The Cessna 210: An Affectionate Look Back

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A little history of the Cessna 210 series, how they fly and how one became a member of the family.

When I was in junior high and going to Air Explorer meetings at the Des Moines Airport, I was like every other kid in our group. During breaks from the private pilot ground school, we’d go into the maintenance hangars and out on the ramp to get close to the airplanes that we dreamed of someday flying. While I hungered to fly one of the growling Beech 18s or slippery-looking Learjets, the airplane that somehow seemed within the range of a possibility of someday owning and flying was the Cessna 210.

There would always be at least one 210 on the ramp during those evening meetings. I’d invariably walk over and look at it, standing there sleek and somewhat aloof, curved the way airplanes should be and reeking of speed and flights to places far over the horizon. Sometimes I’d get to talk with one of the pilots and listen to their praise of their Centurions. Even the name was cool—a professional officer in the armies of ancient Rome.

History

I learned that the 210 had started life as pretty much a retractable Cessna 182 with a 260-HP engine. The hydraulic landing gear retracted into the fuselage, with the mains twisting 90 degrees in the process. Where some pilots made fun of the motion going on during retraction, I thought of the F4U Corsair’s gear and saw elegance. I did learn that the complexity of the landing gear system meant it had to be maintained assertively—squawks couldn’t be deferred. I just took a look at the accident data on the 210 published in our sister publication Aviation Consumer and noted that gear hangups and collapses still are the source of some 12 percent of 210 accidents. Earlier 210s had an engine-driven hydraulic pump powering the gear—later Cessna switched to an electrohydraulic system that was more reliable. Still, there is only one set of hydraulic lines—if a line or connection fails and the fluid is lost, there is no alternative method of extending the gear. The good news is that I could find no evidence that anyone had ever been hurt in a gear-up landing of a 210 so long as the pilot didn’t shut the engine down and try to glide to the runway in hopes of saving the prop. There were fatal accidents due to that foolishness—some pilots discovered they hadn’t practiced prop-stopped glides recently and couldn’t hit a runway.

Gear retraction.

The Centurion was first turbocharged in 1965, boosting the airplane into the flight levels where it could hit speeds of 200 knots. Unsurprisingly, the turbocharged models outsold the normally aspirated versions two-to-one for the rest of the time the 210 was in production.

The cabin was stretched to accommodate six people, first with two child seats aft and then with seats where moderate-sized adults could sit.

In 1967 the 210 was the first of the Cessna singles to undergo a major airframe redesign to allow it to switch over to a cantilever wing as part of a plan Cessna had in place to go back to its roots from 1929 and build strutless airplanes—Cessna never put a wing strut on an airplane until the models 120 and 140 in 1945. The aerodynamic cleanup turned the 210 into a machine that would cruise an honest 170 knots at 75 percent power. The airframe redesign enlarged the cabin.

As an aside, Cessna only continued the cantilever wing change through the next year when it stopped production of the 172 in favor of the 177 Cardinal. Cessna apparently misjudged the skill level of the average pilot as the 177 required more finesse to fly than the 172 and pilots crashed them all over the landscape. The 172 was reintroduced with a Cardinal’s engine and the 177 was bumped up into a different competitive niche by going to 180 horsepower up front. The cantilever-wing replacement for the 182, the 187—which even had the then-popular “T” tail—was test flown but never put into production.

Changes

To be sure the tanks are full, a 210 must be level when being fueled.

Incremental changes followed—takeoff power was boosted to 300 horsepower with max continuous being 285, gross weight and useful load continued to climb, the gear system was simplified with the removal of the aft gear doors and a 90-gallon fuel system was made standard. By the early 1970s the T210 was the only six-place single that could fill the seats with 170-pounders, fill the fuel tanks and still be under gross weight.

A pressurized 210 came out in 1978. It was the poster child for “eight pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag.” Cramming all the needed hardware for pressurization inside the airplane was challenging—cooling the engine was a big challenge. Maintenance, initially, was a nightmare. Over the years mods, including intercoolers, turned the P210 into nearly the perfect personal hotrod.

Even though it wouldn’t fit in a T-hangar, the Piper Malibu got some noses out of joint at Cessna—it was faster than the P210. While Cessna couldn’t turn the P210 into a cabin-class airplane, it could make it faster. In 1985 Cessna came out with the R model of the 210 line. It had more power, longer wings and a redesigned horizontal tail giving it the lightest pitch forces of any 210. Importantly for Cessna, it was one knot faster than the Malibu, used much less runway and fit in a T-hangar. Sadly, the bottom was falling out of general aviation and Cessna stopped producing piston-engine airplanes at the end of 1986—beginning a 10-year hiatus. When piston production resumed, Cessna made the decision not to restart the 210 line.

It was 1974 before I flew a 210. I was an instructor at a Cessna dealer and there was always a brand-new 210 on the line. One day the chief pilot handed me the Owner’s Manual for the T210 (Pilot Operating Handbooks were a couple of years in the future) and told me to read it, make sure I understood the turbocharging system and be ready to give a flight review in one in an hour. Apparently, because I had a fair amount of time in 182s and 206s, the chief pilot figured I could fly a 210. He was right; there was not much of a transition other than the gear and learning the speeds and turbocharging system.

Turbo

The turbocharging system confused me at first until one of the charter pilots walked me through it. From a pilot’s standpoint it’s dirt simple—you set the manifold pressure and RPM you want and the system keeps it there. So long as the engine oil is warm and everything is working, the system automatically sets the manifold pressure and fuel flow at redline when you firewall the throttle on takeoff and holds the selected manifold pressure as you climb. Simplified, the system monitors the manifold pressure and uses engine oil to control the wastegate that controls the ratio of exhaust gas that goes out the tailpipe versus through the turbosupercharger. On the first takeoff on a cool day, the pilot does have to monitor manifold pressure and fuel flow as the engine oil may be too sluggish to flow as needed to prevent the wastegate from routing too much air into the turbo and the manifold pressure and fuel flow will go over redline. The solution is to simply stop pushing the throttle forward when redline is reached.

Heading for Oshkosh with four people, bags, camping gear and below gross weight.

As I went through the Owner’s Manual I ran some sample weight and balance calculations and was impressed that I could carry a full load of 170-pounders—hey, I was a starving college student as were my friends and none of us weighed more than that. Even more important, baggage could be carried aft of the rear seats even with passengers in the fifth and sixth seats.

In later years, when I flew the six-place Beech 36 series, the Piper Lance and Saratoga and Malibu, I was frustrated at the limited c.g. range of those airplanes. They were difficult to load with six people without going out the aft c.g. limit. It was about then that I learned that the 210 had the longest c.g. range of any six-place single. The tradeoff was that to get that range, the control system required a downspring arrangement that made the airplane heavy in pitch, much like the Cessna 206. With a forward c.g., it required making sure to pull as hard as necessary to get the nose up on landing to avoid touching down on the nosewheel. 

After I gave that flight review, I started flying the FBO’s 210s with some regularity and the initial attraction I’d had for the airplane turned into true affection. Because of the FBO’s T210, my parents could afford to take their three children to my grandmother’s funeral in southeastern Georgia—they could not afford five airline tickets.

Load Carrier

Being broke college kids, the 210 was the ideal airplane for us for the annual day trip from Des Moines to Oshkosh. Splitting the aircraft rental six ways was cheaper than the four-way split of any of the other rentals we had access to and, besides, the 210 went like stink, so we didn’t put that much time on it.

About that time I started flying Bonanzas—airplanes I like a lot—but I discovered I don’t fit well. At 6’4” tall, there isn’t enough head and legroom for comfort. The man who pulled Cessna out of bankruptcy in 1934, Dwayne Wallace, and who ran the company for the next 40 years, was also 6’4” tall, so he had to fit into all of the airplanes Cessna built. Thank you Dwayne for making sure I could fit comfortably in the 210.

When I worked for Cessna, the employees' flying club always had two or three T210s that were rented wet, with oxygen, for prices that reflected the fact that the club was subsidized by the company—it was wonderful. Splitting the rental five or six ways meant a weekend trip to a coast wasn’t unreasonable. One time five of us departed from Wichita on a Thursday evening and flew all night to time our arrival at Customs on Treasure Caye, Bahamas, when it opened on Friday. We had three days on the beach, then flew all night Sunday and went to work a little bleary-eyed on Monday. With three of the five occupants of the airplane pilots, we could trade off the flying and get some sleep.

Ownership

Over the next 20 years I had the chance to fly various models of the 210 and P210 from time to time—and kept saying to myself that I would find a way to own one someday.

Seven years ago I finally had the chance to become a 210 owner—well, the owner of a quarter of the corporation that owned a 1973 T210L. Based at Denver’s Centennial airport, it had been beautifully maintained, with updated avionics, recent paint and interior and co-owners that recognized that it’s not cheap to own and operate a 210—so they had set up an ownership agreement that made sure there was money on hand to take care of unexpected maintenance costs. I particularly liked that they had never had to do a special assessment on the shareholders to cover an upgrade or heavy maintenance hit. And, yes, a carefully done annual on a T210 is probably going to be in the $5000 range.

Of course the airplane gets a 40th birthday party, complete with martini glass on the cowling. It's family.

The engine was some 150 hours past TBO, which was the way I prefer to buy airplanes. You essentially get free engine time and then have control of how the overhaul is done.

My initial long trip in N76BL—which we just called Bravo Lima—was not auspicious. The engine kept throwing the alternator belt. Once at our destination in California my wife and I played tourist and bought a lot of things to bring home with us—after all, it was just the two of us in that big airplane. I also had things checked at the local FBO, which assured me that all was well. I did some research and found that a symptom of worn out and locked-up crankshaft counterweights is that the engine will vibrate in an unusual fashion—not noticeable to the occupants—and throw the alternator belt. The engine may then seize.

On the first leg home, the alternator belt left the premises as I was starting the climb to clear the Sierras. I diverted into Sacramento and, after discussions with my co-owners, decided that my wife and I would airline home (we shipped a lot of boxes) and that it was time for the engine overhaul.

We made the decision to have Mike Busch’s Savvy Aircraft Maintenance Management company manage the engine overhaul—one of the smartest things we’d ever done. The engine was pulled, shipped to Powermaster in Tulsa, Oklahoma, overhauled (the crankshaft counterweights were in bad shape—I saw them later), returned, reinstalled and tested. Co-owner Dan Travis flew Bravo Lima home without a problem.

It Keeps Getting Better

Since then, my affection for the 210 did nothing but deepen. Other co-owners Garry Schubert and Rod Eisenbraun turned out to share a desire for dispatch reliability of our airplane, so Dan Travis acted as maintenance manager—getting squawks repaired immediately. We came to socialize together, one of the advantages of airplane group ownership. We even threw a 40th birthday party for Bravo Lima in its hangar.

My daughter spent some time living in rural areas of a number of states as she pursued a career around horses—the 210 proved to be an ideal way to visit her because there was always a general aviation airport nearby and taking the airlines would have taken time that we might not have been able to take off work.

My mother also liked the 210 because it meant my wife and I (and later, our dog) could visit her on short notice. She generally thought airplanes were pretty good things—her sister had learned to fly before WWII. Mom joined the Navy in WWII, becoming a member of the WAVES. She married my father, a naval aviator, the day he received his wings of gold. It always made me incredibly proud when I’d be with them—and later just her—at functions where veterans were asked to stand up and be recognized, and they would stand up. Because of her knowledge of airplanes and pilots—her sister’s son learned to fly—when my brother and I said we wanted to learn to fly, she didn’t stand in our way as did the parents of so many of my friends who said they wanted to fly.

With well over six hours endurance when flown lean of peak, Bravo Lima became my seven league boots. As an aside, with little wing dihedral, it's essential that the airplane be level when fueled or it may not be possible to fill the tanks. I've normally run the engine LOP at 13.5 GPH and cruise speed has ranged from 160 knots at 10,000 feet to nearly 200 at FL230. Each summer I would fly it to Michigan to unite with friends and my daughter to fly seaplanes. My daughter and I, and one or two others, would then fly to Oshkosh, where we reveled in the excitement of the arrival. The maneuverability and speed range of the 210 made the arrival less hectic. When IFR, we could blast along at nearly any speed ATC needed and then, because gear speed is usually above cruise speed, throw the Firestones out as speed brakes, along with approach flaps, and slow to a crawl in no time. A low stall speed and the ability to fly short final at 70 to 75 knots meant it was a piece of cake to land on whatever dot the controller wanted—even if he or she suddenly changed the dot as we were going into the flare.

The cabin became a place of delight. It took my wife and me over some of the most beautiful scenery in the west. I reveled in the reactions of passengers to the outside view. A French air force pilot who rode to Oshkosh with my daughter and me expressed utter astonishment as the airport came into view. She grabbed the back of my daughter’s seat and exclaimed, “I don’t think there are that many airplanes in all of France!”

Mt. Evans, Colorado, elevation 14,265, viewed from the east from N76BL flying at 14,500 feet during a LightHawk flight.

The 210 proved the ideal vehicle for LightHawk flights in support of conservation. Researchers and activists working on projects supporting our natural resources had a clear, unobstructed view of the world. I did discover that when doing turns around a point at 15,500 feet, looking for sites for some remote sensing stations on the top of a New Mexico mountain, that the true airspeed involved means you’ve got to allow a lot of room to get turned around. Because the 210 is so solid and stable and there’s no speed limit on opening the cabin windows, it’s an excellent photo platform. It also has an excellent heater. Recently I was flying researchers who needed to open the window for photos at 14,500 feet just east of Colorado’s Mount Evans. Everyone in the cabin was comfortable, although the photographer had the window open all the way so that she could hang out in the slipstream to get the shots she needed. She said she was chilly.

On weekend mornings the 210 proved to be a fun machine for breakfast runs or simply staying in the pattern for a few touch and goes. It is not a particularly easy airplane to land well—and coming into the flare at anything over 80 knots means it will float, even with full flaps. That makes it a challenge to try to roll it on. When light, the power means the airplane will climb like crazy, so by flying a very tight pattern, you can get in a lot of touch and goes in a half hour—a nice way to recharge your personal batteries. It’s probably both cheaper than therapy and more effective.

We're On Our Way, Mom

In the last few years, I found that I was primarily using the 210 to visit my mother. A 3.5-hour flight beat a 12-hour drive all hollow. It meant we could take our dog, something that delighted Mom. A year ago, her health started to deteriorate. We made our last flight to see her early this year. We got word that she had taken a turn downward, but we hadn’t realized how fast things were going. Even with the speed of the 210, she was unresponsive by the time we arrived at the hospice. She almost made her 94th birthday.

My wife and I are soon to move further west. In one of the hardest decisions I ever made, I put my share of Bravo Lima on the market. If I could afford it, I’d buy the airplane outright and keep the joy and memories going. I’m hoping that I’ll someday again fly a 210 regularly. After all, it’s only been 43 years. I’m just getting to know those wonderful machines. Machine? No way, it’s a part of the family.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.