Six Classic Utility Aircraft
CESSNA 210 CENTURION
Like some of the other airplanes featured here, Cessna created the 210 by adding the great trio of utility traits — power, capacity and access — to a previous model, in this case, the popular 182. When launched way back in the early ’60s, the all-metal, tricycle-gear 210 had struts; soon, the cantilever-wing version, released in 1967, became synonymous with the Centurion — between 1962 and 1985, Cessna built about 10,000 of them. When it relaunched production of its single-engine lineup in the late ’90s after a decade-long hiatus, Cessna declined to reintroduce the 210, a decision it said at the time had to do with the cost and complexity of building the airplane. Today there is no such thing as a new 210. In fact, there’s no such thing as a 210 younger than 27 years old. Most have a number of additional years under their belts.
Airplane design is an exercise in compromise, but unlike some of our other utility stars, which err on the side of useful load or sheer volume in lieu of speed, the Centurion achieved a very fine balance of capability. With its 285 hp Continental IO-520 six-cylinder engine (early models were equipped with the IO-470, and STCs for the 300 hp IO-550 engine are available as well), the normally aspirated 210 is a true cross-country performer (typical true airspeeds are 160-plus knots). Turbo models are available, but for reliability and longevity, many pilots who fly them from rugged strips favor non-turbo models. The turbo is still a compelling proposition, as it improves upon cruise speeds at altitude, hot-and-high performance and takeoff distance in general over its straight-breathing stablemate.
At the same time it created a good traveling machine, Cessna sacrificed little of the guts-and-glory ruggedness its big piston singles are known for in creating the 210. With its high-wing design, beefy (though not always trouble-free) retractable landing gear, and rugged and reliable airframe, the 210 is happier than most retractable-gear singles operating out of unimproved airstrips. While the prop clearance you get with a tricycle-gear configuration is less than what you’ll typically find on a taildragger, there still seems to be plenty of margin for the 210’s blades to clear the gravel. While you can’t put tundra gear on a 210 — at least not and get the wheels up into the wells — the wheels and tires are big enough to make taxiing in the rough a doable proposition.
Speed and ruggedness are nice, but the 210 combines an excellent useful load, additional room and extra loading doors to the equation to give its operators additional seating capacity. It technically seats six, though it feels a lot more like a four-plus-two design, which is how it is mostly flown. There’s also a rear loading door, not best in class, but helpful, to allow easier loading of passengers' bags.
Even though it’s fast in cruise, the 210 is a good short-field performer as well, requiring very little runway to do its thing. In writing about a 210 converted by Sierra Industries of Uvalde, Texas, I made the mistake of mentioning conservatively that the Centurion is happy operating off a 2,000-foot grass strip, only to get a couple of e-mails from readers who expressed the opinion that such a runway was positively expansive compared to the ones where they based their 210s. I here belatedly correct the record.
There are a number of aftermarket mods available for the 210 — from vortex generators to drooped leading-edge kits — to make its already good short-field landing capabilities even better while detracting little from the airplane’s top speed.
The end result of Cessna’s design work (and that of aftermarket gurus; today Sierra owns most of the mods associated with the type, even those developed by other companies) is an airplane that offers the best of all worlds. Like the Pilatus PC-12, an airplane we chose not to include on this list but that could easily top it, the Cessna 210 offers a very pleasing balance of speed, comfort, range, baggage capacity and ruggedness, making it, for all intents and purposes, the PC-12 of the piston world. (Though, for the record, it preceded the big Swiss single by some 30 years.)
All of this makes clear why 210 owners are so loyal to the type. Again, they get a lot of capability for a fair price and with great reliability. They would argue that it doesn’t get any better than that. — R.G.