Darwin's Proof: Beech Pistons Continue to Evolve

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Quick quiz: What new-manufacture general aviation airplane has been in production for almost 55 years? It's the Beech now Raytheon Bonanza, the latest versions of which are clearly descended from that original V-tail design. But today's offerings reflect what evolutionary not revolutionary change can bring to improve an award-winning design. New, finely-tuned engines, state-of-the-art avionics and interior appointments as fine as any piston-powered airplane round out the package. And, as Dave Higdon writes in this AVweb Pilot Report, the handling qualities, utility and efficiency that made the Bonanza and its descendants one of the most desirable owner-flown airplanes continue to this day.

Jaguar tail Did ya' hear about the school board for a midwestern state that approached the end of the 1990s by "de-emphasizing" evolution in science classes? The really wanted to roll time back to before George of the Jungle came to Kansas — but not so far back that they couldn't keep the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow, Dorothy — and her little dog, Toto, too. For me, the big relief was that they didn't want to roll back time an even 100 years. Forget about man descended from apes; what about man ascending in birds?

Thanks to continuing evolution, among the airplanes sure to be available when 2001 ushers in the next millennium is one of the greatest aviation creations of all time; indeed, revolution in design when it first flew back when aviation was barely in its 40s: the Bonanza.

No one can question that the newest Bonanzas evolved directly from the original Model 35 that took to the sky on that cold day in December 1945. For the uninitiated and the unbelievers, evidence proving those links remains today in the form of Bonanzas still flying from every model year, from the 1947 original through the 2000-model powerhouse being delivered today.

In those nearly 55 years of production, a world record for longevity, the trademark V-tail went away — now almost 20 years ago — and the Bonanza line split in two, with the six-place Model 36 continuing the Bonanza name, while the straight-tail four-seater Model 33 that got its start in 1960 became the F33A Bonanza after a few years as the Debonair. Eventually, even the room-making throw-over yoke also gave way to a pair of conventional yokes.

Bonanza B36TC But regardless of overall fuselage length, whether the tail uses only two V-oriented surfaces or three feathers in a conventional configuration, the basic genes remain as obvious as the stylized "Bonanza" emblem they share: A double-tapered wing, the tall cabin, the pigeon-toed-appearing main gear, the grinning grill of the front cowling. And beneath the skin, the visual similarities take on concrete characteristics in the structures: the wing spars' construction and piano-hinge attachment of the leading edges, and the emergency gear-extension system — right down to the placement of the manual crank handle.

For the toughest judges among the unconvinced, however, one area of evidence leaves no room for doubt: Behavior, as a biologist might call it. We call it flying qualities, handling, control harmony and the like.

Thinking back to having logged some serious cross-country time in a friend's 1948 B35 Bonanza cemented in my mind the inescapable connection between the original family sedan of Walter Beech's vision and the all-business luxury mounts of today. The '48 shared nearly identical flying qualities with a friend's 1968 V35A, as well as with factory Bonanzas flown by me in 1995 and 1997.

While nearly identical in handling, in roll-yaw coupling, in descents and approaches, Bonanzas of old differ from the newest ships in other noteworthy areas that illustrate where Beech and now Raytheon Aircraft continued to concentrate on improving, or evolving, the Bonanza mark, even as the product line shrank to only the A36 and B36TC six-place models — sadly, there are no more new four-place 33-series Bonanzas or Debonairs.

Baron 58 Jaguar Edition Horsepower started going up almost immediately, with the usual impact on cruise speeds, runway requirements and payload capacities; fuel capacity followed to keep pace with the larger engines' higher thirst; gear and flap extension speeds increased, then the fuselage was stretched, with the horsepower/fuel/speed cycle stabilizing in the last decade at today's 300-horse, almost two-ton, nearly half-million-dollar birds.

Yet still today, Bonanzas coming out of Plant Two in Wichita bear that unmistakable look, utility and handling qualities. While the evolution in horsepower and speed stopped — for now, anyway — Raytheon continued to evolve the Bonanza beneath both the cowl and the glareshield. New Bonanzas, and the Baron B58 that evolved from the single, both offer the smoothest piston engines bolted into an engine mount, while the panel provides the latest equipment with the capabilities equal to the best of any light airplane, piston single or twin or turboprop.

In keeping with Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest postulation, the Bonanzas (and Baron) evolved most where they most needed change to remain competitive — size and capability — and changed little where it already enjoyed an advantage over other, similar species: in its flying traits. Elected officials should adapt so well.


Making The Most With The Best

Say, "Ahhh"; TCM Special Edition Mills Soothe The Savage Shakes...

A funny thing happened on the way to Y2K, at least where Raytheon's newest Bonanzas and Barons are concerned. The vibration problems that plagued Teledyne Continental Motors (TCM) engines suddenly smoothed out and went away. Credit a couple of years of hard work between TCM and Raytheon that led to the 1999 debut of TCM's Raytheon Special Edition engines in all three piston-powered Beechcraft models. For 2000, Raytheon made a similar stride in the panel by adopting the most-advanced navigation and communications avionics available.

It's not as if the new engines or avionics do anything that prior powerplants and panels couldn't, but in a quality-of-life way, nothing that came before matches what Raytheon installs today — and it's the works.

The engines were a collaborative development between Raytheon and TCM — which has suffered its share of problems with its big-bore six-cylinder engines. Raytheon, as the engine maker's largest OEM customer, was feeling the brunt of those problems by having to deal with airplanes still under factory warranty when cylinders or entire engines needed to be replaced.

Working with Raytheon to find and resolve the source of each problem — and to head off others — TCM devoted a special area of the shop and a special team to build the Special Edition engines developed exclusively for the planemaker. Engines like these are rare in late-model airplanes and unheard of for OEM installations.

Cylinder volumes are matched to a fraction; head and induction-system hardware are matched for flow rates; injectors are also flow-matched. And pistons, valves, cranks and connecting rods are paired and balanced to a couple of grams. A new cam profile and different valve springs relieved a problem with wear of the cam lobes; the exhaust system was also flow matched and balanced, aiding the balance of engine temperatures and per-cylinder power. The techniques were well known, all common to custom-engine makers for airplanes, race cars and motorcycles.

There is no overstating the impact of the new engines, built on a special line-within-a-line at TCM's factory in Mobile, Ala. Balanced to tolerances a fraction of the standard specifications, the Special Edition engines run smoother, use fuel more efficiently and, if a warranty twice the norm means anything, should last longer with less trouble than the standard-issue Continentals that had prompted the collaboration.

Jaguar yoke The results need to be flown, and flown against another airplane with a Continental engine built under normal factory tolerances, to be believed. During my flights in a Special Edition-powered A36 Bonanza and a B58 Baron, nary a gauge nor dial shook or buzzed; every needle held rock-solid to its position; every digit of the digital avionics shined clear — and still. Both Beechcraft felt closer to turbine smooth than any piston airplanes I've flown. And somewhere along the way, the birds got quieter, as well, the result of new attention paid to cabin insulation and interior finishings.

And while we're talking interiors, Raytheon has always been know as a "quality" versus "bargain" airplane maker, a conception that carries through into the upholstery, fine hardwood inlays and premium wool carpeting used throughout the piston line. These materials go even further upscale with the Jaguar Special Edition option available on both the singles and twin.

Jaguar Cars' automotive stylists designed the paint and interior for these packages. Inside, they applied more and finer hardwoods — including a polished Jag-logo inlay on the right yoke — better carpeting, and the finest leathers from Jaguar's own vendors. Outside, the Jag-edition Bonanzas, Barons — and, to be complete, C90B King Airs — get a distinctive four-color metal-flake paint scheme finished off with Jaguar Cars' stylized leaping-cat insignia leaping from the vertical stab and rudder. Forced to choose between driving a Jag to the airport and flying a Jag-edition Beechcraft from that same airport, the choice would be easy for most of us in aviation. Automotive technology may be more evolved than much in aviation, but nowhere are speed limits evolved enough to compete with an airplane — any airplane.

...Power To The Panel: Raytheon Goes Multi-Vendor — Again...

Of course, not all lines of evolution survive; it's part of that big, bad, wild-kingdom view of evolution. The same holds true for the Bonanza and Baron. While that big powerplant changeover of 1999 remains the peak of the evolutionary scale, the same can't be said of the all-Bendix King panel package Raytheon introduced with the same model year.

Sole-source vending evolved as a solution popular with planemakers of many ilk. Using one vendor helped solve cost-control problems that accompanied panels made up of components from multiple suppliers. Integration problems stop or become less significant; bulk buying usually brings better discounts. The problem was one of macro evolution. If it happened that the vendor lagged others of its species in evolving new products, a sole-source buyer risks customers looking more at the big picture than the nameplate alone.

Even before Raytheon certified the KFC 225 flight director/autopilot in the Barons' and Bonanzas' new all-AlliedSignal panel, Beech customers began to clamor for the new Garmin GNS 430 and complain that, aside from the powerful new autopilot, everything else in the panel lagged behind products available elsewhere.

Raytheon's solution? Back to survival of the fittest. If evolution in the wild is so driven, where dozens of generations must pass before a change shows up, Raytheon was able to backtrack a step down the evolutionary ladder and come up with its adaptation in a mere year. For 2000, Raytheon debuted another sea-change in the panel and relegated to optional status the 1999 standard Bendix King package.

Baron 58 panel
Baron 58 panel. Click for larger image.

Now standard is a panel that cherry picks the top of the line from some of general aviation's cutting-edge avionics innovators: Garmin, PS Engineering, and, as it happens, AlliedSignal. The integration may not be as inexpensive; but the capabilities and power are what the customers demanded, from Raytheon as well as from planemakers ranging from Aviat to New Piper.

The centerpiece of the 2000 Bonanza and Baron panels is a pair of Garmin's hot-selling GNS 430 all-in-one comm/nav/GPS/ILS/GS receivers; sometime later this year or in 2001, Raytheon will offer as an option Garmin's larger GNS 530. What can we say about the GNS 430 that hasn't been said? Innovative, powerful, yet surprisingly easy to learn and use, the GNS 430 has become the "gold standard" for pilots interested in the maximum capability possible.

Being one who seldom — nay, never — runs out to buy the newest what-ever, my reservations about the GNS 430 have dissolved with each successive exposure to the box. Whether flying a stand-alone GPS approach, a GPS overlay of a VOR or NDB non-precision approach, or flying a full ILS, there's no substitute for the situational awareness you get from a color graphic display tracking your progress. The interface and automation of this box are also at the top of the evolutionary heap.

Raytheon's designers continued the advanced thinking by selecting Garmin's new digital transponder and PS Engineering PMA 7000, perhaps the best-designed audio panel/intercom system on the market today. This is one that offers clearance recording and playback capabilities, in tune with these birds' business-flying potential.

And the design team stuck to its best-of-class philosophy by retaining Bendix King's awesome KFC 225 for the standard panel. The only functions this system can't handle are throttle and landing-gear control. Otherwise, set it up for a climb or descent profile — by airspeed or rate-of-climb — select an altitude to grab, an approach to fly, or an en route input from the DG to the GPS, and the KFC will fly what you pick. Flying AlliedSignal's Malibu test bed last year showed me what business-jet and airline pilots have enjoyed for years — but in a box priced in the low five figures, instead of anywhere in the sixes.

Among the new options for Bonanza and Baron buyers is the WX500 Stormscope from BFGoodrich, a sensor-only system that plays very well with the GNS 430s to display lightning strike data; BFG's Skywatch traffic-alert system also works with the GNS 430. Previous Stormscope offerings required someplace to display the strikes, but the WX500 only needs its connection to a Garmin.

...Two-part harmony: Bonanzas still fly like extensions of their pilots

With smoother engines, slicker avionics and finer finishings inside and out, pulling a pilot from a 1947-vintage Model 35 and putting him or her into a new A36, B36TC or B58 might cause confusion, if not outright technology shock.

But put that pilot aloft and you will erase any doubts that the new birds descended directly from the old. If the ability to master complex tasks is in our genes, control harmony is in the Bonanzas' and Barons'. This isn't to say that other singles don't enjoy great roll-yaw coupling, balanced control forces or high flexibility; indeed, many other airplanes also make their pilots look good. No other airplane, however, has become quite the benchmark for control harmony and balanced performance that the Bonanza has earned over the years. The harmony was there at the start, although keeping it through changes in engine weight and fuselage length required some work. So, too, the operational flexibility, somewhat limited in the beginning, improved in stages.

The resulting flying machines are, simply put, legendary. Firewall that big Continental and the Bonanza growls quickly to its full 300-horses; release the brakes, and the acceleration nudges you firmly back into the seats. Before the airspeed dial indicates 70 knots, you're rotating; by 80, you're climbing and the wheels are making their seven-second race for the wells. Trim for about 100 knots, and the Bonanza surges ahead and upward at nearly 1,000 feet per minute. Do this in a B36TC, and you can climb direct to its FL250 service ceiling in under a half hour and cross the continent in a one-stop day.

Not too shabby for machines in the two-ton range. Trimming for the climb to 8,000 feet MSL is easy and precise, thanks to changes in the electric pitch-trim architecture. Set the engine for 75% power, trim for level and stand by; the Bonanza needs a few miles to spool up to cruise speed, necessitating a little attention to trim to hold altitude. Leaned for best power — about 100 degrees F rich of peak — and trimmed level or under the precise control of the KFC 225, the Bonanza will ease itself into the mid-170-knot swath of the airspeed indicator; for the B36TC at altitude, increase that number to more than 200 knots.

Fuel flow, leaned for best economy, brings consumption down into the 14 gph range — remember the new engine and all its special touches, if you're skeptical — and deprives the A36 of only a few knots. Cooling the turbine end of the turbocharger adds about a gallon an hour. From here until starting down, the KFC 225 will fly the course, make heading changes, hold altitude and airspeed. Even on descent, the flight-director manages as finely and gently as the smoothest aviator. Flying an approach? Engage and watch.

Slowing down and coming down pose little problem for the pilot of a modern Bonanza, thanks to a gear-extension speed only a few knots below cruise, and flap speeds that need only reduced power and gear out to make in short order. Then, simply manage your descent with power, just like your CFII taught you in instrument training. Hand-flying the descent, the maneuvers, the entire published approach? You'll learn quickly why the KFC 225 does so well — because the airplane, itself, flies so well.

Banks beyond 30 degrees require almost no rudder to coordinate, thanks to the Bonanza's combination of extraordinary roll-yaw coupling and an interconnect between the ailerons and rudder systems. The more aileron you deploy, the more rudder travel the interconnect employs; the better the harmony and the easier the flying. Transitioning from level flight to descent mode takes nothing more than a gradual reduction in power to the come-down rate you desire — no pitch changes, thank you. Throw the wheels out and leave the pitch-trim alone, and the Bonanza comes down like a stone sinking in a deep pool — without accelerating much toward redline.

True, the view ahead gets a bit freaky, watching the ground fill the windshield and grow larger by the second. But a glance at the airspeed needle will confirm that airspeed is in the safe range, even if the VSI seems to have buried itself. Short, unimproved strips are no problem, thanks to the Bonanzas' healthy gear, tall stance and ample ground clearance for the prop.

...Adding Another Fan...

Change the proper noun from "Bonanza" to "Baron" and practically all of the above applies. In fact, more applies for the twin than either single where the impact of the smoother Special Edition engines is concerned. Imagine a single with a major case of the shakes — and then double the stakes to two mills. That was a common quip some Baron pilots cited. Likewise, the door fit and cabin-frame wear were other issues Raytheon solved by evolving the Baron fuselage into something stiffer and stronger.

New door seals and new latches helped Raytheon achieved a new high in quiet, fit and finish. Obviously, both birds benefited from something Darwinistic, even if the designers, engineers, sheet-metal workers, and pilot marketing types don't use the same words to describe the process. Thanks to the ever-progressive nature of man, markets and technology, the changes that have made the Bonanzas and Baron the best of their breed aren't likely the last to come.

Buyers should expect nothing less from airplanes still hand-crafted in much the same way the original 35s were built more than a half-century ago. In fact, the only aspect of the Beechcraft line that hasn't seen big advances in the ensuing 55 years is in these birds' high parts count and labor-intensive assembly. And that hand-made nature of the Bonanzas and Baron contributes to the biggest downsides of the three models: their sticker prices. You'll need to commit about a half-million to take home a new A36, nearly $600,000 for a B36TC. And if the Baron gets into your blood, you bank account needs about $1 million. Add $15,000 to $30,000, respectively, for the leather interior and finer paint that come with the leaping-cat logo of the Jaguar Special Edition versions of the Bonanzas and Baron.

Although engineers acknowledge that parts and labor could come out of these birds with a total redesign of their internal structures, don't look for any radical changes in the short term; small, evolutionary changes will continue as long as there is a Beech Bonanza to improve. If, as rumor has it from time to time, that the Baron and Bonanzas' days are numbered, the cause of the extinction won't be one of outliving its usefulness but one of a company no longer interested in the rate of return building them.

As it approached 55, the Bonanza has already outlived and out-evolved every one of its contemporaries and scores of newer designs to come along later. Not even an anti-evolutionist can deny that the Bonanzas and Baron truly are examples of the survival of the fittest — if not also the finest. And that's no joke, Toto.