The plane that time forgot – but not its many fans
Two gents in business suits, sporting brief cases and fedora hats, stroll nonchalantly away from a V-Tail Beechcraft Bonanza. We are looking at an advert for the first Model 35 Bonanza dated May 1947. The advertising copy reads: “You save … Man power, man hours, money with a company-owned Beechcraft Bonanza.”
Three quarters of a century later, a new Bonanza – the G36 75th anniversary edition, loaded with Garmin avionics – is rolling off the production lines in Wichita. So, what gives the design its extraordinary longevity? And what current business aircraft designs will be still flying in 2096? For Lou Seno, chairman of JSSI, the first answer, at least, is simple.
“It’s a great compromise in an airplane because it has good speed [176 ktas for the G36], good range [920 nm] and is very comfortable inside,” Seno tells Corporate Jet Investor. “It does everything well and it’s built extremely well.”
But then, impartiality on the topic is not assured from this business leader. Seno has 3,500 hours in his logbook on the Bonanza and her twin sister the Baron. Plus, happy memories of meeting the late Olive Beech, president and chairwoman of the Beech Aircraft Corporation, who co-founded the business, with husband Walter, in 1932.
David Crick, DavAir Group MD, believes the Bonanza has lasted because the manufacturer has “scratched the market that has an itch”. The aircraft seems to be a class leader with capacity, economics of operating costs and constant currency with respect to avionics, fuel efficiency and performance, he says.
‘Corporate interior feel’
“They also appeal to a broad spectrum of the market as opposed to a smaller portion that may only want a large cabin intercontinental or a corporate jet type aircraft. But with the Bonanza they can have the corporate interior feel and still function in very small regional airports. And values appear to stay relatively constant as well.”
Brian Foley, founder Brian Foley Associates has a different explanation for aircraft’s enduring presence: “It’s called marketing,” he tells us. While acknowledging the significance of the 75th anniversary, he points out that to replace an existing aircraft with a clean sheet design which wins new certification can cost up to $100m. Neither is the Bonanza alone in the seniority stakes. The Cessna Sky Hawk is 66 years old and the New Piper Aircraft Cherokee is a sprightly 61. Not forgetting the Learjet, which made her debut in 1963 and is due to end production later this year.
The Bonanza’s flame is also “beginning to flicker”, according to Foley. Back in 2006, about 80 aircraft were delivered. That fell to seven in 2019 and climbed to 12 last year. “At some point these designs become economically unfeasible to manufacture anymore,” said Foley. They were designed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when labour man hours or parts count were not a concern, he added. While the manufacturer has yet to publish its 2022 pricing, the price of the Special Edition 75th optional package is $18,000. Crick estimates the price of a five-year old Bonanza at between $800,000 to $900,000, depending on hours.
‘Beginning to flicker’
Answering the second question – What current business aircraft designs can we expect to see in another 75 years? – is a lot more trickly. Seno would not bet that the Bonanza will be around to celebrate her sesquicentennial anniversary. But then the aircraft’s loyal audience should not be discounted. He believes a couple of jet and turbine designs could command the loyalty of the Bonanza. Topping his longevity list are the Cessna Caravan – or its new form the Denali – and the Pilatus PC-12. “Plus, an honourable mention goes to the C90 King Air,” he adds.
Crick thinks the Bonanza could still be in production 75 years from now if she can adapt to sustainable aviation fuel and environmental and social governance protocols. But he sees a threat. “If the costs of new urban mobility options continue in their current ways, then the aircraft may only appeal to aviation purists that want to fly rather than those that need to get from A to B.”
The Bonanza’s best hope for an even longer life may be a new power plant, agrees Foley. If a new powerplant – perhaps electric – could be fitted to win a supplemental type certificate, the manufacturer could make vast savings over the cost of a clean sheet design.
Whatever the future, it is remarkable how prescient was that Beechcraft advert of 1947. Nearly 75 years later, new generations of businesspeople are turning again to private aircraft – piston, turbo prop and jet – to make the most of their time in an age of slashed airline schedules and public health fears. Sadly, few are wearing fedora hats.
The Bonanza: Then and now. Above is the advert from May 1947.
Below the G36 75th anniversary edition.