Darwin’s Proof: Beech Pistons Continue to Evolve

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 tailDid ya’ hear about the school board for a midwestern state that approached theend of the 1990s by "de-emphasizing" evolution in science classes? Thereally 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 theydidn’t want to roll back time an even 100 years. Forget about man descended fromapes; what about man ascending in birds?

Thanks to continuing evolution, among the airplanes sure to be available when2001 ushers in the next millennium is one of the greatest aviation creations ofall time; indeed, revolution in design when it first flew back when aviation wasbarely in its 40s: the Bonanza.

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

In those nearly 55 years of production, a world record for longevity, thetrademark V-tail went away — now almost 20 years ago — and the Bonanza linesplit in two, with the six-place Model 36 continuing the Bonanza name, while thestraight-tail four-seater Model 33 that got its start in 1960 became the F33ABonanza after a few years as the Debonair. Eventually, even the room-makingthrow-over yoke also gave way to a pair of conventional yokes.

Bonanza B36TCBut regardless of overall fuselage length, whether the tail uses only twoV-oriented surfaces or three feathers in a conventional configuration, the basicgenes remain as obvious as the stylized "Bonanza" emblem they share: Adouble-tapered wing, the tall cabin, the pigeon-toed-appearing main gear, thegrinning grill of the front cowling. And beneath the skin, the visualsimilarities take on concrete characteristics in the structures: the wing spars’construction and piano-hinge attachment of the leading edges, and theemergency gear-extension system — right down to the placement of the manualcrank handle.

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

Thinking back to having logged some serious cross-country time in a friend’s1948 B35 Bonanza cemented in my mind the inescapable connection between theoriginal family sedan of Walter Beech’s vision and the all-business luxurymounts of today. The ’48 shared nearly identical flying qualities with afriend’s 1968 V35A, as well as with factory Bonanzas flown by me in 1995 and1997.

While nearly identical in handling, in roll-yaw coupling, in descents andapproaches, Bonanzas of old differ from the newest ships in other noteworthyareas that illustrate where Beech and now Raytheon Aircraft continued toconcentrate on improving, or evolving, the Bonanza mark, even as the productline shrank to only the A36 and B36TC six-place models — sadly, there are nomore new four-place 33-series Bonanzas or Debonairs.

Baron 58 Jaguar EditionHorsepower started going up almost immediately, with the usual impact on cruisespeeds, runway requirements and payload capacities; fuel capacity followed tokeep pace with the larger engines’ higher thirst; gear and flap extension speedsincreased, then the fuselage was stretched, with the horsepower/fuel/speed cyclestabilizing in the last decade at today’s 300-horse, almost two-ton, nearlyhalf-million-dollar birds.

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

In keeping with Darwin’s survival-of-the-fittest postulation, the Bonanzas (andBaron) evolved most where they most needed change to remain competitive — sizeand capability — and changed little where it already enjoyed an advantage overother, similar species: in its flying traits. Elected officials should adapt sowell.


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 newestBonanzas and Barons are concerned. The vibration problems that plagued TeledyneContinental Motors (TCM) engines suddenly smoothed out and went away. Credit acouple of years of hard work between TCM and Raytheon that led to the 1999 debutof TCM’s Raytheon Special Edition engines in all three piston-powered Beechcraftmodels. For 2000, Raytheon made a similar stride in the panel by adopting themost-advanced navigation and communications avionics available.

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

The engines were a collaborative development between Raytheon and TCM — whichhas 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 ofthose problems by having to deal with airplanes still under factory warrantywhen cylinders or entire engines needed to be replaced.

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

Cylinder volumes are matched to a fraction; head and induction-system hardwareare 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 ofthe cam lobes; the exhaust system was also flow matched and balanced, aiding thebalance of engine temperatures and per-cylinder power. The techniques were wellknown, all common to custom-engine makers for airplanes, race cars andmotorcycles.

There is no overstating the impact of the new engines, built on a specialline-within-a-line at TCM’s factory in Mobile, Ala. Balanced to tolerances afraction of the standard specifications, the Special Edition engines runsmoother, use fuel more efficiently and, if a warranty twice the norm meansanything, should last longer with less trouble than the standard-issueContinentals that had prompted the collaboration.

Jaguar yokeThe results need to be flown, and flown against another airplane with aContinental engine built under normal factory tolerances, to be believed. Duringmy flights in a Special Edition-powered A36 Bonanza and a B58 Baron, nary agauge nor dial shook or buzzed; every needle held rock-solid to its position;every digit of the digital avionics shined clear — and still. Both Beechcraftfelt closer to turbine smooth than any piston airplanes I’ve flown. Andsomewhere along the way, the birds got quieter, as well, the result of newattention 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 thatcarries through into the upholstery, fine hardwood inlays and premium woolcarpeting used throughout the piston line. These materials go even furtherupscale with the Jaguar Special Edition option available on both the singles andtwin.

Jaguar Cars’ automotive stylists designed the paint and interior for thesepackages. Inside, they applied more and finer hardwoods — including a polishedJag-logo inlay on the right yoke — better carpeting, and the finest leathersfrom Jaguar’s own vendors. Outside, the Jag-edition Bonanzas, Barons — and, to becomplete, C90B King Airs — get a distinctive four-color metal-flake paintscheme finished off with Jaguar Cars’ stylized leaping-cat insignia leaping fromthe vertical stab and rudder. Forced to choose between driving a Jag to theairport and flying a Jag-edition Beechcraft from that same airport, the choicewould be easy for most of us in aviation. Automotive technology may be moreevolved than much in aviation, but nowhere are speed limits evolved enough tocompete 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 theevolutionary scale, the same can’t be said of the all-Bendix King panel packageRaytheon 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 madeup of components from multiple suppliers. Integration problems stop or becomeless significant; bulk buying usually brings better discounts. The problem wasone of macro evolution. If it happened that the vendor lagged others of itsspecies in evolving new products, a sole-source buyer risks customers lookingmore at the big picture than the nameplate alone.

Even before Raytheon certified the KFC 225 flight director/autopilot in theBarons’ and Bonanzas’ new all-AlliedSignal panel, Beech customers began to clamorfor the new Garmin GNS 430 and complain that, aside from the powerful newautopilot, everything else in the panel lagged behind products availableelsewhere.

Raytheon’s solution? Back to survival of the fittest. If evolution in the wildis 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 upwith its adaptation in a mere year. For 2000, Raytheon debuted anothersea-change in the panel and relegated to optional status the 1999 standardBendix 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 ofgeneral aviation’s cutting-edge avionics innovators: Garmin, PS Engineering,and, as it happens, AlliedSignal. The integration may not be as inexpensive; butthe capabilities and power are what the customers demanded, from Raytheon aswell as from planemakers ranging from Aviat to New Piper.

The centerpiece of the 2000 Bonanza and Baron panels is a pair of Garmin’shot-selling GNS 430 all-in-one comm/nav/GPS/ILS/GS receivers; sometime laterthis 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 "goldstandard" for pilots interested in the maximum capability possible.

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

Raytheon’s designers continued the advanced thinking by selecting Garmin’s newdigital transponder and PS Engineering PMA 7000, perhaps the best-designed audiopanel/intercom system on the market today. This is one that offers clearancerecording and playback capabilities, in tune with these birds’ business-flyingpotential.

And the design team stuck to its best-of-class philosophy by retaining BendixKing’s awesome KFC 225 for the standard panel. The only functions this systemcan’t handle are throttle and landing-gear control. Otherwise, set it up for aclimb or descent profile — by airspeed or rate-of-climb — select an altitudeto grab, an approach to fly, or an en route input from the DG to the GPS, and theKFC will fly what you pick. Flying AlliedSignal’s Malibu test bed last yearshowed me what business-jet and airline pilots have enjoyed for years — but ina 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 fromBFGoodrich, a sensor-only system that plays very well with the GNS 430s todisplay lightning strike data; BFG’s Skywatch traffic-alert system also workswith the GNS 430. Previous Stormscope offerings required someplace to displaythe 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 newA36, 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 birdsdescended directly from the old. If the ability to master complex tasks is inour genes, control harmony is in the Bonanzas’ and Barons’. This isn’t to saythat other singles don’t enjoy great roll-yaw coupling, balanced control forcesor high flexibility; indeed, many other airplanes also make their pilots lookgood. No other airplane, however, has become quite the benchmark for controlharmony and balanced performance that the Bonanza has earned over the years. Theharmony was there at the start, although keeping it through changes in engineweight and fuselage length required some work. So, too, the operationalflexibility, somewhat limited in the beginning, improved in stages.

The resulting flying machines are, simply put, legendary. Firewall that bigContinental and the Bonanza growls quickly to its full 300-horses; release thebrakes, and the acceleration nudges you firmly back into the seats. Before theairspeed dial indicates 70 knots, you’re rotating; by 80, you’re climbing andthe wheels are making their seven-second race for the wells. Trim for about 100knots, 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 inunder 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 to8,000 feet MSL is easy and precise, thanks to changes in the electric pitch-trimarchitecture. Set the engine for 75% power, trim for level and stand by; theBonanza needs a few miles to spool up to cruise speed, necessitating a littleattention to trim to hold altitude. Leaned for best power — about 100 degrees Frich 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 airspeedindicator; for the B36TC at altitude, increase that number to more than 200knots.

Fuel flow, leaned for best economy, brings consumption down into the 14 gphrange — remember the new engine and all its special touches, if you’reskeptical — and deprives the A36 of only a few knots. Cooling the turbine endof 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 andairspeed. Even on descent, the flight-director manages as finely and gently asthe smoothest aviator. Flying an approach? Engage and watch.

Slowing down and coming down pose little problem for the pilot of a modernBonanza, thanks to a gear-extension speed only a few knots below cruise, andflap 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 ininstrument training. Hand-flying the descent, the maneuvers, the entirepublished approach? You’ll learn quickly why the KFC 225 does so well — becausethe airplane, itself, flies so well.

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

True, the view ahead gets a bit freaky, watching the ground fill the windshieldand grow larger by the second. But a glance at the airspeed needle will confirmthat 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" andpractically all of the above applies. In fact, more applies for the twin thaneither single where the impact of the smoother Special Edition engines isconcerned. Imagine a single with a major case of the shakes — and then doublethe 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 byevolving the Baron fuselage into something stiffer and stronger.

New door seals and new latches helped Raytheon achieved a new high in quiet, fitand finish. Obviously, both birds benefited from something Darwinistic, even ifthe designers, engineers, sheet-metal workers, and pilot marketing types don’tuse the same words to describe the process. Thanks to the ever-progressivenature of man, markets and technology, the changes that have made the Bonanzasand 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 thesame way the original 35s were built more than a half-century ago. In fact, theonly aspect of the Beechcraft line that hasn’t seen big advances in the ensuing55 years is in these birds’ high parts count and labor-intensive assembly. Andthat 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 ahalf-million to take home a new A36, nearly $600,000 for a B36TC. And if theBaron gets into your blood, you bank account needs about $1 million. Add $15,000to $30,000, respectively, for the leather interior and finer paint that comewith the leaping-cat logo of the Jaguar Special Edition versions of the Bonanzasand Baron.

Although engineers acknowledge that parts and labor could come out of thesebirds with a total redesign of their internal structures, don’t look for anyradical changes in the short term; small, evolutionary changes will continue aslong as there is a Beech Bonanza to improve. If, as rumor has it from time totime, that the Baron and Bonanzas’ days are numbered, the cause of theextinction won’t be one of outliving its usefulness but one of a company nolonger interested in the rate of return building them.

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