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Sustaining Our Fleet

Remembering how we got it in the first place might help.

Unloading our seaplane at Vancouver International Airport, British Columbia after a wilderness camping trip in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Our Lake flying boat’s useful load (fuel, 2 adults & gear) without the rear seat is 1060 pounds, giving us plenty of room for our inflatable boat. We used our 1965 Volvo wagon to tow the Lake flying boat (no retractable wheels) to the seaplane ramp on the Fraser River. [istock/Ann Talbot]

Because of a happy combination of enthusiasm, economics, and encouragement, by far, the greatest number of aircraft in our current general aviation fleet was built from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. Traded frequently, relocated far and wide, and in various turns lavishly preserved and sorely neglected, this aerial armada is nevertheless slowly eroding, replaced infrequently by new airplanes offered at (for many) unaffordable prices.

We need to take care of these aviation treasures—their kind will not be seen again. They were developed during America’s post-war boom by designers and marketers who gave pilots what they wanted at a price point within reach of a large percentage of the flying population. In their day, competition encouraged innovation, even while design compromises between performance, cost, and quality provided a variety of choices in the marketplace.

Because of these vast numbers of airplanes placed into service 50 or so years ago, we still have a relatively large pool of legacy equipment available. How long we can keep them flying is anyone’s guess, but the cost of maintaining, equipping, and flying these old birds is much higher than their original builders could ever have envisioned. And yet, they can do the job for a fraction of an equivalent airplane built today—if one even exists.

Attrition is inevitable since some of this elderly fleet disappears from the active register each year. Losses from accidents, neglect, impractical upkeep, and aging structures will eventually take their toll. To preserve what’s left, we must be ready to place increased resources into their preservation and encourage production of parts for overhauling and maintaining continuing airworthiness. And we must be ever more careful in how we operate and store them. This aging fleet is too precious to ignore.

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Where Did They All Come From?

The answer is: It depends.

In 1960, a total of 7,588 general aviation aircraft were produced; in 1970, an anomalously similar number, 7,508, were built. An astounding 98,407 airplanes went out the door between those years. After another 10 years, the industry had added another 150,220 aircraft to the fleet. Then, the bubble burst in the ’80s, with only 30,908 airplanes built in that decade. The ’90s saw just 17,665 airplanes produced. The nearly 250,000 general aviation airplanes built in the ’60s and ’70s, therefore, were the origins of our still-existing legacy fleet.

During nearly 65 years of industry observation, I was fortunate to have been around at the birth of many of these legacy airplanes. I remember walking around one of the first Cessna 210s parked at our field in 1960, trying to figure out where the gear went. When a Piper dealer came by to show us a brand-new ’62 Cherokee, we could scarcely believe it was a sibling to our Tri-Pacers. And, compared to the twin Beechcraft Bonanzas on the field, I thought the ’60 Beech Queen Air was the most beautiful mini-airliner I had ever seen when I climbed aboard one of the first, not realizing that in four more years its sister ship would become the turboprop King Air.

A Cessna 336 Skymaster showed up at an airport opening I attended in 1964, attracting all sorts of attention since it was unlike any Cessna we had seen before. By then, Brand C had added the 185, 206, and 320 models, and the cabin-class 411 was coming. Piper’s new 1963 Twin Comanche struck us as cute, compared with the pudgy Apache and Aztec, while the Pawnee was our first look at a purpose-built ag plane. In the mid-’60s, new aircraft models were popping up everywhere. One of my friends bought a brand-new Citabria in 1964, which we thought was a vast improvement over the old Aeronca Champion.

As the years passed, I became associated with airplane dealerships, and then started covering a beat as an industry journalist. I saw Cessna’s abortive attempt to enter the helicopter business with the CH-1 Skyhook in the early ’60s, and later in 1967 we picked up one of the first Cessna Cardinals at the factory. In 1973, I attended Beech’s November sales meeting in Wichita, Kansas, featuring the introduction of the big Super King Air 200. About the same time, Cessna was dropping into our airport with the new Citation jet. Back in 1961, I had seen a mock-up of a civilian version of Cessna’s T-37 jet trainer, perhaps a response to Beech’s short partnership with the Morane-Saulnier Paris jet. The Citation 500’s fanjet engines made all the difference.

All through the ’70s and early ’80s, we news hounds were kept busy attending rollouts and first flights of new models. Airplane companies were in full production and eager to expand their market, trying out every novelty and adding improvements. Mooney stretched and muscled up its M20 series, Maule constantly reworked its Rocket models, Rockwell added more Commander types, and Grumman gave us “cats” of every size, Lynx to Cougar.

Aircraft parked facing the sunset on a clear afternoon. [iStock]

It All Started in the Late 1950s

In my earliest flying years at the end of the 1950s, Piper was producing only the Apache, Comanche, Tri-Pacer and Super Cub models. Cessna had the 310, 182, and 172, and was just adding the 175 and 150. Beech built the Model 18 Twin Beech, V-tail and twin Bonanzas, and a new Travel Air light twin. Mooney basically sold one model, as did Bellanca, and Aero Commander competed solely in the twin market. As the industry and I matured during the ’60s, dozens of new designs and variations appeared in the marketplace.

This era’s fertile incubator brought forth steady innovations. Piper adopted touches from the Comanche, such as the swept tailfin and stabilator pitch control, for its Aztec and Cherokee models introduced in the early ’60s. Cessna not only swept the tail on most models in 1960, it copied Detroit automotive marketing by introducing “deluxe” versions loaded with standard options—all-over paint instead of partially bare aluminum, gyros and radios in the panel, landing gear fairings, and showy interiors. Beech, on the other hand, expanded its line downward, first with a Debonair economy version of the Bonanza and later the entry-level Musketeer singles with (gasp!) fixed landing gear. The Baron was introduced in 1961 for buyers needing something smaller than the hulking twin Bonanza but more capable than the Travel Air.

The secret sauce enlivening this banquet of expansion in the ’60s and ’70s was the involvement of ownership and management dedicated to personal aviation. William T. Piper and his sons, Bill Jr., Thomas (“Tony”), and Howard (“Pug”), made the decisions at Piper Aircraft. Mrs. O.A. Beech and her nephew Frank Hedrick held the reins at Beech Aircraft. Dwane Wallace, Clyde Cessna’s nephew, would walk the factory floor at Cessna. Rather than being subject to a corporate board of bean counters and legal advisers, these leaders had grown their companies with a vision of what little airplanes could do and took risks based on the love of the game.

Amazing products resulted, not from committee decisions but because of a guiding hand at the top who was likely a pilot and aircraft enthusiast. At the industry press conferences and sales meetings back then, one could sense the devotion and dreams in the presentations. All of this changed in the last quarter of the 20th century, as the old general aviation firms were sold and wrapped under conglomerate, non-aviation management. This brought cautious decision-making and design compromise by consensus, with legal, sales, engineering, and bookkeeping departments making sure all interests were represented. Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson once said, “From now on, there will be no more great airplanes, just adequate ones.”

The Sizzling ’70s

The 1960s had seen heady expansion of product lines. By 1970, Piper had largely made the switch from building fabric-covered airplanes at its old plant in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, to all-metal designs streaming from a bright new complex in Florida. Labor problems and a disastrous flood in 1972 ended the Lock Haven era and the Comanche line, although the Aztec and Navajo twins continued. However, there were plenty of other options in the product line. The Piper Cherokee, also known as the PA-28 platform, had been expanded to at least eight variants, being added to six twins and the Pawnee ag planes. Cessna was building half of the world’s GA airplanes in its Kansas facilities, offering no less than a dozen singles, eight twins, and a new bizjet on the horizon. Beech, meanwhile, now had 12 single-engine models, seven twins, and three turboprops in its fleet. And the 1970s were just starting.

Vertical integration seemed to be important, in that each major manufacturer wanted to offer a two-seat trainer, four-seat family airplane, higher-powered business cruiser, and complex retract. Twins were similarly ranked—as light, medium, and cabin class—with pressurization and turbine engines being the ultimate goal. Piper took the Cherokee Six heavy-single into a Seneca twin in ’72, followed by the Lance retractable in ’76. Tapered wings and stretched fuselages improved the smaller Cherokees, and a true two-seater, the Tomahawk, came along in ’78, followed by the Seminole light twin. At the top, the Navajo cabin twin became stretched, pressurized, and turbine-ized.

Over at Cessna, a plethora of preferences had been promulgated by 1970. Tubular landing gear legs replaced older flat springs, manual flaps were changed to electric, the 210 Centurion’s wing struts had been removed, and by the mid-1960s stylish back windows had been installed in nearly all models. Engine turbochargers became an option, starting in ’62 with the 320 twin, then in ’66 for the 206 and 210. Cessna joined Piper in the ag plane business that year, and in ’69 the 206 was stretched into the 207. By the end of 1970s, there were three models of the 210—normal, turbo, and pressurized—the Skylane RG joined the fixed-gear 182, and even the Skyhawk went retractable with the Cutlass RG. On the twin side, the “push-pull” centerline-thrust Skymaster was available in three performance categories, the 310/340 was similarly outfitted, and the 400-series twins offered models with utility, executive, and pressurized cabins. It took until the late 1970s for Cessna to move into the turboprop business since it was occupied with the Citation jets earlier in that decade.

Beech was busy introducing the stretched King Air 100 in 1970 and the flagship Super King Air 200 for ’74, adding the longer Baron 58 in ’70, a pressurized Baron 58P, in ’76 and the Duchess light twin in ’78, while continuing to build piston-engine Queen Airs and Dukes. Still, Beech found time to put retractable gear on the Musketeer and add an extra cabin door to the light airplanes, and to develop the two-place Skipper trainer at the end of the decade.

By no means was all the action in the ’70s limited to the “Big Three” airplane manufacturers. Mooney was innovating like crazy in that time frame, with the introduction of the cleaned-up 201 and the turbo 231. Other short-line manufacturers like Bellanca/Champion, Maule, and Grumman American enlarged their offerings, and Rockwell jumped into its own single-engine Commander business after first trying to acquire smaller companies in the 1960s. The ’70s were full of enthusiasm for aviation, despite an oil embargo setback in 1973-74 and a disrupting air traffic controller strike in 1981. By the mid-’80s, it was all over.

Did CAR 3 Play a Role?

What may have made all these developments of new airplane types possible was the continuing use of Civil Air Regulation Part 3 certification, a holdover from the Civil Aeronautics Authority, predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration’s creation in 1958. With the changeover to the FAA’s Federal Air Regulations, FAR Part 23 became the new certification basis for light aircraft, gradually evolving into a fresh start with some new requirements added to the old CAR 3 rules. As this regulatory meshing took some time to accomplish, established airplane companies rushed to certify as many new models as possible under CAR 3, filing applications that could grandfather them into existing rules while product development continued into the ’60s.

Using these old CAR 3 certifications as basis, most of our legacy fleet was built using amendments to the original type certificate, even though the airplanes were marketed as “new” models. Hence, the 1968-introduced Beech Bonanza 36 was certified as an addition to the CAR 3-basis TC #3A15, which was originally issued for the Bonanza H35 of 1957. Cessna’s Bonanza competitors, beginning with the model 210 certified on April 20, 1959, were also certified under CAR 3 except for the pressurized P210 because its original application was dated August 13, 1956. Even the ’64 Cessna 206 was certified as a CAR Part 3 airplane, as the original application was dated November 9, 1962, continuing right up through the end of legacy 206 production in ’86.

For its part, Piper introduced the PA-28 Cherokee in ’61 under CAR 3 certification basis from an application dated February 14, 1958. Even the PA-32 Cherokee Six was born as a CAR 3 airplane in ’65 with an application dated ’64. Similar modifications to original CAR 3 certifications took place at Mooney, Champion, Rockwell Commander, Lake, and Maule. To be fair, subsequent model changes through the ’70s frequently complied with FAR Part 23 amendments applicable to their dates of certification, even though they were built as CAR 3-certified airplanes. On the other hand, the four-seat Grumman AA-5 airplanes were certified under FAR Part 23 with an original application dated July 2, 1970.

As is typical of the mission creep inherent in any administrative law, FAR Part 23 certification grew in complexity from the boilerplate inherited from CAR 3. Much of this was inevitable as new construction methods and materials were developed, and equipment unanticipated in CAR 3 was placed on airplanes. However, grandfathering in earlier type certification, rather than pursuing entirely new FAR 23 approval, meant less time and money was required to produce a new aircraft.

Are FAA Part 23-certified airplanes any better? It depends on which level of amendments they complied with. Certification under Part 23 in the ’60s was quite similar to the CAR 3 certification of a decade earlier, but Part 23 amendments of the ’80s had evolved to a greater degree. When it comes to engineering small unpressurized general aviation aircraft, however, structures are typically overbuilt simply for durability and manufacturing ease. The basic criteria for CAR Part 3 and FAR Part 23 remain much the same. CAR 3’s stipulation that stall speed for single-engine airplanes shall not exceed
70 mph is simply restated in FAR 23 as “61 knots.” However, as mentioned, there have been multitudinous minutia added in FAR 23, often in response to newer materials and devices never contemplated in CAR 3 days. Each of these must be given consideration when developing entirely new designs, taking up engineering time and documentation.

Most significantly, this prodigious adaptation and modification of basic CAR 3 aircraft designs, along with introduction of entirely new FAR 23 ones, continued through the ’60s and ’70s. Each of the major manufacturers wanted to make sure customers were able to remain loyal as they upgraded into higher-performance airplanes. They accomplished this by increasing the number of types offered and seeing that any small opening into an unserved need was met with a new model.
And so it was that fixed-gear models received retractable landing gear. The fuselage stretched to accommodate extra seats. Four-cylinder engines became six-cylinder powerplants. Turbocharged models complemented normally aspirated offerings. Even twin engines were grafted onto single-engine airframes. Pressurization, turbine engines, tip tanks, cargo pods: if you wanted it, engineering and marketing departments made sure you could get it.

Market saturation eventually brought down the number of aircraft types, and production rates plummeted in the ’80s to match the lack of buyers. Contributing to the collapse of the ’80s was a lingering economic malaise from double-digit interest rates and inflation, and the increasing cost of product liability insurance against the growth industry of tort suits, divided by the fewer and fewer units sold.

Why can’t we just make new old ones?

Challenges on several fronts make reviving old type-certificated aircraft difficult. Small production rates mean handcrafting what was once mass-produced, so each unit costs more. Rebuilding the market requires making enough people want what you have to offer. The numbers of active pilots and qualified, motivated buyers are down compared to the bustling days, and consumer expectations are much higher now, requiring airframes to be bloated with quality accessories. Back in the day, comfort and ease of use took a back seat to the thrill of flight. We didn’t expect to have air conditioning in our airplane because it weighed half as much as a passenger and it wasn’t needed aloft. Plush seating, Wi-Fi, sound deadening, single-lever power control, and wall-to-wall glass instrument panels weren’t a priority or even dreamed about 50 years ago. We were just glad to have an engine, wings, and freedom to fly. Legacy airplanes today need considerable upgrading to bring them up to speed with current buyer desires.

Airports were social communities during the last third of the 1900s. Security was almost nonexistent, perceived threats being remote, so coming and going was less restricted and hurried. Pilots spent time at the airport. Airport lounges were often untidy but welcoming places that encouraged hanging out, not polished palaces to pass through. If you parked outside with your new 1970 Mooney, someone would come out to admire it, not shepherd it away to piston-engine row. Today’s aircraft owners are far different. Many are users of airplanes, not flyers for the sake of flying. They are more satisfied to possess their flying machines—less so to be companions with them.

That said, the great fleet of general aviation aircraft built in the two decades of the mid-’60s to mid-’80s still represents a wonderful opportunity for acquisition and preservation. We must not underestimate the continuing rise in maintenance and operation costs. But these remarkable old birds serve their purpose as well as they ever did, if we’ll just take care of them.
Let us rise to the challenge.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot.

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