Overcoming the Speed Obsession

A Commander 114B proves not so slow after all.

We think our Commander 114B looks sharp on the ramp makes, making up for its middling cruising speed. [Credit: Jonathan Welsh]

When trying to find your ideal aircraft, it helps to know what qualities and capabilities you want. Or should I say ‘need’? Sometimes the wants and needs are so cloudy and intertwined that it becomes difficult to tell them apart.

Our flying lives tend to revolve around missions. How far are you traveling on average? How many people and how much cargo are you planning to take? What are the length, surface, and conditions of the runways at your expected destinations? And of course, how quickly do you want to get there?

When I began seriously shopping for an airplane a little more than a year ago, these questions seemed to cover all of the important details. Ideally, I wanted an aircraft with good short-field performance and a cruising speed above 160 knots. It would have to carry my family of four, our two 50-pound dogs and a modest duffle bag for each of us.

I narrowed my sights to a Cessna 210 or a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. They had enough power and capacity to replace the family car on our next summer vacation trip. Soon, though, numerous other factors came into play–from affordability and reliability to reality checks about how we would use the aircraft. For starters, how often will our two sons, 19 and 15, travel with us on major excursions?

Soon we were considering other things, like cabin comfort, the advantages of shopping locally, and how the machine would present on the ramp. The last detail might sound vain, but we all want an airplane that looks good.

After adding these elements to our search, we quickly found "Annie," our 1992 Commander 114B. She was for sale at an airport close to home, had a roomy cabin that my wife loves, and we both think she looks great. But we still quietly wondered how she would perform.

Commanders are somewhat rare, so any time we arrive at an airport, we receive compliments and field questions about our airplane. Commanders also have a reputation as slowpokes among high-performance four-seat retractables. But most people don’t know that and just assume she’s fast because she looks that way. Believe it or not, we recently parked at an FBO where the manager was certain Annie was a turboprop. I had to assure him of her piston status.

A friend who owns a beautiful Piper PA-24, one of my favorite models and one we considered buying, often mentions that Annie’s tall, substantial trailing-link landing gear is more attractive than his Piper’s short struts. I have to admit that hearing another pilot covet my aircraft is gratifying.

But looks get you only so far. Performance is still an important consideration, just not as significant as I first thought. During a recent solo flight, I conducted speed trials to see just how fast Annie would go. The overcast kept us under 3,000 feet, where I figured I could expect 150 knots true with a decent job of trimming.

Flying along a ridge that separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania, I flew numerous circuits, northbound and southbound, experimenting with power settings and trim. Cruising at 145 knots with power at 24 squared, I figured 25 squared would make the difference at my low altitude, which is not included in the published performance charts.

I increased the rpm to 2,500 and manifold pressure to 25 inches. Airspeed began to creep upward but eventually stopped at 149 knots. I made more trim tweaks, getting Annie to fly essentially hands-off, but the speed did not budge. Then I remembered the single, large cowl flap was open. That had to be worth a knot or two. I closed it, and 150 knots appeared on the Garmin G5.

I was overjoyed at this triumph, and knowing that a few thousand feet higher, we should be able to reach 155. I had also nearly forgotten about the 160-knot requirement I earlier had in mind. And like most pilots I know, I soon reduced power to get back to a fuel flow between 12 and 13 gallons per hour instead of the 14-plus I was burning at the higher speed. What’s the rush?

During more than 20 hours flying Annie so far, I have come to value her smooth handling, comfort, and forgiving flight characteristics (and great looks) far more than the raw speed I once craved. In my mind, cruising at 150 has gone from pretty slow to fast enough.

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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