Piston Patriarch

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The Beechcraft Baron is a classic airplane. Along with its single-engine sibling, the Bonanza, the Baron is a patriarch of general aviation designs, having been in continuous production for more than 50 years. 
An opportunity to test fly the latest incarnation of Beechcraft’s venerable twin, the Baron G58, would be like meeting a member of aviation’s aristocracy. My chance to make its acquaintance arose during a visit to the Canadian Business Aviation Association convention in Vancouver last June. I was keen to learn why Beechcraft’s iconic piston twin is still going strong, more than five decades after the first one rolled off the production line. 

A New Chapter for Beechcraft
These are interesting times for Beechcraft. The acquisition of Beechcraft by Textron, announced last December, may prove to be an opportunity for the formerly troubled company. Having emerged from bankruptcy, minus both its Hawker Beechcraft moniker and its unprofitable business jet brand, Beechcraft is now a leaner company, focused upon its turboprop and piston products. Under new management, a transition team has been formed to address details associated with the Textron acquisition. At the time of writing in February, it appeared that Beechcraft would continue to operate as a separate entity, and would remain committed to supporting the existing piston and turboprop aircraft fleets. As for the Baron, Beechcraft indicated that it would continue to invest in the product line, although it was too early to speculate on possible changes resulting from the Textron acquisition.
Enough business. Let’s talk flying! Patrick O’Connell, Beechcraft’s sales director and demonstration pilot, guided me on a pre-flight inspection. I found the Baron to be a good-looking airplane with pleasing proportions. Beechcraft’s immaculate demonstrator aircraft, N2368B, was certainly a good representative of the more than 6,700 Barons that have preceded it off the Wichita, Kan., production line; and to my eye, its fit and finish were exceptional, both inside and out. Part of the reason for Beechcraft’s longevity is its customers’ perception that it is a premium brand; well-constructed and solidly built. I’m inclined to agree. I couldn’t resist performing my very unscientific “thump test,” wherein—out of sight of the demonstration pilot—I gave the airplane a solid thump with my fist. The Baron rewarded me with a feeling of sturdiness. 

O’Connell pointed out the wet wings, with a single tank and two filler ports per side, to facilitate precise partial fuelling. With pneumatic boots on the wings and stabilizer leading edges, heated propellers and a windshield “hot plate,” the Baron is cleared for flight into known icing. Interestingly—for an airplane with a 20,688-foot certified ceiling—oxygen was not installed, nor is it available as an option. Systems redundancy is an attractive feature of a twin, and the Baron features a split-bus electrical system with dual batteries and dual alternators. The sophisticated new environmental control system provides one-touch thermostatic control of heat or air conditioning. It is available during all phases of flight, and can even be used during start-up and shutdown. 
The Baron is powered by two 300-horsepower Continental IO-550-C engines, driving fully-feathering three-bladed Hartzell propellers. Both turbocharged and pressurized versions of the Baron were formerly built, but only the normally aspirated version is currently available. Beechcraft boasts an impressive standard equipment list for the Baron, including both Garmin GWX-68 digital colour weather radar and NexRad XM weather receiver, Mode S transponder, Class B terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), and GTS-820 traffic alerting system. The G1000 avionics suite offers precise guidance both on the ground and in the air, courtesy of Garmin’s SafeTaxi and digital flight charts. Dual WAAS-enabled GPS receivers and a Garmin GFC-700 autopilot allow for coupled GPS precision approaches. 
A Utilitarian Twin
Barons are typically owner-flown personal aircraft, so as I climbed aboard I indulged in imagining that this appealing twin was my own personal aircraft. I wondered, “What could I do with it?” Plenty, it seems. With a generous usable fuel capacity of 194 US gallons (1,164 pounds) and a published maximum useful load of 1,494 pounds, the Baron has a wide range-payload envelope. Flying alone, a full fuel load could take me to destinations as distant as 1,480 nautical miles. For example, that’s non-stop from Vancouver to Wawa, Ont., presuming I was flying there to say hello to its 28-foot-tall Canada goose statue. Alternatively, I could take along five friends– if I had five friends—on flights of roughly two hours’ duration, including VFR reserves. The 18-cubic-foot nose baggage compartment and 10-cubic-foot aft baggage compartment would provide plenty of room for our toys, while ensuring that the centre of gravity was easily managed. The four aft seats can face forward, or be configured in a cozy club arrangement. Flexible use of the ample aft cabin volume is facilitated by quickly removing the pairs of aft seats, for loading gear through the cavernous 45-inch by 35-inch aft cabin double doors. 
Entry to the front seats is via the single door on the right side, which requires the pilot to scoot across the cockpit into the left seat, and necessitates that the right-seater enter last and exit first. It’s functional, but not my favourite arrangement. The cockpit was cozy but well organized; the seats, snug and comfortable. The cockpit layout was optimized for single-pilot operation, with the majority of systems controlled through colour-coded switches on the left instrument subpanel. 
The engine starting procedure was straightforward for a fuel-injected engine, following a brief pause to let the G1000 displays boot up to provide engine indications. Negotiating Vancouver’s unfamiliar taxiways was made easier by the SafeTaxi charting system. The field of view during taxi was excellent. Ground handling was direct and responsive. 
We were cleared for an instrument departure from Vancouver’s Runway 08-Right, and then elected to proceed visually under drippy grey skies. Had we been at maximum takeoff weight, the published takeoff distance is 2,345 feet at sea level under standard conditions. Accelerate-stop distances are also published, and 4,000 feet of pavement should suffice under most operating conditions. Normal takeoffs are conducted with the flaps retracted. We briefed a rotation speed of 85 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS), and a cruise-climb airspeed of 136 KIAS. The takeoff procedure required setting full power and then manually setting fuel flow to a prescribed value on the multifunction display, using the mixture levers, before brake release. With experience, one would learn to do that “on the fly.” Rotation required a decisive pull on the yoke, followed by some prompt trimming as the aircraft accelerated. Propeller speed was reduced to 2,500 rpm in the climb to reduce noise. The published maximum rate of climb at maximum takeoff weight is a respectable 1,700 feet per minute at sea level under standard conditions.
Impressions on the Fly
We settled into cruise westbound past the Gulf Islands toward better weather over Victoria. En route at 4,000 feet and 2C, I set a high-cruise power setting of 26.2 inches manifold pressure with 2,520 rpm. The result was a 191 KIAS cruise speed, which equated to a spiffy 203 knots true airspeed at a fuel flow of 20.1 gallons per hour per side. This compared very well with the published performance, although more economical power settings are certainly possible. For example, according to the flight manual, cruising at 22 inches manifold pressure and 2,300 rpm—and 20C lean of peak mixture—at 8,000 feet and standard conditions would yield 185 KIAS at a more affordable 12 gallons per hour per side. 
Sound levels were quite reasonable for a piston twin. Control feel was solid in pitch, while the ailerons were surprisingly light. The Baron was very pleasant to hand-fly, as an owner-flown airplane should be. It was easily trimmed, although I found the throttles a bit sensitive. 
There was just time to drop into the circuit in Victoria for a few touch-and-go landings. The Baron should be capable of neighbourly descents into busy traffic areas, thanks to the generous 195 KIAS maximum operating speed and 152 KIAS speed limit for extension of both undercarriage and approach flaps. Nevertheless, it’s still a piston-powered airplane, and some prior descent planning may be required to avoid shock cooling the engines. 
Using the published approach speed of 95 KIAS, I found the Baron decidedly stable and solid. The flare required a firm pull, although the response was predictable. A trickle of power during landing avoids a tendency to sink, but even so there wasn’t much float. The undercarriage flattered my novice efforts. In the circuit, the Baron presented no unusual challenges for anyone proficient with a classic piston twin. 
Whither the Piston Twin?
Does the virtual demise of the piston twin portend good news or bad news for the Baron? On one hand, there is probably a reason why the piston twin is nearly extinct. In 1979, there were 33 different piston twins on the market, while today only a handful remains. As aircraft engines have become more reliable and avgas more expensive, carrying around a second engine makes less sense. Nevertheless, the Baron is a survivor. The Baron fills a niche for capable and reliable personal transportation, and customers still find something reassuring about having two engines when flying over inhospitable terrain, or when the weather threatens. 
The Baron is an airplane with a solid track record and a large and devoted customer base. Like a fine wine, a classic airplane design takes time to refine. After more than 50 years in production, Beechcraft has had time to get it just right.
Sidebar: The G58 ISR
In 2012, Beechcraft delivered the first Baron G58 ISR aircraft to the Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción (FURA), a division of the Puerto Rico police. “ISR” stands for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” and adapting the Baron to this role makes good sense. The aircraft’s payload is a good match for a modest but capable sensor suite, and it has respectable performance for the ISR mission.
The G58 ISR sensor package is based upon a FLIR 230-HD electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera system. Alternatively, a Wescam sensor can be integrated at customer preference. The 9-inch diameter (EO/IR) sensor ball is installed on a turret that is mounted on the aircraft’s belly with fairings. The cabin components include a dual-display operator’s console, a mission management computer with GPS-derived moving map, and an imagery recorder. A repeater display mounted in the cockpit allows the pilot to stay in the loop. Communications systems consist of a mission crew intercom, a multi-band radio, and optional datalink system. The datalink can be either line-of-sight or via satellite through a SATCOM antenna on the upper fuselage. The radios include multi-band direction-finding (DF) capability for search and rescue operations. Beechcraft touts the system as capable of day and night surveillance over land or water.

The Baron has its roots as a civilian aircraft, but Beechcraft is no newcomer to manufacturing military products. In addition to its T-6 trainer and AT-6 light attack variant, versions of the King Air product line have worn various uniforms as trainers, light VIP transports and ISR platforms. With the G58 ISR, Beechcraft foresees opportunity in the low-cost portions of the market. At a total cost of US$3 to $3.5 million, depending upon options, the ISR Baron offers excellent capability for police and paramilitary operators who seek to incorporate affordable airborne surveillance capability. Twin-engine systems redundancy adds robustness, and operational versatility for other missions is ensured by facilitating rapid removal of sensor systems through the Baron’s large cabin doors.
The Canadian connection to this project is the participation of Discovery Air Technical Services (DATS) as the prime systems integrator and aircraft modifier. The company performed the design, integration, testing and Part 23 civil certification of the special mission package for Beechcraft. According to vice president and general manager, Michael Latino, DATS is now working with Beechcraft to develop a G58 ISR demonstrator, which will embark on an international tour. The company is optimistic about the ISR variant’s market potential, and expects to modify additional aircraft over the next few years. 

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