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The Pilot's Lounge #126: The Less-Than-Great Planes

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The Pilot's Lounge

No matter where pilots gather, it's only a matter of time before someone starts a debate over which are the best and worst airplanes. It is no exception in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, and the battle was raging one afternoon when I happened to wander in. Old Hack was adamant that the Piper Super Cruiser, an example of which he had purchased almost-new back in the late 1940s, was the finest general aviation airplane ever manufactured. There were those who differed with him. I've certainly thought about the issue, especially when doing aircraft checkouts, as the good and bad points of a model -- as well as what are best described as its quirks -- need to be known and explained. For example, I generally like the later model Globe/Tempco Swift, the GC-1B, with 125 hp. When I fly with someone in one, I make sure the new pilot is carefully introduced to its special corners. For example, the open wheel-wells mean that, during an attempt to three-point-land the airplane, the drag of the airplane dramatically changes late in the flare, causing such landing attempts to be wildly unpredictable. Most Swift pilots I know will only do wheel landings. Those who will attempt three-point landings tell me they do so only when the weather is perfect and they are feeling daring. Is the landing behavior a bad thing about that airplane? Well, yes, it is. It takes a corner out of the performance envelope and probably reduces the level of safety somewhat because it compromises one of the tools a pilot has to use when operating the airplane. Is that a fact or an opinion? Opinion, of course, but an educated, reasoned one, I hope. The factual part is that the Swift does not handle predictably when attempting a three-point landing. As we pilots look at quirks, shortcomings and virtues of airplanes, we develop our own opinions as to their values. The original American Yankee had controls that were generally more responsive at all speeds than most production airplanes -- with the possible exception of the Cessna Cardinal -- which made for utterly delightful handling and, at the same time, an increased accident rate when flown by pilots who overcontrolled the airplane on landing.

Christmas Bullet

I listened to some of the opinions being expressed in the Lounge and immediately thought that no one ever mastered the analysis of the spectrum of the good, bad and ugly in the realm of airplanes better than did the late James Gilbert. He wrote The Great Planes, about some of the finest airplanes in history, and The World's Worst Aircraft, which well described its contents. There have been attempts since his books, but few have come close in the rational selection process or the manner in which he analyzed each of those he chose. The great ones, the Spitfire, Mustang, Cessna 172, Douglas DC-3, Beech Staggerwing, are indeed precisely that, and the bad ones, such as the deadly Christmas Bullet, the murderous Gee Bees, and death-trap Brewster Buffalo, were unabashedly hideous. What is striking is that, when we start looking at the truly bad airplanes, almost all were built before the end of World War II. When looking more closely, the change seems to come about 1935, which is about the time that the science of aeronautical engineering was maturing and the concepts of stability and control were becoming firmly understood. While there are those who say that no airplane that rises off the ground and flies can be bad, few of those commentators ever flew an airplane built prior to World War II. They've never had had the joy of experiencing neutral stability in pitch or yaw in normal operations, controls that were not even close to being harmonized, and engines that had, as their beholden duty, to regularly beguile the pilot with the sounds of silence.

Luscombe Phantom

Once science started elbowing out the "that looks pretty good" school of airplane design, and the certification regulations began to reflect a demand for certain levels of predictability in handling and performance, it's fair to say that very few truly awful airplanes made it into production. By the aviation boom of 1945, the industry and certification requirements had matured enough that there were no longer dogs such as the 1933 Luscombe Phantom, which had such miserable ground handling that more than one new owner refused delivery and demanded his money back after his first flight in the airplane. While the Phantom gave the subsequent Luscombe line an unfair reputation for being challenging when on the ground, the "8" series, which sold in huge numbers after the war, was merely demanding of a pilot's attention. They were not, by any stretch of even the most hopelessly inept pilot's imagination, bad airplanes. There are those who say that once the CAA (and then the FAA) really started to put the screws to manufacturers in the certification process, the resultant issue of the post-war manufacturers had no soul at all. They allege that all such airplanes were merely "spam cans" and had become faceless machines that flew pretty much alike. Such assertions tend to be true only when considering jet airplanes, for they tend to be without feel or indeed, peculiarity. (OK, with the exception of the rocket-like Lear 23 and the crowd-killing DC-10). However, the claim is untrue when it comes to small, piston-powered, GA airplanes. Fortunately for we who enjoy the rainbow world of different and distinctive airplanes, even the piston pounder most ruthlessly and exhaustingly subjected to FAA screening and certification has its own quirks, personality and eccentricities. Even though science and governmental regulation conspired to assure that the family lineages of post-World War II airplanes were largely free of stains on their DNA, and each offspring was the result of a carefully vetted coupling, there was, nevertheless, reason to believe that the true parents of some airplanes were not the ones who walked down the aisle in the arranged marriage. While the certification regulations did a good job of keeping the illegitimate offspring from getting out of the manufacturers' castle gates, there were still a few of questionable lineage that made it across the drawbridge and entered the wide, weird world of aviation retail sales. And those few were the ones that, once in full and free flight in the light of day and the glare of the opinion of pilots, elicited the nearly unanimous comment, "What in the world were they thinking?" So, in the spirit of covering one's mouth in amusement while looking into modern aviation's slightly embarrassing corners, let's ignore the jets and the transports and take an irreverent look at a list of a few of the more inexplicable GA airplanes of the post-war age.

Champion Lancer

Champion Lancer

Champion Aircraft Corporation acquired the type certificate for the two-place, tandem-seat, high-wing, tailwheel, Aeronca 7EC Champion in the early '50s and went to work expanding the line. Eventually some 13 different models, including the excellent Citabria and Decathlon, would be produced before the company was acquired by Bellanca. As part of an apparent desire to be a full-service, two-place-or-fewer airplane manufacturer, Champion proved most innovative, creating a fascinating series of airplanes, including an aerial applicator. They were unhesitatingly willing to market airplanes that would never win, place or show in a beauty contest, such as a nosewheel version of the Champ (which by then was called the Traveler) and a twin -- the Model 402 Lancer. From what can be ascertained from the ashes of time, the Lancer was designed to be a multi-engine trainer rather than a personal airplane. The general shape of the Champion fuselage was retained, although beefed up, with larger vertical and horizontal tail surfaces. Where the single engine had resided, a smoothly rounded nosecone appeared. The main wheels of the tricycle gear were directly under the wing-mounted engines, a pair of Continental O-200s developing 100 hp apiece and twirling fixed-pitch propellers. While the idea of an inexpensive, multi-engine trainer has long been the goal of both manufacturers and pilots seeking a multi-engine rating, sometimes a quest gets carried too far. Performance was, shall we charitably say, quite modest for 200 hp (think for a moment of the 140 knot Piper Arrow), as drag was magnificently high. Cruising speed was on the order of 115 knots; all-engine best rate of climb was just over 600 fpm, so when one figures on the loss of at least 85 percent of the rate of climb when one engine tanks, the concept of doing single-engine work in a Lancer becomes something to be taken most seriously. Add to the equation the non-feathering props, and it is obvious that those who gave multi-engine dual in Lancers were made of stern stuff. After all, the single-engine ceiling was advertised as a mere 2000 feet on a standard day. The Champion line of aircraft was never known for spectacular visibility, and adding a couple of nacelles on the wings turned it into what is best described as abysmal. As an added treat, the noise level from engines parked right by one's ears was paralyzing. One can only imagine the multi-engine student responding to an engine cut by reaching up for the throttles (power controls were ceiling mounted), starting through the process of identifying which engine had shuffled off its mortal coil (dead foot = dead engine), and then pretty much running out of things to do to improve the lot of the airplane. It wasn't necessary to verify which engine wasn't running by closing the throttle, as there was to be no feathering of the propeller. All that was left to do was applying adequate rudder to keep the airplane straight and holding Vyse (single-engine, best-rate-of-climb speed), although in the Lancer it would be better translated into "single-engine, least-rate-of-coming-down-speed." The market scratched its collective head and, while asking, "What were they thinking?" bought a grand total of 26 Lancers. A few are still extant, and are now objects of great curiosity and a source of pride for owners, who can look around and say, "You ain't got one of these."

Beech Starship

Beech Starship

Beech stepped into the cutting-edge of corporate aircraft design in the early 1980s, opting to produce a pusher, canard, composite turboprop. The engineers even sought assistance from the Rutan brothers' outfit, Scaled Composites, a group with a heavyweight reputation for innovation. They built an 85-percent scale proof-of-concept airplane which, late in 1983, was regularly seen zooming around the skies of Wichita. While the Rutans were, and are, past masters are creating specific, on-purpose designs for such singular tasks as a nonstop, unrefueled circumnavigation of the globe or a quick scoot out of the atmosphere, they weren't quite as adept when it came to designing an airplane that required the painful, but inevitable compromises involved in meeting the demands of a day-to-day, general-purpose transport. Unfortunately, the proof of concept vehicle was simply so cool-looking that no one figured out it had flaws that would doom the full-scale airplane to mediocrity. The complicated, drag-generating, flap-actuation mechanism was in the breeze rather than in the wing due to a desire to maximize space for fuel. Too late, someone figured out that -- with the aft-located swept wing -- center of gravity considerations would preclude fuel in the back of the wing and the actuators could have been tucked inside, where they wouldn't have eaten into speed and efficiency. No one had ever certificated a composite airframe, so being the first, Beech had to spend staggering sums of money educating a reluctant, hide-bound FAA bureaucracy about composites and their inherent strength. As each FAA employee was fearful of a career-ending mistake and few had the background to fully understand composites, the result was a series of decisions that unnecessarily added hundreds of pounds of weight to the airframe, further reducing performance. Beech eventually got a huge return in corporate knowledge about composite certification that would pay off when it started building jets; but in the short run, the costs involved with the Starship certification meant it would be priced more than a million dollars higher than its nearest competitor, one of the Piper Cheyenne series, which carried the same load, faster. To add more worries, Beech had to contend with the challenge faced ever since the first Zeppelin flew: dealing with the noise of engine exhaust through a pusher propeller. With the Starship, it seemed somehow magnified with the airframe, engine and prop marriage, and Beech wrestled valiantly with meeting flyover noise requirements, initially only being able to meet them at 85-percent power. Marketed in 1989, when the aviation economy wasn't particularly robust, and priced about the same as a Cessna Citation and Lear 31, both of which were far faster, sales were anemic. To make matter worse, it turned out that corporate executives, for all of their claims to love innovation, were conservative to the point of being reactionary and the Starship's futuristic appearance worked against it when it came time for a company to decide on a purchase. Beech built but 53 Starships. To the surprise of the world, it eventually offered to buy them all back. All but a few very rugged individualists took them up on the offer. For me, living in Wichita at the time and enthusiastically watching the high tech prototypes fly over my house, it was uncomfortable to see the story play itself out. I admit to a certain bias in favor of American airplanes (I did, after all, spend seven years working for an American airplane manufacturer), so it was especially painful to see a non-American company get the turboprop pusher formula right. The fast, attractive Piaggio Avanti is selling well throughout the world. Beech didn't so much get it wrong with the Starship; they just didn't quite get it right, and the not-getting-it-right certainly wasn't all their fault. Forty years earlier, Beech was the one who got it right with the Bonanza, wiping out the market for the Navion, which had appeared a year earlier. That caused North American Aviation to leave the GA market. This time Beech was on the losing end of the equation, but resolutely took its lumps and used what it had learned to put together the very successful Premier line of jets. From lemons are made lemonade.

Piper Pressurized Navajo

Piper Pressurized Navajo

In the 1960s, Piper chose to meet the competition of Cessna's cabin class 400-series and Beech's majestic Model 18 by coming out with a cabin-class twin of its own. Its offering, the Navajo, proved to be a success in almost every target market, from owner-flown to charter to corporate transport. Over the years it was stretched, pressurized and eventually grew turboprop engines and morphed into the Cheyennes I and II. However, there was one stumble along the way: The Navajo was the target/recipient/victim of Piper's first go at a pressurized airplane. It was not especially pretty. To get the power to haul the load, Piper went with the 425-hp, geared, turbocharged, Lycoming TIGO-541 engine on each side of its beefed up, inflated airframe. The demand for power became the gust that may have tumbled the boulder of consequences over the side of the hill. Pulling that much power from an engine originally designed for something on the order of 250 horses meant pushing pressures, temperatures and metallurgy to the limit, with little margin for error or abuse in service. The heat generated in that process created ongoing in-service challenges and frustrations. To top it off, even with all that power, it was only just barely enough; single-engine best-rate-of-climb was but 260 fpm. To feed all that power, more fuel storage was essential, but finding space in the airframe proved to be a headache. Eventually a six-tank fuel system evolved. Its complexity proved fatal to some very experienced pilots as they sought, vainly, to position selectors to tanks that contained something other than air. For example, the outboard tanks could not be used for takeoff or landing; and if they had less than half fuel, they were limited to straight-and-level flight. As an added attraction, the pressurization system proved touchy and maintenance-intensive. Exposed to the cold realities of the market, the P-Navajo could never quite compete with the pressurized Cessna 300- and 400-series twins. Piper did improve the P-Navajo, and called it the Mojave, but the damage to its reputation had been done and sales never really took off. Today the price of a used P-Navajo is about half that of an unpressurized Navajo of the same vintage.

Cessna 335

Cessna 335

By the early 1980s Cessna was sorting out and correcting a tail-skin cracking problem and riding on the crest of success with its pressurized model 340 and the slightly more powerful 340A. Faster than the larger, but nearly-identically powered, Model 414, the 340A was regarded in the industry as the perfect, personal hotrod when an owner pilot and one passenger wanted to go far and fast. Cessna decided that it would be a good idea to introduce an unpressurized version of the 340A for those who liked its performance but didn't want to pay for pressurization and didn't mind sucking on a bag when high enough to take advantage of the turbochargers. It made perfect sense: getting rid of the pressurization equipment and maybe shedding some of the pressure-vessel structure would reduce empty weight and improve the useful load, which was always a sore point for the 340A. After all, the hugely successful model 401/402-series airplanes looked as if they were just unpressurized versions of the Model 414. (They weren't, quite, but the airframe shape and engines were somewhat close). As with all airplanes that didn't quite get it right, there was somewhere a slip in the decision-making process with the 335. Instead of keeping the 310 hp per side of the 340A, someone decreed that the airplane would have different controllers for the turbos and the available power would be reduced a smidgeon (technical term) to 300 hp a side. However, the gross weight would remain the same as the higher-powered 340A, as there hadn't been that much improvement in empty weight. The compromises hurt: The loss of merely 20 horsepower bit into performance noticeably, particularly in single-engine rate of climb, dropping it to an anemic 230 fpm. Even though the airplane was introduced for the 1980 model year, when sales were still going strong, fewer than 65 were sold before Cessna decided that it was time to pull the plug.

Beech Duke

Beech Duke

Built to the quality standards of a King Air, the six-place Duke sported 380-hp, Lycoming TIO-541 engines -- rare beasts, those -- which means when both come due for overhaul, the choice is the overhaul or buying a small house in the Midwest. The assertive lines of the airframe made for a startlingly attractive airplane, but lead to high costs of manufacture and, surprising to the casual onlooker, horrendous drag. There are those who claim that the Duke was purposefully designed to be about 30 knots slower than it could easily have been on the available power simply because otherwise it would have been faster than the flagship of the Beech line, the King Air. The roughly 230-knot max. cruise speed is only marginally less than that of a King Air 90 and about the same as a Cessna 421, which carries more on slightly less horsepower. While the Duke shares the delightful handling of the Beech line, should pilots have the joy of single-engine operation, they will be up against the highest rudder-force of any piston twin -- 150 pounds at Vmc -- which happens to be the maximum the FAA allows. Owners report buying a Duke partially because of its looks, but selling it because of the cost of keeping it running. They describe King Air maintenance costs in a piston-twin airframe and recognize that the value of the airplane is entirely dependent on the engines. A gear-up landing means an engine teardown and propeller replacement, along with some sheet metal work. The cost is so high in relation to the value of the airframe that, in many cases, the insurance company will consider the airplane a total loss.

A Few Others

Globe Swift

Returning to an airplane I mentioned earlier, one has to wonder what Globe Aircraft was thinking when they built an 85-hp, two-place, retractable-gear airplane with a shockingly high-drag airframe for an airplane without struts, and then had the chutzpah to call it the "Swift." Then again, no one has ever accused marketing folks or politicians of accurately naming products or legislation. Targeted at the expected huge demand by returning World War II vets for airplanes, and facing a lack of capital, one surmises that Globe did the best they could with what they could afford. The original Swift was a ground-loving, slow, fun-to-fly airplane. In an attack of corporate intelligence, Globe, within months, boosted the power to 125 hp, a tremendous improvement. While an 85-hp Swift can barely get out of its own way and one cannot help but ask the "What were they thinking?" question about it, the subsequent version was quite satisfactory. The later modifications with 145- and 210-hp engines, along with suitable airframe clean ups, allow the airplane to truly live up to its name. About the time sales on the Swift, Champ, Luscombe 8 series and other two-place airplanes were beginning to sag in 1946, Luscombe was desperately trying to get a four-place airplane certified and into production. The company rightly guessed that the market was evolving fast and a four-seater might have a better chance of selling, plus the profit per unit would be better than on the smaller airplane. The Luscombe 11 Sedan looked promising, but testing disclosed a most distressing tendency to flat spin when loaded aft, resulting in one crumpled airplane and a test pilot joining the caterpillar club when saved by the silk parachute. The hurried solution was to restrict up-elevator travel. The good news was that it solved the spin problem; the bad news was that there was not enough up elevator to three-point-land the airplane, so marketing created ads touting the wonders of the wheel landing. Fewer than 100 were built. About 10 years ago an attempt was made to resurrect the type, but with a nosewheel and a bigger engine. The original airplane was not ugly; it just wasn't especially attractive when in a three-point attitude. With a nosewheel, it looked like the winner of an ugly baby contest. Potential buyers did not beat down the doors and the design seems to have again gone quietly into that great, good night. In the early 1960s Piper was riding the wave of the good feeling one gets knowing that an airplane was the right size, had the right performance, at the right price and the right time and was, therefore, busily turning out various versions of the single-engine, retractable-gear Comanche as fast as they could be made. Brainchild of Pug Piper, one of the offspring of William Piper, Sr., the Comanche would more than double in horsepower during its production run and would spin off a twin-engine version notable for its efficiency.

Piper Comanche 400

But, for every lovingly iced cake, there is a fly. For the Comanche, it was Pug Piper's firm belief that turbocharging would never be feasible for GA airplanes and the only way to get performance at altitude would be by starting with the largest, normally aspirated engine possible. Accordingly, he caused the Comanche airframe to be appropriately strengthened and dropped a whacking great, eight-cylinder, 400-hp, Lycoming IO-720 engine up front. While the good news was that cruise speeds of up to 185 knots resulted from the airframe and engine union, the bad news was that there simply wasn't adequate cooling in flight, the engine guzzled fuel, and it proved to be a nightmare to hot-start. The negative word of mouth in the field, combined with the success of turbocharging and its efficiencies, lead to production coming to an end with but 148 of the airplanes built. While the concept of starting out with a big engine on the ground so as to have power at altitude proved faulty until the advent of turbines in GA, the irony of it all is that Comanche 400 owners proved to be a most dedicated breed. They persevered through burned valves, fried cylinders, worn-out starter motors and dead batteries. With great determination they developed modifications that eventually cured the cooling ills and the hot-starting woes, although not the thirst for fuel. The few airplanes that have survived have acquired almost cult status and change hands infrequently. In fact, rumor has it at least one is now mechanically supercharged so as to haul its 400 horses into the flight levels. One has to wonder whether Pug Piper is applauding or whirling in his grave. While there have been few truly "bad" production airplanes in the last 60 years and certainly none that fit the legal description of "defective," there are certainly some that warrant a raised eyebrow when encountered on a quiet ramp. See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.

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