Flying the Family: How To Pick a Traveling Airplane

Knowing your mission can help narrow the field of candidates.

The author took a look at this 1966 Cessna T210F and he says it boasts the characteristics of a long-distance traveler. [Photo: Jonathan Welsh]

A few months ago, after more than a decade of dreamy window shopping, I began seriously looking for an airplane to buy. This was a big shift that raised uncomfortable questions from whether I could afford the endeavor to how to avoid picking a lemon. Perhaps the most important one was, “What is my mission?”

We might imagine ourselves crossing oceans or plying the deepest backcountry to a gravel bar or dry river bed suitable for landing. But eventually we have to realistically assess our reasons for wanting a personal aircraft. In my case, family travel is the motivation.

“For many folks, “traveling” means getting to your destination as quickly as possible.”

My wife and I have traveled extensively with our two sons from the time they were babies, mostly by car and airline. Now we feel ready to push farther into unknown territory beyond interstate highways and international airports. In addition to visiting distant friends and family, we hope to make new acquaintances off the beaten path and connect more with the general aviation community.

My latest round of airplane shopping took me to Old Town Municipal Airport (KOLD) in Old Town, Maine, to visit a 1966 Cessna T210F. Like the Beechcraft F33A Bonanza I checked out earlier in the week and an A36 Bonanza I looked at before that, the Cessna has what I consider the characteristics of a long-distance traveler.

After seeing the airplane up close, speaking at length with its owner and reviewing its records, I also have a good feeling about its potential. I have always liked the early 210s and this one is particularly handsome. We have the same birth year but I’d say the airplane has aged better.

But it takes more than good vibes to make an informed aircraft purchase. There is much work ahead, from speaking with my insurance agent to arranging test flights and inspections. There is also the stress of knowing that another buyer could swoop in at any time. It also seems too early in the game for me to find the airplane of my dreams, but we shall see.

I will keep you posted on the search process. In the meantime, here are some of the features pilots often mention when describing their ideal family hauler:

Seating For at Least Four, Preferably Six

This is where the similarities between airplanes and cars are most evident. If your family car is a traditional sedan or a crossover with two rows of seats, a four-seat airplane is likely to feel familiar and adequately roomy. But for many families, only a three-row SUV or van will suffice, and those folks probably will want an airplane with a similar setup. Piper Saratogas, Beechcraft A36 Bonanzas, later models of the Cessna 210 and a number of turboprop models have six seats and resemble big SUVs inside. In some cases, the rearmost seats in six-seat light aircraft are cramped (or perfect for a child!) but some owners prefer the flexibility of being able to remove or rearrange seats to increase comfort or baggage space.

175-Knot Cruise

For many folks, “traveling” means getting to your destination as quickly as possible, and for piston pilots, 175 knots or a shade over 200 miles per hour seems to be a sweet spot. For me, after years of flying a Cessna 172P between 90 and 100 knots and a Rockwell Commander 114 that settles around 135, the idea of 175 or faster in a Cessna 210 is extremely appealing. Perhaps the value of extra speed is more psychological than practical, especially on shorter flights. But when points A and B are 300 to 500 nm apart, you will certainly notice the difference in travel time with a faster airplane.

1,000-Pound-Plus Useful Load

Here’s another likely difference between a real traveling airplane and the one in which you learned to fly. Many trainers have little load-carrying capacity to spare once the pilot, instructor, and fuel are on board—and that’s OK when your only baggage is the contents of your kneeboard. The Cessna 172 in which I trained was capable of carrying my family of four with full fuel when our sons were in elementary school. Now, with one in high school and the other headed to college, the same load plan would be marginal, especially with luggage. Models designed for serious travel typically have useful loads well over a half-ton.

1,000-nm Range

Traveling means not having to stop for gas, at least not very often. There are few people willing (or able) to stay aloft for six or more hours without a break, but it is nice to know the 210 I have been looking at could do it if necessary while carrying me about halfway across the U.S. The ability to cover 1,000 nm with reserves is yet another mark of a “serious” traveling airplane.

1,000-foot Ground Roll

Yes, I thought it would be fun to get one more “thousand” on the list. However, many pilots consider short-field performance a make-or-break attribute for a good traveling plane. There are plenty of worthwhile destinations with short runways and lots of obstacles that can make them inaccessible to some general-aviation aircraft. The runway at Stonington Municipal Airport (93B) on Deer Isle, Maine, where my family often spends vacations, is 2,099 feet. While some seasoned pilots might not consider it short, landing there can be a handful. With trees at both ends, it is also intimidating. Having the performance to get airborne quickly and clear the obstacles is a big help—and you still have to nail your approach speed when landing.

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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