Waypoints: In search of the perfect ride

February 1, 2008

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines pilots a Bonanza A36 from Frederick, Maryland (FDK).

Over the holidays I spent time mining various college and university Web sites for tuition, room, and board costs in order to create a spreadsheet that projects just how dim our financial future might be once our two daughters go off to school. The oldest is a sophomore in high school. We started saving for college before she started kindergarten. Those of you with young children beware: That was too late. If you believe aviation is expensive, go study the higher education system. You’ll find the care and feeding of your average AirKnocker to be a real bargain compared to financing a college education.

When I think about our family’s future, financial and otherwise, I can’t help but think what role in it an airplane will play. Every once in a while, I’m able to glimpse the Bonanza sitting quietly in its hangar as an asset—something that might be leveraged (that’s accounting speak for “sold!”) to help finance some new phase of our lives. And then I remember how many payments are left on it and how the value of used airplanes is generally decreasing. If you apply some twisted financial logic to the situation you can (or at least I can) easily justify keeping the airplane because it’s not worth selling. As you might imagine, I struggled through accounting and finance courses in graduate school.

Financial realities aside, I don’t believe I am unique among pilots in that I am continually considering my next airplane—no matter how passionate I feel about my current ride. After more than a decade of aircraft ownership and nearly 30 years with a pilot certificate, I can’t imagine a life without aviation in it.

I’m often asked what my next airplane might be. Unless you allow me to imagine a future without financial constraints, it’s hard for me to top my current airplane, a 1972 Beechcraft Bonanza A36. Your answer will be different, of course, but the six-seater with its big double cargo doors and relatively fast cruising speed meets most of my transportation needs in a relatively cost-effective way. The large cabin allows me to carry four adults with bags to aviation industry shows and events up to half way across the country. Or I can load it up with our daughters and a few friends for day trips. We take the cargo doors off and use it for a photo platform to shoot many of the photos that accompany aircraft reports in this magazine—something your average four-seater doesn’t do very well.

The rugged Beechcraft airframe requires little maintenance—even though it’s now more than 35 years old. The biggest airframe expense I’ve had in eight years of ownership is to replace the right fuel bladder tank, which, as near as I can tell from the logbooks was the original one from the factory. Now the left side is telling me it needs to be replaced. It’s relatively young, having been in service only since 1985.

The big-bore Continental engine is simple and mostly reliable. A top-end lubrication problem cost me an early overhaul a few years ago—one of those major gotchas that you have to budget for. My recent foray into lean-of-peak operations has shown me how I can diminish the engine’s thirst for fuel by some 25 percent with only a minimal performance hit. More on that in a future column.

I’ve spent the most money upgrading the avionics panel. When I bought the airplane in 1999, the highest-tech device in the panel was a Northstar loran with a 1991 database in it. It’s still there and working fine—moved off to the side. A Garmin GNS 530 moving map, communications, and navigation system now dominates the center stack, providing the precision of WAAS approaches, satellite-delivered weather information, terrain and obstruction warnings, and a place to display real-time lightning strikes from the L-3 Communications Stormscope. A GPS steering system allows the simple S-Tec autopilot to fly approaches, missed approaches, and holding patterns nearly hands off. Imagine what Walter and Olive Ann Beech might think of that. Of course, the avionics panel is never “done.” There’s always something in the offing that brings more capability, safety, or convenience. It’s just a matter of when, where, and how much.

A new leather interior from Air Mod two years ago makes the inside look better than new. The most significant improvement with the interior upgrade was the addition of shoulder harnesses for the front seats. With a four-point harness, I at least have the hope of surviving a situation where the old girl fails me and we have to land someplace other than an airport.

Removing the financial handcuffs

Asked the “what’s next?” question without any financial limits, and airplanes such as the Piper Matrix profiled in this month’s issue start to make sense (see “Graduate Tool,” page 60). I can carry more in my old Bonanza, but the Matrix outruns the Beech by more than 35 knots—closer to 50 knots if you fly it high. Air conditioned comfort is worth something and most importantly, The Matrix has the option of a deicing system approved for flight into known icing conditions—an important consideration even here just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And don’t discount the relief tube.

Looking farther up the food chain yet, single-engine turboprops bring even more capability and reliability. The TBM 850 is a hotrod that’s a joy to fly. The Pilatus PC-12 is a luxury pick up truck for you and all your gear. There are others, but you get the picture.

Finally, there are the very light jets and light jets. If it’s not single-pilot capable, it hardly makes my wish list. How fun it must be to strap on your own jet for dashes into the flight levels.

But is one really enough? Even as I contemplate life in the higher, faster lane, I think how much fun it would be to have a low and slow airplane. You’ve read my comments before about the hayfield across the road from my house and how tempted I am to quietly carve out my own landing strip for a Cub or a Champ. Do squatter’s rights apply here?

For now, though, I’ll be content—well, mostly content—in encouraging my daughter to scope out affordable colleges within range of the Bonanza.

If we ever needed justification for owning an airplane, making it convenient for mom to visit daughter is surely a good one.

Remembering old friends

In March it will be 12 years since the aviation world lost friend and mentor Bob Overmyer. Longtime readers of this magazine will remember his short-lived column, “Time in Type.” Only four installments ran in early 1996 prior to his death while flight testing an experimental airplane. The two-time space shuttle pilot and enthusiastic general aviation pilot inspired many during his military and civilian career.

Bob’s wife, Kit, and I still stay in touch. She told me recently about a project their daughter Patty and her husband are working on—like Bob, they seem most happy when taking on difficult challenges and striving for the next rung of the ladder. Patty was an Olympic-level diver back in the 1990s. Her husband Kenny Armstrong was her coach and now coaches famed diver Laura Wilkinson. Armstrong and Wilkinson are working together to establish a foundation to fund the construction of a new dive training center in Houston to replace the one in The Woodlands that is being torn down to make way for a housing development.

To learn about how the tenacious group plans to raise the needed $11 million and what you can do to support the cause, visit the Web site.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.