The Aero Commander

The Aero Commander was a Class Leader that could not quite keep up with its markets.

Aero Commander appeared to have it all: performance, ease of flight, passenger comfort, distinctive design, access to most airports, high-profile air show performances, first-to-market, even a Presidential endorsement.

Aero Commander L-3085

The Aero Commander L-3085 PrototypeIn 1946, after the end of World War II, what would become the commuter airline market, was wide open. Initially, the only aircraft available to fill this role was the Twin Beach—a 15-year-old war-weary, noisy airplane powered by two fuel-guzzling radial engines.

 

Ted Smith and a team of former Douglas Aircraft Company engineers formed the Aero Design and Engineering Company in Bethany, Oklahoma. Using the design experience that developed the WW II A-26 attack bomber, they set out to build a 6-7 passenger airplane that would serve as short-haul airline aircraft. The prototype Aero Commander 520 was a high wing, twin-engine cabin class aircraft that could carry up to 7 people. It immediately attracted attention. Walter Beech test flew the aircraft in 1949 with the idea of buying the design for his company.

The original Aero Commander, powered by two fuel-efficient 240-hp flat-six engines, could cruise at 200 mph—faster than many contemporary airline aircraft.

USAF Aero Commander

Early Production Aero Commander Used by the Air Force (USAF Museum Photo)

In these early days of light twin-engine aircraft, the  Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA, the forerunner of the FAA) required that twin-engine aircraft demonstrate safe single-engine operation.  In 1950, to demonstrate the Aero Commander’s single-engine capability, the company removed the propeller from the right engine and stowed it in the back of the airplane. They then loaded the aircraft to maximum takeoff weight and flew it on one engine from their Oklahoma base to Washington, D.C., where they met with CAA personnel.

The flight did not satisfy the CAA because it did not demonstrate single-engine capability with the “failed engine’s” propeller installed where it would cause substantial drag in flight. Still, that flight received wide positive national publicity and over the next five years several hundred Aero Commanders were sold.

Although Aero Commander had targeted the fledgling feeder airline market, the aircraft was quickly recognized as a practical business aircraft. In addition to the roomy cabin, the high-wing design allowed automobile-like step-in convenience. There were no other aircraft on the market that could carry six passengers at speeds that rivaled major airlines of the day and that could land at local airports. It was the ideal business aircraft in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Aero Commander Goes Presidential

Air Force U-4B

Air Force U-4B (Aero Commander) with President Eisenhower and Pilot Col. William Draper, 1956-1960 (USAF Museum Photo)

As with any aircraft, frequent design improvements were made, including a steady progression of more powerful engines. About this time, the military became interested in the aircraft as a reconnaissance aircraft (designated the L-26 or U-4B).

In 1956, a U-4B was assigned to President Eisenhower. It was more practical for the 70-mile flight from Washington, D.C. to Eisenhower’s farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As a pilot, Eisenhower was often at the controls on these trips, although he always flew with his assigned presidential pilot. The fact that President Eisenhower used an Aero Commander as a presidential aircraft was also a boost to sales.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Aero Commander was considered the best business aircraft available, and it was owned and operated by many major corporations. There were also private owners who liked the idea of having an easy-to-fly “private airliner” with headroom and exceptional views.

Competition Puts Pressure on Aero Commander

Aero Commander was not the only company to recognize the opportunity in cabin-class aircraft for both business and commuter operations, and soon there was competition in the air. Both the Beechcraft Queen Air and the Piper Navajo Came onto the scene in the early-to-mid-1960s, offering cabin class seating for six to eight passengers with operational speeds of 230 mph or more. In the commuter airline market, speed was key.

Aero Commander aircraft continued to evolve, gradually increasing power, stretching the fuselage, upgrading the landing gear, and other continuous refinements. In 1968, Aero Commander introduced the more streamlined “Shrike Commander” powered by two 290-hp Lycoming engines. It was this aircraft that former USAF test pilot, and famed aerobatics pilot, Bob Hoover, introduced to thousands of people.

Bob Hoover had become a widely recognized aerobatics demonstration pilot, initially flying a restored and immaculately maintained WWII P-51 Mustang. He was asked to demonstrate the Shrike Commander and he developed a full aerobatic routine for the aircraft as well as his famed energy management performance. Those who attended air shows were used to seeing sleek, fast aerobatic aircraft perform, but the relatively bulky passenger transport did not immediately suggest impressive aerobatics.

Flying the aircraft through a series of loops and rolls, Hoover gradually increased the “wow” factor by performing the same maneuvers with one engine shut down. Finally, in his energy management demonstration, he shut

Shrike Commander Aero

Shrike Commander flown by Bob Hoover (Udvar-Hazy Museum) Photo: Jeff Richmond

down both engines at pattern altitude and then repeated the complete performance of loops and rolls with both engines feathered, finally gliding to a landing and allowing the aircraft to roll back up in front of the spectator stands. Even people who knew little about aircraft or flying knew they were seeing something special.

Aero Commander model numbers continued to progress into the 600s. In 1958, the 680FP became the first government-approved pressurized non-airline business aircraft.  Once again, they were several years ahead of their time, as the private propeller driven market was not ready for the added cost of a pressurized cabin. The unpressurized 9-passenger 680FL was introduced in 1961 in response competition from the Cessna 400 and Piper Navajo Chieftain.

Competitive market pressures continued to drive design goals. In the mid-1960s, Aero Commander faced the now pressurized, turboprop-powered Beech King Air. This was the new “pressurized personal airliner” that could fly at higher, smoother altitudes that had seemed impractical six years earlier.

A Brief Detour into Pure Jet Aviation

Aero 4

The Jet Commander

Also, early in the 1960s, Aero Commander took a slight detour in design priorities and introduced the Model 1121 Jet Commander.

Although the 10-passenger Jet Commander used the same basic fuselage as the 680FL, the wings were mounted straight out from the middle of the fuselage. The design was popular with pilots due to its superior handling, and passengers liked the roomier cabin compared to other business jets. The Jet Commander went into production in 1965 and were soon selling at a rate of about eight per month. Realizing that the Jet Commander was not the market they wanted to pursue, Aero Commander sold the Jet Commander. After being transferred through several owners, it was purchased by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), who produced it as the Westwind. More than 400 of the type were built through 1999.

Cash Flow Problems at Aero Commander

Aero Commander was still selling aircraft, but the cash flow from sales did not fund the research and development needed to stay competitive in the business and regional aircraft markets. In 1968, Aero Commander became part of Rockwell-Standard. Rockwell had been a parts manufacturing company and wanted to expand into aircraft manufacturing.  Aero Commander wanted to expand into the growing turboprop market and needed the financial strength of Rockwell to develop the Turbo Commander.

1969 Aero Commander

1969 Aero Commander 681 (Turbo Commander) (© FlugKerl2, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aero Commander, using the Garrett AiResearch TPE-331 turboprop engine, began selling the Turbo Commander in 1967 as the 680T. The increased power provided added gross weight capability and allowed a 30-inch stretch in the fuselage.

The Turbo-Commander was a balance of pluses and minuses. It was faster than its competitors and offered a roomier cabin. The high wing design, however, meant that the engines/propellers were just outside the passenger cabin, and therefore made the cabin nosier than Beech and Cessna turboprops whose propellers were forward of the passenger cabin.

1981 marked the beginning of the end when Rockwell International sold Aero Commander to Gulfstream Aerospace. Subsequently, Gulfstream Aerospace, including Aero Commander, was acquired by the Chrysler Corp in 1985. Chrysler was more interested in the business jet market and took no more orders for the Turbo Commander. Production ceased in 1986. Gulfstream continued to support the aircraft until 1989, when Precision Aerospace Corporation acquired their Twin Commander subsidiary. Precision later reincorporated as Twin Commander Aircraft in 2003.  Today, Twin Commander provides support, upgrades, and resale of primary turbine powered Aero Commander aircraft.

Despite its popularity, Aero Commander faced serious safety issues. From 1965 through 1991, some 24 high-time aircraft crashed. Post-crash analyses determined that the main wing spar had failed due to corrosion, causing the loss of a wing in flight. Mandatory inspections discovered more than 30 aircraft with cracks in the wing spar. A number of mandatory inspections, service bulletins, service directives, and airworthiness directives were issued to correct the issue, including a redesign of the wing.

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Author’s Note: I first became interested in airplanes and flying in my middle-school years. We lived near West Point, Virginia, then home of the Chesapeake Pulp and Paper Company. From our farm, I would frequently see an early model Aero Commander overhead and learned that the aircraft belonged to the Chesapeake Corporation.

Years later, while stationed in California, I was able to witness Bob Hoover demonstrate his energy management routine with the Shrike Commander. Unfortunately, I was never able to get a ride in what was one of my favorite aircraft.

 

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