Six Classic Utility Aircraft

These rough-and-ready do-anything models deliver the goods and keep on flying.

If you look back at used airplane values over the past many decades, you’ll see an interesting though hardly surprising trend: Airplanes that can do a lot go for a premium. It’s a good thing to know if you’re looking to purchase a new airplane, and it’s a good thing to know if you have an airplane to sell. Models that are known for being capable go for more in the used market than their otherwise comparable, less capable contemporaries, and they’re also somewhat more resistant to market downturns. Why is this? That’s easy. Owners of these can-do airplanes quite literally get more for their money.

We've all heard the word utility used to describe a number of very different airplanes, usually ones that are rough-and-tumble performers. For some airplanes, the calling card might be load-hauling ability — this is probably the most cited trait of utility aircraft, though it’s hardly the beginning and end of the story. Airplanes that have a lot of room for passengers and/or cargo can lay claim to the tag too. Another key trait: Typically, utility aircraft are able to operate from rough strips and with less runway than their less utilitarian contemporaries require. There’s no arguing that being able to go into and back out of strips that are inaccessible to other airplanes is a remarkably useful ability.

What many of the airplanes that fit this description have in common is a certain Spartan aesthetic. They are often bare-metal beauties devoid of luxury touches like leather, soundproofing or fancy panels. That’s no mistake either. When it comes to usefulness, payload is king, and every pound spent making the ride more comfortable is utility lost — an air conditioner in a Cessna 206, for instance, represents half a paying passenger and who knows how many critical feet of climb per minute or feet of additional runway required. The bare-bones style of a utility aircraft is part of its beauty, however. It is an airplane designed to do its thing and do it well.

While utility birds are never known for their speed, they often hold their own, thanks to light empty weight and as much power as they can pack under the cowl; a high power-to-weight ratio is another key trait of utility birds.

While it’s not part of the physical package, one other characteristic utility planes all have in common is the loyalty of their owners and pilots, who tend to keep them longer, fly them more and, in many cases, become ambassadors for the model. And why not? It’s easy to love something that gives and gives and expects so little in return.

Here is a short list of a half-dozen well-loved and sought-after utility aircraft of very different descriptions. For a longer list of models we just couldn’t bear to leave unmentioned, check out our February iPad edition.

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PIPER PA-32 CHEROKEE SIX 300

The Cherokee Six is yet another example of a relatively pedestrian airplane that underwent a transformation when it got more power and more room, the classic recipe for utility heaven. Piper launched the Six in 1965 as the Cherokee Six 260, a stretched Cherokee with a Lycoming IO-540 six-cylinder engine. It was a hit, but the designers at Piper quickly figured out that if an additional 80 horses was good, another 40 ponies would be even better, and they were right. The resultant airplane, the Cherokee Six 300, was faster (better than 140 knots consistently on about 15 gallons per hour) and a better load hauler. Predictably, the 260 hp model faded into the background as buyers opted for the more powerful model, for all the right reasons.

As time passed, the PA-32 got a tapered wing and other refinements, but for my money, Piper captured the essence of the model with the late ’60s and ’70s Hershey-bar-winged 300 hp model. It was nothing pretty, but it earned its keep. In later years, Piper introduced turbocharged and retractable-gear models, including for a couple of years the Lance, a near-160-knot retractable-gear airplane with good payload despite its hoity-toity club seating. Later models, dubbed Saratogas by Piper, boasted a new tapered wing, greatly “improved” (read: heavier) interiors and enhanced avionics. Again, “enhanced” or “improved” almost always means more weight, which is anathema to utility.

Unlike its 260-horse forebear, the higher-power model was also a reasonable six-place airplane. If you leave off a little fuel, the plane can actually carry six 170-pound adults. Or take a few seats out, and you can carry a boatload of cargo, even heavy stuff. When I was a kid, my family’s business used our Cherokee Six to haul cases of aircraft oil from our distributor, which was located at an airport 60 miles away. The business later used a Lance for short-haul charter, running customers to LAX or Las Vegas to catch a flight or roll the dice. It was the classic example of a lightweight utility aircraft.

Years ago, I did a story on AmeriFlite, the California-based freight-hauling company that, for a couple of decades, plied the airways of the American West with a motley assemblage of utility aircraft including — for short hauls and smaller loads — the Piper Cherokee Six. The company knew its operating costs to the penny, and it knew that for hauling checks over short distances, the Six simply couldn’t be beat. Another part of AmeriFlite’s calculus was that the PA-32 was tough as nails and that what needed to be fixed from time to time was relatively cheap to service. The company went so far as to remanufacture dozens of Sixes over the years to better-than-new condition, ferreting out any corrosion, beefing up the wing structure, overhauling the gear and gear attach points, and buttoning it all up with a fresh coat of paint (for corrosion resistance and free advertising, not for any style points). The end result was an airplane that worked hard, carrying near its empty weight in cargo and making a lot of money for its operator in the process. AmeriFlite eventually retired its PA-32s in favor of larger airplanes, which I’m told had more to do with a changing business than with the capabilities of the Cherokees it operated. The downside of the Six is that it is a low wing, putting it at greater risk of hitting brush and other obstacles, and the nose gear of the Cherokee line is tough but not as ideal as a taildragger setup for the really rough stuff.

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For private owner-operators, the Six makes a lot of sense, especially if you don’t need a lot of speed. I owned a share of a 1974 PA-32 for a few years and used it for business travel, family vacations and air-to-air photography. It was a remarkably utilitarian airplane, and with a fuel burn of right around 15 gph, it was only slightly more expensive to operate than a 182. The family loved the room to stretch out in back and the big easy-loading side-entry door. I loved the twin cargo holds in front (between the firewall and the cockpit) and in back behind the rear seats as well as the easy flying manners Cherokees are known for.

I know the aileron response on the Six is often called “trucklike,” but again, owners of airplanes like the Six tend to gloss over their rough spots.

It's a habit that's easy to forgive. — ROBERT GOYER

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.

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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.

BEECHCRAFT KING AIR

The King Air family of business turbo­props has dominated the market for almost 50 years, winning over generations of pilots who revere these airplanes for their versatility, great flying qualities, exceptional build quality and unrivaled utility.

The fact that Beechcraft has built more than 7,000 King Airs since the first rolled off the production line in 1964 speaks volumes about the airplane’s standing among a segment of buyers who covet a no-nonsense turboprop twin that can do it all. In the early days, the King Air 90 earned a reputation as a tough-as-nails workhorse that was equally as adept at operating from paved runways as it was landing on dirt strips — it did so most famously as Air Force One, transporting Lyndon Johnson between Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin, Texas, to his ranch outside Johnson City, Texas.

Beech’s choice of Pratt & Whitney PT6 power for the King Air added greatly to the airplane’s utility and reliability compared to the Queen Air and Beech 18, which preceded it. Pressurization and a roomy cabin gave the Model 90 a big-airplane feel at a bargain price compared to other business airplanes entering the market at the time. These attributes served the model and its maker exceedingly well, and the King Air 90 remains in production to this day as the C90GTx.

The King Air’s legendary ruggedness should come as no surprise. After all, the first airplane to emerge from the Beech factory was delivered to the U.S. Army as the NU-8F. In the years that followed, strong sales prompted Beech to incorporate continual improvements in power and size. The King Air 100 made its debut in 1969 and was later developed into the Super King Air 200. With this model, originally developed with input from the military, Beechcraft transformed the King Air from a much-loved airplane into a legendary one.

The King Air 200 featured the same fuselage of the 100 but had a T-tail, 850 shp PT6A-41 engines and higher max pressurization. Max weight was increased to 12,500 pounds, right at the limit for Part 23 certification. In 1981, Beechcraft introduced the B200 with an array of improvements, including EFIS, hydraulic landing gear, a ceiling of 31,000 feet and more efficient PT6 engines. From an engineering standpoint, the Model 200 was a work of art, incorporating rudder boost, auto feather and pressurization systems that were ahead of their time.

The 200-series King Air proved so popular that Beechcraft soon introduced a larger 300 series with even more powerful engines and a max takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds, requiring a type rating. Max takeoff weight was since increased to 15,000 pounds in the current King Air 350, which features Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics and has a max operating altitude of 35,000 feet. Meanwhile, the B200 King Air matured into the Model 250. All three current-production King Air models continue to sell well, both to civilian and military buyers.

Due to the large numbers of King Airs still flying, aftermarket improvements found large success with specialists, including Raisbeck Engineering and Black Hawk, which offer upgrades that can make a good King Air great. Several Raisbeck mods are even offered as factory options, boosting a stock King Air's climb performance, speed and range.

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Far from nearing the end of the line for this iconic utility turboprop, Beechcraft is pinning the future of the company on the King Air brand by continuing production of the 90, 250 and 350 models as a smaller, stand-alone entity after a painful bankruptcy that forced the Wichita, Kansas, manufacturer to shed its business jet line and focus on prop airplanes. This strategy could see the introduction of additional members of the King Air family, and perhaps a PT6-powered single based on the composite fuselage of the Premier I light business jet.

While many King Air owners no doubt think of the twin-engine version of the King Air as sacrosanct, from what we know about the proposed King Air single, this new airplane would be every bit as respectable in terms of performance as its ancestors and continue a long tradition of airplanes built to shoulder a heavy load without sacrificing comfort.

It's a recipe that worked for half a century in Wichita, and we're betting the formula will continue to pay dividends and delight buyers for years to come. — STEPHEN POPE

PIPER PA-18 SUPER CUB

Piper's PA-18 Super Cub was born as a working airplane — a small and rugged performer that could drop into impossibly short landing areas, whether it be a river sandbar strewn with rocks, a snowy field or even the side of a mountain. Thanks to its sturdy airframe and exceptional performance, the Super Cub continues to earn its keep in the backcountry today.

The first PA-18 rolled out of the factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1949, a few years after Piper ceased building the J-3 Cub, on which the Super Cub is based. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the Super Cub really came into its own thanks to the combination of additional power, notched flaps, wing-mounted fuel tanks and an electrical system, all of which made the airplane a perfect choice for all sorts of operations, from bush flying on tundra tires or skis to banner and glider towing to floatplane duty and even crop dusting.

A Continental C-90 producing 95 horsepower powered the original Super Cub. This engine was soon replaced with the more powerful Lycoming O-235 and eventually the 150 hp O-320. These days, it’s common to find Super Cubs fitted with 160, 180 or 235 hp engines or, in a few extreme cases, even turbine engines.

Renowned for its ability to operate just about anywhere, a stock Super Cub can take off in about 400 feet and land in 300. Pointed into a brisk wind, that distance can be reduced to almost nothing at all, as Super Cub owners love to demonstrate at the annual Valdez short-field takeoff and landing contest in Alaska. For years, pilots have described the Super Cub as the poor man’s helicopter.

The Super Cub became one of Piper’s most successful models ever, with a production run spanning more than four decades from 1949 until 1982 and again from 1988 until 1994. All told, Piper built 10,326 Super Cubs, including nearly 1,500 for the military. Just 44 of these were built in Vero Beach, Florida, with the remainder rolling off the line in Lock Haven.

These days, it’s rare to find a purely stock Super Cub. Owners have made all sorts of modifications, including adding more spacious baggage areas, larger fuel tanks, and strengthened and extended landing gear. Many bush pilots have added bigger tires, installed vortex generators, mounted larger climb props and done just about anything else to squeeze extra utility from an airplane prized by those who earn a living flying over inhospitable terrain from Kenya to Ketchikan, Alaska.

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With the 150 hp Lycoming, a Super Cub can carry more than 800 pounds, making it tough to overload even if you pack its two tandem seats to the gills with people and gear. The airplane will cruise at about 110 knots and climb to a max altitude of 19,000 feet. The Super Cub has a no-wind range of 400 nautical miles.

Construction of the Super Cub is traditional welded steel tubing for the fuselage and aluminum spars and ribs for the wings, all covered in fabric. Such construction makes the Super Cub easy to repair in the bush with basic tools. Many “Alaska” Super Cubs have been fitted with heaters, and quite a few carry modern glass avionics.

Not surprisingly, the Super Cub legacy lives on in a number of current designs that pay homage to the original. The Aviat Husky is a direct descendant of the Super Cub, and along with the Cub Crafters Top Cub and American Legend Super Legend, the basic PA-18 design lives on in modern versions that in many ways are superior to the predecessor. Of course, if you want to get your hands on the real thing and buy a used Super Cub, they're still relatively easy to find — though prices for a fully restored airplane in mint condition can approach $200,000. — S.P.

CESSNA 185

When we talk about single-engine utility, the Cessna 185 really has it all. Whether on wheels, bush tires, floats or skis, the Cessna 185 can take you and your family or a whole bunch of gear pretty much anywhere, anytime. While the airplane may not be a racehorse, it is definitely a workhorse, with good range capabilities and an impressive payload. The airplane’s short-field capability and rugged tailwheel design allow you to fly the airplane into the roughest, shortest strips you can find.

With such versatility, the name Skywagon aptly suits the 185. Anyone who has ever flown a Cessna 185 may also feel that the wagon analogy applies to the airplane’s handling characteristics. Like ground-based automobile wagons, the 185 doesn’t say “sporty.” The controls are heavy to the feel. You really have to put some muscle into each control input. Having said that, the airplane will do what you ask it to. The only time you may be in for a surprise is on the ground, particularly in gusty conditions, because of the conventional gear.

While the Cessna 185 is configured with a tailwheel, there is no need for S-turns on the ground to see what’s ahead on the taxiway or to slip to see the runway during the final approach stage. The positioning of the seats is high enough that you can see what’s ahead of you, which makes taxiing, takeoffs and landings less of a challenge than in other tailwheel airplanes.

The Skywagon name was originally adopted for the Cessna 180, the older, slightly less versatile brother of the 185. Cessna beefed up the fuselage of the 180, enlarged the vertical fin and replaced the 230 hp Continental with the 260 hp IO-470 and later a 300 hp IO-520 engine, by far the most versatile configuration as far as performance and load capability.

The additional power allowed Cessna to increase the gross weight to 3,350 pounds. While every airplane is equipped differently, the useful load is generally right around 1,600 pounds, an exceptional number for a single-engine airplane. The 185 is one of those rare planes that can fill all its seats with full fuel tanks. Even with the later models’ 88-gallon fuel tanks, you can load six 180-pound people into the airplane and still be within the legal limits.

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The seating arrangement in the Cessna 185 also screams utility. The rear seats are removable, and many owners take out some of the seats to create more room in the back for cargo. With the high load capacity, Cessna also added a cargo pod for the 185 that fits underneath the belly of the airplane. The 21½-cubic-foot cargo pod can accommodate up to 300 pounds of stuff.

To help make loading and unloading easier, some 185s are equipped with what is referred to as a stretcher door. The only drawback with the stretcher door is that it is not compatible with the float kit for the airplane. And many C-185s have quick-release hinge pins that allow the pilot to remove the door in less than a minute. The additional space with the door out of the way makes loading gear in and out of the airplane much easier.

With the ability to go pretty much anywhere at any time of the year by readily switching from wheels to skis to floats, the 185 is a popular platform in the northern part of the country. Of the nearly 1,700 Cessna 185s of various models that are registered with the FAA today, more than 500 are based in Alaska. From delivering climbers to the base camp at Mount McKinley to hauling people, mail or other cargo to remote villages, the Cessna 185 has proven its versatility. It is no wonder that, nearly 30 years after going out of production, the 185 is still commonly seen at backcountry strips around the world. — PIA BERGQVIST

DOUGLAS DC-3

When Donald Douglas and his engineers designed the DC-3 in the early 1930s, he was way ahead of his time, proven by the longevity and versatility of the airplane. There are hundreds of DC-3s and C-47s still flying today, more than 75 years after the introduction of the design, and with decades of operation and tens of thousands of hours logged on these massive airframes, each airplane has a rich history. The capability of serving in seemingly limitless missions has taken the twin-radial-engine airplane from airline and military service to executive and cargo transport and anything in between.

American Airlines’ leader, C.R. Smith, commissioned the Gooney Bird, as the airplane has amicably been called, as the Douglas Sleeper Transport. Smith’s mission with the DST was to carry passengers overnight from coast to coast. With a range of about 1,600 nm, the DC-3 achieved that goal, completing the trip in about 15 hours. But despite the airplane’s ability to fly above 26,000 feet, most operators chose to fly at 10,000 feet and below because of the lack of pressurization.

The DST was configured for 14 passengers, but the DC-3 was capable of carrying up to 27 airline passengers with luggage. Some reports say the DC-3 was the first airliner capable of profitable flights without being subsidized as a mail carrier. As a result, the airplane became an early favorite with the airlines. In 1939, 90 percent of airline traffic was transported in DC-3s and its older, smaller sibling, the DC-2.

But the airline legacy was only the beginning for the DC-3. Most of the thousands of DC-3s that rolled out of the Douglas factory were designated as C-47s, serving in various military capacities. These were slightly modified, with a reinforced floor and two large cargo doors, as a replacement for the much narrower air-stair door. The C-47 could haul up to 28 soldiers or about 6,000 pounds of cargo. In addition, it flew reconnaissance and psychological warfare missions, and even acted as a gunship for ground attacks.

Another unexpected military use for the C-47 was as a glider tow airplane. When an airstrip was too short for a safe landing, the C-47 could fly low and slow over the field and “snatch” the glider off the ground.

After the wartime efforts, many C-47s were converted to DC-3s and used for such varied missions as mail and cargo delivery, executive transport, flight training, skydiving and aerial tours, just to name a few. While some current operators still use the DC-3 for what it was originally intended — transport of people or cargo — many of the flying DC-3s are now owned by museums, where they have taken on a new roll as a historical platform. Whether visitors are simply there to look at the airplane on the ground or ride as passengers to either relive a past experience or to see a historic airplane for the first time, the DC-3 is a crowd-pleaser.

| What made the DC-3 such a versatile platform? Despite a gross weight of more than 25,000 pounds, the roaring 1,200-hp radial engines put out enough power to get the airplane off the ground in as little as 900 feet. The airplane by no means takes off like a rocket, however. Like an old man getting out of a couch, the big airplane slowly levitates off the ground in the same relaxed fashion as it responds to roll inputs. To any pilot who has had the pleasure of sitting at the controls, flying the DC-3 is a truly special experience.

With the conventional gear that tilts the fuselage aft and points the nose proudly to the sky, the big props that turn the large radial engines sit well off the ground. There are not many airliners today that can land on unimproved airstrips, but the DC-3 shines on dirt and grass.

With such versatility, it is no wonder that well over 10,000 DC-3s and C-47s were built in the United States and several thousand DC-3 replicas were built under license in Russia as Lisunov Li-2s. The DC-3 may not be nimble, but it gets the job done reliably and efficiently. — P.B.