Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Aviation In The Key Of Gee Whiz

Getting a buzz out of life is easy

From time to time, the utilitarian aspects of airplanes actually do weevil their way into my thoughts, e.g., it would be nice to go wafting off over the far horizon to see my kids or something. But then I remember how frustrating cross-country can be, because I see so many things below that almost drive me to land on a nearby road so I can go look at them. Which is probably why when I think about cross-country airplanes, the type I consider generally has a higher gee-whiz factor than the normal A-to-B bird, and speed isn't always part of the equation.

Cross-countries done the way I like them means being down in the dirt looking at interesting stuff, and a helicopter would probably suit the mission better. However, I don't consider them, because I don't want the support headaches. I want to own the airplane, not have it own me.

So I think more in the line of big tires attached to little airplanes with big motors: birds that can make a runway out of a raunchy dirt road, a pasture or a short piece of semi-flat desert. A homebuilt Bearhawk or Patrol would be great. Or a Petersen 260 SE or Katmai (the perfect compromise). Or maybe a Husky on 26-inchers.

If thinking pure, high-altitude cross-country, I tend to think of a gee-whiz factor that's rooted in class, and that means a round motor. My ultimate choice would be a 195 Cessna (which I've owned and loved) that has been upgraded to an M-14 Russian radial (360 hp) or a 985 P&W (450 hp). Here, we'd have machines that aren't only outfitted like a limo and can carry more people and stuff than I really want to take with me, but they sound sooooo good!

And with those engines on that airframe, they wouldn't only look and sound good, but at altitude, where superchargers really do their number, they'd go like stink! Of course, Staggerwing prices are down considerably. Ditto the big engine Stinson Reliant series. Hmmm! There's that round-motor thing again.

And then there's the mix of cross-country and aerobatics, a definite gee-whiz combination. As it happens, some of the best aerobatic airplanes, like the Extra 300L, are actually reasonably good, fast cross-country cruisers. Even a Pitts S-2C can haul the chili cross-country, except of course, it can't haul it very far. However, a Siai-Marchetti S.F. 260 is the hands-down winner in the aerobatic, cross-country arena. Nothing else comes close when it comes to down and dirty gee-whiz aviating: fast, sexy, aerobatic!

It's a given that, eventually, we all have to "settle" for something that's less than ideal: That's just part of life. So, yeah, I have a Spam Can or two in my acceptable list of cross-country airplanes, the top one being a straight-tail 182. Probably a '58 or '59. With 8:00 x 6s on all three wheels and a Texas Skyways 285 hp conversion under the hood. Well…you really don't expect me to leave out the gee-whiz factor do you? And neither should you. That's where the spice in life comes from.

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