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Six Modern High-Performance Piston Singles

A new way of looking at what high-performance means to pilots helped these post-war piston singles change flying for the better.

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.

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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.

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