Sitting in the glass cockpit of the 50th anniversary edition of the Beechcraft G58 Baron, its precision-engineered Teledyne Continental Motors engines ticking away effortlessly, I'm struck by a thought: This airplane was introduced when President Dwight Eisenhower was still in office. It's a hard notion to reconcile. With a bright and colorful flat-panel avionics suite, hand-sewn leather seats and a quiet and powerful air-conditioner, this classic is clearly a modern, impeccably detailed airplane in every respect.
This disconnect does bring home a couple of salient points. First, 50 years ago airplane designers using T-squares and slide rules were coming up with some remarkably elegant and utilitarian designs. The second point is that a well-designed airplane can be updated for decades and still be a desirable model. The Baron is far from the only example of this — from C-130s to J-3 Cub clones to Cessna Skylanes, good designs tend to stick around.
As I suggested, there are a few things that change along the way with legacy airplanes, including better avionics and more reliable and, usually, more powerful engines. But there's often the bad with the good. It's almost universally true that as time passes airplanes get heavier — this can be blamed as much on customers' preferences as on manufacturers' lack of discipline. The Baron is a far heavier airplane today than when it was born in 1960. This hasn't stopped the vast majority of customers from ordering every option available. Buyers surely don't want the extra weight, but they're apparently willing to put up with it to get all the bells and whistles.
The birth story of the Baron is, as with many airplanes of its generation, a bit convoluted. The first Baron, the B55 model, shorter, lighter and with less powerful engines than today's Baron 58, was indeed certified in 1960. It was, however, a derivative of a derivative. The Baron line is an offshoot of the Travel Air twin, which was largely a development of the Bonanza single. That airplane, as you probably know, was a clean sheet design and is arguably one of the two or three most influential designs in light aviation history.
As it turned out, the B55 was the right airplane at the right time. In an era when fuel was cheap and the safety advantages of twins went without saying, the right-size and fast Beech Baron was a hit. It was, in fact, exactly what Beech intended, a twin-engine version of its immensely popular Bonanza single. (The Twin Bonanza, as you might know, was related to the Bonanza in name only.) That first Baron adopted a swept vertical fin in place of the Mentor-style straight tail of the Travel Air, and it upped the power to 260 and then 285 hp while stretching out a bit.
While this is the 50th anniversary of the Baron, the current model, the 58, was born 40 years ago, in 1970. The B58 was based on the A36, with its longer fuselage with club seating and a big rear door. Upon the B58's launch, it immediately became the Baron of choice. It was fast, elegant, comfortable, capable and somehow more substantial and serious looking than the 55 Baron.
A couple of new pressurized and turbocharged models were launched in 1976, and in 1984 they all got industry standard arrangements for the power quadrant and lost their signature throw-over yokes. Like everyone else, Beech was hit hard by the downturn of the early '80s — the model 55 was discontinued in 1982, and Beech soon bailed on the turbo and pressurized Barons. But it did keep building the naturally aspirated Baron B58, though the upscale twin's sales have never rebounded to the high-water marks of the heyday of piston airplanes. The current company, Hawker Beechcraft Corp. (HBC), will sell around two dozen Barons this year. Hawker Beechcraft has been selling its airplanes direct for a few years now after having maintained a dedicated dealer network for more than 60 years. Many of those former dealers still provide expert service to Beechcraft aircraft.
The G58 model, which features Garmin G1000 glass, was introduced in 2006 and continues in production. The G1000 was a natural fit for the Baron, giving an already expensive airplane a near state-of-the-art panel, a feature without which the type might not have survived. A couple of years ago the Baron got an improved G1000 suite, with WAAS, vertical navigation, synthetic vision and more.
HBC looks at the practice of offering bare-bones versions of its airplanes as being little more than a marketing game. No customer buys a stripped-down Baron. So the company cuts to the chase, offering the airplane with all the traditional "options" as standard equipment.
Baron buyers get sumptuous interiors with leather wrapped seats, excellent soundproofing — HBC arguably does this better than any other piston manufacturer — and high-end aesthetics, including beautiful carpeting and interior paneling.
There's a lot more. You get approved flight into known icing (FIKI) deicing, tinted Rosen sun visors, Garmin color digital weather radar, the Garmin 820 dual-antenna active traffic advisory system with ADS-B, Jeppesen electronic approach charting, XM Weather and audio, including a remote for the audio player.
Today, however, it is far from Everyman's airplane. At a cost of around $1.3 million typically equipped — that is, with everything on it — the Baron is as close as you can get to a boutique airplane. That said, it's also a successful airplane. This year Hawker Beechcraft will build between 26 and 28 Barons, a couple more than the number of Bonanzas it will produce, a first in the 50-year production history of the Baron.
At such a steep price, you'd expect the Baron's market to be pretty rarefied, and you'd be right. But of those wealthy customers for whom the Baron is the new airplane of choice, there's a surprising variety of wants and needs. Many of those customers are pilots stepping up from very capable singles, from the Cirrus SR22 to the Beechcraft Bonanza to the Mooney Acclaim to the Cessna Corvalis. Some of them see the Baron as an interim solution, a twin in which to build time and experience on the way to a turboprop or turbofan aircraft.
Some customers are also, the truth be told, still entranced by the Beechcraft brand. Many of our readers are not old enough to remember when premium brands, from Electrolux to Cadillac, were a fixture in the American marketplace, but they were. Perhaps the only premium piston airplane brand was Beechcraft. You paid more for a Beechcraft, but the belief, valid or not, was that you got a better airplane for that money. And a big part of that equation was that you got the prestige associated with owning a Beechcraft.