The Wandering Hearts of Pilots

Why, as pilots, the desire to trade up never fades.



Illustration by Robert Goyer

I’ve been lucky to have flown a lot of airplanes over the past 20 years, almost all of them belonging to other people. Some were high wings; some were low. Some were taildraggers; some were nose pushers. Some were brand new; some were downright decrepit. Some were fast; some were painfully slow. Some were pleasantly roomy; others were tiny. Some were technologically advanced; others were technologically challenged.

They were as different as different could be, but the one thing that they all, every single one of them, had in common—and this is a secret: they left something to be desired.

It wasn’t really the airplane’s fault in any one case; it was mine. I’m a pilot. And despite how much we might deny it, pilots are never really happy with what we’ve got. We’ve always got ideas on how to improve it. Often that means a different, better airplane.

Take the fixed-gear Cherokee Six 300 I owned with some neighbors here in Austin a few years back. It was a great airplane. It could carry a big load, it, like all Cherokees, flew great, and it had a decent, upgraded panel. But it was too slow. Before you say it, yes, "too slow" is a moving target. At 145 knots on a good day it was slow by at least ten or 15 knots. And its range left something to be desired as well. I wanted a 160 knot airplane with the same useful load and flyability as the 'Six but with 1,000 nm of range.

Another airplane I flew for a while, a Saratoga RG, was too slow, too. It was a 160-kt airplane. It could have been ten or 15 knots faster in my book. And I would have loved more range.

I'd kind of like the Cirrus I fly now to be 10 or 15 knots faster too, which is one reason the jet sounds good. Who doesn't like speed? Oh, and another 200 nm of range would be fine, too. (Are there retrofit tip tanks for SR22s?)

The Mooney 201 is a great case in point for showing how much pilots want only to want a little more. The 201 is a, well, 201 mph airplane (with a little surreptitious forward pressure on the yoke and a quick eye to the airspeed needle) on just 200 horsepower, for better than one mph per horsepower. That's a great combo, as you get speed and economy. What more could pilots want? Well, more room and more speed, so the higher powered stretched Mooneys were born. Pilots complained about the higher fuel burn and cost. And they still complained about the lack of legroom in back. Proof positive we're never, ever content with what they've got.

Or are we? Every once in a while you run into a pilot who’s outwardly happy as a clam with his Beech Musketeer or Cessna 310. They wax poetic about the charms of the bird, about the many happy hours they’ve spent going this place and that with family and friends.

Spend enough time with them, though, and get them talking and I promise you’ll hear them venture begrudgingly into the realm of what airplane they’re really looking at. A well-traveled Bonanza in lieu of the Musketeer would be just the ticket, or in the case of the 310, a well-loved C90 King Air would surely be nice, they pine.

Truth is, we all do the math. Some of us are just quieter about sharing the calculations.

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