They were the heady days of 1949. America had put World War II behind it, the GI bill was in full swing, and businesses were putting themselves on a commercial footing. The one thing they would need to get around the country, free of restrictive rail and airline schedules (what’s changed since then?) to visit clients and customers would be business aircraft.
A contemporary advertisement depicts a traveling salesman waiting at a railway station while a single-engined aircraft flies overhead. “Is that your salesman sitting on the train?” it asks.
The market had identified a need beyond the single-engined, four-place Stinsons, Navions and Bonanzas that were coming off the line (nothing wrong with the Bonanza: It’s still in production and more than 17,000 have been made). Serious salesmen would need aircraft with more capability, reliability and safety to fly further, faster, in all weathers and over unhospitable terrain. The only option in 1949? War surplus Beech 18 transports, Cessna T-50 “Bamboo Bombers” and other, heavy converted military aircraft (these spawned the business aviation “completions” industry with such iconic names as Dee Howard and On Mark Engineering).
What was needed was something new to bridge the gap: four-to-six place, twin-engined piston-powered light aircraft. Four companies were readying new products for the 1950 sales campaign: Beech Aircraft with its new Model 50 Twin Bonanza for $30,000 (pricey when compared with $7,975 for that year’s single Bonanza), the new Aero Commander from Aero Design and Engineering Corp (designed by brilliant aerospace engineer Ted Smith), Piper Aircraft with its short-lived romance with the Baumann Brigadier, and Baumann Aircraft itself with its own pusher version of the Brigadier that, in the event, never entered production. You can read all about them in this Aviation Week report from 1949.
Well, the visionaries were right about the need for a light twin, but, as is so often the case in aviation, they were too enthusiastic too soon, leaving the landscape splattered with crashed dreams.
The Twin Bonanza and Aero Commander proved to be the real pioneers. The Beechcraft (which was rather bigger than a light twin and really not a two-engined development of its single-engined namesake) enjoyed a production run of 994 aircraft from 1952-1961. Some 1,999 Aero Commanders of all types were made as the company changed hands several times between 1951 and 1980.
Cessna and Piper waited in the wings before they came out in 1953 and 1954 respectively with the Cessna 310 and PA-23 Apache. As with most of the early light twins, they proved that two engines doubled the chance of an engine failure, and that the “spare” engine on a heavily laden aircraft would likely do little more than fly it to the scene of the crash.
Nevertheless, the light twin captured the imagination and sales multiplied as new, more capable models were brought to market.
Production numbers are impressive: Cessna sold nearly 15,000 twins before leaving the piston-powered light twin market 1985; and Piper nearly 20,000. Production of the piston-engined six-place Piper Seneca continues today.
Beechcraft sold nearly 7,500 piston-engined light twins, and the Baron has now been in production for 52 years.
The market for light twins had well-peaked by the mid-80s as the quest for more speed and capability led to turboprop families like Beech’s King Air, and to development of single-engined turboprops such as the TBM700.
Manufacturers today can only wish for another emerging market to match that 60-year combined production run of nearly 50,000 light twins!
The Beech Baron recently celebrated 50 years in production.
► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.