Gear Up: The Prius and the Private Plane

It's easier to be a good citizen on the road than in the air.

Do you believe the Earth is warming? I do. Do you believe that man contributes to this warming trend? I do, but I don’t know how much. Do you believe that the Earth’s supply of fossil fuels is finite? I do. Do you believe that aviation contributes to climate change? I do—but not as much as other sources of greenhouse gases do. Do you believe that raising cattle contributes to the rise in the Earth’s temperature? I do. Do you like steak? I do. Do you like to fly airplanes powered by fossil fuels? I do. Well, then, that’s a problem.

Nothing distills the argument between virtue and fun like a discussion of aviation’s impact on the world. And nothing hits closer to home than our own need to fly. In the pages of Flying, we explore the future and how we might lessen our collective disruption of the Earth’s ecosystems as well.

But I am alive now. I have only my past experiences and my current knowledge to guide my flying habits. I own this airplane, right now, and I want to use it. You will note a red Prius parked in front of our Cessna Citation CJ1. The Prius gets 44.3 miles per gallon. It belongs to my wife, Cathy. The CJ1 gets about 2 miles per gallon. With the reliability of the turbine engines and the speed of the jet comes fuel burn—lots of it.

I do feel bad about this—a little. To say that I rationalize this wastefulness is to credit me with more moral fiber than I actually possess. I don’t really think about it all that much, to tell you the truth. This is the pinnacle of my flying life. I can just barely afford it. I’m not getting any younger. As a Texan singer-songwriter sang, “To live is to fly.” Will you forgive me?

This is not the most wasteful flying I have ever done, either. The Beechcraft Premier I we owned for less than a year averaged 1.8 miles per gallon, but she was fast—so fast. Though maintenance expenses came close to breaking us, I loved the speed and big-airplane feel. The problem was, she was over my head in many respects.

Looking back at the airplanes I’ve had the privilege of owning allows you to trace the increments in speed, utility, safety and comfort that came at the expense of fuel efficiency. My first airplane was a 1967 Beechcraft Musketeer. It appears to have held all of 60 gallons of avgas. I’m don’t know its specific fuel consumption, but I do know I had flights of five-hour durations. These averaged about 100 knots of true airspeed. The internet tells me she burned 9 gallons an hour at 75 percent power, implying endurance of almost seven hours at low power settings. Nevertheless, distance travel was a dicey affair. The slow speed, navigational capabilities (primitive by today’s standards) and single-engine configuration made nighttime mountainous flying too great of a risk. Many distances were too far to be practical if you actually held a full-time job.

Upon graduating to a 1972 Piper Arrow, the true airspeed increased to 130 knots in cruise, and fuel burn was just north of 10 gallons an hour. I don’t know if it was youthful exuberance or just fascination with flight with retractable gear that propelled us, but my family made many flights between the Midwest and the Northeast in that airplane. For some reason, a stop in Toledo, Ohio, seemed to be a habit; though I only remember landing there once with minimum fuel when our destination of Findlay, Ohio, was below minimums.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

Next up was a 1975 Cessna 210. She was a beast of an airplane compared to the previous ones. The huge nose was hiding six cylinders, and the strutless wings carried 90 gallons of gas. Burning 18 gallons an hour, I think, she blasted through the sky at an amazing 180 knots. She had six seats and would carry almost anything that would fit. For speed, fuel efficiency and capacity, this airplane was the best balance of any of which I have personal knowledge. You could go almost anywhere and carry almost anything.

The urge for more was not to be denied, so a Cessna P210 was next. Now, we were “high and pressurized.” The airplane was a little slower than the regular 210, but it could struggle up to the flight levels—and you just can’t imagine how sexy it is to climb through 18,000 feet, reset the altimeters, and announce your call sign and the words “flight level” in the same utterance. I owned that airplane for 13 glorious years.

Oh, you want a twin? Two engines are better than one, some said. (Some didn’t, but that’s another story.) When it came to ramp presence, the Cessna 340 was a whole new ballgame. Sitting up tall and proud with airstairs, a high tail and the look of an airliner, the 340 just could not be resisted. Sitting in the left seat, you felt like an airline captain. Though the airplane specifications touted a speed of 240 knots, she was more of a 200-knot airplane when operated at reasonable power settings in the high teens. Plan on 40 gallons an hour for about 4 miles per gallon.

Now, the urge for jet-A overcomes you. It did me. A 1980 Cheyenne 1 fit the bill and has been the best airplane I’ve ever owned—turbine reliability with two engines, a beautiful interior and an average speed of 230 knots at Flight Level 230. She got about 3 mpg. With the piston-engine worry ameliorated, and modern retrofitted avionics, that airplane was comfortable on both coasts. The proof of the airplane’s versatility, speed and comfort (for both pilot and passengers) came in the form of longevity. We owned one for 17 years. Then the jet thing got me by the throat.

This recapitulation of almost 50 years of aircraft ownership allows you to trace one man’s arc of good luck, fine airplanes and expanding horizons. It also chronicles a decrease in fuel efficiency with the concomitant increase in reliability, comfort and speed.

So, shoot me.


This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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