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Beech Bonanza

Sporting a distinctive V-shaped or "butterfly" tail, the Beechcraft Bonanza set the standard for the stylish yet well-equipped aircraft for the private pilot, albeit one who could afford to fly in relative luxury. Since its introduction in 1947, the Bonanza has been admired as a "classic" in the aviation world, even earning Fortune magazine's prestigious award in 1959 as one of the 100 best designed mass-production products.

The Beech Aircraft Corporation, confident in its manufacturing capacity after building more than 7,000 combat aircraft during World War II, positioned itself for the postwar era by designing a revolutionary single-engine aircraft with a V-tail configuration that trimmed weight without compromising control. Company founder Walter Beech envisioned a light aircraft with a level of performance and comfort that would distinguish it from the competition.

In theory, the Bonanza's V-tail design uses only two surfaces to perform its function as compared to the three surfaces of a conventional straight-tail design. This reduction in surfaces reduces both drag and weight, while also lowering the probability of tail buffeting from the wakes generated by the aircraft's wing and canopy. Aircraft control response with the V-tail is equivalent to that of a conventional tail of 40 percent greater surface area. Manufacturing costs for the V-tail design are also lower because fewer parts are required to fabricate only two surfaces instead of three.

The Bonanza (Model 35) made its first test flight just after the war's end on December 22, 1945, with pilot Vern Carstens at the controls. This flight test phase would be marred by a 1946 accident when the V-tail broke away from the Bonanza's fuselage during a high-speed dive, killing the test pilot but sparing the flight engineer. Walter Beech ordered continued aggressive testing of the Bonanza, eventually accumulating more than 1,500 hours of flight time without further incident.

The post-war boom in civil aviation translated into marketing success for Beech - more than 1,400 advance orders for new Bonanzas were placed even before the start of production. In March 1947, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Authority issued its Approved Type Certificate for the Bonanza (Model 35) and full-scale production of the new aircraft commenced.

Transforming its wartime production expertise to the consumer sector, the Beech Aircraft plant in Wichita, Kansas, quickly mobilized to meet the demand for the new aircraft, delivering about 1,000 Bonanzas by the end of 1947 at the then-hefty price of $7,975. The Bonanza quickly developed a solid reputation as a versatile personal and business aircraft and would soon make an impact on the non-flying public as well.

Beech decided to showcase the Bonanza's performance and reliability by sponsoring William Odom's world-record attempt for the longest non-stop solo flight. Odom's aircraft, nicknamed the Waikiki Beech, was specially modified with additional fuel and oil reserves, increasing the Bonanza's range more than fivefold to 5,500 miles (8,851 kilometers). From March 6-8, 1949, Odom flew the Waikiki Beech across the Pacific from Hawaii to California, then cross-country to Teterboro Airport, New Jersey. Flying 5,273 miles (8,486 kilometers) in just over 36 hours (while burning only 272 gallons [1,030 liters] of fuel) earned William Odom a place in aviation history; tragically, he was killed in a racing accident later that year. The Waikiki Beech Bonanza was subsequently donated to the Smithsonian Institution's collection of historic aircraft.

In 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the "Big Bopper" (J.P. Richardson) died when their Model 35 Beech Bonanza (V-tail) airplane crashed. Charles Hardin, Richard Valenzuela and J. P. Richardson were members of a group of entertainers appearing in Clear lake, Iowa, the night of February 2, 1959. The following night they were to appear in Moorhead, Minnesota. Because of bus trouble, which had plagued the group, these three decided to go to Moorhead ahead of the others. Accordingly, arrangements were made through Roger Peterson of the Dwyer Flying Service, Inc., located on the Mason City Airport, to charter an aircraft to fly to.Fargo, North Dakota, the nearest airport to Moorhead.

A Beech Bonanza crashed at night approximately 5 miles northwest of the Mason City Municipal Airport, Mason City, Iowa, at approximately 0100, February 3, 1959. The pilot and three passengers were killed and the aircraft was demolished. 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 5 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 Jreckage was found in a field later that morning. This accident, like so many before it, was caused by 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. It is believed that shortly after takeoff Pilot Peterson entered an area of complete darkness and one in which there was no definite horizon; that the snow conditions and the lack of horizon required him to rely solely on flight instruments for aircraft attitude and orientation. The high gusty winds and the attendant turbulence which existed this night would have caused the rate of climb indicator and the turn and bank indicator to fluctuate to such an extent that an interpretation of these instruments so far as attitude control is concerned would have been difficult to a pilot as inexperienced as Peterson.

Service experience with the use of the attitude gyro has clearly indicated confusion among pilots during the transition period or when alternating between conventional and attitude gyros. Since Peterson had received his instrument training in aircraft equipped with the conventional type artificial horizon, and since this instrument and the attitude gyro are opposite in their pictorial display of the pitch attitude, it is probable that the, reverse sensing would at times produce reverse control action. This is especially true of instrument flight conditions requiring a high degree of concentration or requiring multiple function, as mould be the case when flying instrument conditions in turbulence without a copilot.

At night, with an overcast'sky, snow falling, no definite horizon, and a proposed flight over a sparsely settled area with an absence of ground lights, a requirement for control of the aircraft solely by reference to flight instruments can be predicated with virtual certainty. Pilot Peterson, when a short distance from the airport, was confronted with this situation. Because of fluctuation of the rate instruments caused by gusty winds he would have been forced to concentrate and rely greatly on the attitude gyro, an instrument with which he was not completely familiar. The pitch display of this instrument is the reverse of the instrument he was accustomed to; therefore, he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn.

Before the Beatles, before Elvis, there was Buddy Holly. This rockin'-boppin 1950's icon defined the future of rock-and-roll. Buddy Holly's popularity, in a life described as "eighteen months of fame and generations of influence", had rivaled that of Elvis Presley's.

In a calculated move to increase sales, Beech introduced a radical re-design of the Bonanza on September 14, 1959. The aircraft's trademark V-tail was replaced with a conventional straight tail, resulting in a new variant initially dubbed the "Debonair." (Later models would revert back to the "Bonanza" moniker). The current straight-tail model, the Bonanza 36, was first built in 1968. The basic V-tail Bonanza design also continued to evolve over the next two decades - the fuselage was lengthened, followed by the introduction of a fuel-injected engine - increasing the aircraft's overall performance.

Twenty-seven Beech Model 36 Bonanza aircraft were modified to serve as remote, unpiloted relay drones to be used in monitoring acoustic signaling devices planted along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. These "Pave Eagle II" modified aircraft never flew unmanned, however, as remote systems were not completely reliable. The program was cancelled in 1972.

The Bonanza features a fully retractable undercarriage, making it both streamlined and aerodynamic while airborne, capable of carrying up to five passengers and 277 pounds (126 kilograms) of luggage stowed behind the rear seats.

As part of a special investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed its files for every inadvertent landing gear retraction accident between 1975 and 1978. These accidents typically happened because the pilot was attempting to put the flaps control "UP" after landing, and moved the landing gear control instead. This inadvertent movement of the landing gear control was often attributed to the pilot's being under stress or distracted, and being more accustomed to flying aircraft in which these two controls were in exactly opposite locations.

Two popular light aircraft, the Beech Bonanza and Baron, were involved in the majority of these accidents. The Bonanza constituted only about 30 percent of the active light single engine aircraft fleet with retractable landing gear, but was involved in 16 of the 24 accidents suffered by this category of aircraft. Similarly, the Baron constituted only 16 percent of the light twin fleet, yet suffered 21 of the 39 such accidents occurring to these aircraft.

An examination of cockpits of the Bonanza and Baron revealed problem areas which can lead to design-induced pilot errors. A lack of adequate "shapecoding" of the landing gear and flap control knobs to permit the pilot to differentiate between them on the basis of feel done. An arrangement of these two controls in nonstandard locations which increases the probability that the pilot wiU actuate one control while intending to actuate the other.

First introduced in the 1970s, the V35B model Bonanza was powered by a 285-horsepower (213-kilowatt) Continental flat-six piston engine with a 44-gallon (167-liter) fuel capacity. The V35B was capable of cruising at 157 miles per hour (253 kilometers per hour) at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), with a maximum speed of 210 miles per hour (338 kilometers per hour) (at sea level) and a range of 1,020 miles (1,642 kilometers).

The Beech Bonanza V-35B is of all-metal construction, has an internally braced wing mounted in the low position, has single-slotted flaps, and is equipped with a fully retractable tricycle landing gear. The aircraft is equipped with a six-cylinder, horizontally opposed Continental engine of 285 horsepower that drives a controllable-pitch propeller. The aircraft can be configured for four, five, or six seats. The unique Butterfly tail combines the stability and control functions of both the conventional vertical and horizontal tails. The gross weight of the aircraft is 3400 pounds. The aircraft has a maximum speed of 210 miles per hour at sea level, cruises at 203 miles per hour at 6500 feet, and has a stalling speed of 63 miles per hour. The zero-lift drag coefficient is a very low 0.0192, and the corresponding maximum lift-drag ratio is 13.8.

The 10,000th Bonanza came off the production line in February 1977, but five years later, Beech discontinued production of the V-tail Bonanza to concentrate solely on the straight-tail Bonanza 36. Concerns over the safety of the V-tail design (and the resultant liability) undoubtedly played a major role in that decision.

For many years the V-tail was the most popular single-engine aircraft in the world, known for its performance and luxury. However, the V-tail had a very high rate of in-flight failures. Although Beech, the manufacturer, did not initially acknowledge a problem, the deaths from in-flight failures continued to rise after the 1959 Buddy Holly accident. By 1984, the FAA, responding to growing public concern, initiated an investigation to determine conclusively whether there were design deficiencies in the Bonanza V-tail. Independent studies found that the V-tail Bonanza had a fatal in-flight failure rate 24 times higher than the straight-tail version; a possible cause is the greater stress placed on the V-tail aircraft's tail and fuselage during pitch and yaw maneuvers than on the straight-tail version.

A panel of experts from the Volpe Center discovered several problems with the plane. The design satisfied the structural requirements for certification, but those requirements did not take into account the unique characteristics of the V-tail. The V-tail's handling and stability characteristics may have encouraged pilots to exceed the allowable flight envelope (speeds allowable at a given altitude). The in-flight breakup rates of most single-engine airplanes with retractable landing gear were significantly higher than other categories of general aviation aircraft.

Olive Ann Beech, Walter's wife, became president and CEO of Beech Aircraft following her husband's unexpected death from a heart attack on November 29, 1950, and remained at the company's helm until 1968, when she assumed the role of chairman at age 65. Beech Aircraft ceased to exist as an independent entity when it accepted a takeover bid from Raytheon Corporation on October 1, 1979. Olive Ann Beech, arguably the most successful female executive in aviation history, died on July 6, 1993, at the age of 89.

In May 1996, the Bonanza achieved another milestone when the 3,000th straight-tailed Model 36 rolled off the production line, and 1997 marked the 50th anniversary of continuous Bonanza production. The Bonanza 35/36 holds the distinction of one of the most successful aircraft in aviation history, with more than 17,000 built, as well as one of the most prolific, remaining in continuous production from 1947 to this day.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:27:44 ZULU