Speed Isn’t Everything: The 95% Rule

Most pilots want two things: to fly fast, and to log as much time as possible — the problem is that these are contradictory goals.

I have access to a company-owned Raytheon/Beech Baron, which is one of the finest, near-all-weather piston-powered traveling machines available (no personal bias here…). But more and more I find myself flying rented Cessnas for personal and some business trips. At first it seemed a kick in the ego to go “back” to an airplane whose fastest cruising speed is just under the speed I slow the Baron down to for a visual flight rules (VFR) traffic pattern. But what am I really losing by flying along at 110 knots instead of 180? And perhaps am I gaining something in the process?

Trip Times
Speed makes a great difference over long distances, for sure. But like most pilots, 95% of my flying is along repetitive routes … often between destinations that are not terribly far apart. For instance, a common trip is to fly my wife and son from my home airport, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Nashville to put them on an airliner to Kansas City (for Southwest Airlines’ $30 one-way fare, you couldn’t drive to Kansas City, let alone pay to fly yourself!). That’s 105 nautical miles straight line distance. Assuming zero wind and figuring the time-to-climb would be balanced by the time to descend, I could fly:

  • The Baron, at 180 knots, and arrive in 32 minutes; or
  • The Skyhawk, at 115 knots, and get there in about 50 minutes.

Either way, that’s less than an hour in place of a three-hour drive with likely additional traffic delays — either airplane makes good sense. What would it cost?

  • The Beech, averaging $250 per hour total operating cost, for $133.00; or
  • The Cessna, at $75 per hour (including tax) rental, for $63.00.

Biz Av
Now let’s take a typical business trip. The company I work for has several locations, each about 200 miles from the home ‘drome. In the Baron, a typical run would take about an hour and five minutes and cost about $271.00. In the Skyhawk, flying an hour and 45 minutes, I’d arrive for a rental cost of roughly $131.00 — still less than two hours (compared to a six- to seven-hour drive)… for significantly less money.

As it turns out, almost all of my personal and business trips fall in that 200 – 250 mile window –still under two and a half hours in the rented Skyhawk (at $75 per hour) as opposed to an hour and a half in the Baron.

Real World Practicality
Of course, the rental Cessna is far less well equipped than the Baron. The Beech has far greater payload capability, but my typical payload doesn’t exceed the Skyhawk’s capability, either. So long as weather permits, the Cessna is actually a far more economical way to fly for pleasure or business — with a fairly insignificant difference in actual time aloft. Plus, there’s always driving as a backup if the weather turns sour… just like driving is an option when flying the Baron, if weather exceeds that airplane’s capabilities.

Oh, there’s that nasty word when we talk about flight times. I figure I spend my life averaging about a 15-knot headwind — sometimes far greater, sometimes a little less, sometimes even a tailwind. (Come to think of it, life seems that way in or out of an airplane.) If I flew the 200-mile trip into a ten-knot headwind I’d still log:

  • An hour and 13 minutes in the Baron, costing $304.00; or
  • Two hours even in the Skyhawk, for $150.00.

A close look at the numbers: The Baron is 36% faster… but that speed comes at more than twice the cost! In fact, for practical purposes the expense curves never cross! Fly 500 miles (five hours into the wind in the Skyhawk, three hours two minutes in the Baron) and the twin still costs about twice as much. Fly 600 miles (six hours 172 vs. 3:40 Be58) and it’s still over twice as much ($916 as opposed to $450) in the faster airplane. 600 miles is probably the fatigue limit for a pilot in the slower plane, while the same pilot could go nearly twice as far in a day — but when was the last time you heard of a Baron used regularly for transcontinental trips?

Reality Check
Okay, there’s no way I’d pass by the Baron and jump in a rental Cessna if given the choice, especially if someone else (the company) was paying the bills! And sometimes your time is more valuable than the cost difference of a slower airplane — in that case, more power to you (literally and figuratively).

There’s a lot more ego-fodder in taxiing up between two 300-horsepower engines than in puttering in behind a 160-horsepower four-banger. But watch closely next time you hang around the FBO. Chances are you’ll see bigger smiles on the faces of pilots climbing out of smaller airplanes. It’s the Cherokee and Cessna pilots who more frequently pat the cowling as they leave the airplane, and turn to look back at it as they walk across the ramp. And if you believe time in the air is not deducted from our lifetimes, then the happier pilot has enjoyed a greater use of his or her time as well.

Yes, the more expensive airplane is a bit better equipped to handle adverse weather conditions — but remember that high-performance singles and piston twins appear all too frequently in weather-related accident reports, showing they are not the “all-weather” airplanes many pilots wish them to be. If you’re passing by the Cessnas and Pipers hoping you might some day fly a Mooney or Beech, perhaps you might be missing something. Flying even 115-knot cruisers will get you there in good time, and often far cheaper (and more fun) than their faster cousins. I know that, when the weather’s right, I have a lot more fun flying a Skyhawk or a Citabria.

BOTTOM LINE: Speed isn’t everything. Clearly there are other issues (time, cost, weather capability, payload) you need to consider. But try a few business and personal trips in an entry-level cross-country airplane and see if it meets 95% of your mission requirements. It may be that high-performance airplane you lust after is a dream you could never afford, but the more modest airplane might be perfect for your personal aviation needs.