The step-up market has always been critically important to the major aircraft companies. There may not be much profit in building trainers, but manufacturers are well aware that pilots tend to buy the same brand in which they learn. A pilot who earns his license in a Warrior, 152 or Musketeer is likely to consider an Arrow, Skylane or Bonanza, respectively, as a first step-up airplane.
As producers of the 150/152 for more than a quarter-century, Cessna offered a veritable plethora of step-up models. At the bottom end, there were the ever-popular Skyhawk and Cardinal; in the middle, the Skylane and Skylane RG; and at the top of Cessna’s piston pyramid, the 210 Centurion.
Introduced in 1960 as a normally aspirated four-seater, the 210 would eventually be offered in three flavors: normally aspirated, turbocharged and pressurized. The turbocharged model was, by far, the most popular: a heavy lifter that could scale the highest mountains in North America and have enough fuel to range out nearly 1,000 nm.
“That combination of talents was one of the biggest attractions for us,” says Bob Meng of Everett, Wash. Meng, a former airline pilot, is one of four partners in a meticulously restored 1973 Cessna Turbo Centurion T210L. “The 210 is an excellent cross-country machine, an outstanding people mover with good speed and it makes an extremely stable instrument platform in the process,” Meng comments. “Perhaps best of all for our application, it’s a great partnership airplane, easy to fly with a big cabin, and its relatively inexpensive to operate.”
Meng, now an instructor for yacht operators (“It’s a little like FlightSafety International for boat owners”) is a partner with Bob Munoz, Norm Van Vectal and Mark Matheson. Collectively, the quartet have been operating their T210L out of Paine Field in Everett for almost a quarter-century, and in the last decade, they’ve completely rebuilt their airplane.
Here at Plane & Pilot, we’re always looking for pristine examples of popular models, and we figured if anyone knew 210s, it was probably the Everett partnership. Meng and Matheson brought their airplane 800 miles south from Washington to Southern California, allowing us to sample a nearly perfect example of a Centurion.
“We’ve done just about everything it’s possible to do to a 210,” Meng explains, “and yes, we’ve probably spent way too much money in the process. We’ve overhauled every system to better-than-new condition and replaced the original panel with a new, more modern face. In essence, we’ve rebuilt the airplane from the ground up. There’s no way Cessna could ever have built a 210 as nice as ours, primarily because they never could have made a profit on it.”
The most expensive upgrade was predictably to the panel. The partners chose Spencer Avionics in Puyallup, Wash., for the avionics improvements, and Matheson feels they couldn’t have made a better choice. “It’s funny how these projects evolve,” Matheson explains. “Ours started as a simple, inexpensive step up from a portable Garmin 196 to a full-color 296, then we decided to do the windshield, and it just grew and grew from there.
“John and Pat Atkinson of Spencer Avionics were very helpful throughout the process. They know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to panel and avionics improvements,” Matheson comments. “We had Spencer install a Garmin 530 with an MX-20, a Garmin 340 switching panel and 327 transponder, a Sandel 3500 EHSI along with an S-TEC 55X autopilot with rate-of-climb and altitude preselect. In addition, we equipped the aircraft with copilot instruments, a Shadin fuel computer, and of course, Spencer handled the installation of the new panel.”
In combination with recent paint and interior, the new avionics and upgraded panel leave little evidence that this airplane is nearly 35 years old. With the new, pneumatic door seal and state-of-the-art soundproofing installed, the ride is certainly quieter than any stock airplane. The Centurion may not enjoy the sophistication of a glass, flat-panel display, but somehow, you don’t miss it considering the T210L’s other talents.
Specifically, 210s of all descriptions have always been regarded as among the better long-distance traveling machines above the planet. They’re generally stable as a table, have reasonable room for four plus two kids in back and can lift pretty much anything you can close the doors on.
Meng says that despite the heavy load of avionics, the partners’ top piston Cessna still boasts a payload of around 850 pounds. Meng, a former 737 pilot, flies the airplane the most of the four partners, and he says a normal load of four folks and bags doesn’t push the legal weight limit.
“I travel regularly to Missoula, Mont., Sun River, Ore., and San Francisco on business,” says Meng, “so I’m often launching at gross with three to four hours to fly. We’ve done everything possible to make the airplane as comfortable as we can for all passengers—it’s plumbed with XM Radio to every seat, each passenger can plug in his or her own CD player or iPod, and the heat and vent system deliver plenty of air at each position—and as a result, I rarely hear any complaints, even on four-hour flights.”
If there’s any complaint about interior comfort, it might be regarding cabin width. The Centurion’s cabin is only 42.5 inches across at the elbows in front, about the same dimension as the A36 Bonanza, but almost six inches narrower than a T-Saratoga. However, the cabin is high enough to accommodate six-footers, so even tall pilots will have plenty of head room.
The Cessna’s turbocharger is a key to its in-flight flexibility and one of the primary reasons for the model’s success. Compressed power gives the 210 the ability to operate to a theoretical service ceiling of 28,500 feet. The turbo can provide its full 36.5 inches of manifold pressure all the way to the airplane’s critical altitude of 17,000 feet. In the real world, most T210L owners probably don’t fly above 12,500 feet most of the time, to avoid having to deal with oxygen, so effectively, full power is available whenever you need it.
That’s especially valuable if you’re departing Aspen, Telluride or Lake Tahoe in summer. You can expect full, turbocharged power departing any airport on North America. Keep in mind, however, the top 36.5/2,700 setting has a five-minute limitation. Max continuous power is 36 inches and 2,600 rpm at 162 pounds/hour.
“A turbo is an invaluable asset in our part of the world,” says Bob Meng. “We have plenty of high mountains in the Pacific Northwest, and ice can be another problem pretty much year-round. That often dictates semi-high-altitude flight to comply with the IFR MEAs, operate above the weather and top the big rocks.” Though the Turbo Centurion features at least one of everything else, it’s not fitted with de-ice, a discrepancy the partners may remedy in the near future. They’ve looked into retrofitting a TKS system to allow operation in light icing conditions.
Meng admits he probably flies the airplane taller than any of the other owners, sometimes as high as 20,000 feet. When winds are going his way, up high, Meng will strap on a mask and ascend into the flight levels. “It’s a very comfortable airplane in the high teens, and with the addition of XM Weather, which provides us with a variety of weather products (including NEXRAD), we can usually work around the nastier weather and stay well clear of the nasty buildups.”
Whatever the cruise height, the power setting is always the same. The partners have drawn up a full set of operating practices that all four owners subscribe to religiously. The universal cruise setting is at 62% at roughly 100 degrees rich of peak. That yields a fairly consistent 165 knots true on just under 16 gph. The four partners have agreed to keep the turbine inlet temperature (TIT) at or below 1,500 degrees in hopes of reaching the recommended 1,400-hour TBO.
For those who like to fly at higher power, the T210L will turn in speeds around 180 knots at 14,500 feet on about 18 gph. Book spec at high cruise is for 200 knots at 22,000 feet. Full fuel is 89 gallons, so either setting allows for four-hour trips at medium altitude, covering 650 to 700 nm in the process. Conversely, fans of lower settings can pull back to 50% power and expect more like 1,000 nm between fuel stops.
Like most of the other four- to six-seat Cessnas, the T210L is a highly tractable design. In-flight handling is typical big Cessna, about what you’d expect for the airplane’s weight. Roll and pitch response is heavy without being ponderous, though it’s unlikely many pilots will brand the Centurion as fun to fly. It’s a traveling machine, designed more for how much it can carry and how quickly it can fly than for light controls and ultra-maneuverability.
The Centurion is also as talented at the bottom of its flight envelope as at the top. Stall characteristics are generally unexciting with little tendency to tuck under the bottom unless you have unusually sloppy footwork. With those huge, half-span flaps fully deployed to 40 degrees, power-off dirty stall is a mere 57 knots, an impressive number for a 3,800-pound airplane.
Accordingly, Cessna suggests a short-field approach speed of only 71 knots. This means the big Centurion can use abbreviated, 2,000-foot strips if necessary, though as with many retractables, it’s happier on paved strips than dirt or grass. Like most non-STOL designs, however, the T210L needs more room for takeoff than landing, so don’t mistake it for a bush bird.
Aircraft Bluebook suggests the T-Centurion may be one of the better turbocharged buys on the six-seat market. The Meng partnership airplane sold new in 1973 for an average-equipped $53,215, and today, the same machine is valued at a typical $96,000. No chance you’ll find one at that price in the test airplane’s condition, but even at $125,000, a similar T210L would be a steal.
Mark Matheson says there currently are no plans to step up to something bigger and faster. “We’re very happy with the Centurion,” says Matheson. “It’s practically the perfect airplane for our current missions. Sometime down the road, we might consider moving to a used Citation, but for now, the T-Centurion does the job better than anything else we can imagine—and afford.”