It’s an iconic airplane that is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
About 17,500 Bonanzas have been produced over the past seven decades, with production still continuing, but at a much lower rate. In 2016, 25 Bonanzas were produced by Textron Aviation, which bought the Beechcraft brand in 2014.
The Bonanza is also a plane that its owners are passionate about and fiercely loyal to. But what feeds that passion?
It starts with how well the planes are made, according to J. Whitney Hickman, executive director of the American Bonanza Society.
“Beechcraft put together an airplane that was second to none,” he said. “A lot of birds are still flying at 65 and 70 years old.”
“It’s been told to me that you really don’t know the experience until you fly one or fly in one,” he continued. “You hear people talk about the classiness of the airplane and the exceptional craftsmanship that goes into it, but you really haven’t experienced a Bonanza until you fly in one. Then you’re hooked.”
That loyalty was forged as soon as the Bonanza was introduced, noted Thomas P. Turner, executive director of the American Bonanza Society Air Safety Foundation and editor of the society’s magazine.
“From the very beginning, Beechcraft attracted a huge following because of the performance and the construction quality of these airplanes,” he said. “They’re very large and very comfortable. The original interior was modeled after high-end large sedans of its era. The Beechcraft engineers initially looked at the LaSalle and other cars like that to create the dimensions and the angles of the seats and everything.”
“It was designed from the get-go to be a very solid airplane with a very comfortable passenger-friendly feel, with a great deal of performance,” he continued. “Remember, when the Bonanza was first introduced, it was as fast as a DC-3 which, in most cases, was the standard airliner of the day. So you had the performance of an airliner, and the comfort of a personal sedan.”
He added that over the years, things have changed as the airplane has evolved, but one thing has stayed constant: “They’re very over-built,” he said. “They were designed in an era when engineers didn’t know as much about aerodynamics as they know now, so they would figure, ‘Well, that looks like that’ll handle the stress, let’s add 20% to that just to be sure.’ And so they’re not designed to barely meet minimums, they’re designed to far exceed what we would know the minimums necessary to withstand stresses and things like that.”
Over the years as he has conducted tours of the Beechcraft factory in Wichita for ABS members, he tells them before entering the building: “You are going to have this picture in your mind of a General Motors assembly line. What you are going to see is more like a custom cabinet shop.
“They purposely build, to this day, the doors and the window frames and the gear doors all just a little bit oversized, and then you literally see guys laying on creepers on their backs, filing the gear doors so they fit exactly right. No two are exactly the same. And so the airplanes are extremely tight, they’re quiet, they’re good performers.”
That performance is key to the brand loyalty, added Paul Damiano, president of the American Bonanza Society,
“When you’re flying it, you know you’re in an airplane that is rock solidly built,” he said. “They’re quieter. They’re way more comfortable. You can tell about the performance immediately when you take off or how easy it is to land the Bonanza. It’s just a really easy, comfortable airplane to fly.”
It’s also apparent that the Bonanza is a more high-end aircraft, he added.
“When you get in an airplane that was built to be inexpensive, you realize you’re flying an airplane that’s inexpensive,” he said. “There are a lot of plastic parts. Less expensive airplanes are clearly less expensive in every sense of the word. Because of the aftermarket value and how Bonanzas hold their value, more Bonanzas are being upgraded to modern day standards than Cessnas.”
He noted his Bonanza was manufactured in 1961. “But if you went flying with me, you’d think it was 10 years old,” he said.
“It’s not unusual for a Bonanza guy to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on new avionics,” he continued. “God knows I don’t even want to guess how much I spent. The panel in my aircraft is as modern as any panel in any GA airplane. It’s not a G1000 panel, but there’s nothing that a G1000 can do that I can’t do.”
Upgrading older airframes is quite common in the Bonanza community. While at one time, Beechcraft was making up to 800 Bonanzas a year, that dropped to 25 in 2016.
“If you want to buy a new Bonanza today, they are prohibitively expensive,” Damiano said.
The latest Bonanza models are selling for more than $900,000.
“But there are literally thousands of older airframes out there,” he said. “If you look at the cost of acquiring the airframe, cost of maintenance to take care of anything that has been deferred, and then put in an interior and a $100,000 panel, plus a paint job, you can have essentially a brand new Bonanza for about half the price of a brand new Bonanza.”
“You can’t really do that with some of the other airframes,” he continued. “You certainly wouldn’t want to take a Cessna 172 and buy it for $30,000 and put $100,000 or $150,000 into it.”
BMW or Chevy?
Damiano also notes that Bonanza owners can be compared to people who buy BMWs.
“Why would you spend $50,000 on a 5 Series BMW when the Fords and Chevys of today are pretty damn nice? And yet BMW has no trouble selling cars in the USA,” he said. “It’s a performance thing and it’s a prestige thing.”
He added that until Cirrus came along, the Bonanza was really in a category all its own in terms of utility, payload, speed, and performance.
“There weren’t that many airframes out there that were competing from a performance point of view with a Bonanza,” he said.
“Whatever works in cars is kind of what’s worked in airplanes over the years,” he continued. “Again, it gets back to my way of thinking: You can buy a brand new aircraft for $300,000 or $400,000 that doesn’t have the performance, range and comfort and quietness of the Bonanza, or you can get an old Bonanza and get it up to that level of performance for less money.”
Another reason for the Bonanza brand loyalty is history, according to Turner.
“In many, many cases, our members are flying a Beechcraft because their father or their grandfather or an uncle or somebody before them flew a Beechcraft,” he said. “That’s a very common story: ‘My dad had one in the ’50s and then I started flying in the ’70s, and you know, my dad had one, so maybe I’ll get one too — boy I love this airplane.’
“There’s a lot of family attraction or family connection in these airplanes,” he continued. “Not necessarily the same airplane being handed down, although that happens a lot too. But the fact is that many Bonanza owners today say, ‘This is what my dad flew, this is what I want to fly also.’”
There’s also a lot of attraction to Beechcraft’s history, according to Turner.
“It’s a company with a lot of history,” he said. “People, for whatever reason, like to be part of that clique. Once they get their foot in the door, they like to think of themselves as not only the owner of this airplane but — I’ve heard it put this way by many, many of our members — they feel like they are just the caretaker of this airplane and part of this lineage that goes back 70 years.”