I've flown a lot of helicopters and airplanes, but one airplane I always wanted to fly but never got to is the Beechcraft Bonanza. On Monday I finally got my chance.
As you know, we're in the market for an airplane to augment our helicopter. We really do have a need for a plane. But in this economy, the Boss is understandably reluctant to pull the trigger. He fears that we'll buy something and it'll go down in value. "That may be," I tell him, "but just as real estate and the stock market will rebound, so will aviation. The plane we buy may very well lose value in the coming year, but it will most assuredly recover whatever it lost." The trouble is, we need it now. We cannot wait for the market to bottom out.
So we've been looking for something suitable. There are scads of models out there. Really, the selection is incredible. All have their various strong- and weak points. Some have one engine, some have two. Some are powered by piston engines, some are turbine-powered. Some are very fast, and some are more roomy than they are fast. (Roominess and speed don't usually go hand in hand.)
Enter the Bonanza.
The Beechcraft Bonanza is a legendary airplane. Amazingly, it has been in continuous production since 1947. Over the years it has garnered a reputation as a tough, dependable, safe, versatile airplane with superb flying qualities. In fact, it is the gold standard by which others in its class are judged.
Early Bonanzas (like the model 35, above) were identifiable by their unique "V-tail" configuration. Beech must have thought this was better/lighter/simpler/whatever. In reality it had no clear advantage over more conventional types of tails.
When Beech stretched the Bonanza (model A36, above) and made it a true six-seater, they built it with a conventional tail configuration.
A friend of our owns a very nice 1985 A36 Bonanza that he's been using to commute between his home in North Carolina and South Alabama. It's been very well taken care of, we know this. Recently, Tom (the owner) mentioned that he might be interested in selling it. Of course we had to take a look. We all met out at the airport.
It was a nice plane...needed a paint job, but the interior was clean and the engine had very low time on it. We talked for a while, and then Tom asked if I wanted to "go up and see how she flew?" This is pilot code for, "Let's go for a joyride!" He offered me the left (command) seat and I eagerly accepted.
Bonanzas have a very tall-but-narrow cabin, with big windows. You sit up high, in proper chairs (instead of reclining like a sportscar driver as in other planes). This gives the illusion of roominess, but the fact is that the cabin is not all that big. It is comfortable though. The back cabin can hold four people in what we call a "club seating" arrangement. Check out this publicity shot:
Looks roomy, doesn't it?
Tom coached me through the pre-start checklist. Once the engine was running, he set up the navigation equipment, and we were off. With just him and me onboard, we were light despite having full fuel tanks. We zoomed off the runway quickly and easily and were climbing like a rocket.
Away from the airport, we leveled off at 4,500 feet. The Bonanza's forte is that it's a classy ride and you travel in style. People think they're speedy, but the honest truth is that they are not all that fast. With the power setting that Tom routinely uses (he doesn't flog it), we were only indicating 162 knots (about 186 mph). Not bad, but not great. There are faster planes out there.
Had we been headed to our jobsite in Beaumont, Texas (about 350 miles to the west), we could anticipate being there in a little over two hours. It's too long a flight to even consider in the helicopter: easily 3.5 hours (or more) and a fuel stop to boot.
On the other hand, if Birmingham, Alabama was the destination (150 miles to the north), we'd be there in under one hour in the Bonanza. As a point of reference, it takes me 1:30 to get to Birmingham in the helicopter. The Bonanza would use about 20 gallons of gas to get there; the helicopter burns about 38.
After checking out the plane...making sure everything worked the way it was supposed to and finding only one minor "squawk," we headed back to the airport. Tom let the autopilot fly the approach, then took over at the end and manually made a (perfect) landing.
I don't know if we'll buy Tom's Bonanza. It has good and bad points. It would make some private owner a hell of an airplane; I'm not convinced that it's a good "corporate" plane as it sits. It needs some work, which means downtime, which means that it's not available to the Boss. And when the Boss buys something, he'll want to use it NOW. So honestly, we'll probably keep looking for something that is more "turn-key."
But it was fun flying the legendary Beechcraft Bonanza. It was everything it's cracked up to be, and I now understand why so many people lust after them and own them proudly. It is a high-quality airplane.