There's something almost magical about staring out at your own reflection in the left, polished spinner of an Aerostar, watching it whirl along at 2,300 rpm six feet from your left ear. You can see the long nose stretching out in front of you, the ground zipping past below and the sky arcing away above. It's one of the most satisfying and immediately identifiable experiences in aviation.
For me, the Aerostar has always possessed a charisma that far transcends its pure dollar value. From the first time I flew one in 1975 with the late Jim Miller of Miller Flying Service in Plainview, Texas, I've been in love with the type. Back then, Miller was already fanatic about the Aerostar. Over the next 20 years, his dealership was to become one of the world's most successful at selling Aerostars of all descriptions.
Today, Aerostars are long since out of production, but Aerostar Aircraft (www.aerostaraircraft.com) of Hayden Lake, Idaho, continues to support the type. Aerostar Senior Vice President Jim Christy says his company still does the performance upgrades, serves as a clearinghouse for all things Aerostar, maintains and performs annuals, and sells parts and manuals for all versions of the plane.
I've been scheming for years to own an Aerostar, but so far, I haven't managed to get past a Mooney. That's okay. It's probably more than coincidental that Mooneys and Aerostars both demonstrate slick aerodynamics, and they're the fastest machines in their respective classes.
Two paragraphs of history: Aerostars were born in 1969, a product of the fertile imagination of designer Ted Smith. Smith conceived the Aerostar with the same engines he used on his Shrike Commander, the 290 hp Lycoming IO-540s. The Commander was a large, corporate transport that cruised at about 177 knots. The Aerostar 600 with the same power was an amazing 35 knots faster than the Shrike.
In fact, not only did the Aerostar outpace its own Ted Smith competition, but the turbocharged 601 ran away from everything else in the class. This included such high-powered competition as the P-Baron (two 325 hp Continentals), Twin Bonanza (a pair of geared, 340 hp Lycomings), Cessna 421 (twin, geared, 375 hp Continentals), the Beech Duke (two 380 hp Lycomings) and Piper's P-Navajo (dual 425 hp, geared Lycs).
The final production Aerostar appeared in 1984 as the Piper 700, but that plane has lived on for the last 20 years as the Aerostar 700, an STC'd conversion of the 600-series airplanes. The type certificate is now owned by Aerostar Aircraft.
Today, the last generation of Aerostars flies with a pair of 350 hp TIO-540s, and the speed ante has jumped from 235 knots to 261 knots (300 mph). In keeping with its reputation, that makes the piston-powered Aerostar faster than some turboprops.
If speed has always been the Aerostar's primary claim to fame, it certainly hasn't been the only one. Fly all the other twins, both on and off the market, and you'll appreciate that the Aerostar is by far the easiest flying and best handling of the lot. (Okay, the little Wing Derringer was pretty quick, too.)
The Aerostar's roll rate and pitch response is so good that the late air show pilot Jimmy Franklin used to fly a solid-black Aerostar in an impressive, high-speed acro routine that included most of the same maneuvers he did in his Stearman. Franklin, ever the showman, would dress in an all-black jumpsuit, complete with cape and mask, call himself "Zar" and turn the Aerostar every which way but loose.
Looks are always subjective, but even today, more than 20 years after production ended, most pilots still regard the Aerostar as one of the sexiest, most futuristic twins in the sky. With its nearly tubular fuselage, stubby mid-wings and close-mounted engines, the Aerostar looks like a jet with props. (In fact, way back in the late '60s, designer Ted Smith drew up plans for a fan-jet version, but it hasn't come to pass—so far. Stay tuned.)
The latest iteration of the airplane is the Aerostar 702, introduced at the 2006 AOPA Convention in Palm Springs, Calif. Aerostar underwent an extensive engineering analysis with the FAA to certify the airplane to a gross weight that's more than 500 pounds higher than the previous model 700.
The newest 702 now sports a takeoff weight of 6,850 pounds and a useful load of nearly 2,200 pounds. Pump aboard the standard 166.5 gallons, and payload works out to 1,200 pounds, six people plus 180 pounds of baggage. Even with the optional 44-gallon aux tank installed and topped, the airplane could still lift 940 paying pounds.
"The STC for the higher gross weight demanded quite a bit of beef-up to handle the 6,500-pound landing weight," says Christy. "We had to prove the airplane could withstand a 3-G jolt on landing, and that required a stronger main and nosegear structure, plus thicker wing-skin doublers and larger wheels and brakes with higher-ply tires. It was a major revision, but it produced the best payload of any six-seat airplane on the market."
Ted Smith did things his own way, and that's apparent in the Aerostar's design and systems. Aerostars aren't cabin-class airplanes in the classic sense. You might say they're reverse cabin class: Everyone climbs aboard from the front and moves aft rather than vice versa.
The double-clamshell door is directly abeam the pilot station, and the bottom clamshell serves as the single step for entry. The 702 sits low, so two steps and you're in. An advantage of this system is that the pilot is the only one who can latch the door, so if it's not shut properly, the captain has only himself to blame.
Once you're closed inside, the cabin is a comfortable place in which to travel. Pressurization differential is 5.5 psi, providing an 8,000-foot cabin altitude at 25,000 feet. The windows are larger than in almost any other pressurized airplane, making the interior seem even roomier. The nearly 46-inch width translates all the way from the front to the rear seats.
Technically, the Aerostar is legal for seven people in a two/two/three configuration, but the vast majority of the type wind up configured for five, limiting the rear seat to two and removing the second-row left. With the second-row right seat modified to swivel, this opens up access to the fold-out executive table and the rear bench seat. It also eliminates the need to negotiate an aisle.
It's ironic that Ted Smith was widely criticized for designing the Aerostar with nearly all-electric systems. Today, more and more general aviation airplanes employ pure electric systems, dispensing with pneumatic and hydraulic operation whenever possible.
On the Aerostar, even the fuel selectors are electric. The selectors are three position—off, on and cross-feed—and you can hear the gentle, characteristic "woo" of the valve when you position the switch. If you simply select "on" prior to start and leave the selector alone, the system is fairly trouble free. Each engine will feed from its respective wing tank and the fuselage tank.
Cross-feeding cuts the center tank out of the system, and if you have a total electrical failure with one or both selectors in the cross-feed position, you may have a bit of a problem because there's no way to change the selector position without electrical power. No matter how much fuel remains in the center tank, you won't be able to access it in the cross-feed position.
In keeping with Ted Smith's penchant for electrohydraulic nosewheel steering, the 702 employs what some pilots call thumb steering. There's a small rocker switch mounted on the center console that provides a power-steering assist. Blipping the switch left or right deflects the nosewheel and even allows you to taxi with one engine shut down, something you couldn't consider in most asymmetric-thrust, medium twins. It's possible to taxi without using thumb steering, and most pilots rely on standard asymmetric braking for the actual takeoff once the nosewheel is lined up with the centerline.
Smith's clean wing was deliberately designed with only one degree of incidence on the ground. If the main gear struts are pumped a little too high, this can translate to a slightly negative angle of attack. That means the airplane won't fly itself off the runway. You must rotate the wing to a positive angle of attack. Once you establish the proper attitude, clean up the underwing and accelerate to the 117-knot Vy, however, the 702 climbs away at nearly 2,000 fpm.
Better still, though, the airplane's cruise climb performance is excellent. The recommended high-speed climb is 145 knots, but in delivering a dozen or so 700s around the world over 20 years, I've used 160 to 170 knots and still seen an easy 1,200 fpm. Climb holds up well at high altitude, and you can jump from sea level to 25,000 feet in an easy 25 minutes.
Jim Christy likes to brag that the 702 will easily run 261 knots at max cruise. That's because 261 knots equals 300 mph, and Jim likes round numbers. Yes, the Aerostar will do it. Back in the '80s, Christy and I worked together on a segment of a TV series, ABC's Wide World of Flying, and the airplane did indeed run along at exactly 261 KTAS at FL250.
The bad news at high cruise is that fuel burn is close to 25 gallons per engine per hour. Virtually all the Aerostar 700s and 702s have the optional 44-gallon baggage aux tank, so endurance with full tanks and max cruise is about three hours plus reserve, nearly 800 nms between pit stops. The better compromise for long range is 55% power, worth 225 knots in exchange for only 37 gph. That translates to more like 1,000 nm. Of course, if you have to ask how much it costs to run…
Several years ago, I was hired to ferry a specially prepared, red and gold Aerostar 700, named "Spirit of Kai Tak," from Hayden Lake to Biggin Hill, London, to participate in the London-To-Sydney Air Race. Cathay Pacific Airlines Chief Pilot Mike Miller flew the Aerostar on the 16-segment race from Biggin to Sydney and won every leg, averaging a surprising 279 knots for the entire race.
Miller's flights were nearly all at FL250 with everything to the wall, but even if one engine had failed, the airplane's single-engine service ceiling is high enough to top virtually any mountain in the lower 48 states. Sea-level rate of climb with one prop caged varies from about 250 to 383 fpm, by the way, depending on weight.
Perhaps because the engines are mounted so close inboard, single-engine handling is excellent. Lose one on takeoff above the 84 knot Vmc, and the airplane will still climb away with a minimum of fuss if you're doing everything right. Even if you aren't that proficient, the Aerostar will refuse to bite. Good dog.
If you're in the market for a 702, you can either find your own 601P/602 and have it converted for $345,000, or Aerostar will build you a factory restored, like-new 702P for about $750,000. "It's almost impossible to pin down exact prices," says Christy, "because of the variation between avionics and airplanes."
When you're done, you'll wind up with a guaranteed head-turner on the ramp, arguably one of the best-looking and most individual twins you can buy. It's also a comfortable, relatively quiet machine capable of carrying a full six-pack of folks nearly 1,000 nm. And did we mention it's also the world's fastest, piston-powered, general aviation airplane?