The Upside of Flying an ‘Orphan’

An uncommon aircraft, like a Commander 114B, is a dependable conversation starter.

The author’s 1992 Commander 114B joins a fleet of modern Diamond DAs on the ramp. [Credit: Jonathan Welsh]

The first time my wife and I saw an ad for the Commander 114B that we wound up purchasing, we had our doubts. We knew the model was rare and long out of production. The manufacturer no longer exists. Would we be able to find parts and maintenance support?

The bank chimed in next, stating it could not finance such an aircraft. “It’s an orphan,” the loan officer said.

We were aware of the risks associated with owning an old, oddball airplane with no active factory to help keep it going. But for a number of reasons, we decided the risk was low enough to warrant buying the Commander even though a Beechcraft, Cessna, or Piper might make more sense because those companies are still doing business.

After nearly five months of ownership of the airplane—we named her Annie—is treating us well. Last week we flew her on a trip covering 900 nautical miles, during which the aircraft repeatedly reinforced our decision with reliable performance. It starts easily, handles smoothly, and is roomier than the other four-seat retractables we tried. The panel is full of upgrades, including radios that are clear-sounding and easy to use. The autopilot works.

But the real reason we love owning an orphan is the way the machine engages people. I have yet to land without collecting compliments on my airplane’s good looks. People get out of their great-looking, often newer airplanes and make a beeline for us on the ramp. “What model is that?” they ask, as if it is one of a kind. Because fewer than 1,500 of the 114s and smaller-engine 112s were built, many people simply have never seen one. And the designers seemed to go out of their way to give the aircraft a stylish shape that does not look particularly dated today.

Over the weekend, I was preflighting on the ramp when two instructors and their students, all apparently in their 20s, parked a pair of Diamond DA-40s next to us. They got out of their sleek, utterly modern aircraft and immediately asked about Annie. They walked around, checking every angle, nodding their approval. I was so flattered after these young guys, all on the ATP track, asked for a rundown on the model’s history. I plied them with all manner of facts and data regarding the Commander 114 and its derivatives. Let’s hope I did not bore them with too much esoterica.

In the end, I never leave the airport without an enjoyable discussion with other aviation folks, whether they are pilots, mechanics or FBO operators. While my teenage sons often complain about delays caused by their chatty father, I look forward to the social element of general aviation and the boost that Annie brings to the conversation.

This growing sense of community has me looking forward to attending more social aviation events this year, especially the big one: the Commander Owners Group’s annual gathering. I imagine my sons will be busy that weekend.

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

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter