The free market is a wonderful thing. It prices in all the joys and the pains of aircraft ownership. You can buy a hassle free but fundamentally unchallenging Cherokee 6 or Cessna 206 – or for much the same money – you can have a real blast – fly a Baron.

High operating costs may scare pilots away from light twins, but they give great bang for your buck.

IN TERMS OF BANG FOR THE BUCK there’s little to beat a Baron. Sure, the twin costs a lot more to operate – but the low acquisition price makes it so very worth it. You can buy a very nice Baron 55 for a lot less than an RV10. Just remember to set aside the change for fuel and maintenance.

I have less than 100 hours on the Baron 55 – but it gave me some of my best memories. It’s the plane I most aspired to fly as I gathered type ratings, and it didn’t disappoint. With a few hundred hours total time, and a step-up through the delightful Twin Comanche, I was soon comfortable in the left seat of a Baron.

Firing up the big grumbly six-cylinder Conti in a Bonnie or 210 is one of flying’s pleasures. Conti’s sound better than Lycomings. When you get into a Baron: Start 1 and then Start 2 = twice the pleasure. The whole plane thrums with 12 cylinders of smooth Continental power chomping at the bit, to haul you to away to distant horizons.

Let me get the demon of operating costs out of the way: If you want to go fast and far, and with a decent load of people, bags, and fuel, the light twin was built to do it. Twins are often used for proper IMC and so get more avionics – and weight. Older airframes with no deice boots, radar, or a well-stocked panel, can handle a family of six, full fuel, and baggage on a four-hour flight with reserves. However, many owners consider the back two seats unsuitable for adults and take out one or both, leaving lots of space for baggage. Think of it as a luxurious four-seater that can do six, at a squeeze.

SA Flyer’s turbo Saratoga is just 10 knots slower than a Baron, but with full tanks it could not haul even three 200lb males with small bags for 500 nm. And if the ‘Togas engine stopped, we only had one option – down.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE SPECIES

In a once every four-year event, and perhaps as a portent of its exclusivity, the Baron first flew on February 29, 1960, which makes it now a distinguished 60 something. Its birth on a leap year day was clearly auspicious as the Baron 55 was the right plane at the right time. In an era when fuel was cheap and the safety advantages of twins was taken for granted, the fast and capable Baron ticked all the boxes.

‘You could be forgiven for thinking that the French designed the Baron.’

The Twin Bonanza was the Baron’s less loved forbear.

It’s easy to see that the Baron range is directly related to the Bonanza. Yet Beech’s first pass at a light twin, the unlovely Twin Bonanza, with its bulbous cowls and uncool straight tail, missed the mark. Despite its name and appearances, the Twin Bonanza, first flown in 1949, causes confusion in the Baron’s pedigree as it is not a true derivative of the Bonanza. The Baron line is more accurately descended from Beech’s Travel Air twin – which was also a development of the Bonanza.

Just ten years after its birth, the Baron 55 had its big upgrade – a stretched version – creating the Baron 58, which used the longer Bonnie A36 fuselage, with club seating and a double rear door.

Unlike its smaller competitor, Piper’s Seneca, Beech generally avoided the costs and complexities of turbochargers. Nonetheless, pressurised and turbocharged models were launched in 1976.

After years of complaints about the Barons’ big idiosyncrasy in its power lever layout, in 1984 all Barons got an industry standard power quadrant and lost their signature throw-over yokes.

Like all GA manufacturers, Beech was hard hit by the tort lawyers with product liability suits and the ‘baby Baron 55’ was discontinued in 1982, followed by the turbo and pressurised Barons. So the youngest Baron 55 is now at least 40 years old.

THE BABY BARON

Five seats were available in the earliest 55s, with six becoming the norm by 1962 with the introduction of the A55. Over the years, maximum take-off weight (MTOW) increased incrementally. When the B55 was introduced in 1964, MTOW went from 4,880 pounds to a round 5,000. In 1966, MTOW went up to 5,100 pounds. Useful load is very useful, especially in older models. Typical useful loads are in the range of 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, depending on age and equipment.

The second engine gives you redundancy, but it also offers an abundance of power for take-off, something that translates directly into rate of climb. At typical weights you can expect better than 1,500 fpm at cruise climb to 7,000 feet and around 800 fpm up to 9,500 feet. Beech claimed a maximum climb of around 1,700 fpm from sea level at max take-off weight.

‘the second engine is only there to take you to the scene of the accident’

The old joke is that in a light twin the second engine is only there to take you to the scene of the accident. But that’s unfair – even for the normally aspirated Baron. With one engine caged, you can still see around 150 fpm climb at 9,000 feet at typical weights of around 4,500 pounds, with two aboard and a little more than half tanks. At sea level and MTOW, the Baron’s maximum single-engine climb is an impressive 350 fpm. I’ve flown singles that can’t do that. But you do need to have your finger out to use that capability.

Vmca is an absolute no-go zone. Vmca is the minimum speed at which the rudder can handle the asymmetric thrust from one engine. Below Vmca if you are airborne and have an engine failure, particularly in the safety-critical, take-off and climb-out phase, the aircraft will roll inverted. Unlike the turbocharged Senecas, both engines rotate the same way on the Baron, meaning the left engine is the critical one.

Barons have a reputation for build quality – and by association strength and solidity. Although Barons are certified in the Normal category, they are stressed to, or beyond, Utility category limits, making for peace of mind. Flight load limits for the B55 are 4.4 positive Gs and 3.0 negative Gs, making it stout for a light twin. YouTube has a Baron 55 performing beautiful aerobatics. The extra strength gives the Baron a relatively high turbulent-air-penetration speed of 156 knots at max weight.

BEECHCRAFT ECCENTRICITIES

You could be forgiven for thinking that the French designed the Baron. It has some peculiar design features, especially regarding the wing. The leading-edge and the rear portion of the wings attach to the spar by a piano hinge. Another strange feature is that the wings are attached each side to the fuselage by four bolts that act in tension. For this reason, the wing bolts are ridiculously large and require crack-testing every five years and renewing every 15. What’s more, new nuts need to be fitted every time they are disturbed, which is not a cheap exercise.

The lower forward wing-attach bolt forms a pivot point for setting the incidence of the whole wing. Knowing this feature, a well-known President Trophy Air Race winner once had the wing’s angle of incidence changed to give him less drag at high speed.

Despite the age of the design, the Baron still has great ramp presence. The impression of the machine’s solidity and speed are enhanced by its big engines, squat, strong-looking gear and slim fuselage.

Just like a Cherokee, the pilot and passengers need to enter through the right front door. Space is tight as the front seats are upright and the footwell is cramped by the centre consol.

Closing the door requires leaning into the right seater’s lap to ensure the door is shut properly. The door stay defeats many pax; the door needs to be pushed slightly more open and the stay is manually released from its slot to pull the door closed. The door is secured by rotating the handle anticlockwise to engage the top and bottom latches. Doors popping the top catch scare passengers.

The cockpit is just 42 inches wide, making it 7 inches narrower than the Seneca. But most pilots and pax are happy to rub shoulders in a Baron. If six seats are fitted, access to the rear seats is via the baggage door. This is okay for children. With just four-seats, the large rear door opens to a generous baggage area complementing the nose locker which is capable of holding a hefty 300lb, making for an ideal family touring machine.

Fully loaded, the typical 55 can carry a family consisting of a 200lb man with a 150lb wife, two 100lb children and 150lb of baggage in the nose locker and a further 120lb in the aft baggage bay. This allows full tanks totalling 136 USG (515 litres – so work on R10,000 to fill it from empty) , which at an average burn of 24gph and allowing for a 45 minute divert, gives a massive five hours endurance at around 180 KTAS, for 900nm range. Singles are wimpy in comparison.

Nose baggage bay is rated for a very useful 300 lbs.

IN THE COCKPIT

The 55 and indeed all Beeches, have a very upright seating position. This makes the view out very good.

The high instrument panel has three sections. The very deep avionics stack is offset right of centre by the power quadrant. Fortunately, there’s plenty of space to accommodate most avionic wishes, including radar.

Unless it has the hefty dual control yoke, the 55 will have an old style throw over yoke, which gives clear space in front of the right seater. Beech’s solution to fitting dual controls for training was a huge T-bar which looks large enough to hold the wings on, obscuring most of the lower avionics.

The cause of many a Baron incident is the order of the engine control levers – from left to right: pitch, power, mixture instead of the standard power, pitch, mixture. The throttles are taller than the prop and mixture levers. Pilots will set the throttles and then move their hand to the right to set the prop rpm. Trouble is – get hold of the mixture levers, which has been known to result in an unwelcome silence.

Jim Davis has written up some of the accidents caused by the idiosyncratic power levers – as well as the gear and flap positions. Normally the wheel-shaped gear knob is on the left, flaps on the right, but in the Baron the gear knob is situated to the right. The flap-shaped switch is to the left, in what would be a normal position for the gear switch. Another quirk is electrically operated cowl flaps, unlike the simpler manual ones on the B58.

The fuel system is a complex four tank setup (compared to the B58 and Seneca’s two), complete with selectable aux main fuel gauge switch to display the desired tank on the singular respective fuel gauges – another recipe for an incident. The fuel cocks are positioned out of sight on the floor between the front seats. The placarding is clear and thankfully lacks ambiguity.

FLYING THE 55

The left side wall contains the mag switches, – which to confirm you are flying in a proper plane – do not need a key.

All Baron’s are powered by two Continental 6 cyclinder engines

Early B55s use 260 hp Continental, IO470s so starting does not require the three handed Lycoming dance. Continentals are started with the mixture rich, with plenty of prime – but the pump may not be left on high as the engine floods – often on take-off with the frightening possibility of dual power loss.

Taxying out gives you the feel of a hefty plane. Line up and open the two throttles and the abundance of power is immediately evident. The take-off roll is exciting with the expected right bootful of rudder needed to maintain the centreline.

Engine failure while still on the ground means closing the throttles and stopping on the runway. Once airborne, best rate of climb, blue line speed, is of concern for obstacle clearance. Thanks to sturdy gear, the Baron simplifies the pilot’s job by having the same max take-off and landing weight, meaning that fuel doesn’t need to be burnt off and a quick circuit and landing can be carried out.

At a typical light weight you can haul the nose up to see 2,000 fpm. That gets you to circuit altitude before you take a breath. Trimmed hands-off at 23 inches MP and 2300 RPM, the fuel flows are typically 11 USG per engine with 175 KTAS.

Slowing for a clean stall, the attitude change is very noticeable. Trim changes are easy to anticipate and the wheels cycle fast – in less than 5 seconds. With the gear down the trim change is minimal, but the drag is very noticeable. The stall-warning bleats at 90kt, followed by very noticeable buffet at 83kt with the full stall at 80kt indicated. Combinations of gear and flap have little effect on the stall warning, but the stall with full-flap and gear down is 66kt. You get the feeling it will drop a wing if you give it a chance.

‘it lands more like a turbine than a piston single’

Landing is straight-forward as long as the speed has been nailed. Approach speeds are only slightly higher than those of most high-performance singles, but it lands more like a turbine than a piston single. Establish a landing attitude, watch the airspeed, and you’ve got the recipe for a flattering chirp-chirp arrival. Too much speed and it will float surprisingly far for such a heavy plane.

TO SUM UP

Most pilots who have had the pleasure of flying the Bonanza and Baron agree that it’s a vastly rewarding pilot’s aircraft. They are as strong and as solid as they feel, with a very robust landing-gear. They are a good, solid instrument flying platform. Passenger comfort is not as bad as one might think in the slender fuselage.

Maintenance costs, as with all twins, can be at least double single-engine prices. They are not the easiest aircraft to work on, which considering the age of the design, is hardly surprising.

In times of expensive fuel, twin flying gets less attractive, but if you have a mission for a twin, the Baron is as good as it gets for personal transport.

The Baron occupies an unusual place in the aviation universe. It’s a refined plane, with few things not to like about it. That refinement combined with its essential capability and utility along with its blue-blood aviation heritage make the Baron an attractive product sixty years – and counting – after it first took to the skies.

Why not a ‘RED BARON’ ?

STAYING CURRENT

Twins are safer than singles – especially well-flown twins. A piston twin demands to be flown regularly if you are to be current and safely fly with one engine out. To stay ahead of their plane, pilots must regularly practice emergencies. The key is fly by the numbers – just like a real big plane.

Flying by the numbers reduces workload and frees the brain to better manage the overall flight. This awareness will in turn help you avoid the most common causes of serious Baron accidents: flying below Vmca, and mixing up the power levers and gear and flaps.

Find a Baron-savvy multi-engine instructor to show you the specific combinations of pitch, power and configuration for each phase of flight. Fly it as light as fuel reserves allow to maximize performance. Reducing weight by only 100 pounds will decrease take-off distance noticeably, and improve single-engine climb by as much as 25 percent.

Know your plane. Ultimately, it’s the pilot’s command of his steed and knowledge of its systems, and the decisions he makes, that determine the safety of any aircraft type. The Baron is a blast.

SPECIFICATIONS
Gross Weight:5,200 LBS
Empty Weight:3250 LBS
Maximum Payload:1,950 LBS
Fuel capacity:136 USG
Engines two Continental:IO-470
Horsepower:2 x 260 HP
  PERFORMANCE
Cruise Speed:175 KTAS
Best Range (i):934 NM
Vne:223 KIAS
Fuel Burn @ 75%:24.0 GPH
Stall Speed: Gear and Flaps66 KIAS
Rate of climb:1,682 FPM
Rate of climb (1 engine):388 FPM
Ceiling:19,100 ft
Ceiling (1 engine out):6,600 ft
Take-off distance:1,315 ft
Landing distance:1,237 ft
Take-off distance over 50ft2,050 ft
Landing distance over 50ft2,202 ft

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