The three of us on board the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza lapsed into a comfortable quiet as we watched the Mid-Atlantic states scroll by on the life-sized moving map out the window. Connecticut turned into New York and then New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and finally Maryland as we slipped into the pattern at Frederick Municipal on that fall Sunday morning for an arrival home after nearly a week at AOPA Aviation Summit in Hartford. With two of the six seats removed, we had gear stacked nearly floor to ceiling in every nook and cranny. Even then, the old Bonanza, a product of the Nixon era, sprinted upward at 1,000 feet per minute right after takeoff, still more than 100 pounds short of its maximum gross weight. With our full load of fuel, we could have continued on to Chicago, Louisville, Atlanta, or Charlotte.
As the states slid by, I reflected on the seminar I had given at Summit on buying your first airplane. My first recommendation is always to get the mission right. Figure out what your primary missions are and then buy the appropriate airplane. Don’t let ramp appeal, sporty handling, or breathtaking cruise speed cause you to buy an airplane that carries half the load or goes half as far as you typically want to go. For me, the trusty Bonanza, which I have owned for more than a dozen years, is a near perfect match 85 percent of the time. Sure, there are missions where I wish I could go farther, faster, higher, but those represent a minority of the trips. If I bought an airplane to serve those exceptions, I would be paying way more than I need to on a day-to-day basis.
I had a similar thought a few weeks later when eight of us piled into a Cessna CJ3 for a trip to a printing plant west of Milwaukee. We were about to sign a multi-million dollar contract for magazine printing and distribution services and wanted to see for ourselves what we were buying, meet the staff who would make it happen, and set up a smooth transition plan. With eight on board, the CJ3 is no luxury liner. It’s cramped, but made for an efficient day trip, with us landing at an airport minutes away from the plant instead of at the airline airport four times the distance from the facility.
The day trip would not have been possible on an airline schedule, thus requiring an overnight stay and really amping up the expenses and scheduling hassles. On the way home, we added yet a ninth person to the manifest; that belted potty seat is good for something. Fortunately it was a short flight.
A week later, the Cessna again was put into service, carrying a group of eight to and from a multi-faceted meeting in Texas, making what would have been a two-day airline affair into a one-night trip via general aviation. Our points of interest were located right at the departure and destination airports; on each end the nearest airline airport was more than an hour away. Never mind the parking and security hassles where the big airplanes fly.
As we enjoyed a big tailwind headed home from Texas, I was reminded, as I was in the Bonanza, about the importance of right-sizing the airplane to the mission.
The “right-sizing” of an airplane to its mission is not a new concept. Business aviation users have worked for years to craft the right fleet mix for various missions. Wally David, CEO of SimCom Training Centers in Orlando, has watched the trend accelerate during the recent economic downturn. Some 8,000 pilots cycle through the company’s training facilities each year and David and his staff routinely hear about individuals and companies changing up their fleets to fit changing missions. “Prior to the economic realities in today’s marketplace, it was not uncommon for a large jet to be used for a 300-mile trip,” David reports. “For the most part, that has changed. Pilots now tell us a smaller jet, a turboprop, or in some cases a piston twin is being used for those trips instead.”
Based on the training customers are seeking, David observes that the use of turboprops is surging, contradicting the not-too-distant thought by some that the day of the turboprop was over—to be replaced by very light jets. “Operators comment that their twin and single-engine turboprops are just hard to beat on trips up to 750 miles or so.”
Although business aviation has taken a hit during the economic downturn, the unique value proposition of such flights assures a resurgence of flying, David predicts. “The value, service, and convenience of personal and corporate aviation is unmatched by any other means of long-distance travel. Because of this, it will never go away. But the days of operating airplanes too large and costly for the typical missions being flown seem to be disappearing. Rightsizing means replacing those larger airplanes with smaller aircraft that can fly the same trips at lower cost.”
In other words, whether you’re burning avgas or Jet-A, get the mission right and you’ll enjoy a long and happy acquaintance with your airplane of choice.