Kevin McCullough's grandfather, who started a Commander service center called Aero Air in 1956, used to say: “God never made a low-wing bird.” So when McCullough was old enough to start flying, there wasn’t much choice.
“I learned to fly in a Lark Commander, got my multiengine rating in a Shrike Commander and then went up to Turbo Commanders and have flown almost every type of Commander that was made,” he said.
McCullough has accumulated more than 5,000 hours flying Commanders, and his life is deeply involved in the Commander family of airplanes. Together with Jack Erickson of Erickson Air-Crane, McCullough owns and operates Aero Air, a Twin Commander service center as well as a busy Commander operator. The company has expanded its mission, but the core of the business still lays with Commanders, using them for medical evacuation, fire spotting and charter services.
When McCullough flies personal trips, his first choice is his 690B Commander. “It takes 29 minutes to get to Sunriver,” he said, referring to a 120 nm trip he takes regularly from his base at Portland-Hillsboro Airport (HIO) to Sunriver, where he has a second home.
The Aero Commander 690B is a pressurized high-wing twin turboprop with a rugged design, simple systems and plenty of power. With a roomy cabin featuring seating for up to seven people, including the pilot, the airplane appears to have been designed with both the flying and non-flying occupants in mind: great comfort and visibility, good performance capabilities and nice handling characteristics. Its rugged construction also is well suited for unimproved airport operations. It is no wonder the 690B has become one of the most popular Commanders produced to date.
Ted Smith, a former Donald Douglas engineer, conceived the idea of what was initially called the Aero Commander. Smith’s goal was to come up with an airplane design optimized to carry people to and from destinations the commercial airlines didn’t serve. Together with an engineering team, Smith designed and flew the first Aero Commander and was able to secure private funding for the final development and initial production of the airplane. The company that ensued was called Aero Design and Engineering Company.
In 1950, four years after Smith put his ideas on paper, the Aero Commander 500S, also called Model 520 and later the Shrike Commander, received its certification paperwork from the Civil Aeronautics Administration — the predecessor to the FAA.
To prove the extraordinary single-engine performance and stability of the new airplane, Aero Design and Engineering Company organized a marketing demonstration flight from its base in Oklahoma City to Washington, D.C., in May 1951. But this was no ordinary demo. The airplane was fully loaded, and only one engine was operational. The propeller was even removed from one side.
The flight went off without a hitch, and the Aero Commander became a hit. It was even considered safe enough to become the first twin-engine Air Force One — used in the late 1950s by President Eisenhower. Later, the Shrike Commander was also made famous by Bob Hoover’s mind-blowing aerobatics routine.
Several other piston Commander models followed, and in the early 1960s, after Rockwell acquired the company, the 680FL Grand Commander was introduced. It featured a much longer fuselage and the trademark picture window under the wing. The same fuselage was used for the 680T, the first Turbo Commander, which sported two 575 hp Garrett AiResearch TPE331-43 engines (the production of which was later taken over by Honeywell Aerospace), providing higher gross weight capabilities and better performance. The 690 followed in 1973 with a 717.5 hp TPE331-5, a larger wing, rudder and dorsal fin, and a longer tail cone. The result was an airplane with a service ceiling of 31,000 feet, a 9,600-pound gross weight and a baggage capacity of 600 pounds. And with subsequent 690 models the performance numbers improved even more.
As is the case with many legacy airplane manufacturers, there is much confusion about the model names. This holds true in the case of the Commanders. As the 690 series continued to improve, it morphed into the 840 (690C), 980 (695), 900 (690D) and 1,000 (695A/B) — four models that also bear the name Jetprop. These new model numbers were “marketing model numbers that I believe were loosely tied to the thermodynamic horsepower available for the different engine models,” explained Geoffrey Pence, technical service manager at Twin Commander, who has worked on Commanders since 1973.