For 2015, the aircraft diesel revolution has lost some of its momentum, at least temporarily, but most of the airplanes we grew up with are still with us. Depending upon how you count them, there are at least 20 piston-powered transportation singles on the market, ranging from the Diamond DA-20 Eclipse at the entry level to the Piper Mirage at the top of the class.
Sales have been mostly flat in the last two years, and accordingly, some manufacturers have reduced development expense on new models. Contrary to the glass-half-empty pessimists, that doesn’t signal any significant lack of innovation in the industry. Advances in avionics, safety systems and creature comforts have improved single-engine airplanes to a level not imaginable 20 years ago.
It’s hard to envisage what the next 20 years will bring, but we’ll keep you updated on the changes as they occur. (All prices are for 2015 models.)
Beech G36 Bonanza
It’s a long stretch to analogize the current G36 Bonanza to the original 1946, model 35 V-tail. They share little more than the same name. Straight-tail Bonanzas have become perhaps the most iconic single-engine airplane. The American Bonanza Society is one of the oldest and largest owners’ groups on the planet, and anyone who has flown a model 36 understands why.
The current G36 Bonanza (the “G” stands for Garmin, if you hadn’t guessed) is considered by many to represent the peak of the single-engine pyramid. Never mind that there’s no turbocharger and no pressurization. Beechcraft fans believe the G36 is what it is, and that’s all it needs to be.
The model 36 is fitted with six seats, the aft four mounted in conference style. Power is 300 hp from what’s rapidly becoming the world’s most popular big-bore piston engine, the 300 hp Continental IO-550B. That’s enough to allow the big Bonanza to fly from 2,000 feet of runway at sea level and land in a little over half that. Climb rate is set at 1,230 fpm and cruise speed is promised as 176 knots.
Like virtually all airplanes these days, the G36 has more seats than payload. Specifically, a reasonably equipped airplane offers just over 600 paying pounds with a full 74 gallons in the tanks. That’s three folks plus full fuel, more than enough for those who dream of owning what they regard as the best. Base price: $777,385.
The Skyhawk—what can you say? The most popular airplane in general aviation history soldiers on after some 60 years in production. To date, Cessna has delivered 43,000 examples of the 172, despite a current base price just south of $400,000.
Okay, so new Skyhawks are no longer viable family transports unless that family is very well off. The Skyhawk is still pretty much what it has been for years, one of the safest and most reliable forms of aerial transport in the sky.
Today’s modern 172 has changed dramatically in the last half-century, but mostly in details rather than aerodynamics or configuration. It’s still a simple, safe, 120- to 125-knot design with a fixed-pitch prop, an airplane capable of transporting 2+2 in relative comfort for up to five hours over distances as long as 600 nm.
Today, all the Cessna singles are fitted with various versions of the Garmin glass-panel PFD/MFD, and those buyers in search of the ultimate in sophistication can even opt for synthetic vision, an electronic depiction of the terrain ahead.
Skyhawks may not be forever, but they’ve endured despite the vagaries of a sometimes fickle market. Base price: $388,000.
When the turbo-diesel Skylane JT-A was all but certified, Cessna hoped that would be its new top-of-the-line high-wing four-seater, and accordingly, the company shut down the production line on the avgas-powered model.
The best-laid plans .... For a variety of reasons, the diesel 182 wasn’t ready for prime time, and Cessna restarted the line for the Lycoming-powered model again last year. At this writing, no one knows for sure what the future holds for the Skylane JT-A, but the standard Skylane that so many pilots learned to love is back.
Predictably, it’s essentially unchanged from last year’s model with 230 hp out front, a 44-inch-wide cabin and a long, high-lift wing. Max cruise remains 145 knots and range approaches 900 nm.
Perhaps equally important, the latest version of the venerable 182 offers good short-field performance and a useful load over 1,100 pounds. The combination of strong power and a durable airframe have made the 182 Skylane one of every pilot’s best friends.
Turbo Stationair 206
Cessna’s only piston-powered six-seater remains the T-206, and this year, the airplane has changed—well, almost anyway. With the huge double cargo doors in back, there has always been demand for conference-style seating, and Cessna now offers that option.
The T-206 uses the standard 310 hp Lycoming TIO-540-AJ1A to crank out 164 knots max cruise with a 700 nm range. With a nearly 1,300-pound useful load and short-field performance not far behind the Skylane, Cessna’s largest piston single offers plenty of utility. The multi-faceted Stationair has been pressed into service as a freighter, charter airplane, skydiver transport, formation photo platform and even a backwoods bush bird. Base price: $662,000.
When Cessna bought the composite Columbia 300 and 400 designs out of bankruptcy several years ago, many industry watchers wondered if that was a total mismatch. Cessna was famous for building conventional, all-aluminum, high-wing airplanes and had little experience with composites. The company also had never before sold a high-performance, low-wing single with gull wing doors.
The TTx certainly qualifies as high performance. With a max cruise listed at 235 knots (your speed may vary), the Cessna single is the world’s fastest fixed-gear, piston-powered production airplane. Up until a few years ago, Cessna claimed the TTx was the fastest piston airplane above the planet, but they eventually acknowledged that Mooney’s Acclaim S actually holds that title. No dishonor there, The TTx is fast enough, considering it flies above fixed gear.
While the TTx hasn’t exactly prospered, it continues in production at Textron’s Wichita facility. It’s now the top of the company’s single-engine, four-seat line. Base price: $847,000.
Piper’s entry-level model, originally intended to compete head-to-head with Cessna’s Skyhawk, is the Archer. The 172 continues to outsell the Archer, but there’s strong support for both models in the marketplace. Individual pilot preference may devolve to the high-wing/low-wing debate that has been ongoing for decades.
Power on the standard Archer is every pilot’s friend, the 180 hp Lycoming O-360-A4M. Archers have used this basic engine for nearly 40 years, and the little four-cylinder Lyc has proven to be extremely reliable. Better still, the 2000 hour TBO is real. Base price: $357,700.
Piper’s recently introduced upscale version of the Archer employs the Continental TD-155 turbodiesel engine and an MT propeller. This 155 hp mill provides turbocharged power to 16,000 feet and offers a cruise at 123 knots.
Like all diesels, the new model’s long suit is range. Diesel powerplants benefit from a more efficient specific fuel consumption than conventional avgas engines. At reduced power settings, the DX version of the Archer translates only 43 gallons of fuel to a range of 843 nm plus reserve.
Diesel engines burn jet fuel, and that makes them extremely popular overseas, where avgas is becoming more expensive and less available. (Perhaps ironically, most aircraft diesels aren’t certified to burn diesel fuel.) The durability of diesels also has endeared them to flight schools, both international and domestic, where maintenance-free operation is most important. Base price: $399,495.
Since 1967, when Piper knocked Mooney off its pedestal as builder of the world’s most popular retractables, the Arrow has enjoyed a long, if occasionally sporadic, life. With 200 hp, retractable gear and a constant speed prop, the current Arrow qualifies as an excellent “complex” aircraft, and Arrows have long been a favorite of flight schools and rental FBOs for both advanced training and family rental.
Forty-seven years ago, the original Arrow was little more than a Cherokee 180 with retractable gear and a constant speed prop. Today, it has evolved to a sophisticated traveler with flat-panel avionics, a stretched fuselage and its own niche in Piper’s lineup.
It’s a tribute to the Arrow’s durability that the model has survived for nearly a half-century, though it has occasionally been suspended from production during tough times in the aircraft business.
Cruise is 138 knots following a climb at 831 fpm. The standard, 72-gallon tanks are good for five hours plus reserve, allowing Arrows to reach out and touch destinations 650 nm distant. Base price: $457,725.
The Piper Malibu was an unquestioned home run when it premiered in 1984. At the time, there was only one pressurized single on the market, Cessna’s P210N, and the Malibu knocked it completely out of the box for a full year. There was no 1984 P210, though Cessna did come back in 1985 with the much improved P210R. (Sadly, the P210R—and all other piston-powered Cessnas—were put on hold in 1986.)
One thing the P210 did better than the Malibu was carry a load. With a full 120 gallons of fuel on board, most well-equipped Malibus were three or four-place machines.
After the P210 was shelved in 1986, Piper still dreamed of someday improving the Malibu’s payload. Why not, Piper theorized, build a Malibu Mirage without all the hardware associated with pressurization and translate the weight savings to payload?
The Matrix did exactly that. It worked out that removing the Malibu’s pressurization plumbing increased its payload by between 50 and 150 pounds, depending upon model year. Pilots who didn’t feel the need for a compressed atmosphere in the cabin could substitute an oxygen mask for pressurization, gain some payload and save $160,000 in the process. All performance and specs remained the same. Base price: $939,950.
The Mirage continues as Piper’s (and, arguably, the industry’s) most sophisticated piston single. Just as air-conditioning was hailed as the definitive creature comfort in automobiles 50 years ago, pressurization represents perhaps the ultimate convenience in general aviation aircraft today. The Mirage is a semi-cabin class, turbocharged, six-seater that represents a Mercedes philosophy, an ultimate among single-engine piston designs.
With a 5.5 psi pressurization system, the Mirage can maintain an 8,000-foot cabin altitude at 25,000 feet. This allows the inflatable PA-46 to cruise in thin air at an easy 200-210 knots at high altitude, 190-200 knots at more breathable heights.
Aerodynamically, the Matrix and newer-generation Mirage are essentially identical, so both airplanes enjoy the same performance. Base price: $1,100,450.
The SR-20 was the launch vehicle for the Cirrus line in 1999. Company founders Alan and Dale Klapmeier could hardly have imagined the amazing success that first production model would foster.
Sixteen years later, the SR-20 remains a popular airplane, though a distant second to its more powerful brother, the SR-22. In one iteration or another, the SR-22 has been the world’s most popular airplane for nearly a decade.
The SR-20 was originally conceived as a trainer and family cruiser that effectively resolved nonpilots’ two major objections to learning to fly (besides the cost): 1. What do I do if the engine quits? and 2. What happens if I get lost? The Klapmeiers apparently answered both questions to prospective pilots’ satisfaction: 1. If you’re totally out of options, deploy the whole aircraft parachute, and 2. You can navigate with a real-time moving map image displayed on an electronic chart right in front of you.
Today, the SR-20 continues as a supremely comfortable upscale trainer, 49 inches across, designed roughly around a BMW 540 interior. Performance is excellent, 155 knots with only 200 hp out front and fixed gear beneath the wings. Base price is $359,900.
The current top-of-the-line Cirrus is the company’s (and the industry’s) most popular airplane. The SR22 sports a 310 hp TSIO-550 Continental capable of lifting the airplane to altitude at an initial 1,200 fpm and pushing the SR22 along at 180 knots.
As mentioned above, another major attraction of all Cirrus models is the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS). Aircraft engines and other systems are so bulletproof these days that the chance of a total loss of power is practically infinitesimal, but if you do run out of options and pull the overhead handle to deploy the parachute, you’ll be lowered to the ground with an impact no greater than 18 fps.
That’s a fairly gentle 12 mph vertical descent rate. In combination with composite crush zones in the cabin floor and 26-G seats designed to help absorb a vertical descent, the Cirrus CAPS has allowed 112 people to survive everything from mid-air collisions to total power loss. No one will ever know how many of those folks might have survived a dead stick landing without the chute, but it’s a safe bet those 112 people are confirmed fans of the CAPS. Base price: $499,900.
Top of the line at Cirrus is the turbochrged SR-22T, the same basic airframe as the standard SR-22, but fitted with a 315 hp version of the Continental IO-550 and an AiResearch turbocharger. The turbo helps the top Cirrus ascend at an initial 1,200 fpm to a maximum altitude of FL250.
Max cruise at 25,000 feet is 213 knots. At 3,600 pounds gross weight, the 22T is a substantial four/five seat single, but you’d never know it looking at the performance chart.
The SR-22T features a wide range of options that allow you to personalize your Cirrus for your specific mission.
Mooney Ovation 3-M20R
When Mooney Aircraft, one of the oldest of the legacy manufacturers, announced it was going back into production of the Ovation 3 and Acclaim S, many industry watchers had mixed emotions. Though Mooney-love is nearly as fanatical as Bonanza fever, everyone knew that Mooneys have always been highly labor-intensive airplanes. Some folks speculated the Kerrville, Texas, company would have a tough time competing against the new wave of composites, the Diamond, Cirrus and Cessna TTx designs, all relatively simple composite aircraft assembled like giant plastic models.
Mooney Ovation 3
There was little concern that Mooneys wouldn’t continue to dominate their respective class in performance, but some wondered if they could compete with the composites in price.
No one knows the answer to that question just yet. Mooney is now a U.S. subsidiary of Soaring America in Chino, Calif., in turn, a division of a Chinese real estate company, the Meijing Group. The owner has already constructed a Chinese production facility and has delivered its first few airplanes to compliment American construction in Kerrville, Texas. That should mean a number of guaranteed overseas sales to help bolster the bottom line.
The Mooney Ovation 3 is the company’s normally aspirated M20, with a 310 hp Continental IO-550 providing encouragement for a three-blade constant speed prop. Plan on an easy 1,200-fpm climb at gross, 190 knots cruise, 195 knots on some Ovation 3s. Service ceiling is well above normal human breathing capability, and the airplane can range 1,000 nm on a good day. Base price: $649,000.
Mooney Acclaim S-M20TN
The turbocharged Mooney is essentially the same airplane as the Ovation 3, except for the addition of an Air Research blower under the bonnet. High jump to FL250, set the power at max, and you very well might see the advertised 242 knots, right on the edge of turboprop country. Even a slow Acclaim S will touch 235 knots. This gives the Acclaim S bragging rights to the title of fastest piston production single with any number of engines.
Pilots with their own, personal refinery will enjoy such exuberant cruise and probably won’t mind the 20-21 gph fuel burn, but the rest of us may prefer a slightly lower power setting worth more like 230 knots at 18 gph. Base price: $699,000.
Mooney M10T and M10R
These new all-composite two-seaters are under development, and Mooney expects them to earn certification sometime in 2016. Both, the fixed-gear T-model and the retractable gear J-model, will be powered by Continental diesel engines. Pricing has not yet been announced.
Diamond DA-20 Eclipse
The Eclipse represents something of a contradiction in a trainer. Like the American Champion models, the DA-20 utilizes a conventional stick for pitch and roll control. Yet, it’s a T-tailed, composite design with flat panel avionics. Talk about mixing the best of the old and the new.
As a precursor to Diamond’s four-seat, DA-40 Star, the Eclipse offers surprising comfort and performance for a design most pilots assume to be a dedicated trainer. The Eclipse certainly has the manners of a teaching machine—and then some.
The cabin is 45 inches wide, sumptuous for a trainer. Power is an injected 125 hp IO-240 Continental. Given such encouragement, the Eclipse can climb at an easy 1,000 fpm and cruise at 138 knots at an optimum 8000 feet.
Conversely, stall speed is only 45 knots, so landings can be as casual as you like, as slow as 55 knots. It’s an airplane that can do most jobs assigned to it, training or transport, though not in actual IFR conditions. The Eclipse’s lack of lightning certification prevents it from operating in actual IFR.
Base price: $227,800.
Diamond DA-40 Star XLS
Scale the Eclipse up from 125 to 180 hp, add two seats in back, and you’re flying a Diamond Star. Like many manufacturers, Diamond built the Star in a number of configurations depending on how much you wanted to spend. The XLS is the top model, and therefore, the most expensive.
Forty years ago, Grumman American had a similar model, Roy LoPresti’s remarkable Tiger, that offered 145 knots performance on the same power. That was considered excellent performance for a fixed- gear, bonded single.
Today, the Star does everything better. Granted four feet more wing than its two-seat little brother, the Star XLS climbs as if something bigger is chasing it, churns out 150 knots at max cruise and manages the latter trick on only 10 gph. Base price: $469,500.
If your taste turns more toward diesels that burn jet fuel, Diamond offers the DA-40NG (for Next Generation). The NG features an Austro AE-300 turbodiesel engine, rated at 168 hp with an EECU single-lever power control and a three-blade MT constant speed prop. Standard fuel is 28 gallons, but Diamond sells most NGs with the 39-gallon long-range tanks. Performance is similar to that available from the avgas-powered Star. The NG Star is targeted at the overseas market where avgas is becoming scarce, but it’s available on the American market. Base price: $510,000.
When it comes to designing aircraft, the Italians do things with a certain indefinable flair. The new Tecnam P2010 is aeronautical proof of just how different they can build an airplane, even if it looks almost identical to one of America’s general aviation standards.
Esthetically, the new Tecnam PTwentyTen (as Tecnam calls it) features a definite 172 look-alike appearance, though the Italian airplane features a carbon-fiber fuselage with an all-metal wing, along with a non-steerable nosewheel, a simple, all-glass, electronic instrument panel bereft of analog gauges (all Garmin G1000) and what appears to be an oversized cowling, the latter perhaps a prelude to a larger engine. Current power is a 180 hp Lycoming IO-360, driving a two-blade, 74-inch MT composite prop. Wheelpants are high rise to provide for grass or turf operation (popular in Europe where hard surface runways come with high landing fees), and takeoff and landing distances are both under .1200 feet. Cruise is listed as 128 knots burning just under 13 gph, and gross weight is 2557 pounds. Base price: $345,00.