Waypoints: A blank, but not ageless canvas

Endless possibilities for aircraft upgrades

November 21, 2013

Thomas B. HainesTo those of you who bought new airplanes this year, thank you! Each year for the past seven or eight years I have presented a seminar at AOPA Expo—and then Summit—on how to buy an airplane. I focus most of the information on buying a used airplane, because that is what most people buy. Before starting my seminar, I always ask who is planning to buy a used airplane, and nearly all the hands go up. When I ask who is planning to buy a new airplane, typically only about two or three hands go up among the usual audience of 120 people or so. That makes people chuckle, but I feel bad for those few people who plan to buy new, as if the room is making fun of them. I express my gratitude for new buyers because we need people buying new, so that those of who can’t make the numbers work will have something used to buy in the future. I am grateful to the person who, back in 1972, bought a new Beech Bonanza A36, serial number E-292. Because of their foresight, in 1999 there was a solid airplane that fit my mission and budget to a T, and it still does. As that old Bonanza and I fly into our fifteenth year together, I’m still amazed and enthused on every flight about how capable it is and what it can do for me.

While I occasionally contemplate what my “next” airplane might be, I quickly dismiss the thought, as I have yet to find anything that fits my needs better and is as affordable, especially now that I have two daughters in college. And, also, I’ve barely scratched the surface about what the old girl can do, even though we’ve flown together for thousands of hours. For her fortieth birthday, I infused a boatload of new avionics into her panel. As noted in the October issue when I wrote about the increased situational awareness with the Garmin G500 system (“P&E: Salute to Situational Awareness,” October 2013 AOPA Pilot), the new gear gives her much of the same navigation capability as a new Bonanza G36. Yet even with that upgrade, the 1972 Bonanza is practically a blank canvas of possibilities. There is so much more that can be done with a capable older airplane, especially one as popular as the Bonanza. There’s the truly amazing performance upgrade that comes with the swap of the piston engine for a turboprop engine, or the more pedestrian upgrade to a higher-horsepower engine—as was done on my airplane by a previous owner, who traded the stock 285-horsepower Continental IO-520 for the 300-horsepower IO-550. Before that, the stock two-blade prop was traded for a three-blade.

But there are even more engine options available to me, such as a turbonormalizing system that allows my normally aspirated engine to make rated power up into the flight levels. While I appreciate the potential sizzling performance boost, I counter that with the fact that most of my flying is in the relative flatlands of the East Coast, where I seldom climb above 10,000 feet.

There are tip tanks to install, which can increase capacity by 30 to 40 gallons—especially important with that turbine or turbonormalizing conversion. I’ve begun flying lean of peak EGT, which has lowered my fuel burn from nearly 18 gallons per hour to about 12—possible because of balanced fuel injectors and a six-probe engine analyzer. The change gives me some 5.5 hours of endurance, longer than I’d care to sit—even in the seats custom built to my measurements. As a result, I’ve skipped (so far) the tip-tank modification. In the back, a baggage compartment extension can give my pre-1979 model the same extended baggage compartments as new models, a mod I may eventually purchase.

An Air Mod interior upgrade a few years ago not only swapped out the funky 1970s green and gold seats for creamy smooth leather (and my custom pilot seat), the change also brought reading lights throughout, new shoulder harnesses to the front seats, and pockets and trays. Sometimes I consider whether I should install airbag seat belts, an aftermarket mod that seems especially important in older airplanes that don’t have the strengthened seats required on new models.

The opportunities to upgrade older models seem endless. However, I’m not so foolish to think that this spry old airplane flying into her fifth decade is getting any younger. There is no turning back the calendar or erasing the effect of 40 years of flight. Someday this old girl will have to go to a retirement home. I may be headed there myself at about that time, but I’m comforted to know that if not, someone in 2013 was thoughtful enough to buy a new airplane that someday might be at home in my hangar.

Email 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.