When the subject of legendary light airplanes comes up, one of the names certain to be mentioned early in the conversation is the Beechcraft Bonanza. The latest model, the G36, bears a passing resemblance to the revolutionary original, which Beech Aircraft began selling way back in 1947. But today’s Bonanza is a very sophisticated platform, one that has enjoyed a wealth of improvements, from spinner to tail, over its 65-year production span. No other airplane has been able to achieve such a lengthy production record.
The Bonanza is not, however, the most produced light airplane by a long shot. While the Cessna 172 still claims that title, more than 18,000 Bonanzas have been delivered to date, and the airplane regularly sells out its production. However, in the past couple of years, Beechcraft has built no more than a few dozen Bonanzas a year, a fraction of the production rate of the Cirrus SR22.
Today’s Bonanza is still in many ways the same kind of airplane the original was: fast, practical and stylish. While the airplane has morphed through the years, the Bonanza’s riveted metal and low-wing design has stood the test of time.
Beech launched the G36 in 2005 to usher in the era of flat panel avionics with the introduction of the Garmin G1000 fully integrated, WAAS-capable avionics — the “G” part of G36 is for Garmin. At that time, the Bonanza became the first platform with the integrated GFC 700 autopilot, a huge improvement over the G1000-Bendix/King KAP 140 autopilot combination that early G1000 platforms used.
Since the GFC 700 is fully incorporated into the G1000, the buttons for the GFC 700 are easier to access than the separate KAP 140 box was, and as would be expected, the action of the integrated system appears to be smoother and slightly more precise. Both autopilots can be coupled to IFR approaches, but some helpful functionality improvements with the GFC 700 are the inclusion of a flight director on the G1000 PFD, the ability to climb and descend at a set airspeed (a mode called flight level change, or FLC), and improved missed approach features.
In addition to the GFC 700 integration, the G36’s G1000 includes synthetic vision, XM weather, XM radio, traffic and WAAS-enabled precision approach capability. The Garmin charts, which incorporate the highly useful safe taxi feature, are included with a one-year subscription. Jeppesen’s chart view can be added for an additional $6,900.
At the 2012 Sun ’n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland, Florida, Hawker Beechcraft revealed a major upgrade for the G36 Bonanza and its twin sibling, the G58 Baron. The interior was completely redesigned with new sidewalls, seats and creature comforts. The seats, which were created by Millennium Engineering in Wichita, Kansas, are beautifully shaped, have adjustable headrests to provide comfort for occupants of varying heights and are made of variable density foam to keep the backsides of the occupants comfortable.
But perhaps the biggest improvement in the 2012 upgrade package is the CabinComfortPlus environmental system. The new system provides air inlets for all passengers — a major improvement from the previous system, which had only five inlets in the cockpit and none in the rear, according to Beechcraft’s sales director Kelly Harper.
“I was completely foreign to what climate control in a small airplane was, and it is a pure luxury, especially on days like today — 90 degrees,” says José Santana, associate vice president of leasing at the Segall Group in Baltimore. Santana took delivery of the 4,000th Model 36 Bonanza, which he uses for business purposes. “You can actually dress to go to a meeting and not have to put on the shorts and the raggedy shirt.”
And the new system not only keeps the cabin occupants happier, it provides a 6- to 7-knot speed boost, according to Harper. The speed increase is due to the lack of the exterior air scoop, which was part of the previous model G36’s environmental system.
Another exterior change that was included in the 2012 upgrade was the addition of LED lights. These lights have better longevity and visibility than the previous lights, but Beechcraft was not able to incorporate the nav and strobe lights into the wingtips, where the old lights were encased. The protruding LEDs make the wingtip look a little bit experimental compared with the superb fit and finish of the rest of the airplane. The good news? The lighting system is designed to last longer than the airplane itself, according to Beechcraft, so operators may never have to change any light bulbs.
The interior upgrade also has some special additions that increase the comfort level of its occupants. At the base of the redesigned center console are two cup holders. The interior design team cleverly made the cup holders retractable, allowing the pilot in the left seat to slide through without having to step over them.
But regardless of the fact that it is quite easy to slide through the cockpit to the pilot-in-command’s seat, the lack of a cabin door on the left side is not ideal. Incidents and accidents are rare, but having the ability to get out on either side is definitely desirable. The rear passenger door, however, is massive and makes ingress to and egress from the aft cabin very quick and easy.
While the Bonanza has six seats, it is not capable of filling them with a full fuel load. The airplane I flew has an empty weight of 2,627 pounds, leaving just 1,036 pounds for fuel, passengers and cargo to max out at 3,663 pounds. The 74-gallon fuel load leaves room for an additional 592 pounds, about three average-sized adults and one child.
Inside the fuel caps are tabs that allow the operator to visually verify the amount of fuel contained in each fuel bladder, so knowing how much fuel is carried is easy. At the bottom tab, you have 54 gallons of usable fuel, and with a fuel burn of about 15 gph and a cruise speed of around 170 knots, you can still travel about 500 nm with reserves and welcome another 120-pound passenger.
Another way to increase the load capacity is to remove some of the seats, which is quick and easy to do. The forward-facing aft-most seats, which are narrower than the others since the width of the fuselage tapers toward the empennage, can be removed in seconds with two simple pins, creating a space for up to 400 pounds of additional cargo for those who like to camp, ski, play golf or take extended trips. The middle row of seats can also be removed, making room for two-hundred pounds of cargo in their stead.
In lieu of removing the seats, you can fold down the backrests of the middle seats or rotate them so that they are facing forward instead of aft. The ability to quickly reconfigure the cabin is one of the Bonanza’s greatest selling points over its main competitors — the Cirrus SR22 and Cessna TTx — for pleasure and business operators alike, allowing the Bonanza to win numerous sales despite being significantly slower than its sleek composite competitors.
Santana looked seriously at the SR22 as an alternative to the Bonanza. “The cabin won over the chute,” he says. “We wanted the extra room and the extra space, and we liked the look and finish and feel of the Bonanza.”
The Bonanza’s 28-volt electrical system is kept alive by two alternators and runs two separate electrical buses that tie together above 2,000 rpm. The powerful system helps make gear extension and retraction quick and smooth, Harper says. Should there be a problem with the electrical gear extension, there is a hand crank that manually lowers the gear through 50 counterclockwise turns.
The landing gear is really beefy. It’s identical to that of the Beechcraft Baron, which boasts a gross weight almost 1,900 pounds greater than that of its single-engine sibling. The Bonanza is built to be tough in general. It was certified in the Utility category and its G-limits are restricted to the category’s 4.4 positive and 1.76 negative limits, provided the flaps are up.
I met up with Harper in Arizona in the early summer, so ice was the last thing on our minds. But in other seasons and climes, the white menace must be considered. The only standard ice protection Beechcraft provides for the Bonanza is the pitot heat. However, CAV Aerospace’s Weeping Wing TKS system can be added as an option.
It was a typical hot, dry day at Scottsdale Airport when I was introduced to a brand-new factory demonstrator, appropriately registered N136HB since it was built during the Bonanza’s Hawker Beechcraft days. Thankfully the airplane was parked in a hangar, where Harper and I went through the preflight.
Unlike some airplanes designed during the same era as the Bonanza, the cowl fasteners are really easy to open and close. Each side of the cowl opens fully, allowing the pilot to take a close look at the engine and all of its accessories. “You can touch it, feel it, more than just checking the oil,” Harper says.
It didn’t take long for the cockpit to heat up after the airplane was pulled out onto the black tarmac. There is no key required to start up the airplane. Instead, the starter is activated by a turning switch. The Bonanza started up without a hitch, and we set the air conditioning to 55 degrees Fahrenheit for maximum cooling.
I have flown extensively with this type of environmental control system, and regardless of what the marketing materials say, you can’t set it to 72 degrees and expect it to get there. But with the lowest setting, it didn’t take long before we were comfortable in the cockpit, even though the G1000 indicated that the outside air temperature had already reached 35 degrees Celsius — a sweltering 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
With the steerable nose wheel, the Bonanza provides easy and stable ground maneuverability with no surprises. The ground roll was long by normal Bonanza standards — I estimated about 1,600 feet — but with ISA+22 conditions, the propeller didn’t have much to grab on to.
The Bonanza version of the G1000 offers a cruise climb schedule for fuel flow with a cyan arrow underneath the fuel flow gauge that gives guidance for leaning during the climb. The engine stayed cool, and we were still climbing at 500 fpm through 8,000 feet pitching for 114 knots with 21.9 mp and 2,500 rpm. We also engaged the yaw damper, which helped smooth the ride in the turbulence that started to develop over the Arizona desert.
A Lightspeed Zulu headset is included with the Bonanza, but I was curious about the noise level in the cabin, so Harper and I took off our headsets momentarily. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we could still communicate without screaming at each other, a testament to the tight door seals.
We leveled off at 11,500 feet and saw 166 ktas burning 15 gph at a 25 degrees rich of peak setting. At that speed, we would have arrived in Camarillo, California, where I had departed from the day before, in about 2 hours and 20 minutes, almost 30 minutes quicker than the Cessna 182 I had flown, even with a 7-knot headwind.
The Bonanza is a beautifully harmonized airplane. In normal flight, it is a pleasure to hand fly. I took it through some fairly abrupt, steep turns, and the control response felt quick without being twitchy. I also flew the airplane around at 70 knots, a speed at which the Bonanza still flies with great stability, and tried a few power off stalls, which produced a slight buffet at 53 knots, five knots below the published stall speed.
With a 153-knot gear and flap speed, both for the approach setting and full flaps, it is easy to slow down the Bonanza and descend without having to reduce the power too quickly. In my previous experience with the environmental system, I’ve found the cabin gets warmer during the descent in hot weather. Sure enough, the same thing happened as we approached Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, where we did a few touch-and-goes. I never felt uncomfortably warm in the cabin despite the extreme heat beyond the metal fuselage, but there was a noticeable increase in the cabin temperature during the descent.
Landing the Bonanza was easy with Harper’s verbal guidance. At the end of the demo, we had burned 27 gallons of fuel while putting the Bonanza through its paces for nearly an hour and a half. The new seats produced no pressure points during that time, and the well-designed ergonomic cockpit made me feel completely at ease. I could have flown the G36 back to Camarillo alone.
In addition to the Bonanza’s terrific handling characteristics, luxurious cabin and the history behind Beechcraft, Santana’s final decision to go with the Bonanza over the Cirrus was its resale value. According to the listing prices on controller.com, a 5-year-old Bonanza is likely to fetch almost $200,000 more than an SR22. One reason is the lower production schedule. Beechcraft produced just a few dozen Bonanzas each year during the past few years while Cirrus produced around 200 SR22s and SR22Ts.
The conservative production schedule may be one strategy to keep this terrific airplane in production for several more decades. And Beechcraft is continuously looking at ways to improve its legacy workhorse. “We’re not standing still,” says Jeff Sites, product marketing manager at Beechcraft. “We’re definitely looking at all of the latest regulatory and environmental issues and new technologies that are available.”
With the challenges that 100LL has presented in the past few years, one of the considerations that Beechcraft is seriously looking into is a diesel engine for the Bonanza. But it is not likely to be introduced any time soon. “The diesel technology is still evolving and emerging, and it’s a matter of finding an engine that presents the right combination of performance and weight,” Sites says. “As with any new technology, we’re not going to go through with something just to do it. We’re going to make sure we do it right.”
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