While unloading the family Archer, you watch the hangar neighbor casually lift his gear legs before turning out of the pattern. Turning back to your fixed landing gear, you feel something inside tell you its time to step up to retracts. Its okay; your Archer will understand.
The step-up doesnt have to be traumatic but plan on at least $35,000 to get anything serviceable and $50,000 and up for an airframe with decent numbers and good equipment.
For this survey, our goal is a modest, first-time step up; non-turbocharged and cheaper than $100,000. Our sampler includes: The Piper Arrow, Beechcraft Sierra, Cessna RGs and the pre-201 Mooneys. All have good factory support despite various bankruptcies, lawsuits, pestilence and plague so none are the kiss of death.
Yes, there are respectable and often cheaper alternatives, such as Navions, Comanches or Bellancas. But we dont see these as practical for the first-time buyer. Parts can be a problem and youll need specialty mechanics to understand antiquated gear systems, such as in the Navions or the wooden wings of Bellancas.
Other retracts, such as the Trinidad or Commander 114, are valid picks, too, but will easily top the $100,000 mark. The 200 HP Rockwell Commander 112, with its checkered history, is a roomy possibility, but relatively few were made and performance numbers are pathetic.
Older 35-series Bonanzas are also a possibility, but well examine those in a subsequent article on mid-priced step-ups. For space reasons, we have to draw the line somewhere and thats it. For now, think complex with less complexity, because buying too much airplane is the easiest way to kill the joy of stepping up.
Speed and Performance
Most of our choices have 200 HP engines. Tossing in the 235 HP Cessna 182RG may be comparing apples to cantaloupe, but its the only way Cessna gets to compete with Mooney and, in the retractable fruit salad, speed is what its all about.
If speed is the overriding consideration, the Mooneys top the list. For this analysis, the oldest we would consider is the 1961 M20B or Mark 21, with a 180 HP Lycoming. That model sold well and this begat the M20C, probably the most common of the pre-201 Mooneys. After 1968 its called the Ranger. Cruise at 75 percent yields about 150 knots. Most owners cruise more conservatively and report 130 to 140 knots on 9 GPH. The M20E or Super 21 came along later. Its also called the Chaparral and combines the M20C fuselage with a fuel-injected IO-360, 200 HP Lycoming. Its fairly quick at 160 knots (75 percent power) but the pax wanted more leg room, so Mooney stretched the M20E by 10 inches and the M20F Executive was born.
This ones a keeper and its popularity has driven used prices through the roof. Its turns in 155 knots at 75 percent but owners report closer to 140 knots at lower power settings.
Not content to leave well enough alone, Mooney took the 200 HP Executive, reduced the horsepower to 180 and produced the sluggish (147 knots at 75 percent) but comfortable M20G Statesman. A caveat from the grain-of-salt department: Speeds on all these aircraft vary depending upon a myriad of factors, such as where the CG is or, more important, how well the airplane is rigged. The prospective buyer need only take a GPS aloft for an hour to learn the truth.
Keeping pace with the Mooney F-model is the strutted Cessna 182RG, a reminder that its relatively easy to go faster by harnessing more horses. Built between 1978 and 1986, the 182 RG has a Lycoming O-540, de-rated to 235 HP, an engine that loves to run at 75 percent power without breaking a sweat. Owners consistently report cruise speeds of 147 knots at 65 percent power. Unlike Piper manuals, one owner told us (he also flies an Arrow II), the Skylanes manual approaches reality.
For something cheaper in a Cessna retract, a svelte and strutless Cardinal RG (177RG) is a possibility, but not a fast one. It cruises around 140 knots depending whos telling the story; 130 knots might be more realistic at 65 percent power. Passing mention goes to the wallflower 172RG Cutlass. For what youd pay for a good 200 HP Arrow, you get a 180 HP 172 with expensive landing gear thats 8 knots slower than a Cardinal RG. Dont bother if speed is important.
Jockeying for position with the Cardinal RGs are the Piper Arrows; never glamorous but always dependable. We recommend the pre-T-tail 200 HP selection. The Arrow II (PA-28R-200) with its constant chord (aka Hershey Bar) wing cruises at 144 knots at 75 percent or 140 knots at 65 percent power. In 1977 Piper converted to the semi-tapered wing Arrow III (PA-28R-201), which produced little change in speed. Either way, figure cruise speeds 10 to 15 knots behind the Mooney M20F, closer to the Cardinal RGs and definitely ahead of the thoroughly unglamorous Sierra.
Beechcraft apparently interviewed a bunch of Studebaker owners and came away convinced that the future would be in slow, dowdy machinery. The resultant Sierra A24R and B24R models are doggy, but a well-rigged C24R might give 130 knots at 65 percent power.
All Sierras have 200 HP Lycoming IO-360s and should be considered semi-retractable because the wheels dont tuck completely into the wing wells. The C24R added wheel well fairings and a longer propeller.
The speed race finishes with a tie between the Mooney M20E and the Cessna 182 RG. Clustered in the middle are the Arrow II and III and Cessna 177RG with the Sierra bringing up the rear. However, speed doesnt mean much if you cant carry what you want.
In comparing airplanes, useful load numbers alone can be misleading, as some aircraft have CG limits that restrict placing all the weight where you want when you want. Most of these models have fairly wide CG ranges which adds to their appeal as step-up aircraft. Bonanzas and 172RGs, by contrast, get tricky with aft CG limits that can bite the uninformed.
Built for comfort and not for speed, the Beech Sierra is roomy, a bit noisy but hauls a respectable load. The older models (A24R) with the smaller tanks have useful loads of 1140 pounds. The newer B and C24Rs have bigger fuel tanks but C models saw useful load shrink to 1065 pounds. With full fuel, that still leaves more than 700 pounds, enough to carry four 170 pound adults plus 25 pounds of baggage.
If your definition of utility in our price range includes going a little faster while still getting the serum through, then back we go to the Cessna 182RG. Or, as owners love to say (although never on a ramp check) …if you can close the doors and the nosewheels still on the ground, itll carry it. Such bravado is backed up by numbers.
The 1979 182RG we visited had a useful load of 1231 pounds. Top the tanks with 88 gallons (528 pounds) and theres 703 pounds remaining. Skylane RGs are routinely operated over gross and with very few complaints from the survivors. Take only 50 gallons of fuel and you can, indeed, take off with just about anything thatll fit.
For much less money than the bigger Cessna, the Cardinal RG offers Cessna comfort, shade in the summer and the biggest passenger doors in general aviation. As a bonus, youll get an ugly plastic interior (Royalite).
With a smaller engine than the 182 RG, the Cardinal RG still carries a useful load in the neighborhood of 1100 pounds. Top off with 60 gallons (post 1972) and the book says it will accommodate four 170-pound adults and a few personal belongings. Caution tells us this may be pressing the limits on warm days.
Mooneys go fast because there isnt much dragging in the wind and the M20F offers a good combination of speed, range and Mooneyesque comfort, which is to say noisy and somewhat cramped. Of all the pre-201 models, the M20F has the highest useful load at 1100 pounds. With 64 gallons of fuel, it can carry three people and bags or four people and no bags. Not too shabby for a go fast airplane but shy of the Cessna 182RG.
Piper Arrow useful loads are respectable with 1130 pounds for both the 1976 fat wing Arrow II and the 1977 Arrow III. A generous baggage area holds 200 pounds. Filling the Arrow IIIs 72-gallon fuel tanks may eat into your baggage capacity but even so, a fully fueled Arrow III still has nearly 700 pounds of payload.
The champion load carrier is the Cessna 182RG. It has surplus fuel so you can easily offload gas in favor of payload, without suffering too much range penalty.
Speaking of which, how far can these things fly on a typical mission? The six-cylinder 235 HP Cessna 182RG drinks 11 to 13 GPH. With 88 gallons useable in two integral tanks, the 1979 and later models get six hours plus reserve endurance. The 1978s had smaller bladder tanks for pilots with smaller bladders.
The Mooney M20F burns 8 to 10 GPH and carries 64 gallons, 12 more than the slightly faster M20E. Burning less per hour than the 182RG, the Executive needs less fuel for the same endurance as the bigger Cessna. With similar cruise speeds, they fly about the same distance. The Mooney is just cheaper.
The 1976 fat wing Piper Arrow II has a useable fuel load of 48 gallons. At 9 GPH, thats almost five hours plus reserve. In 1977, when Piper tapered the wing, they added another 24 gallons of fuel.
All Cardinal RGs came from the factory with the 200 HP Lycoming. Buyers have two fuel options: The 1971 and 1972 models hold 50 gallons; after that the fuel load was upped to 60 gallons, giving endurance similar to the Arrow IIs.
Catching up is the venerable Sierra. From the first model in 1970 (A24R) through the gussied up C24R that closed out the line in 1983, the Sierra has sported the 200 HP Lycoming with minor mods. In 1977, when the B24R changed to a C24R, the fuel load was increased from 52 gallons to 57 gallons. At 9 GPH, figure six hours to dry tanks.
The endurance test shapes up with Mooney M20F and the Cessna 182RG running even, with the Cessna burning more but carrying more to burn. The Arrow IIIs arent far behind. The field opens up a bit with the Sierras, Cardinals and fat wing Arrows in the rear. Your mileage may vary. Our pick is the Mooney for pure range, the Cessna for best combination of range and payload.
Joy Of Flight
None of our picks stand out as sporty and none are particularly tricky to fly, although the Cessna 182 RG is heavy in pitch and Sierra can be a stinker on landing. Unless theres weight in the back, it has a tendency to arrive nose first. Speed control is the secret. Approach too fast and it floats; hold it off too long and it drops hard.
But the Sierra makes up for this shortcoming by delightful control balance in the air, as is typical of most Beech designs. A bit heavier on the controls but easier to land is the Arrow. Its a forgiving airplane for the fixed gear pilot, especially a Cherokee pilot making the transition. Thats why Arrows remain a popular training airplane; flying one is all but bulletproof.
Compared to the fat wing Arrow II, the semi-tapered wing on the Arrow III should make for the better instrument platform but, frankly, either wing is fine. Dont let that Hershey Bar wing scare you, although you do have to watch for sinkfests if you get slow on final. It flies nicely and with the money saved over the newer model, you can buy an autopilot or an HSI.
Some pilots consider Mooneys to have sports car-like handling but owners know different. Compared to the Sierra or Arrow, theyre stiff in roll but relatively light in pitch. Not unpleasant, mind you, but not ideal either.
Mooneys arent easy to slow down; descents need to be planned well in advance and this may require educating ATC to your needs. The slam dunk on a cold day doesnt cut it. The Sierra, 182 RG and Arrows have gear extension speeds close to cruise speed so the gear becomes a very effective speed brake. Not so in the Mooney.
In terms of cabin size, comfort and visibility, the Cessna probably leads the pack or ties with the Sierra. The Cessnas side visibility is blocked somewhat by low window frames and although the high instrument panel also limits forward vis, you can see whats ahead well enough. The cabin is comfortably wide and heat and ventilation are adequate, despite drafty cabins.
The Sierra is, if anything, the low-wing equivalent, with a large windshield for good forward vis. Owners rate the cabin comfort as high, with a good heat and ventilation and tight door fits that minimize drafts.
The pre-201 Mooneys drag up the rear on creature comforts and even the 201s arent much better. Theyre awkward to get in and out of and the windshield feels more like a welders mask. Spotting traffic at 12 oclock high requires considerable leaning into the glass. Side visibility is better but not great.
Although the cabin is reasonably wide, its shape tends to force occupants into shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy. If youre a wide load 250-pounder with a mate to match, the Mooney wont be a good choice.
In the joy-of-flight category, we rate the airplanes in this order: Sierra, Cessna, Mooney and Arrow. In cabin comfort, they rate about the same, except the Mooney is dead last.
System-wise, theres weird and theres simple and the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. The Cessna is probably the most conventional, with cable control circuitry and systems largely similar to the dirt-simple 172.
However, compared to other models, the landing gear has been plagued with numerous failures and, occasionally chronic repair problems. Owners willing to pay for routine preventative maintenance on the gear, however, say its design is not a showstopper. Just dont go cheap on inspection and repairs.
Similarly, the Sierra has had its share of landing gear problems; hydraulic leaks, cracked yokes, broken rod ends on actuators and so on. Again, these shortcomings yield to careful maintenance but they will add to downtime and expense. And Beech parts can be ruinously expensive.
In terms of basic systems, pre-201 Mooneys are quite similar to current production models. Basic construction is monocoque over a welded steel cage around the cabin, with push-pull tubes for controls. Some oddities stand out: Most of the early models have manual gear and hydraulic flaps, although some have been converted to electric gear.
Like the Arrows flap handle, the manual gear is simple and reliable, but can be a knuckle basher for the uninitiated. Also, the Johnson bar takes up a little floor space. But the gear itself-whether electric or manual-is almost trouble free.
Pre-201 Mooneys also have something called Positive Control, a full-time, vacuum-driven wing lever with a pull-to-disable trigger on the yoke. Lots of these systems are permanently disabled because they soak up maintenance dollars.
Since the Piper Arrow is a Cherokee, it has the same simple and unremarkable systems, with the exception of the electric/hydraulic gear. Again, this has proven to be a trouble spot, especially the automatic extension system that has its own pitot system to sense airspeed and slap the gear down automatically if the pilot is about to land with the wheels in the well.
At one point, Piper ordered the auto-extend system deactivated due to concerns about liability but later withdrew the order, leaving pilots to fend for themselves. (The auto-extend can be manually overridden.)
Overall, then, in this group, are there any standout hangar queens? Not really. The Cessnas and Sierra will require attention to the gear but are otherwise benign in terms of unusual or expensive ADs. Watch out for buying a tapped out Sierra that needs a lot of expensive Beech repair parts, however.
The Arrow is commonplace and parts are both available and reasonably priced, with few expensive gotchas. Again, watch the gear maintenance. Mooneys are virtually bulletproof in the landing gear department-with the exception of nose trusses damaged by aggressive towing. But two biggies to watch for are leaky gas tanks-an expensive fix-and corrosion in the 4130 tubing structure, an even more expensive repair.
In general, the Lycoming engines are off-the-shelf common with a few Airworthiness Directives. If youre leaning toward the 180 HP Lycomings, heads up for AD 98-2-8, which requires inspection of the crankshaft bore for corrosion. Replacing one is a major expense. Recently overhauled Lycs of all sizes are subject to a piston pin AD 97-15-11, although that may be deleted in the near future.
Chances are any retractable gear airplane thats been around awhile has had a brush with a gear-up accident, so scour the log books for entries that casually mention the replacement of belly parts and propeller blades. The abbreviation NDH in an ad means, No Damage History (recorded).
Parts cost is where youll see some variation between brands. Cessna, Piper and Mooney parts are almost reasonable in an airplane sense, although Mooney recently announced substantial price hikes. Anything with the Beechcraft logo, whether it goes into a King Air or a Skipper, will be eye-popping expensive at times. The Sierra bears that Beech crest and that family is dang proud of all their parts.
Overall, in the maintenance area then, a dead heat. All of these airplanes have warts but none would scare us from buying them.
We reviewed fatal accidents dating back to 1995. Most accidents can be labeled pilot error, or, too much airplane for too little pilot. This includes everything from buzzing the family picnic in an Arrow only to hit the power lines, to navigating through mountainous terrain at night only to slam into, guess what? The terrain. Arrow pilots led the field in impacting terrain. Terrain always wins.
To get full utilization out of the complex airplane, instrument competence is in order. Extra radios will eat into useful load, but the benefit of operating IFR should avoid the senseless continued VFR into IFR accident scenario which was the biggest killer of Mooney pilots.
Once youve mastered the machine, youre almost home free. In-flight breakups for all these models are rare. Overall, the all metal Mooneys have hardly any break-ups and none in the last few years. Arrows had two; one related to thunderstorms and the other to spatial disorientation in haze.
The Cessna 182 RG with its beefy wing struts looks like it could never pull apart and has a good record to match with only one fatal accident in our three-year survey, that from a VFR pilot who lost control on his third go-around and stalled and spun in.
Looking at the Cardinal RG strutless wings, however, you might expect it to be a bit flimsy. Yet like the Mooney, it has a good safety record when it comes to important parts staying attached in rough air. Only two fatal Cardinal RG reports turned up. One was midair in France and the other VFR-into-IMC in thunderstorms. It should be noted that despite the thunderstorms, that one didnt break up until it hit the ground.
The Sierra cant be pulled apart with a bulldozer but, wow, can pilots find ways to make bad landings, none fatal. The lone deadly Sierra report was a low-time CFI doing a rapid pull-up on departure and unintentionally demonstrating a departure stall/spin. Pilot error.
The Arrows safety record is mixed. Stay out of mountainsides and thunderstorms and the airframes hold up well. Unsuccessful forced landings claimed four Arrows since 1995 and one unusual accident involved a CFI stepping off the front of the wing into a spinning prop.
Interestingly, VFR-into-IMC accidents werent a problem with Arrow drivers, perhaps because theyre used so frequently as trainers. With automatic gear extension on older Arrows, youd think there would be no gear-up landings, but Arrow pilots seemed to make just as many as anyone else, many with collusion from a flight instructor whod disconnected the system for training.
As for minor incidents, soft fields are an unfriendly environment for Mooneys, due to the low stance. Dinged props and bent gear doors arent unusual. Cessnas are well suited for short field duty with their high wings and big flaps. Those wasplike Cessna gear legs and tiny tires, however, dont appear up to a rough surface.
The Sierra comes in a bit fast for short fields but its gear can handle the rougher surfaces. The Arrow handles either reasonably well but neither superbly. Its best to keep them all on the pavement. Your insurance company might make the same request.
Whats the best pick here? Depends on your mission but using our highly developed Aviation Consumer decision matrix, we see two best picks: Either the Mooney series or the Cessna 182RG.
The Arrow, Sierra and Cessna 177RG are certainly worthy airplanes but in the final analysis, none stand out as being fast, good load haulers or cheap to fly. (The Cardinal is good looking and the Sierra comfortable but is that enough? Your call.)
With cross-country speed in mind without regard to comfort or load hauling, the Mooney M20F is hard to beat, even though used prices have risen recently. The Cessna 182RG is the heavy hauler, but its prices are also inching into the classier neighborhoods.
After that, the Arrows are the most well-rounded choice, particularly if you have training in mind, followed by the Cardinal and Sierra, especially if the price is right on any of these three.
-by Paul Berge
Paul Berge is a CFII and editor of Aviation Consumers sister magazine, IFR.