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Building A Better Bonanza

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It cruises easily at better than 165 knots, can carry six (provided at least two aren't large), and has a range of 1,000 miles. The pilots who fly it generally love it, and the pilots who don't generally respect it. Samples can be found on the used market today in decent shape and for less than $150,000 -- a price that undercuts some higher-end LSAs. It's an aircraft with decades of history and a following to match.

But this is aviation. Pilots always want more, and the aftermarket for Bonanza owners offers many ways to grow.

In seeking today's most popular mods for the A36 Bonanza, we found pilots who wanted more of the same -- changes that let the Bonanza fly farther, fly faster, fly safer, and carry more in more comfort. That was perhaps predictable, but we also learned that "predictable" doesn't apply to everything when it comes to Bonanza mods.

Before we begin, a word of warning: Mods are a highly individual affair; that often means their pricing is, too. If you're wading into the mod market, weigh your interests carefully. Ask providers for pricing and customers for real-world costs and results. And be prepared. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  But for many people, a modified used Bonanza arrives at a price and performance point that offers a compelling alternative to new aircraft. We decided to take a closer look.

To get started, we spoke with the American Bonanza Society's Tom Turner. Turner has served ABS in roles that include manager of technical services and executive director of its Air Safety Foundation. He's also recognized as a Master CFI. We asked him what Bonanza drivers were most often looking for when upgrading their aircraft. Here's what he told us.

"The first thing they want to improve is avionics," said Turner, "followed by load. Third is Tornado Alley's turbo normalizer, and last are cosmetic upgrades." Turner said the cosmetics are important to a typical Bonanza owner. And what we found was that while other mods might be higher on the list, "cosmetics" could ultimately lead to things that are more important. But let's start at the beginning.

Out with the Old

If there's one thing that often allows pilots to best optimize use of the aircraft they already have, it's avionics. Turner noted that avionics aren't just about enhanced information delivery. Case in point: the Bonanza's equivalent of a vacuum system. It's heavy. According to Turner, "Owners are gaining about 20 pounds of load-carrying ability" by removing that system and going to one that's all electric. Many owners make the switch while moving to a glass panel.

Going Glass

We found that many owners who are going to glass (or anything else) are also upgrading to meet ADS-B requirements. To get some idea of relevant considerations regarding those mods, we spoke with Dennis Sorber and Lloyd Timmons of Avionics 1st in Dallas, (214) 337-7000.

Sorber and Timmons themselves own an A36 and, as avionics shop owners, have turned their panel into a $100,000-plus showpiece that includes both Garmin G500 and Aspen EFD1000 glass. That journey, plus their experience with customers, has led them to form some opinions about each brand. "If you're doing a small retrofit, the Aspen will play with just about anything. It will get weather, charts, and synthetic vision into the cockpit. You can do a single tube and upgrade later to two (or three), and all of them will typically play with all your legacy equipment. But most guys who have kept up with the evolution of their avionics and have a Garmin 430 or 530W -- those guys might want to stick with Garmin."

There are other considerations. "If you're going to do Garmin, you're going to need nine 3-1/8th holes to put in your G500. A Garmin installation requires you to maintain certain backup instruments, and you may end up with an air-driven attitude indicator." An Aspen solution requires less real estate, but it may also require reading glasses. "With Aspen, you can do all that in five holes with a two-tube system and backups. Those two Aspen tubes get you everything a G500 gets you, but the displays are smaller, with smaller text. They're harder to read." Looking at the same chart on the Aspen versus the Garmin will require you to pan on the chart. And there are less obvious considerations.

Garmin has been moving away from compatibility with outside systems. By that, we mean they have in some cases been changing their data buses so that they're only compatible with other Garmin equipment. Sorber and Timmons put it this way: "These days, we'd recommend that if you're going to Garmin, you should expect to do that panel-wide and to stay with Garmin in the future." Aspen, however, still makes their data available to other boxes. That will matter to some people. And then there's the math. 

Owners can expect to spend $13,000 for a one-tube Aspen solution and upwards of $20,000 for two tubes. A G1000, installed, weighs in closer to $22,000 from Avionics 1st. ABS's Turner says he knows a lot of owners who have spent $40,000-60,000 on major panel refits. And sometimes costs, usually with full Garmin makeovers, "run into the six figures," he says. When it comes to installation, he wasn't aware of ABS members displaying any apparent preferences for specific shops. "They're getting it done where it's convenient for them."

Gaining Weight

Next on the list is load. There are multiple ways to squeak more load-carrying out of a Bonanza. We already mentioned the 20 pounds ABS's Turner says are gained by pulling the aircraft's air-driven instruments and going all electric. For aircraft equipped with air conditioning, Beechcraft also offers a weight-saving upgrade that replaces the legacy unit with a more modern "set and forget" system.

According to Beechcraft's senior product marketing manager, Mike Turner, the upgrade delivers about 40 more pounds of useful load versus an aircraft flying with a legacy air conditioning system. He also says you'll get more speed, because installation of the new unit removes the old unit's air scoop and its associated drag. Along with the weight savings, owners can run the new units throughout the flight -- including takeoff. The system is designed to dump electrical load on departure, so you can turn it on while still on the ground and leave it on until the flight ends. Hawker's Turner also says that, in some circumstances, the installation will also stretch the aircraft's weight and balance window.

Pricing for new air conditioning depends on whether your aircraft currently has a legacy unit, but in either case the installation won't change the aircraft's interior proportions. As an upgrade, pricing starts near $25,000. Installing the new unit where there was none before will run closer to $30,000. And this is one mod you'll be going to Beechcraft to get. According to Mike Turner, there are no other providers.

Bang for the Buck

When it comes to real bang-for-the-buck upgrades for the Bonanza, today's answer is the same as it's always been: tip tanks. This is where things can get particularly complicated. Providers have sought and achieved FAA approval for maximum gross weight increases with the addition of the tanks. So pilots get added range and added carrying capability. Different installations yield different results with the same model. And, of course, different installations with different models also offer different results.

But there are some basic truths. A36 Bonanzas are certified in the utility category and fly in the normal category with certain tip tank modifications. That means load limits are shrinking from 4.4 Gs maximum to 3.8 Gs with the mod. But in most cases operators are investing less than $20,000 and walking away with the ability to carry up to 40 extra gallons of fuel in addition to a load-carrying increase. The total benefits will depend on a number of factors, including the provider and engine options.

D'Shannon Aviation offers tanks alone or combines them in a "Genesis Package" that adds tip tanks (20 gallons per side) along with vortex generators, aileron gap seals, an IO-550 engine upgrade (if needed/desired), and cooling baffles. Together, Genesis can deliver about 380 pounds of additional useful load, dependent on your model. Later models can expect to gain less -- about 334 pounds of carrying ability. In each case, the aircraft will also see performance changes from the other mods.

D'Shannon reaches its higher number because it has earned FAA approval to push the aircraft's maximum gross weight to 4,024 lbs. Ask D'Shannon's Scott Erickson for details. Of course, pricing depends on a long list of factors. Ballpark it near $45,000 if your aircraft isn't already flying with an IO-550 and closer to $18,000 if it is and you just want everything else. Aside from Beechcraft and D'Shannon, J. L. Osborne offers a tip tank option that delivers similar benefits and is also worth your consideration. Take these as general notes. If you're an owner, you'll want to start with advice from the American Bonanza Society, then dig in and shop around for the best solution for you.

The Need for Speed

Maximum load isn't the ultimate solution for everyone. The Whirlwind packages from Tornado Alley Turbo add turbo-normalizing to the stock Bonanza. They also push the maximum gross weight to around 4,000 pounds affording greater load carrying ability. If you want a built-in oxygen system to go along with that, you'll be looking at an all-in price near $60,000. In that case, Tornado Alley boss Tim Roehl says you'll be buying into a six-place single that can deliver cruise speeds in excess of 190 KTAS at 12,500 feet, burning 17 gph. Speeds get a little better as you go up from there. Don't expect much more than 195 KTAS at 17,500, but don't expect it to burn out your engine, either. Roehl says his system offers good engine cooling, with maximum operating cylinder head temperatures of less than 390 degrees.

The turbo option has become popular in recent years. According to ABS's Turner, "As of the late '90s, we had fewer than 200 in the fleet. I think we're now in the area of 500 turbo-normalized airplanes." Roehl put the number at "over 800 (turbo-normalized) Bonanzas currently flying."

Aesthetics -- More than Meets the Eye

If it's true that Bonanza drivers like to maintain a good-looking aircraft, paint is one thing, but aircraft interiors can hold more secrets. When we spoke with Dennis Wolter of AirMod, we learned that stripping away the interior can be the foundation for some unexpected, but very important, work.

Wolter's shop specializes in interiors and begins each job with a thorough teardown. "No one realized we'd keep these things 50 years or considered that in that time the glue might start to attack the aluminum." Sometimes there's nothing to see, says Wolter. "Other times, I can remove old glue without the use of any solvent and see dark metal -- the telltale signs of oxidation. It's becoming a problem. You have to get that out of there." For Wolter, that's changed his interiors business into something of a restoration company.

"People don't think about interiors when they think about corrosion," he warns. "But the interiors stay warm. They hold materials that retain moisture, and often it's an area that never gets looked at." AirMod goes "down to the bare metal" before starting an interior refurbishment. Once inside, the company removes any corrosion, etches the metal, and adds a zinc chromate barrier before going to work on the aesthetics. The new interior can range in cost from about $24,000 up, depending on materials. "It's really saving these airplanes," Wolter says. 

As challenges facing the aviation industry persist, making the old new again is becoming a bigger part of how aviation sustains itself. For many pilots, new aircraft are not becoming any more affordable. And that may be contributing to a growing push for services from the modifications market. In any case, the Bonanza may be showing the way.

Note: Inclusion in this article of particular modification companies and their offerings does not constitute an endorsement by AVweb, and providers not included may offer services that are similar or superior to those mentioned above. When seeking out mods, do your homework, and make a decision based on the research that satisfies your concerns.

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