These days you dont have to put your eyes on a model 112 or 114 Commander for long to see why these airplanes had perhaps more ramp appeal than the competition. At the time (somewhere around 1972) North American Rockwell remained true to its military contract experience and built big airplane touches into the small Commanders. Even well before the Commander singles came along Rockwell had been trying to bring the right mix of ramp appeal, features and performance to the general aviation market. The Lark, Darter and efforts to revive the Meyers 200 didnt exactly work out the way Rockwell had hoped.
But it connected with the Commander 112, thanks to a cabin with dual doors that emphasized easy ingress and egress (more appealing than the single-door arrangement on Piper and Mooney models), aggressive styling and a price just shy of $25,000. It was a rocky road for the Commander singles. A series of model changes ensued and original production ended in 1979. Since then, the design has been in and out of several hands, one pair of which actually produced some 200 updated models during the 1990s. Heres a look at the Commander 112/114 and what to expect and consider when shopping for one.
The Commander single series began life as the Rockwell 112, a 200-HP retractable designed to compete against Cessnas Cardinal RG, Pipers Arrow and Beechs Sierra. During its development, Rockwell conducted elaborate studies of pilot preferences and even aviation journalists (Aviation Consumer editors included) were invited to take a look atpreliminary designs and makesuggestions. The result madeits debut in 1972 and emphasized looks, cabin room and comfort over raw performance.
It turned out that despite the big cabin, the Commander 112 was quite deficient in useful load, resulting in the 112A model, which came out in 1974. The 112A featured an increased gross weightfrom 2550 to 2650 poundsat a nominal change in useful load. Owners tell us an early 112 can benefit from the 112As increased gross weight after applying a service bulletin and a few dollars.
Squeezing even more load-carrying ability out of the airframe, Rockwell delivered the 112B in 1977, still powered by the same 200-HP Lycoming IO-360-C1D6 as earlier models. The 112B featured 16-inch wingtip extensions, which allowed raising the gross to 2800 pounds for a respectable useful load of 1020 pounds. By this time the price had climbed to the $50,000 range, which was comparable to the Piper Arrow III.
The B model actually rode on the coattails of the turbocharged 112TC model, which came out a year earlier with the longer wing. A TC-A model brought with it little more than another 37 pounds of soundproofing. All 112TC models were powered by a 210-HP Lycoming TO-360-C1A6D.
As is so often the case with a new aircraft, continuing improvements and a larger engine resulted in a new model, the 114, which arrived in 1976. Powered by a 260-HP IO-540-T4A5D Lycoming engine (an IO-540-T4B5D for 1977 and later models), it was often characterized as the airplane the 112 should have been in the first place. Base price was about $47,000, and around $63,000 when decked out with options.
Only minor changes were made in the all-too-brief four-year production run of the 114. In 1977, aerodynamic improvements gave slightly improved performance. Also, soundproofing was added and fixes were made for earlier compass interference and trim-tab freeze-up problems. In mid-1977, Rockwell improved the door locks and handles, replacing the earlier flipper-style handle to a pull-out/push-up style. Also incorporated were main gear inner door mods, which filled a small, drag-creating gap. The additional attention to gear-up drag improved cruise speed by a handful of knots.
In 1979, the final year of Rockwell production, the 114A Gran Turismo model was offered. It featured a three-blade prop, new cowl flaps and an upscale interior; its average equipped price was close to $100,000.
Rockwells production of the Commander singles stopped in 1979, but it wasnt until 1988 that the company got out of the GA business altogether, eventually selling Commander rights to Gulfstream, which never produced any of the models. The Commander line soon was reconstituted by a company bearing the nameplates original name and funded by interests in Kuwait. Headed by Randall Greene, the company purchased a facility in Bethany, Oklahoma, to maintain and repair the existing fleet, and worked toward bringing to market a new model, the Commander 114B.
In 1992, Commander certified the 114B, which included a 28-volt electrical system (instead of the original 14-volt), plus several speed mods making it faster than the original 114, including a newly designed, aerodynamically cleaner cowling. The net result was a cruise-performance improvement of 8-10 knots. Most notable among the changes are a standard-equipment three-blade prop. Base price of the first 114Bs was $169,500 (average $215,000, equipped). A turbocharged version, the 114TC (powered by a Lycoming TIO-540-AG1A), was added in 1995, with an average equipped price of $417,000.
In 2000, Commander upgraded the model again with improvements including a lowered instrument panel, improved seats, an upgraded electrical system and TKS de-icing. These aircraft are designated the 115 and 115TC, respectively.
The later Commanders had modern Garmin avionics (GNS530/430 combinations) and BendixKings KFC225 digital autopilot, which proved to be a good match for the airplanes performancewhen the system was workingbased on our experience with more than one model 115. Our advice is to pay particular attention to the autopilots performance when considering one of these later-model Commanders. Earlier ones might be equipped with Century autopilots and many were retrofitted with S-TEC systems.
Production ceased in 2002 at the Bethany plant and the company eventually went into bankruptcy. In 2005, 50 Commander single owners banded together, formed the Commander Premier Aircraft Corporation (CPAC) and purchased the assets from bankruptcy.
After moving jigs and other equipment to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, CPAC set about to produce spare parts for the fleet, but no new airframes. In mid-2009, CPAC announced it had approved a letter of intent to sell itself to Montreal, Canada-based Aero-Base Inc. At this point, there are no new production Commanders.
In all, some 759 Model 112s of all variants were made by Rockwell, along with about 500 114s. In the 1990s, Commander manufactured approximately 127 114B models, plus 27 114TCs, while production of the 115 and 115TC hovered at around 15 or so each. Adding all that together, we come up with around 1450 copies of the various Commander singles produced to date.
Blazing speed has never been a selling point for any Commander single. At 130 knots or so, the original 112 can barely get out of its own way; a fixed-gear Piper Archer with 20 less horsepower usually can stay even. A Beech Sierra, renowned for its casual cross-country pace, can eke out another five knots or so more than a 112. The 114, meanwhile, offers what might be called a gentlemanly cruise of about 150 knots.
Climb performance and range of the 114 are both adequate. Listed rate of climb is just over 1000 FPM for the 1976 model and 1160 FPM for later ones, comparable to the Mooney 201 and Cessna Skylane RG. The 68-gallon fuel supply is enough for four hours or so at high cruise, but the 114 lacks the reserves of the Mooney and Skylane RG, both of which carry more fuel and burn less of it.
True to its government-contracting and military experience, Rockwell built into the Commander line big airplane touches when it comes to systems. The gear system, for example, is massively built, using a retraction/extension system similar to the Piper Arrow and based on an electrically driven hydraulic pump. Although pilots rave about the trailing-link design and its ability to soften otherwise firm arrivals, there has been a relatively high proportion of gear-collapses accidents in the past, so it may not be quite as good at sopping up thuds as conventional wisdom suggests.
Early gear collapse incidents typically involved the nosegear and, according to users experienced with the type, eventually were thought to result from distortion of a thin-wall tubing pivot pin used in the nosegear trunnion/drag brace assembly. The distortion, it is speculated, results from hard or nosewheel-first landings. In subsequent models, this part was changed to a solid pin and collapse incidents ceased. The newer-style pin can be retrofitted to any model without need for an STC and has been installed in many of the earlier 112s and 114s.
Meanwhile, ventilation, electrical and fuel systems are well thought out, in our view. Some later models are equipped with air conditioning and 130-amp alternators, providing more than enough juice to run a well-equipped cockpit.
The fuel system is unique among low-wing aircraft for having a both-tanks-selected option. One problem with the system, however, can crop up when the airplane is parked on an uneven surface and Both is selected: Fuel can fill the lower tank, causing it to overflow. Switch to Off to prevent this problem.
The engine compartment suits the overall size of the airplane and the engines rear-mounted accessory case is readily accessible to fix what breaks. Getting to that point, however, requires removing the single-piece top cowling half. Doing so isnt an extreme burden, but is one more thing to plan for when doing much more than checking the oil.
Owners give the cabin high grades for roominess and volume, if not payload: The 112s generally have 30 to 150 pounds less useful load than other 200-HP retractables, although the margin diminishes with the A and B models. Part of this is due to the high-parts-count build; theres a lot of stuff in the Commander airframe.
And, while the 114s loading picture is much better, theres no free lunch: The 114 comes with a zero-fuel weight (ZFW) limit of 2852 pounds for normal-category operations, 2500 for the utility category. With a typical empty weight of 1905 pounds, according to the Aircraft Bluebook, this limits cabin payload to around 950 pounds for everyday flying. Other models certificated subsequent to the 114 also have a zero-fuel weight in their paperwork: The 112TC, 112B, 112TCA and 114B include the limitation, with the exact value determined by CG location. By the time the 114TC came along, the ZFW was set at 3000 pounds, 305 less than max gross, regardless of CG.
By the mid-1980s, not long after Rockwell production ceased, structural problems began cropping up in the fleet: Wing spars were cracking due to stress caused by gear retraction. Two lengthy service bulletins (Gulfstream Aerospace Service Bulletin Nos. SB-112-71C or SB-114-22C, depending on aircraft model) were issued by Gulfstream, by then the marques owner, calling for inspection and repair if needed. There were other mods to brace the spar if it wasnt cracked. All of this was given the force of law by AD 87-14-03.
The wings werent the only problem. The tails vertical spar attachment was cracking, too. A fixfor $2500was mandated by AD 88-05-06. Then there were the seats. The history of this problem goes back to the mid-1970s and AD 77-16-09, requiring strengthening of the front seat framework and seat belt attachment. Then in 1985, another AD (85-3-4, now in Revision 2) came out following a couple of accidents in which front seat rollers failed and the seats came loose. This involved aircraft in compliance with the earlier AD. The new AD ordered modification of the front seat base and relocation of the shoulder strap anchor to the cabin roof between the front and rear seats.
As one result of these ADs, the Commander Owners Association (COA) was formed. The issue was not only the efficacy of the wing modifications, but who was going to pay for them and the tail mods. By spring 1989, after almost three years of legal pressure from COA, Gulfstream Aerospace and Rockwell International agreed to a settlement on the repair and upgrading of all Commander 112/114s in the U.S. and overseas. Announcing the settlement, COA President David Kaplan, and attorneys Stanley H. Rozanski and Steven R. Levy, noted it was valued in excess of $12 million.
A final airworthiness directive (90-4-7, which superseded AD 87-14-03 and also is the most recent type-specific AD) incorporated the revised procedures described in the third version of the service bulletins. That AD called for repetitive inspections until the modifications called out in the wing-spar service bulletins were completed. Actual work on the mods has been performed by the new Commander Aircraft Co., and newer 114Bs and 115s had them incorporated at the factory.
For those paying attention in the 1970s, the irony of all this is how Rockwells original marketing efforts highlighted the 112/114s strength. Having said that, the Commander line is, nonetheless, a robust if complex airplane whose build method has more in common with military aircraft than with a modern Cirrus, as an example. And the good news is that since the wing spar AD was released in 1990, the Commander line has had only one additional AD, an inconsequential bulletin for the 114TC requiring replacement of an exhaust clamp. There are no ADs on the 114B and subsequent models. Finally, the Commander wing underwent fatigue testing, with proven good results.
Other than compliance with the ADs, the good news is maintaining a Commander single isnt anything out of the ordinary. Still, potential buyers would do well to check over the paperwork to verify the logs reflect compliance. Owners and shops familiar with the rest of the fleet tell us there are very few aircraft without the mods, but they likely do exist. Do your homework before buying any Commander, which is true of any used aircraft, of course.
The 200-HP Lycoming engine on the 112 Commanders is generally considered a reliable player these days, as is the 260-HP version on the 114. But the turbocharged model had reports of broken or cracked turbine housings and the aforementioned exhaust clamp problem.
In addition to the airframe ADs originating in the mid-1980s, an individual example of a 112/114 might be subject to an AD on Hartzell prop hubs: Some two-blade props installed on early models may need regular inspections. Meanwhile, the very few airplanes on which the wing and tail AD-required mods have not been performed need an inspection every 100 hours, or until terminating modifications are made. Theres also a fuel line inspection AD applicable to nearly all fuel-injected Lycoming engines regardless of aircraft model.
Other problem areas reported by owners include nosewheel shimmy, corroding flap attach brackets and aileron hinge cracks. All in all, once the SBs and ADs are resolved, theres nothing special about maintaining a 112/114 when compared to other piston airplanes of similar vintage.
Good news includes field support: Parts availability is, reportedly, no problem at all. Were also hearing from owners that overall, their airplanes are easy to maintain and upgrade.
Finally, a recent FAA Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) calls owners attention to the possibility a Commanders flap switch may be operating or installed improperly. The normal switchs operation is relatively common across different manufacturers and is spring-loaded in the extension position. To retract the flaps, the switch features an over-center position. Theres also a neutral, or power-off, position in between. According to the FAA, a fatal Commander accident investigation found a model 112 with its flaps fully extended shortly after takeoff. The FAA cautions pilots to verify the flap switchs operation on the ground as part of the preflight procedures. We think exercising the flaps stop-to-stop is a good idea during preflight on any airplane.
Despite a relatively small population in the field, theres a long list of STCs available for the Commander 112/114 series. A good source for research is Commander Owners Group, or COG (www.commander.org). COGs website has good information on buying and operating these aircraft, plus a forum. Cost is $75 a year. Another resource is CPAC, which also maintains a web-site at www.commanderair.com, and has secured FAA parts manufacturing authority (PMA) for a number of components. Most mods offer minor improvements or replacements of existing parts.
There are engine mods, too. One is the Hot Shot turbonormalizing system offered by RCM Normalizing (www.rcmnormalizing.com, 805-215-2982). The company also has spring door kits, a sturdy landing light mounting kit, plus a flap gap and aileron seal kit, which is advertised to boost cruise speed by 3 knots or more and offer better climb and tighter slow-speed handling.
Want to make your Commander a hot rod? Vermont-based Aerodyme (www.aerodyme.com, 802-264-6400) has two STCs for engine upgrades on both 112s and 114s. The 580 Super Commander upgrade was born when company founder Jim Richards wanted more speed from his own model 114. With help from Lycoming, the 320-HP IO-580-B1A STC made that happen. With a Hartzell 78-inch three-blade scimitar prop, a new ram air induction system and dual exhaust, Aerodyme advertises 185-knot cruise speeds (175 true), 2500 FPM sea-level climbs and 1200-foot takeoff performance. Once its off, a Super Commander has a 21-percent climb gradient that can hustle to 12,000 feet in 12 minutes, says Aerodyme. The mod is available for 114/A/B, 114TC and 115-model Commanders. Aircraft Bluebook suggests adding $80,000 to the average retail price of a used Commander.
Aerodyme also has an STC to retrofit the 210-HP Lycoming IO-390 into Commander 112s. This package includes a similar intake and exhaust change and the 74-inch prop. The net gain is about 25 HP worth of performance, about 1200 FPM climb at sea level and cruise in the high 130s at 12 GPH.
The FAA repair station also does avionics upgrades, engine monitor installations, rebuilds instrument panels, plus supplies service parts and offers airframe inspections.
It currently lists an annual inspection for $2195, and $1500 when done in conjunction with one of Aerodymes STCs. Theres also a $250 landing gear actuator refurbishment service.
I purchased my 1978 Rockwell Commander 114 approximately six months ago and have flown it 105 hours so far.
I was looking to purchase a true four-place airplane that would be a good IFR platform. I was looking at Mooneys, Bonanzas and Commanders. Ultimately, the Commander met and exceeded my requirements. What tipped the scale was the roomy cockpit, two doors and that it can handle four adults with no weight and balance issues. The two-door design was very important to me because I fly with my family and I wanted two ways out if anything goes wrong.
The airplane attracts a lot of attention everywhere I go. A ramp comment Ive heard more than once: Now that is what an airplane should look like. The large spinner, great lines and the mid-tail give it a presence on the ramp that is hard to beat.
As an IFR platform it is perfect, in my view, because its stable, predictable and inspires confidence. Now that I have made multiple long-distance trips, I am absolutely in love with this airplane. It is extremely well built, looks great, has a comfortable cabin, is fuel efficient and generally affordable to purchase and own.
The Commander may not be as fast as some other four-place aircraft, but I would rather show up little later and fresh, than be quicker and fatigued. The first long trip I took with my wife along was to South Carolina from Michigan, which took just over three hours. My wife got out of the plane and commented that she felt great, and couldnt believe we were already there. She has back issues, so that statement meant a lot. Its been her experience on multiple trips.
I have owned several aircraft, including my current 1957 Beech T-34 Mentor, along with the Commander and the Commander is my favorite.
Rockwell 112/114 Wrecks: Engines
During our review of the 100 most recent Rockwell 112/114 series accidents, we were struck by two things: the relatively few runway loss of control (RLOC) mishaps and the high number accidents due to poor or lack of maintenance.
We credit good overall design for the fact that there were only nine RLOC eventsevidence that the marques reputation for good handling is deserved. We think further support for the rep is shown by the low number of stall crashesthree.
We hypothesize that more than a few pilots bought the complex Rockwell singles because of the low purchase price then discovered that a complex airplane is expensive to maintain and scrimped on maintenance. Two fires due to failure to do routine inspections of the exhaust system on turbocharged models got our undivided attention as did three crashes in which the fuel lines were so full of crud that fuel couldnt get to the engine.
One owner decided that having had two prop strikes didnt warrant checking out the engine or propeller. The reward for his diligence was a prop hub that failed in flight due to propagation of a fatigue crack initiated by one of the prop strikes.
Poor or nonexistent maintenance on airframe components such as the landing gear caused seven accidents, including two in which the nosegear steering system failed and the aircraft ran off the runway. One owner declined to repair his leaking fuel system despite warnings from other pilots. The leaks grew so extensive that, to our surprise, the airplane didnt catch on fire, it just lost so much fuel on one flight that only air was available to the engine.
We rarely see anything new when we review accident reports; however, we were struck by the owner who decided to design, build and install a lower drag exhaust system for his airplane. It lasted six hours before the collector cracked, hot gases opened up a fuel line and started a fire.
Nothing in the accident record of the Rockwell 112 and 114 raised any flags concerning design of the line. The number of fuel-related accidents was higher than we expected to see; however, only two involved failing to select a tank with fuel in ita problem with systems that give pilots tank selection options beyond on and off. The remainder involved pilots running completely out of fuel or failing to remove contaminants before takeoff.
We do not consider a 112 or 114 as a backcountry or short-field machine, so respect for takeoff performance numbers as well as density altitude is warranted. That was confirmed by four pilots who hit obstructions after takeoff and two crashes in the mountains where the pilots flew into rising terrain.
Eight pilots pushed on trying to fly VFR into IMC and crashed. Three went well below approach minimums and hit terrain. One, instrument-rated, lost control not long after he entered the clouds on an instrument flight plan.
An owner who requested a GPU start had the aircrafts battery explode when he turned on the master switch. The GPU was putting 28 volts into a 14-volt system.
Finally, we felt the terror and shock of the Rockwell pilot who was idling on a narrow taxiway when a P-51 ran into his airplane and chopped off the tail.