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Airborne Harleys Bonanza Endures The Winds Of Change Without Changing Much

A lot has changed since the first Beechcraft Bonanza rolled off the assembly line in 1947.

The world went from vacuum tubes to fax machines, from “Amos and Andy” to MTV.

Still being built, the single-engine Bonanza looks much the same as it did nearly a half century ago.

Some 14,000 of these small planes have taken to the air, making them probably the most enduring light aircraft in use today. Few things have such staying power.

The Bonanza won’t draw a lot of looks buzzing across the sky, but the plane stirs passion in the people who own and fly them.

They are in Spokane this week for the 27th annual convention of the American Bonanza Society, a group organized and supported by the plane’s owners.

The Bonanza is to aircraft what Harley-Davidson is to motorcycles. It represents freedom, adventure and nostalgia just like the big motorcycles, only without the bad-boy image.

Howard Wisner, a Dallas bone surgeon, takes his on excursions around the world, flying 15-hour stretches across the oceans.

Tom Bird, of Chatsworth, Calif., is piloting his Bonanza to the Arctic this summer all by himself. He wants to catch a big salmon.

“It’s a pretty devoted club of fliers,” said Bird, who should get the award for the pilot with the best last name.

Nearly 200 of the single-engine Bonanzas are lined up side-by-side at Geiger Field, bearing name tags from all over.

While paint jobs and tail assemblies differ, the overall look of the plane has changed little since the first ones came out of Beechcraft’s Wichita, Kan., plant.

The company has made improvements over the years to keep pace with changes in technology and customer demand.

Most of the planes seat four persons and fly about 165 mph. Newer models hold six and go up to 200 mph.

The first Bonanzas sold for $7,000. Now they cost $300,000.

Ralph Requa, who flies Boeing 757 cargo jets for a living, recently bought a 1960 Bonanza for $44,000.

“The Bonanza has always been the Cadillac of the light airplane,” said Requa, of Castro Valley, Calif.

He got the plane so he and his wife can fly instead of drive to their vacation home in Mendocino County in California.

A lot of pilots attend the convention year after year, some from faraway places. They go to seminars, swap stories and peruse the array of accessories on display through today at Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park.

They are a serious bunch. They study how to fly safely, how to improve the performance and how to keep them in top shape.

“Everybody sits around and tells their war stories,” pilot Wisner said.

Les Grindrod, of Warren, Australia, is at his sixth convention.

“It’s a good way to see the states,” said Grindrod, a real estate developer. Australia is too far away even for the long-distance capability of the Bonanza. Grindrod left his at home and came by commercial jet.

Norman Colvin, a career Beechcraft employee who is an expert on the plane, knows as much as anyone.

At age 84, he works as a consultant to the society and is the author of a manual on Bonanza maintenance.

“The darn things just don’t wear out,” said Colvin, who occupies an information booth every year at the convention.

Pilots praise the Bonanza’s performance, much like sports car owners rave about cornering.

“They are light on the controls and easy to fly,” said Colvin.

The older models are distinguished by a V-shaped tail, originally installed because it is lighter and faster than a conventional tail. However, newer models have conventional tails.

Many owners are tempted by costly accessories to improve the speed and performance of their planes.

A top-of-the-line turbo charger goes for about $35,000. It allows the plane to fly at a higher altitude, important for traveling over mountainous terrain.

Henry Harper of Idaho Falls has a less costly super charger. It allows him to fly at 25,000 feet, which is above most storm clouds.

He wears an oxygen mask at that altitude because the cabin is not pressurized, he said.

Wisner, the Dallas surgeon, said he and a partner have flown their Bonanzas around the world four times.

They installed two 100-gallon fuel tanks on the tips of the plane’s wings to extend the distance between gas stops. Wisner said he could fly non-stop from Spokane to Hawaii.

“They just go on and on and on,” said pilot Bird. “People who have them tend to keep them.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo