When Cirrus announced that it was about to deliver the 9,000th airplane in their “SR” piston singles family it made me think of the Model 35 Beechcraft V-Tail Bonanza. No two other airplanes dominated their time as the premier personal piston single. And each succeeded by being different in very fundamental ways.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the Cirrus and Bonanza is their beginning. The Bonanza was the product of an established airplane maker working in the post WWII boom in personal aviation. The Cirrus got its start from a pair of entrepreneurial brothers who set out to build kits for amateur airplane builders.
The Bonanza was launched into the greatest boom in light piston airplane manufacturing. The Cirrus made its debut during the depths of a decades long slump in piston airplane production. Beech delivered 1,000 Bonanzas in the first year of its production in 1947. Cirrus shipped less than 10 in 1999 when the SR20 entered service.
The V-tail Bonanza remained in production for 35 years with just a trickle of deliveries from the late 1970s until the end in 1982. Cirrus has had ups and downs, changes in ownership, but maintains its position as the best selling high performance piston single with no end to demand, or no strong competitor, in sight.
To me the most interesting element of the Bonanza and Cirrus success is that each was a radical design for its day. Countless other unusual airplane designs have come and gone over the decades, but none succeeded in the market. And, most interestingly, other manufacturers have not copied the unusual features of the Cirrus and Bonanza.
The V-tail is the obvious unusual feature of the Bonanza. The concept was not new with the Model 35, and some other airplanes—including Cirrus’ own single engine jet—have used the configuration. But it was the V-tail that became the trademark of the Bonanza which stood for the best in performance, comfort, quality and prestige.
The butterfly tail was so sacred at Beech that when the company wanted to build a lower cost entry level version of the airplane it slapped on a conventional tail and named it the Debonair. Other than the tail, that Model 33 was the same airplane, but it wasn’t a Bonanza.
Even more revolutionary than the tail was the original Beech manufacturing plan. Like all other aviation companies Beech had been deeply involved in wartime production. Understandably the wartime emphasis was on mass production which meant employing any technology that would streamline the process of building a high performance airplane.
One concept that held great promise was to spot weld an aluminum airframe together instead of using manpower heavy riveting. So the new Bonanza was going to be largely spot welded together. Another time saving construction element was to build the wing leading edge separate from the main wing structure, and then attach the leading edge to the forward spar using a long piano hinge. That technique worked, and all Bonanzas and subsequent family members such as the Baron, used the piano hinge, though it’s unclear it saved much if any manufacturing time. The spot welding was abandoned after a prototype was lost in flight testing, though it was later learned the welds probably had nothing to do with the failure.
The Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, chose to build an all composite airframe structure and then equip it with a whole airplane parachute. Neither technology was totally new, but neither had been used in a piston single designed for “large” scale production. I put “large” in quotes because nothing we do in aviation production can really qualify.
I wasn’t around in 1947 but it’s clear that the unusual features of the Bonanza did not deter pilots eager to buy the best performing piston single available. Beech had more orders than it could produce before the first delivery.
The same wasn’t true for Cirrus. Many in the amateur airplane building community had embraced all-composite airframe structures, but the mainstream pilot crowd was somewhat skeptical. And while non-pilots immediately saw the safety advantage of a whole airframe parachute, many pilots disliked the idea of relinquishing control and floating to the ground wherever the wind would take them.
As a startup company Cirrus had the usual tribulations of funding and management control. Ownership changed a few times and the company future was in doubt more than once. Beech, on the other hand, was the blue chip of general aviation manufacturers. Until the entire industry went off a cliff in 1980 Beech enjoyed success with a growing line of airplanes, many tracing their roots, and even basic design, back to the original Bonanza.
But then, after the family sold to corporate giants, Beech lost its way and spiraled down into bankruptcy. Textron was able to acquire what was then left of Beech and the brand, including the progeny of the original Bonanza, continue.
Cirrus, on the other hand, appears to be solid. Sales numbers are only a fraction of those we saw in the good old days, but they are the best for high performance singles. And the SF50 Vision Jet has a steady demand.
The Bonanza always carried a premium price but that was crucial to its success. Few doubted it was the best, even when arguing that this or that other single was “as good” or better in some area of performance. And now for a number of years the SR22 has been the best piston single in production by most measures, including that premium price.
In 1977 Beech piled every avionics and other option into the 30th anniversary Model 35 Bonanza and brought it to the old Reading Air Show. We all gasped at the price that just nudged one hundred grand. Put that sum through an inflation calculator and you get about $515,000 in today’s dollars. A well equipped Cirrus SR22 turbo price is a million bucks in round numbers.
But for the extra 500 grand you get a bigger cabin than the Bonanza, ice protection and avionics capability undreamed of in 1947, or 1977 for that matter. And you get that chute that has been responsible for dozens of safe touchdowns after something went terribly wrong.
It seems almost certain Cirrus will pass the total 10,400 Bonanza sales in the next few years. Maybe revolutionary is too strong a description for either the Bonanza or Cirrus, but it is undeniable that each, for a wide variety of reasons, enjoyed dominance other designs can’t claim.