Anders Clark

There are a vast amount of different types and models of general aviation aircraft from a variety of manufacturers. And there are a lot of interesting facts and information about these different aircraft.  Here are five lesser known facts from the world of general aviation aircraft that you will hopefully find as interesting as I did.

The Longest Continual In-Production General Aviation Aircraft

So, you’ve probably heard before that the Cessna 172 Skyhawk is the most produced aircraft of all time. However, though this is true, it’s not the general aviation aircraft with the longest continual production run. Delivery of the first of 172s started in 1956, but in 1986, Cessna was forced to stop production of all single engine aircraft for a decade due to the increasing cost of lawsuits and insurance. So, who’s the winner?

The Beechcraft Bonanza, the longest continually produced general aviation aircraft, in flight
Photo by D. Miler

Buh bah duh buh bah duh buh bah duh buh, Bonanza! The Beechcraft Bonanza, that is. With the first Bonanza’s being delivered in 1947, the Bonanza has been in continual production for 69 years, making it the winner. During this time, more than 17,000 Bonanzas (including variants) have been produced, putting it a respectable 15th on the all-time production list. Even more amazing, during the aforementioned period of hard times in the 80s and 90s that hit all aircraft manufacturers and stopped production of most other single engine aircraft, Beechcraft was able to keep the Bonanza (and their twin-engine Baron) in production.

The next closest competitor was the Russian-made Antonov AN-2, a single engine Biplane. The AN-2 started production in the same year, 1947, as the Bonanza. However, production stopped in 2001, after 54 years. China started building variants of this aircraft around that time, which some think keeps the streak alive, but in the case of a tie, I figure the Bonanza gets the win with the clearer claim.

The First Airplane Manufacturer

Speaking of aircraft manufacturers, who was the world’s first to start making production aircraft? You may expect a name like Cessna, Boeing, or Piper to pop up, but it was actually some brothers. No, not those brothers (though they weren’t far behind), but rather the Irish Short brothers, Eustace, Oswald and Horace. The Short Brothers actually started their business in 1897, to manufacture baloons. However, in 1908, after hearing reports from the Royal Aero Club of the Wright Brothers demonstration of their aircraft in Le Mans, they shifted gears towards production of airplanes. By November of 1908, the three borthers had registered their partnership under the name Short Brothers and were ready to start taking airplane orders.

Their first two orders came from Charles Rolls (one of the co-founders of Rolls-Royce) and Francis McClean, a founding member of the Aero Club and repeat customer who would also act as a test pilot for the Short Brothers. So they set to work on a pair of designs, and exhibited McClean’s aircraft, the Short No. 1 Biplane, in March 1909 at the British Aero Show. They also were able to obtain the British rights to manufacture aircraft based on the design by the Wright Brothers.

Short Brothers is still around today though it was acquired in 1989 by Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier. In addition to making aircraft components, engine components and flight control systems for Bombardier, they also provide these services to Boeing, Rolls-Royce, General Electric and Pratt and Whitney. Not bad for a trio of brothers a little more than a century ago.

OK, So What Was the First Mass-Produced General Aviation Aircraft?

Well, there appear to be two candidates for this honor, the Wright Model B, and the Bleriot XI. After achieving sustained, powered flight with the Wright Flyer 1 in 1903, the Wright Brothers developed a series of additional models, including the Wright Flyer III which is considered their first practical model, and was their first to carry a passenger. By 1910 (a busy year in which they were also establishing the first flight school), they arrived at the Wright Model B. Built and sold by the newly formed Wright Company, this was their first mass produced general aviation aircraft. From 1910 – 1914, they built an estimated 100 of these aircraft, with four of them going out a month at the height of production. Despite the number built, only one original Wright Model B survives fully intact, and it’s currently displayed in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There is a second Wright Model B on display at the United States Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, but it appears to have been manufactured after the original production run. Orville Wright is said to have inspected the airplane when it was displayed at the 1924 International Air Races, and called it a “mongrel.” Harsh, man.

Meanwhile, during this same time, Louis Bleriot was making waves over in Europe, after becoming the first person to successfully fly across the English Channel. He achieved this feat on July 25th, 1909, in his Bleriot XI. After the flight, demand for this aircraft took off (bah dum CHH) and by September 1909, Bleriot had received 103 orders for this aircraft. They started building, and production continued until the outbreak of World War I. Two of these aircraft have been restored to airworthy condition, one in the UK and one in the US, and they are thought to be the two oldest flyable aircraft in the world.

A Bleriot XI restored to flying condition
Owner Mikael Carlson flying a restored Bleriot XI, photo by J Klank
The Highest Fixed-Wing Landing Ever

So, there are some high altitude airports out there, with the recently opened Daocheng Yading Airport in China being the highest, at 14,472 feet (4,411 m). However, the highest landing by a fixed-wing aircraft ever is still thousands of feet above this. In April 1960, a prototype of the Pilatus PC-6 Porter, nicknamed “Yeti,” was landed on the Dhaulagiri Glacier at an altitude of 18,865 feet (5,750 m). The Porter, well know for it’s STOL capabilities, was described by Flying magazine as being “one of the most helicopter-like airplanes in terms of takeoff performance.”

And if that wasn’t enough street cred for one plane, the Porter also holds the record for the most take offs and landing in a 24 hour period, set while helping Skydiver Michael Zang achieve his goal of 500 skydives in a 24 hour period. Takeoff, reach 2,100 feet, Zang jumps, land, pick up Zang, and repeat. 500 times. The average length of each of these cycles was roughly 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Also, the Porter pilot Tom Bishop holds a record for the most consecutive takeoffs and landings with 424 over a 21 hour period.

Speaking of High Altitudes

The highest altitude obtained by a piston engine, propeller driven airplane is 60,866 feet. This was achieved in 1995 by a Grob Strato 2C, a twin-engine experimental aircraft specially designed for high altitude flight.

Italian Pilot Mario Prezzi, after setting the altitude record for single engine general aviation aircraft
Mario Prezzi

So, how about the single piston engine, propeller driven airplane altitude record? That would be 56,047 feet (17,083 m), a record set by Italian pilot Mario Pezzi. But here’s the truly incredible thing: Prezzi set this record on October 22nd, 1938, and the record still stands today. He set it in a Caproni Ca. 161 Biplane, with a pressurized, airtight cabin, and wearing a special pressure suit.

In Conclusion

These achievements and stories regarding general aviation aircraft reflect only a fraction of the ingenuity and achievements attained during the history of aviation. They represent a monumental push onward and upward, one that is joined and continued every day by scientists, engineers, pilots, and adventurers. I think the early pioneers of flight would be astounded by just how far we’ve come. Here’s to seeing how far we can go.

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