Despite the best efforts of the marketing department some airplanes suffer the scourge of being known for their weakest traits. Cessnas Cardinal, for example, is underpowered; Mooney 231s have gimpy engines; Aerostars are widowmakers and maintenance nightmares.
Never mind that the sins of the rollout models are often atoned by post-production fixes, potential buyers remember the worst and move on. The Commander 112/114 series cross to bear has always been speed, or lack thereof. When Rockwell got into the light airplane business in 1972, its aim was to produce a new airplane that would fly faster and haul more than any other single in the market.
What emerged was a stylistic triumph that was sadly deficient in both cruise speed and load carrying capability. Rockwell improved performance by stretching the wings and bolting on a larger engine. Later, an airframe clean-up performed by Commander Aircraft-which acquired the manufacturing rights in 1988-eked out a few more knots.
The modern 114B, then, is capable of a near 160-knot cruise speed, meaning that it keeps up with other aircraft in its class, namely the Mooney MSE and Aerospatiale Trinidad. The Beech F33A-which is in the same price range as the 114B-has a slight speed advantage.
It also benefits from the fixes applied to the original airframe, outlined in detail in the chapter on the original 112/114 elsewhere in this book. There have been very few ADs on the new Commander, none of them onerous.
The 114B has sold moderately well, with about 125 new airplanes delivered since 1992, when the Bethany, Oklahoma plant resurrected the line, using the same fixtures Rockwell built for its original production in 1972.
Building on its success with the 114B and hoping to edge into the market niche occupied by Beechs B36TC, Aerospats TB21 and the Mooney TLS, Commander introduced a turbocharged model in 1995, the 114TC. To date, about 20 have been built.
Not raw speed
We surmised that the 114TC is aimed at the raw-speed crowd and would forever put to rest the notion that Commanders are stylish but leisurely cruisers. No, says Commander CEO Gene Criss, the 114TC is meant to be a balance between slightly better cruise, decent load-carrying capability and long range, with the capability to hop into the flight levels to avoid weather.
It was not intended to compete in speed with the Mooney TLS. We couldnt match the Mooneys speed even if we wanted to, says Criss, the flat plate drag of this airframe is too high.
Criss speculates that many 114TC buyers will be former 114B owners who like the airplanes handling traits or step-up buyers to whom comfort and cabin appointments are more important than all-out speed.
That may sound like a rationalization for look-see customers whose eyes will bulge at the TCs stiff price tag (current equipped list is more than $500,000) but Commander reports that interest in the new model has been high and when we visited the plant in October, 1995, nine 114TCs had been sold.
By comparison, Mooney had sold 11 TLSs while Beech has delivered six B36TCs. Obviously, the market for new single-engine turbocharged aircraft is far from vast.
And evidently, flat-out speed is not the only reason pilots buy these things. On our tour of Commanders Bethany plant, we accompanied Tony Winn, a soon-to-be private pilot from Connecticut who put down a deposit on a new 114TC. We wondered if he had compared the 114TCs cruise numbers to either the Mooney TLS or Bonanza B36TC.
Indeed he had. Even though a comparably equipped TLS sold for nearly $50,000 less and is a blistering 40 knots faster, Winn flatly rejected the Mooney. After a test flight, he found the Aerospatiale TB21 toylike. He was still chewing on a look at the B36TC.
Im a big guy. Im just not going to be comfortable crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a Mooney, said Winn. He wanted room for himself, another passenger and his golf clubs.
Besides, added Winn, Im never in a big hurry.
If Crisss prediction that many 114TC buyers will be stepping up from the 114B is true, those owners will find a basic airframe and cabin configuration thats almost identical to the B model. For the 1995 model year, Commander introduced some changes-improved lighting and switches, a wider CG envelope, a streamlined beacon in the vertical tail, seat improvements, door handles-all of which are common to the TC.
The only significant airframe difference is in fuel capacity. The TC has 90 gallons (88 usable) versus 70/68 for the 114B. Commander enlarged fuel capacity by extending the tanks outboard into the next wing bay. Externally, the TC wing has a single-skin leading edge, rather than the lapped skins on the B-model.
For power, Lycoming certified a new version of the 540-series, the TIO-540AGA, which has a similar (though smaller) Garrett TA0413 turbocharger used on the Piper Mirage. Its rated to 270 HP at 2575 RPM and has an automatic wastegate and an altitude-compensating density controller that helps limit boost to 39 inches. Critical altitude, says Commander, is 21,500 feet, with a maximum service ceiling of 25,000 feet.
Outwardly, the turbocharged engine installation looks virtually identical to the B-models normally aspirated version, with the exception that the exhaust pipe exits on the left rather than the right. (The 540 crankcase Lycoming used could only accommodate the turbo mount on the left side and Commander didnt want to wait for a modified case.)
Big airplane systems
When Rockwell broke into the general aviation market in 1972, it did so with years of experience building military and heavy aircraft subsystems. This was reflected in the 112/114 and is carried over in the modern-day Commander.
Criss says this design cuts both ways. It does give the 114TC a heavy airplane solidity-which customers like-but it also elevates the weight and the parts count, requiring more assembly time and ultimately a higher cost.
One example we saw on the assembly line was a small mechanism used to control the backup gear extension. It consists of a knob, connected to a bellcrank, connected to a control rod that ties into a valve in the hydraulic system. In a Cessna or a Piper, the same thing would probably be done with a knob and a cable.
The 114TCs systems are not especially complex, however, nor do owners of earlier Commanders report them to be maintenance intensive. Actually, the reverse seems to be true, which is likely due to good engineering on Rockwells part and first-class parts support from Commander and, before that, from Gulfstream, which acquired the manufacturing rights from Rockwell but never built any airplanes.
The 114TCs fuel, electrical and ventilation systems are especially well thought out, in our view. The TC has two wing tanks, plumbed to a central valve with a control located at the pilots right elbow. Unique among low-wing aircraft, the Commander fuel system can be operated on both tanks; theres no need to switch tanks, except to correct a possible imbalance.
The gauges-turbine-sty]e miniature types-are placed on the panel front-and-center, where its easy to see them. We suspect that this sensible design is at least partly responsible for the Commanders low incidence of fuel-related accidents.
The electrical system has an 80-amp alternator but in airplanes equipped with air conditioning-and most TCs are-theres a second 130-amp alternator to run the cooling. Should the primary alternator fail, the backup has more than enough guts to run the entire system. (AC is an expensive and heavy option $15,750/115 pounds.)
In the cockpit, the breakers and switches are conveniently located on a subpanel under the main instrument panel. One minor nuisance is that oft-used switches-beacon, strobes, nav lights-hide behind the pilots yoke. We would rather see them centrally located or at least positioned in plain view. Two vacuum pumps, by the way, are standard, even though most airplanes will have only one vacuum instrument, the attitude indicator.
In aircraft fitted with AC, vent air spews forth in great volume from a ceiling mounted vent in the back of the cabin, behind the passengers heads. We flew on a warm Oklahoma afternoon and found that the AC and vent system chilled the cabin quite nicely before we reached the runway for takeoff. (Keeping cool may come at the expense of brake pads, however. The engine has to idle at 1200 RPM to keep the AC alternator chugging along.)
The gear system in the TC is similar to that found in a Piper Arrow, without the automatic extension. Its hydraulically operated by an electrically-driven power pack in the tailcone. Like the Arrow, emergency extension is done by releasing the hydraulic uplock and letting gravity drop the wheels.
From its inception, Rockwell sold the 112/114 series as being long on cabin comfort and we think Commander has improved on that.
Having two doors in a low-wing airplane is a huge boon to graceful entry and exit, although getting into the back seats requires some contortions because the front seats dont slide forward very far. Once youre in, the back seats have plenty of shoulder room and adequate, although not generous leg room.
Another big airplane touch: the wing steps on both sides are illuminated at night by a small courtesy light controlled by a timer, thus reducing the chances of skinning your shin because you couldnt see the black-painted step on a dark ramp.
The front seats seemed comfortable to us and for an extra $100 per side, Commander will add inflatable lumbar support. Woolen upholstery is standard but we suspect most owners who can afford a $500,000-plus airplane wont think twice about splurging an extra $1,500 for a full-leather interior, which includes leather side panels.
We found interior detailing in the 114TC to be superb, with good fit and finish on ABS plastic window frames and trim and nicely rendered placards and labels. The back seats have overhead reading lights and eyeball vents, in keeping with Commanders attempts to sell its aircraft as mini-airliners suitable for business transportation.
Up front, theres no shortage of shoulder room between the two pilots, who tend to sit high with an unimpeded view over the cowl, which slopes downward. A central fore-and-aft console contains the throttle quadrant, elevator trim, fuel tank control and cowl flap switch and serves as an armrest. Center consoles are a taste we havent acquired and given the choice, we would swap it for extra cross-ways leg room, but the left-side door makes the console less of a nuisance and, in any case, its standard equipment.
We found nothing remarkable about the instrument panel, other than its lighting system, which is a combination of blue-white floods under the glareshield and post lights. Panel placards are cleverly illuminated from behind the panel and although we didnt fly at night, this system looked to be a step above the circa mid-1970s lighting found in much of the fleet.
Commander owners seem enthusiastic about the airplanes handling qualities, which we think are best described as predictable and more bomber-like than sprightly.
Because of the cruciform tail riding clear of the prop stream, pitch response on takeoff feels a bit different than with a conventional tail, but we didnt think it required the sharp tug needed to launch a T-Tail Arrow or Lance. Commander demo pilot (and marketing vice-president) Walter Murphy suggested applying back pressure at 70 knots and allowing the airplane to fly off on its own, which it did without any fuss.
Over the course of several takeoffs and climbs, we were able to climb at 700 to 1000 feet initially and to hold the book climb rates into the mid-teens. Visibility over the nose is excellent at the 100-knot optimum climb speed that Murphy recommended. To hold the ball centered, Murphy had us crank in some right rudder trim, thus relieving the need for knee-wobbling rudder pressure on the ride to altitude.
Commander owners tell us the airplane is somewhat ponderous in roll and we would agree; it tends to stay where its put and requires smart control wheel movement to enter into a rapid roll. In turbulence, it wants to stay wings level but without a yaw damper on-optional equipment that we think should be standard-its prone to tail wagging thats quite noticeable in the back seat but is tolerable for the front-seaters.
One pleasant handling surprise is the relative lack of pitch changes with large variations in power and/or gear and flap reconfigurations. The airframe waggles some when the wheels are extended but requires very little retrimming until full flaps are extended.
As Murphy recommended, we made approaches at 80 knots with full flaps, carrying some power. We would characterize the airplane as very easy to land well. Theres no need to raise the nose to some ungodly angle and the trailing link gear seems to make for consistent touchdowns.
Some 114B owners say the Commander is a handful in crosswind landings but when we tried one at Wiley Post with a 15-knot component, the Commander seemed solid and predictable, with enough rudder to handle gusts. Because of the centering springs, the rudder seems stiff but it has plenty of bite.
One undesirable side effect of the Commanders relatively high drag is the possibility of a high sink rate on final. We wouldnt say it has a tendency to settle into this regime on its own but if you get slower than 75 knots, itll take gobs of power to hold the glidepath and at high landing weights, a go around might be preferable to sagging onto the backside of the power curve.
Murphy said the preferred short field method is to hold 80 knots and then slow very near the threshold by steadily reducing power. With all that drag, theres virtually no tendency to float.
In cruise, the 114TC clips along faster than the 114B, of course, but not nearly as fast the fastest competition in this class. At 8000 feet, the POH calls for 159 knots at 75 percent power, burning about 16.2 gallons, and thats close to what we saw on our test flights. Naturally, the TC does better at higher altitudes, with the best predicted cruises in the teens or low 20s, where you could expect 167 to 171 knots on 16 to 17 gallons per hour. (The best we saw was 169 knots on 16.5 gallons at 15,500 feet.)
While those speeds are respectable, the 114TC gives up knots to all of the other turbocharged singles. The Trinidad TB21, for example, can manage 180 knots all out; the B36TC can do 190 knots and the Mooney TLS does more than 190 knots, albeit at a higher fuel burn. Reduced to the equivalent fuel burn, the TLS will still do about 170 knots.
At altitudes above 18,000 feet, says Commander, the cowl flaps may have to be opened to aid in cooling. This will shave seven to nine knots off cruise speeds that arent that high to begin with. The cowl flaps are electrically operated with two positions; open or closed. You cant tweak them for just a little cooling.
The 114TC has the same cowl design and inlets as the non-turbocharged B-model, leading us to wonder if the engine will tend toward overtemping in hot weather. We flew on a relatively warm (but not hot) day and found that CHTs remained about 25 to 40 degrees below redline during climbs with cowl flaps open.
Criss told us that Commander encountered some overheating during flight tests but independent data showed that this was due to instrumentation problems. (During our flight trials, we noticed that the GEM consistently showed cooler CHTs than did the analog CHT gauge.)
Range and payload
With 90 gallons of fuel on board, the 114TC has between five and six hours endurance to dry tanks, which puts it in the same league as the other turboed singles, albeit on the low side. Because of its slower speed, the 114TC has less range, however.
For its size, the Commander is a relatively heavy airplane, with max takeoff weight set at 3305 pounds. Typically, empty weight is about 2250, says Commander, depending on options, with the 100-pound air conditioning package being the heaviest.
Worst case, the airplanes empty weight might top out at 2350, leaving 955 pounds for people, gas and stuff. Subtracting 528 pounds for full fuel, leaves 427 pounds cabin payload. Thats equivalent to a couple of 200-pounders up front, plus some baggage. Or three very light people and no baggage.
Conclusion: the Commander wont carry even a light family of four and its baggage without offloading an hour or two of fuel. One other minor fly in the soup: the Commander has a 3000-pound zero-fuel limit, meaning that anything loaded on the airplane above that weight has to be fuel, thus you cant legally drain down the tanks to a couple of hours worth of gas to haul your beefy bowling team across the river to the next town.
Furthermore, the 114TC has a gross-weight landing limit of 3140 pounds, so, according to the POH youre supposed to burn off 27.5 gallons of fuel before landing after a gross-weight takeoff. The 114B has a similar limitation but Commander says it hasnt been an issue with customers.
Still, our view is that if this limitation isnt a serious structural consideration-and it doesnt appear to be-why have it? (The limitation dates to Rockwells early drop testing of the gear, says engineer John Cunneen. Revising the tests would be too expensive.)
Potential buyers looking for all-out speed in the flight levels will pass by the 114TC, and rightly so. Despite the addition of a turbocharger, the airplane simply isnt in same speed class as the Mooney TLS, which leaves the Commander far behind.
Conversely, as Tony Winn explained, those who want a spacious cabin wont think twice about the Mooney. In our view, then, the real competition for the Commander 114TC is the Beech B36TC, which is more expensive only by degree but carries more and is considerably faster, not to mention having two extra seats. Interior appointments are comparable.
Handling between the two is a toss-up. We think the Beech is better harmonized, but on balance, the Commander seems simpler to fly and especially to land, thus making it more appealing to low-time pilots such as Winn. (Commanders Criss says many first-time buyers of 114Bs are in fact low-time or even student pilots. He expects the same pattern may hold true for the 114TC.)
Given that both airplanes are new, short-term maintenance costs should be comparable. Long-term costs beyond the warranty period are a guess, but Commander owners continue to tell us that factory support for the fleet is excellent.
Winn told us he had flown a Commander 114B some months ago and liked its solid control response and well-thought out systems. Following his test flight, he told us the 114TC confirmed his initial impressions but he intended to have a look at the B36TC before making up his mind.