The story of the high-performance singles is a fascinating one, not only because the airplanes themselves are masterpieces of engineering and design. They are, granted, limited masterpieces, but in aviation, the word “limitation” is hard-coded into the lexicon.
It’s not just that these planes are cool, and they are, but also that they tell a tale of how airplane builders saw their customers both as pilots and as people, and how that perspective drove their design decisions. It’s the story of how these designers worked within the current bounds of the state of technology in terms of propulsion, materials and electronics, to create a plane that met the then-new needs of a new breed of pilot. It’s also a tale of manufacturers’ evolving understanding of what pilots wanted, tempered as always by what plane makers and regulators believed that pilots could and should be allowed to handle. While the answers to these questions changed over time, the questions themselves haven’t.
Of the planes we’re featuring here, the Beech Bonanza, the Piper Comanche, the Cessna 210, the Mooney 201, the Piper Saratoga and the Cirrus SR22, only the first and the last were conceived as they were rather than reworked from previous designs. That’s a commentary as much on the realities of aircraft manufacturing as on any lack of vision. In our view, these bookend planes, the Bonanza and the SR22, are truly revolutionary designs. Beechcraft’s Bonanza designers, working as a cell independent of the company’s business-as-usual approach, arrived at the Bonanza not by connecting lines from the company’s previous high-performance single, the D-17 “Staggerwing,” but by imagining what could be. The D-17 and the Model-35 are planes from different eras of history, and it’s funny to think that for two years, the unlikely duo was produced side by side, as though Ford were building Model As and Mustangs at the same time.
We left off some planes, too. Why no Ryan/North American Navion? North American/Rockwell/ Commander Aircraft Commander 114? The Diamond DA-40? The Meyers 200? The Socata Trinidad? All are possible inclusions that we left out, some quite reluctantly.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this list of remarkable planes is how very different they are from each other. High-wing, low-wing, small bore, big bore, six-seat, four-seat…they not only took different approaches to arrive at a place of greatness, a place where pilots then and now find a plane that fits their mission but, more often than not, their personality, as well.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Beech Bonanza came into the world in 1947 pretty much fully formed, a four-seat, retractable-gear, all-metal, lightweight, lower-powered single-engine transportation airplane. It’s not a stretch to say that the Bonanza created the segment. It was inarguably a revolutionary airplane. In an era where its principal competitors were taildraggers, some of them tube-and-rag relics, all of them with round engines, the Bonanza was the in-your-face product designed for a world on the other side of a war that changed everything. It was intended to be economical, light, slick and fast, giving private pilots an airplane in which they could go places and take a few folks with them.
Though it has been continuously produced for nearly 75 years now, the plane has evolved greatly over time, to the point where today’s Bonanza is a very different aircraft than the original. A switch to a straight tail was perhaps the most gradual component phase-out in aviation history, with the introduction of the first non-V-tail Bonanza, the Debonair, in 1960, and the last V-tail model finally phased out in 1982. So the idea of a straight-tail Bonanza is hardly shocking.
In fact, it’s safe to say that, for many years, the state of Bonanza art has been the Model 36 Bonanza, a straight-tail, six-seater that is a much larger and more capable airplane than the original. Along the way, there were a number of different Bonanzas, but since at least the late 1950s when the V-35 got bigger engines and more modern, constant-speed props, the plane went from being a relatively lightweight flyer to a substantial single with a maximum weight a thousand pounds greater than the original and cruise speeds almost 20 knots greater. All of that was driven by customer preference, and for good reason. High-performance planes are intended to go fast, carry a good load and go a long way, all of which the Bonanza excelled at.
The Bonanza was always long-legged, with the original boasting about 700 statute miles of range, another one of the revolutionary design precepts that set the bar high for coming competitors, a design element that required that the Bonanza get bigger to hold enough fuel for its thirstier engines to get the expected range or better, which they did.
“IN AN ERA WHERE ITS PRINCIPAL COMPETITORS WERE TAILDRAGGERS, SOME OF THEM TUBE- AND-RAG RELICS, ALL OF THEM WITH ROUND ENGINES, THE BONANZA WAS THE IN-YOUR-FACE PRODUCT DESIGNED FOR A WORLD ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A WAR THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING.”
In general, it takes competitors in aviation around 10 years to catch up with a truly revolutionary design, and in the case of the Beechcraft Bonanza, that 10-year mark was the magic number, indeed, as by 1957, both Cessna and Piper had come out with nominally competing designs. With its original 180 hp engine, the Piper PA-24 Comanche was an impressive counter to the Bonanza. The all-metal, efficient and modern PA-24 wasn’t very fast, though, so Piper soon upgraded the Comanche to a bigger engine. The 250 hp version boasted 160- knot cruise speeds and an economy range of up to 700 nautical miles.
In terms of aesthetics, the Comanche is a tough case. On the one hand, its all-metal, laminar- flow wing design with swept tail and sleek glass—a one-piece front windscreen is a popular mod that even improves on that—make it a slick enough-looking plane, but its squared-off lines and low-slung appearance seem to many pilots to work against its overall appearance.
The plane was a player, to be sure, but it sold in lesser numbers than its competitors, and the lack of any standout feature made it a second-tier player in what was a hot market in the 1960s and ’70s. With that being the case, it wasn’t a hard call for Piper to cancel the model when, in 1972, Hurricane Agnes destroyed much of the tooling for the model at its home in Pennsylvania, and Piper chose instead to focus on other models, namely the PA-28R Arrow and, later, the PA-46 Malibu, which would emerge as a force by the end of the decade.
If the story of the Bonanza is clean-sheet design capturing a new idea, that of the Cessna 210 was anything but. The original in 1957 was little more than a Cessna 182 with retractable gear, though in fairness, the first real 210 didn’t arrive on the scene until Cessna decided to make the commitment in 1961, giving the plane a redesigned fuselage with another pair of windows, a greatly updated wing and a more powerful engine. A few years later, Cessna introduced the cantilever wing that pilots today identify with the type.
The 210 Centurion was the primary competitor to the Beech Bonanza throughout most of the ’60s and all of the 1970’s. It was fast—by the time it reached its pinnacle, the 210 could do around 200 knots up high and 180 or better at more common altitudes with a maximum 900 nm range and an impressive payload to boot.
The 210, with its high-wing design and Cessna’s maker’s mark, attracted famously loyal Cessna flyers, who needed little additional incentive to move up from a 182 to the premier Cessna piston single. And over the years Cessna added new models, including a very popular turbocharged model that gave the type excellent cruise speeds in the mid-teen flight levels and improved hot-and-high capabilities, ideal for pilots from the south and especially southwest, where mountainous terrain and high temperatures were hugely limiting factors for normally aspirated aircraft.
The ultimate expression of the type was the pressurized 210, a fast, comfortable and high-flying airplane that demanded pilot skill and fine attention to detail. It was the only aircraft on our list, by the way, to evolve to a pressurized version, as other manufacturers balked at the costs and complexities. Piper did create a clean-sheet pressurized plane, the PA-46 Malibu, which has expanded into an impressive lineup of aircraft, most of which are turboprop powered but that also include the sophisticated and successful M350, the direct descendent of the Malibu. Cessna, on the other hand, turned to light jets in a big way, a decision that it hasn’t regretted, either.
“THE 210 CENTURION WAS THE PRIMARY COMPETITOR TO THE BEECH BONANZA THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE ’60s AND ALL OF THE 1970s.”
If we were to choose three words to describe the original Bonanza, they would be “modern,” “efficient” and “slick.” Those same adjectives could be used to describe the Mooney single, which came about as an evolution of a design that was really none of those things. But to Mooney’s great credit, the company pulled it off and created a plane, the Model M20, that was all of those things and wore them all as it waltzed into the marketplace as though that was the idea all long.
Efficiency is the keyword. The company for years prided itself on getting the most speed out of the least power, and it did that in impressive fashion. The aerodynamically cleaned-up Mooney 201 (the M20J) came out in 1976 with the claim that it got one mile per hour of airspeed for every horsepower.
The truth is the first M20 was a 150 hp wood-winged plane that had nothing but room to grow, and it did. By the early 1960s it had gotten an all-metal wing, improved control surfaces, a bigger engine—200 hp seemed like a sweet spot—and updated amenities. They were still cozy airplanes, with the back seats being particularly so, though the latest updates did much to address this issue (along with adding a pilot’s side door, as well).
As just about every aircraft manufacturer has at some point, Mooney has gone through a roller- coaster ride of financial reversals, with more than a half-dozen owners over its lifespan and even more numerous production shutdowns over the years. And while the core of the Mooney design DNA is still thought of as efficiency, latter airplanes were higher powered and, hence, less fuel-efficient, but, happily, faster than ever. The Mooney
Acclaim is the fastest GA piston production single ever, using turbocharging and the ever-slick Mooney aerodynamics to make good on around 240 knots true at its ceiling of 25,000 feet.
But for many people, the ultimate Mooney remains that J Model, a fast, fuel-efficient and sexy light single that delivered on the original concept of the personal, high-performance plane that Beechcraft invented in 1947.
The Piper PA-32R, the retractable version of the Cherokee Six, wasn’t Piper’s first high-performance single, nor its last, but it is much beloved by its owners and checks all the high-performance boxes.
As the FAA sees them, Piper PA-32 series aircraft are all “High-Performance” aircraft. But pilots don’t see them that way any more than they see a Cessna 182 Skylane as a high-performance aircraft, even if the FAA does categorize it as such.
The PA-32, first produced in 1965, didn’t become what pilots saw as a high-performance aircraft until 10 years later with the launch of the Lance, a six-place, retractable-gear PA-32 that featured the original Hershey Bar wing. Powered by a 300-hp Lycoming fuel-injected engine, the Lance was faster than the fixed-gear model by around 20 knots, which is one of the best payoffs for a simple tucking of the gear that we know of. Later, Piper adopted a tapered wing for the PA-32R and incorporated a number of aerodynamic cleanups, resulting in the Saratoga RG, which is a true 165-knot cruiser.
The Saratoga is an excellent airplane, not super speedy but plenty fast enough for long cross-country treks. Sophisticated and comfortable, it’s a true competitor to both the Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 and the Cessna 210 Centurion, though the old Piper never seemed to value the model as much as it did the PA-46, the latter of which it produces still. Piper paused PA-32 production in 2009 and has never restarted the line. It’s understandable, as the PA-46, produced in unpressurized form as the Matrix for a time, offers more room, better performance and far greater ramp appeal, as well.
Still, the Saratoga RG is a capable and satisfying airplane. Plane & Pilot editor-in-chief Isabel Goyer flew one such plane for business and family travel for several years and still lauds the plane’s easy flyability, decent long cross-country performance and passenger-friendly cabin design, which, as is true for all PA-32s, includes a big easy-to-access side double-door.
It might be tempting to call the Cirrus SR22 a modern high-performance airplane, but it is not. It’s one of a few high-performance post-modern aircraft, others including the Columbia 300 (and later derivatives) and some formative kit planes, all of which featured all-composite airframe construction. The SR22 happens to be the only surviving example of the type still in production.
Moreover, the SR22 represents a conceptual departure from previous fast GA planes. For starters, the SR22 was and is a fixed-gear plane, a design decision arrived at in order to decrease complexity, make the plane cheaper to insure, and allow new pilots an easier journey upstream to a faster ride. It’s also an all-composite design, which represents a commitment to that material at a level not previously seen in light GA (though it was not the first such plane—the Windecker Eagle predated it by three decades, in fact). The Cirrus SR-series aircraft also featured (and feature today) a standard whole- airplane recovery-parachute system, which was a first for a production aircraft. The “chute,” as it’s nearly universally referred to these days, allows the pilot (or a passenger in case of pilot incapacitation) to pull a handle that activates a rocket-propelled parachute that lowers the entire aircraft to the ground at a survivably slow rate of descent. The chute, along with the company’s commitment to initial and ongoing flight training for its pilots, has contributed to an enviable safety record after a spotty one early on.
Other revolutionary design features included flat-panel avionics, though that technology wasn’t quite ready in time for the first SRs, which were equipped with mechanical gauges for the pilot and a center-mounted multifunction display. Within a couple of years, all SR20s and SR22s would feature full glass panels. And while it’s not a very advanced design in terms of its engineering, the SRs also boast a side-stick-esque control stick, which Cirrus refers to correctly as a “side yoke” because its function is exactly like that of a control yoke, in that it has push-pull action coupled with side-to-side control input.
In terms of performance, the SR22 is without question a high-performance aircraft. In fact, turbo-charged models can cruise at its ceiling of 25,000 feet at 214 knots, though, in truth, precious few pilots fly at that altitude, instead contenting themselves with a predictable 200-knot cruise in the mid-teens with range of around 900 nm. Cirrus has built more than 8,000 SR-series singles as of early 2021.
One could argue that with the SR22, light plane manufacturers have reached the end game on the high-performance piston single, though others would argue that there’s still performance to be eked out of the type, as evidenced by Mooney’s remarkably swift Acclaim model. At the same time it’s tempting to say that in terms of development, the piston engine has reached its expiration date. One could argue, in fact, that Cirrus already built the ultimate next-Gen single, the SF-50 Vision Jet, a turbofan single that pushes the speed limit up over 310 knots and incorporates creature comforts and user-friendliness unimaginable for the visionary engineers who dreamt up that first true modern high-performance plane, the Beechcraft Bonanza, though we’re far from certain about what the future will bring. An all-electric 300-knot silent speedster? There are speedy electric planes on drawing boards, but the physics don’t work, at least not yet. Similar, revolutionary airplanes have happened before, though.