The Beechcraft Bonanza

September 27, 2007
Written by James Careless

Living Legend: Like the great DC-3 before it, the Beechcraft Bonanza deserves this title. Designed to meet an anticipated post-WWII boom in civilian aviation, the single piston-engine, four-seater (eventually six-seater) Bonanza was one of the first allmetal personal monoplanes. Add retractable landing gear, a top speed of 150 knots, and an innovative V-shaped tail, and the original 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza 35 was truly state-of-the-art! Back then, you could buy your own for a mere US$7,975 – about US$73,000 today.

After 60 years, the Beechcraft Bonanza remains in production. Since 1947, nearly 18,000 have been built, and many remain in active use today; even those dating back two, three or more decades. Over the years, many changes have been made to the Bonanza’s airframe and interior; most notably the move from its innovative V-tail to a more conventional – and some would say safer – T-tail. But in all this time, the fundamentals of this great aircraft have stayed the same.

“The basic airframe and structure haven’t changed that much,” says Ron Gunnarson, Raytheon’s director of marketing for Beechcraft products. “But everything beyond the looks of the airplane has kept up with technology. Granted, we’re still using a horizontal reciprocating power plant, but the current G36’s 300-hp Teledyne- Continental IO-550-B is a lot more powerful than the original 35’s Continental E-165. Meanwhile, the cockpit is equipped with the Garmin G1000 ‘all-glass’ integrated avionics suite; a far cry above the original mechanical gauges and dials found in the original 35.”

Beech Aircraft Corp. built more than 7,000 military aircraft during World War II including the staggerwing C-43 Traveler biplane and the twin-prop Beechcraft C-45 monoplane. However, as victory came into sight, company founder Walter Beech knew that the days of big military sales were ending. To continue to prosper, Beech Aircraft would have to repeat its success in the civilian market.

Driven by this impulse, Beech designer Ralph Harmon and his team pushed to create something innovative, fast and comfortable. The result was the Model 35 Bonanza; a rakish four-seater promising lots of performance, comfort, and class. Central to its innovation was its V-tail design; also known as ‘the Butterfly.’ By using two angled tail surfaces instead of three, Harmon’s team reduced the Bonanza’s tail drag by 40%, while cutting its manufacturing cost due to fewer required parts.

Meanwhile, “the Bonanza’s cabin is extremely comfortable and wonderfully large,” says Howard Page, a private pilot who flew his first Bonanza – one of the original 1947 Model 35s – back in 1978. “It’s well-balanced in flight, and the controls and pulleys all use ball bearings making them easy to operate and the aircraft just a delight to fly.”

Released in March 1947, the Beechcraft Bonanza quickly caught on with the flying public. They liked its performance, its looks, and its spaciousness.

As a result, Beechcraft kept building this aircraft making modifications and upgrades as the years passed. For instance, the original 35 steered itself on the ground through ‘differential braking’; if the pilot wanted to turn right, he applied the right rear wheel’s brakes to cause the aircraft to rotate. This was replaced by true nosewheel steering in 1949, when the A35 – the first revised Bonanza – hit the market. A year later, the B35’s horsepower was boosted to 196 hp.

In 1951, the C35 got a 205- hp Continental E-185 engine, plus an all-metal propeller. The aircraft’s triangular third window was added in the 1955 F35, while the 1957 H- 35 got a more powerful 240- hp 0-470-G engine. (This aircraft is referred to as the ‘second generation Bonanza’.) Meanwhile, the Bonanza’s surfaces were beefed up and, in some cases, expanded. As the years passed, the aircraft’s speed and horsepower continued to climb, as did its price. By 1961, the N35 variant offered 170 knots of speed, 260 hp of power, and a price tag of US$43,500.

In 1964, the third generation of Bonanza was released with the S-35 model.

The 0-470-G was replaced with a 285-hp IO-250 engine, and a three-blade prop was offered as an option. But what was perhaps the most noticeable change had occurred four years earlier, when Beechcraft introduced the Model 33 Debonair. This was essentially a Bonanza with a conventional T-tail.

Eventually, Beechcraft dropped the Debonair nameplate in 1968, marketing both the E33 T-tails and V35 V-tails as Bonanzas. By 1982, the V-tail 35 was retired and the company upgraded the E33A airframe into the stretched Model 36 – since then the only Bonanza variant sold on the market. Today, the G36 offers 300 hp and cruises at 169 knots. The 60th anniversary version – which features a luxurious leatherappointed cockpit, wooden trim, anniversary badges, and a choice between three distinctive paint jobs – costs US$700,000.

Just staying in production for 60 years is a milestone in itself. However, the Beechcraft Bonanza has other achievements to its credit. Some of the most striking were achieved by the fourth Model 35 ever produced. Christened ‘Waikiki Beech,’ this original 35 set two distance records with Captain William P. ‘Bill’ Odom at the controls. On Jan. 12, 1949, Waikiki Beech became the first light aircraft to make the 2,406.9-mile great circle flight from Hawaii to the continental US. Actually, Odom flew 2,900 miles, because his goal was to fly from Hawaii to the US east coast. However, bad weather over Nevada forced him to turn back and land in Oakland, CA 22.1 hours after leaving Hawaii.

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, where the restored Waikiki Beech is on display, Odom’s logbook for March 6-8, 1949 has the following entry: “X-country record-breaking flight: 36 hours 01 minutes, Honolulu to Teterboro, New Jersey. Signed Wmn. P. Odom.” That’s right: just two months later, Odom tried again and succeeded.

To achieve this record, the Waikiki Beech flew “4,957.24 officially accredited great circle miles (5,273 actual miles),” says the Smithsonian’s website at “Of this distance, 2,474 miles were over the waters of the Pacific Ocean and 2,799 were over the North American continent. The flight was completed at a total cost of less than $75 for fuel and oil. The average fuel consumption was 19.37 miles per gallon and the average speed was 146.3 miles per hour.” Fuel was stored in the Bonanza’s standard tanks, plus an extra 126- gallon tank installed in the cabin, and two streamlined 62- gallon wingtip tanks.

After the flight, the Waikiki Beech was turned over to the Smithsonian, which then gave it back to Beech in 1951 to be “refurbished and lent to Congressman Peter F. Mack Jr. for a worldwide goodwill flight,” says the Smithsonian’s website. “Leaving Springfield, Illinois, on October 7, 1951, the plane, rechristened Friendship Flame, visited 45 major cities in 35 countries. On April 19, 1952, 113 days and 33,000 miles later, the plane returned to Wichita, Kansas.”

From the start, the distinctive V-tail of the original Bonanza was associated with a number of serious flying accidents. In fact, the first test flight of the Model 35 on Dec. 22, 1945, saw the V-tail break away from the aircraft’s fuselage during a high-speed dive, killing test pilot Vern Carstens and injuring the flight engineer.

In response to this accident, Walter Beech stepped up testing of the 35, which underwent more than 1,500 hours of further flight tests without incident. However, once the V-tail Bonanza became common in civil aviation, more tail separations followed. According to the aviation website www.landings. com, “The V35 Bonanza had a structural failure rate of 24 times more than its conventionally-tailed version, the Debonair.” To deal with this problem, Beechcraft strengthened the V-tail structure a number of times. Still, the company’s decision to drop the V-tail entirely in 1982 marked the final solution to the problem.

Don McLean’s song entitled “American Pie,” which describes his feelings after Buddy Holly’s death in a airplane crash, has become one of rock’n’roll’s anthems.

However, what few people know is that the Feb. 3, 1959 crash occurred in a 1947 Bonanza 35 (N3794N) dubbed “Miss American Pie” flown by 21-year-old Roger Peterson of Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa. At the time, Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson were working a 24-city tour through the American midwest in just three weeks. Tired of their trouble-plagued bus, they decided to charter a flight from their gig in Mason City to Fargo, North Dakota, close to their next planned concert in the Moorhead, Minnesota Armory. But rock’s Big Three never made it. Taking off at 1:00 am central time in light snow, the Bonanza soon descended into a snow-covered field and disintegrated, killing all aboard.

According to the Civil Aeronautics Board report on the fatal crash, “The aircraft was observed to take off toward the south in a normal manner, turn and climb to an estimated altitude of 800 feet, and then head in a northwesterly direction. When approximately five miles had been traversed, the tail light of the aircraft was seen to descend gradually until it disappeared from sight. Following this, many unsuccessful attempts were made to contact the aircraft by radio. The wreckage was found in a field later that morning.”

The CAB laid the blame for the crash on “the pilot’s decision to undertake a flight in which the likelihood of encountering instrument conditions existed, in the mistaken belief that he could cope with en route instrument weather conditions, without having the necessary familiarization with the instruments in the aircraft and without being properly certificated to fly solely by instruments.”

The Bonanza’s blameless association with the loss of Holly, Valens and Richardson merely underlines what a central role this aircraft has played over the past 60 years. Small wonder: With 18,000 built, the Beechcraft Bonanza has become an integral part of civil aviation. Moreover, the general airworthiness and safety of the Bonanza in all its forms is without doubt. This is why so many pilots love the 35 and all its variants, and fly them still.

As for the future of Bonanza production? “There is no end in sight,” says Raytheon’s Gunnarson. “We continue to see strong interest in the Bonanza G36, and as such are committed to keep improving and upgrading it – without losing the original airframe design that has made it so durable – for years to come.”

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