the 1950s, they became Federal Aviation Regulations. Where CAR Part 3 covered the certification of general aviation airplanes, FAR Part 23 took over. Even though that happened a long time ago, the airplanes that most of us fly today were certified under CAR 3. The FAA allowed the continued manufacture of these airplanes though they could put special conditions on the certificate with the result that the certification of many airplanes is a blend of CAR 3 and FAR 23. This is on the TCDS.

Piper Arrow

The PA-28RT-201T, better known as the Arrow.

Years ago, the FAA allowed model changes by an amended certification. For example, the first Cessna 205 was added to the 210 certificate and became a 210-5. The Baron was added to the Model 95 Travel Air Certificate and became the 95-55. Even the first King Air was an addition to the Model 65 Queen Air and became the 65-90. Structurally the airplanes were similar but the resemblance ended there.

Does it matter whether an airplane is certified under CAR 3 or FAR 23? Not really. Some things were changed, but the basic parameters were similar and the structure of an old CAR 3 design is just as good an FAR 23 airplane. There was a change in the manner the onset of a vertical gust is considered in relation to limit loads and though this has been used to suggest that Part 23 airplanes are stronger than CAR 3 airplanes, there’s not much truth to that assertion.

Some Piper airplanes have interesting type designations. For example, a t-tail Turbo Arrow is a PA-28RT-201T. PA-28 is the basic Cherokee design. The “R” designates this one as a retractable. The letter “T” that follows identifies the t-tail version. The “201” is the horsepower with the 201 signifying that is has a 200 horsepower engine and tapered wings. Who knows why they added the wing change to the horsepower in the type designation? The final “T” is for the fact that it is turbocharged. Next time you see a t-tail Turbo Arrow, think PA-28RT-201T. Catchy name.

Trivia. Next a quiz. Who knows what a BA-42 is? Clue: it is certified under FAR Part 23.

Finally, I’d like to ask your opinion on the best and worst airplane names. Speak up.

Richard Collins
38 replies
  1. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    Well, I certainly had to dig back a ways to find the Burns BA-42; Kind of a fat Aerostar with an odd tail. Had never heard of it before; good find.

    Best airplane name: Piper Cub
    It would have been the mark of true knowledge if you could have explained the Waco numbering system; ‘course maybe that goes back too far for this article.

  2. Ian D. Samson
    Ian D. Samson says:

    Disagree: “The PA-28RT-201T, better known as the Arrow”. The PA28R-180 was better known as The Arrow, Cherokee Arrow in 1969. I know. We owned one.

    • Emmons Patzer
      Emmons Patzer says:

      As the current owner of a PA28RT-201T it should be noted that Richard is indeed correct in calling it an Arrow. That is its designation, although it is further described as an Arrow IV.

      From a controller point of view, the article was interesting because it explains why even through I originally file with an Arrow designation, by the time I am about three or four handoffs down the flight plan I am very often simply a Cherokee. From the practical consideration of basic ballpark performance for a controller, guess that is close enough. And for other pilot’s looking for traffic, something low winged, with four passengers, and a tail that doesn’t lean forward is thrown into that Cherokee bucket too.

  3. Todd Price
    Todd Price says:

    I always liked the “celestial” names that Lockheed used. JETSTAR is simply awesome.

    But I do agree with Dick; GULFSTREAM is hard to beat- the design and the name.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      JetStar–a true classic. I also like Chancellor for the 414, but it seems like it never caught on.

  4. Harry Fenton
    Harry Fenton says:

    The 1920’s and 1930’s offered very art deco sounding names: The Golden Eagle Chief, General Aristocraft, Buhl Airsedan, Bellanca Pacemaker, Kari-Keen Coupe, Waterman Aerobile, Pasped Skylark. The cutest military fighter name has to go to the P-26 Peashooter, whereas the one of the most odd names goes to the XF-85 Goblin. The award for the name with the most potential for irony has to go to the Ryan FR-1 Fireball.

    • Harry Fenton
      Harry Fenton says:

      Even better-the Akron Funk! Not only an airplane name, but an apt desription of a the mood surrounding the decline of a rust belt manufacturing town.

      In regards to auto engined airplanes, I always prefered the Swanson-Fahlin Plymocoupe.

  5. Greg Ellis
    Greg Ellis says:

    The responses here prove that we are all true pilots. No one has mentioned a worst airplane name. We have just mention the one’s we like. :) Testament to the fact that we like them all!!!

  6. John Piper
    John Piper says:

    While partial to most of the Indian names we used at Piper, I have always thought that LearJet was about as good a name as you could get and was also the prettiest airplane in the sky or on the ground. For quite awhile it seemed, almost every bizjet was considered a LearJet by the public, not unlike the Piper Cub as the generic name for almost all small planes floating by on sunny days in the 40’s and 50’s.

    • Tom Yarsley
      Tom Yarsley says:

      In the collective consciousness of the general public, there are only three types of airplanes: Piper Cubs, Learjets, and Boeing 7x7s.

      When SEFG pilots talk down upon lesser mortals who don’t fly “real airplanes,” I remind them that – in the eyes of the public – “real airplanes” are manufactured in Seattle. Quiets ‘em right down.

      For practical reasons, I like Cessna’s number-as-name moniker system. But I always liked the sound of “Staggerwing.” Not only descriptive; it sounds like a species of bird!

  7. Jim Frankenfield
    Jim Frankenfield says:

    Lest we forget the Moomey “Mite”. (better grab the gear handle the ‘correct’ way, or it won’t go up!)

  8. John Valentine
    John Valentine says:

    One of the best of the older Navy jets, well-respected by the Naval aviators who flew them, generated a fierce loyalty in the fighter community. Listen to the right hanger talk, and they’d always toss in: “When you’re out of Crusaders – you’re out of jets.”

    I like that. I’d like to see a great-handling, fast homebuilt named “Crusader.” – And, frankly, just for laughs even in the midst of GWOT, gotta admit I’d hurt myself laughing over the sale of the first ten kits in, oh, say maybe – the Middle East , , ,

    • Owen
      Owen says:

      Didn’t Cessna make a Crusader? The 303? Was a very pretty six seater twin – I have one in my logbook somewhere, sometime in the ’80’s I think… flew it in the UK (seems it was more popular in Europe than in the USA)

  9. Jeff Cannon
    Jeff Cannon says:

    Hiya Richard:

    How about some of the names that airplanes have received after the manufacturer has spent all that time and money coming up with a fancy name? The military has it the worst; the Thunderbolt became the Jug, the Tomcat the turkey, The Hornet the Plastic Bug, the F105 Thunderchief was known as Thud, etc. Civil A/C are on the list too: The DC-3 became the Douglas Racer, theCessna Skymaster was known as the Continental Sandwich and the Piper Cherokee 6 was called the family killer…

    Lots of others out there.

    Jeff Cannon

  10. tom
    tom says:

    Avro Vulcan – BAE Lightning, A-1E Skyraider and of course the P-51 Mustang.

    We had a little chopper in SEA callsign Pedro, with side by side contra-rotating rotors. I think it was an HH43 Huskie. Some had radial engines, some had Lycoming turbines. Kinda ugly, but it hovered beautifully, a useful feature if you had a bullet hole and needed a lift home.

  11. Greg
    Greg says:

    “Special”- as in Pitts Special…. more of a descriptive term than a name, but it does it for me!

  12. Ron
    Ron says:

    The best and most iconic name is Piper Cub

    To this day the general public calls all single engine planes cubs
    It defines the whole species

  13. Edd Weninger
    Edd Weninger says:

    Well, the poor Funk was named with the last name of the designer. I gave flight instruction to two brothers who bought one with no flying experience. Fortunately, it flew well.

    The Skymaster was a MixMaster in my neck of the woods.

    I had, as did Richard, a Swift. With 125 Hp, it was appropriate and fitting. Couldn’t say that about the Globe company.

  14. Terry
    Terry says:

    Having grown up within walking distance of Oceana Naval Air Station, the aforementioned Crusader is remembered as the greatest thing to hit the air by the neighborhood Navel pilots and us “gonna be pilots” in the neighborhood. It replaced the neat looking but much criticized Chance-Vought “Cutlass”. The cruciform tail on the Grumman “Cougar” was a visual treat.

  15. Ross
    Ross says:

    A Collins Dipper is a Cessna 150 converted to a seaplane (with hull). There is only one airplane that I know of that is named after a person and I don’t mean the manufacturer like “Piper” Cub. There may be another one…but I can’t think of one. Can you guess the name….hint:(medium bomber)

  16. Dave Prossor
    Dave Prossor says:

    No the Bonanza has not been in production for 67 years. The Bonanza is the Beech 35, the V tail model. Production ceased many years ago.
    What is a fact of life is that a Beech Sale person elected to move the well known name across to the Beech 36, a new aircraft on a different Type Certificate.
    Good spin Beech! You have managed convince the world that you have been producing an aircraft type for XX years when in fact this is not the case.
    That Beech spin doctor should be in the same Hall of Fame as the fellow(s) who have convinced the American world that Lindberg was the first to fly the Atlantic. He was not.

    • Louis Sell
      Louis Sell says:

      Please review Larry Ball’s books on Bonanza’s. In a section Larry indicates that the Model 36 was a Model 35 with the cabin split and lengthened and the wing repositioned. The cabin was the same except lengthened.

  17. James Hicks
    James Hicks says:

    For my money the mightiest military jet of them all was the F-4 Phantom–as I recall the first to have a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than one in ‘burner. If you’ve ever had one do an airshow flyby at 300’ with the cans lit you couldn’t help but agree.

  18. Pete Bedell
    Pete Bedell says:

    Good piece, Richard! One thing though, the “Skywagon” was the 180/185 and the 206 had the “Stationair” moniker. Personally, I think “Stationair” is among the worst name given a vehicle that is far from stationary.

  19. Star Novak
    Star Novak says:

    You mentioned the Skywagon, but don’t forget the Cessna ag planes monikers – the AgWagon, AgTruck and the AgPickup. Nothing like sayin’ you fly a pickup for a living!

  20. Jeff Jacobs
    Jeff Jacobs says:

    At first blush the postwar Cessna model number system appears to make sense. When you look closer, it breaks down. There’s no rhyme or reason to it other than marketing, and sometimes it varies depending on the year. Only one postwar Cessna model number matches the rated horsepower (the Model 175/Skylark – 1958-62 – had a 175-hp engine).

    A retractable 172 is a Model 172RG. A retractable Cardinal is a Model 177RG. So of course a retractable 182 is a … nope, it’s a Model R182. But a Model R172 is a fixed-gear 172 with a bigger engine. And don’t confuse the Model R182 with the Model 182R. Or an R172 with a 172R. Or the Model 182T, or a turbocharged Model T182. You could also have a fixed gear Model T182R, but the turbo’ed retractable is the Model TR182. Still with me?

    Another big-engine 172 was the Model P172, but a Model P206 had the same size engine as the other 206’s but with nicer seats. And of course, Model P210 was a 210 with pressurization.

    Put an ‘A’ in front of a Model 150 or 152 (A150/A152) and you’ve made it aerobatic. Put an ‘A’ in front of a 185 Skywagon or 188 Agwagon and you’ve made it with a bigger engine. Put an ‘A’ in front of a 182 and you’ve made it … in Argentina!

    There will be a quiz. :)

  21. Graf Hilgenhurst
    Graf Hilgenhurst says:

    Best nanmes: Supermarine Spitfire, Locheed Electra.
    Worst names: Brewster Buffalo, Fairey Albatross.

  22. Jim Frankenfield
    Jim Frankenfield says:

    Back in the early 70s a taildrager military type landed at Pompano Bch. and one of my instructors said “look, a P-51 just landed, as it cleared the runway. I said “that’s not a P-51, it’s a “Fairey Firefly”, notice that the prop rotations is counter-clockwise. Beautiful aircraft. Funny name! Jim

  23. Stephan Wilkinson
    Stephan Wilkinson says:

    When I would file IFR in my Falco, the proper designator was F8L. More than one controller thought I was a Crusader with a headwind.

  24. Don
    Don says:

    I always thought the “Wittman Tailwind” was appropriately named because of its ‘speed/ horsepower’ ratio (200 mph/180 hp). And that was back in 1953 before composites !!

    Then there is the “Douglas TBD Devastator” and the “Brewster Buffalo”. Both of them lived up to their name !!

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