We were headed back toward Austin's Class Charlie airspace from our demo flight out to the west in a Commander 115, though it wasn't just any Commander 115. At the time it was the only one like it in the world. The frequency was pretty quiet. We were at 5,500 feet, about 25 miles out when one of the Austin Approach controllers gave us a call, "N115CE, say type of aircraft." "N115CE is a Commander 115."
"Uh, roger, is that a single-engine or a twin-engine aircraft?"
Then I got it. "Austin, N115CE is a single-engine Commander, but it's got a big engine, a Lycoming IO-580 in it. It's a new STC. This is the first one out there."
"Well, that sounds pretty cool," he came back on, completely forgetting about the AIM terminology for the moment, as I was. "I was wondering," he explained, "because you were doing 180 knots in level flight just a bit ago." (The controller, of course, was seeing our ground speed on his radar display. Our actual true airspeed was closer to 175, but he knew there was almost no wind, meaning that we were going fast. In his words, "cool.")
It's not very often that an STC can transform a nearly 40-year-old design into an airplane that's competitive with the latest new models, but that's exactly what the Super Commander conversion, which earned FAA approval late last year, looks capable of doing.
The promise of the upgrade is impressive. Replacing the existing Lycoming IO-540 in the 114/115 with the IO-580 adds at least 60 horsepower to the equation (though in fact, possibly much more) and gives the airplane the kind of cruise speed and climb performance that Commander owners have dreamt of for years.
A Complicated History
One of the more curious high-performance singles in the past four decades, the in-and-out-of-production Commander has been in many ways one of the most promising, too. There's a lot to love about the airplane. It's roomy, it's got nice flying manners and many of the models came from the factory well equipped and with fine interiors.
But the biggest downside is a tough one to overcome: It's always been too slow, and it gained that reputation long before the advent of Cirrus and Columbia singles, airplanes that both get a lot more performance from a similar sized airframe without retractable gear. Various normally aspirated models of the Commander 114 and 115 listed book cruise figures as high as 160 knots true, but those figures have always seemed really optimistic, especially on the earlier airplanes. Rockwell launched the first Commander single in the late '60s when it announced the development of the Commander 112 (along with a fixed-gear version, the little produced Commander 111). Powered by a 200 hp Lycoming four-cylinder engine, the 112 gave its owners a big cabin, which came in handy given the airplane's leisurely cruise and climb speeds.
The design got a much needed power boost in 1976 when Rockwell introduced the model 114, powered by a 260 hp six-cylinder Lycoming IO-540. Rockwell stopped building the airplanes in 1979, after having built around 1,000 in all.
In 1988 a new company, Commander Aircraft Company, bought the program and set up shop in Oklahoma, where it earned approval in 1992 for the improved 114B and, later, the turbocharged 114TC, incorporating a multitude of improvements. Later, it updated the models even more under the same type certificate as the 115 and 115TC. Neither airplane enjoyed much market success, and the company went bankrupt a few years ago after building around 200 airplanes. Its assets were acquired by yet another company, Commander Premier Aircraft Corporation (CPAC), which was formed by a group of more than 50 Commander owners, who were interested, for obvious reasons, in keeping replacement parts available. Since then CPAC has relocated to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and is initially selling parts for existing Commanders, though it intends to relaunch production of the 115 later this year.
An Engine in Search of an Airplane, and Vice Versa
The Super Commander conversion is the brainchild of Jim Richards, who founded Aerodyme Corporation, a Burlington, Vermont, maintenance and repair facility, back in 2001. Richards' personal airplane at the time was a 1977 Commander 114, and owning it made him think the two exact things that countless other Commander owners have thought: One, "Isn't this a nice airplane," and two, "Wouldn't it be nice if it were faster?"
The search for a way to do that became Richards' goal, and as chance would have it, that quest dovetailed perfectly with Lycoming's desire to find a home for its big-bore six-cylinder engine, the IO-580.
Now the IO-580 started life ignominiously, as the chosen engine for Cessna's new 206 Stationair piston single. Only there were problems. The engine was late, which held up Cessna's launch, and once it did get engines, Cessna found problems with the cylinders. To avoid what it feared would be further development delays, it decided to scuttle the IO-580 selection, instead opting for the tried-and-true IO-540, which still powers the 206 today.
More than five years down the road, the IO-580, its issues apparently all ironed out, is installed in just a handful of aerobatic airplanes. Richards saw real possibilities with the 580, which delivers 320 horsepower, because the engine is very close in size to the IO-540. And Lycoming was an ideal partner, in part because it was looking for a home for the engine, which had languished since the loss of the Stationair program and in part because, according to Richards, it still believes strongly in the product.