Half a Century of Beechcraft Barons

The 50th Anniversary Baron is a fitting tribute to the archetypal piston twin and makes clear that even after all these years, the Baron is still a relevant design.

Hawker Beechcraft G58 Baron
(50th Anniversary Edition)
Hawker Beechcraft

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.

Forget Options
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.

The funny thing about the latest Baron is that it retains many of the features you'll see in Barons that were built 40 years ago. The throw-over yokes are long gone, but the scissoring armrest between the seats remains, as does the fold-out table between the rear facing and back rows of seats. The windows, the "breaker" switches, the flap and gear levers and more are all identical (or nearly so) to the components that have been on every 58 Baron since the beginning. For some pilots these throwback touches confer a sense of legacy and history that much newer airplanes can't have, and others might look at them as being remnants of an old design. I tend to side with the former view.

Safely Flying the G58 Beechcraft's Baron 58 has a stellar safety record, and the addition of the G1000 system gives the pilot great potential to fly even more safely. To realize this potential, pilots must regularly train for airmanship, including stick-and-rudder flying, in addition to avionics management.To get the best performance and maximize safety in your G58:• Fly by the numbers. The Baron responds very predictably to specific power settings, pitch attitudes and flaps and landing gear configurations. Flying "by the numbers" reduces workload and frees mental bandwidth to better manage the overall flight. This awareness will in turn help you avoid the most common causes of serious Baron 58 accidents: descent below safe altitudes in IMC, and stalls in the traffic pattern. Find a Baron-savvy multiengine instructor to show you the specific combinations of pitch, power and configuration for each phase of flight.• Fly light. The G58, like most mature designs, is a fairly heavy airplane. Fly it as light as fuel reserves allow to maximize performance. Reducing weight by only 100 pounds will decrease takeoff distance noticeably, and improve single-engine climb by as much as 25 percent.• Use glass cockpit capability wisely. Use the amazing situational awareness provided by the G1000 suite to better manage risk, not to accept risk you'd avoid without the glass. Broad-scale moving maps with integral weather datalinks will help you better avoid weather hazards, but they won't make the airplane more capable of flying through them. Ultimately, it's the pilot's command of the airplane and knowledge of its systems, and the decisions he/she makes as a result, that determine the safety of any aircraft type. —Thomas P. Turner__Thomas P. Turner has instructed in Beech piston airplanes for more than 20 years. He is currently the interim executive director of the American Bonanza Society and was named the 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year. You may contact Tom at mastery.flight.training@cox.net.

This said, the cockpit of the G58 isn't as roomy or convenient as that on the Cirrus SR22 I regularly fly. There's only one entry door up front, on the passenger side, and the headroom and shoulder room are adequate but not spacious.

The airplane is undeniably upscale, though, and the 50th Anniversary edition of the Baron features even more premium touches. There are quilted leather seats, special 50th Anniversary logos and badges, sculpted carpeting and even a topaz gemstone (the traditional 50th anniversary gem) on the throttle quadrant logo. Beech decided to build just a dozen 50th Anniversary Barons, and those quickly sold out. I flew No. 11 of 12 and count myself lucky to have had the chance. Not many others will.

About Performance
A few things should be noted about the new G58 Baron. First, it's not a turbocharged airplane (nor is a turbocharged version available). This puts it in an unusual situation of being, in many ways, a less versatile platform than are many of the airplanes from which its potential customers step up. And while the Baron earned its reputation early on as a fast airplane, versus the less-than-speedy likes of Atzecs and Twin Bonanzas, today's Baron is not regarded as a barnburner. Despite its 600 total horsepower, the Baron is not faster than the Cirrus or Cessna composite singles from which many potential Baron customers are looking to "step up." The Baron is about a 190-knot airplane, which is roughly comparable to the single-engine competition, and that is, it should go without saying, on a lot of additional fuel.

What it does offer is much better climb performance when you lose an engine compared with a Cirrus or Cessna single. Despite the popular belief that you don't gain much of a safety edge with a twin, Baron customers are convinced that they do. And it doesn't end with the engine. With the Baron you get a lot of redundancy you don't get with a single. Plus, you get boots, onboard radar, a great cabin and impressive payload.

Beech sells a goodly number of Barons overseas and in the United States' Northeast and Northwest, where the airplane's known ice capabilities, its two engines and its carrying ability make it especially desirable. There's something very reassuring about having two engines instead of one when you're over inhospitable terrain or low ceilings or when you're flying at night.

You also get impressive range, up to 1,500 nm with reserves with a light load at economy cruise, which still delivers around 170 knots true. That's hundreds of nautical miles better than the Cirrus and better than the Corvalis as well. Hawker Beechcraft compares the Baron's no-wind range against the Cessna and Cirrus singles' and does it with four adult occupants and bags in the airplane, and the Baron's range far outdistances that of the single-engine competition. The same is true with just two aboard. While the full fuel payload of the Baron, just over 300 pounds, is unimpressive, it carries a lot of fuel to begin with, so you can load it as you see fit. The bottom line is that the Baron is a true four-place 1,000 nm airplane. That is not something the single-engine competition can say.

You don't, however, get to cruise in the midteens, as do pilots in the turbo Cirrus and Corvalis, so you lose some utility and flight planning flexibility there, but you get the muscle, known ice capability and redundancy that's hard to beat. Of course, you could have all of these things and turbocharging, but for 25 years the company has resisted the reintroduction of a turbocharged model, though many would love to see such a model.

The second engine gives you redundancy, but it also offers an abundance of power for takeoff, something that translates directly into rate of climb. On our test hop, we were seeing better than 1,500 fpm at cruise climb up through 7,000 feet and around 800 fpm up to 9,500 feet. The company advertises a maximum climb of around 1,700 fpm at maximum takeoff weight. Even with one engine caged, we were still seeing around 150 fpm at 9,000 feet, though we were light, at around 5,000 pounds, with only two aboard and a little more than half tanks. At sea level and maximum takeoff weight, the airplane's maximum single-engine climb is an impressive 390 fpm. I've flown singles that can't do that.

Combined with its twin-engine safety selling point, all of these other factors — the ability to fly far, fast and with a decent, flexible load — combine to make the Baron popular with pilots who fly their airplanes for transportation but who don't have the need or the desire to fly in the flight levels.

Power and Grace
The Beechcraft Baron is a conventional twin in just about every respect. It is a sheet-metal airplane with conventional aircraft gas-piston tractor engines mounted on a low wing. It has radar in the nose and boots on the wings. You taxi it via nosewheel steering, and the retractable landing gear, wing flaps and flight controls are all perfectly conventional. That said, it must be recognized that the immense popularity and influence of the Baron and the many Beechcraft that went before it went a long way toward making all those things "conventional" in the first place.

For those pilots used to flying singles, the Baron will feel a bit heavy. It is, indeed, about 2,000 pounds heavier than an SR22 or an A36. Still, it taxies very nicely, though not as nimbly as most singles do.

On the takeoff roll with zero flaps selected, the Baron accelerates quickly, producing a level of acceleration that clearly demonstrates the kind of total horsepower that you have at your disposal in a way you don't get to experience in most phases of flight. Rotation at around 80 knots requires some good back pressure on the yoke followed by a healthy dose of elevator trim to relieve the stick forces. The Baron is no lightweight.

At the same time, it's a very satisfying airplane to hand-fly. Some writers have remarked that it is somewhat "trucklike" to fly, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a nicely responsive and harmonized airplane. This is evident in slow flight and with one engine shut down. When properly trimmed, the Baron requires precious little effort on the part of the pilot to do what it takes to get the airplane safely home on a single engine.

In cruise there are few surprises. The Baron, as I said, is about a 190-knot airplane at 75 percent power, though if you want to economize, you simply reduce power and watch the range ring on the Garmin G1000 expand like a big balloon. With full fuel from Wichita, Kansas, the Baron can fly nonstop (no wind) to nearly anywhere in the Lower 48, and with a single, sensible stop along the way, you can link all but the most extreme contiguous corners of the country.

The high gear and flap speeds make speed management easy compared with those on many comparably fast airplanes. The Baron, moreover, makes an excellent instrument platform, as its speeds seem perfectly suited to transitioning seamlessly from the en-route to the terminal phases, a nice quality for a single-pilot airplane. With its high wing loading, the Baron is, as you might guess, an airplane that lands predictably well. Its approach speeds are only slightly higher than those of most high-performance singles, but its landing manners are quite different. It lands, to be honest, more like a turbine airplane than a piston single. Establish a landing attitude, and nail the airspeed, and you've got the recipe for a smooth arrival.

The Beechcraft Baron occupies an unusual place in the aviation universe. On one hand, for all its features, boots, weather radar, retractable gear, flat-panel avionics and more, the Baron is still a piston powered airplane, one of the most expensive in current production. It's neither pressurized nor turbocharged, as are nearly all of its competitors, so there are things you can't do in a Baron that you can do in most other million-dollar airplanes. On the other hand, it is an exquisitely refined airplane, one on which every rough spot has been polished over the decades until there are few things not to like about it. That refinement combined with its essential capability and utility along with its blue-blood aviation heritage make the Baron an attractive product five decades and counting after it first took to the skies.