In a world of sleek plastic fast cruisers, the Commander 112/114 series is a bit of a throwback. Its all metal, relatively slow and compared to other airplanes of its day, its relatively complex. On the other hand, even those who own other models will admit that the Commander is one of the best looking general aviation singles out there.
Its at once beefy and streamlined but, more than anything else, the designers got the proportions spot on. Everything on a Commander looks right and if airplanes look right, they usually fly right. And few if any modern airplanes can match the Commander in one regard: its big cabin is roomy and comfortable and with two doors, its easy to get into and out of, something that cant be said of many high-performance singles.
The airplane began life as the 200-HP Rockwell 112. After a few odd-ball attempts in the 1970s to get its foot in the door of general aviation manufacturing (Lark, Darter, and a re-release of the Meyers 200), Rockwell focused its renowned high-tech resources on coming up with an all-new airplane that would knock the socks off everything else in the market.
Elaborate studies were made of pilot preferences and even aviation journalists (Aviation Consumer editors included) were invited to take a look at preliminary designs and make suggestions.
The result, which made its debut in 1972 at a base price of $24,750 and an average equipped about $12,000 more, was about the same price as a Cardinal RG or Arrow. It emphasized looks, cabin roominess and comfort over raw performance. Despite the big cabin, the aircraft was quite deficient in useful load and in 1974, the 112A model was brought out, raising the gross weight from 2550 to 2650 pounds. This offered a hike in the useful load of about 77 pounds.
To squeeze even more load carrying ability out of the airframe, in 1977 Rockwell brought out the 112B model, with 16-inch extensions added to each wing. This enabled engineers to raise the gross to 2800 pounds, which in turn boosted the useful load at last to a respectable 1027 pounds. The price had climbed by this time to the $50,000 range, comparable to an Arrow III. The B model actually rode on the coattails of the turbocharged 112TC model, which came out a year earlier with a longer wing. A TC-A model delivered nothing more than another 37 pounds of soundproofing.
As an outgrowth of the 112, the 114 arrived in 1976 with the 260-HP IO-540 Lycoming engine. It was often characterized as the airplane the 112 should have been in the first place. Base price was about $47,000, equipped: $63,000. This put the airplane into the Beech 33 Bonanzas horsepower class, but with a much lower price. (The Bonanza had a significant performance advantage, however.)
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 1979, the final year of production, a Gran Turismo model was offered, with a three-bladed prop, new cowl flaps and a fancy interior. By the time production stopped, the price was pushing $100,000.
After Rockwell got out of the GA business in 1988, it later sold the Commander rights to Gulfstream, which never produced any of the models. The Commander line 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 Oklahoma City to repair the existing fleet and launched a project aimed at building the new Commander 114B, building upon the basis established by Rockwell.
In 1992, Commander certified the 114B which had several speed mods that make it much faster than the old 114. Most notable among these are the standard three-blade prop and a new cowling. Base price of the first 114Bs was $169,500 (average $215,000, equipped), with a current value of $165,000, as of spring 2003, according to the Aircraft Bluebook. Earlier models, say the 1977 112B, currently retail for about $80,000. A turbocharged version, the 114TC, was added to the new line in 1995, with an equipped price of $417,000 (used value today $265,000).
In 2000, Commander upgraded the model yet again, with such improvements as a lower instrument panel, improved seats, an upgraded electrical system and TKS de-icing. These aircraft are designated the 115 and 115TC respectively. A model for the high-performance trainer market is called the 115AT.
No telling of the Commander story would be complete without a recounting of its early structural problems. The problems first cropped up in the mid 1980s. The wing spars were beginning to crack due to stress caused by gear retraction. A lengthy service bulletin was issued that called for inspection and repair if needed. There were other mods to brace the spar if it wasnt cracked.
The wings werent the only problem. The tails vertical spar attachment was cracking too. A fix-for $2,500-was 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) came out following a couple of impacts in which front seat rollers failed and the seats came loose on aircraft that had complied with the earlier AD. This AD ordered modification of the front seat base structure and relocation of the shoulder strap anchor.
As a result of these squabbles over ADs, the Commander Flying Association ensued. The issue was not only the efficacy of the wing modifications noted above, but just who was going to pay for them and the tail mods. In the spring of 1989, after almost three years of legal pressure from CFA, Gulfstream Aerospace and Rockwell International agreed to a settlement on the repair and upgrading of all 990 or so Commander 112/114s in this country and overseas.
The owners group won free transportation of aircraft to the Bethany, Oklahoma repair facility from drop points in Phoenix and Atlanta. In announcing the terms of the settlement with Commander, Association President David Kaplan and attorneys Stanley H. Rozanski and Steven R. Levy of Los Angeles noted it was valued in excess of $12 million. With mods to some 990 aircraft at stake, that worked out to $12,121 per airplane.
The settlement also hammered out a guarantee on the labor for one year and the parts for three years. Furthermore, the Commander Aircraft Co. agreed to abide by the terms of the settlement. And leaving few stones unturned in securing a satisfactory, lasting arrangement, the owners association obtained an agreement to settle by arbitration any future disputes that might arise.
A final revised airworthiness directive (90-4-7, the final type-specific directive) mandated procedures announced in the third version of the service bulletin, issued in November of 1988. Actual work on the mods has been performed by the new Commander Aircraft Co.
Through all of the above-mentioned efforts at correcting the structural problems of the Commander singles, one of the huge ironies is the recollection how Rockwells premier marketing thrust for the 112s and 114s concerned their alleged Herculean strength. But, lest any envision hours and years of actual bending of wings, all of Rockwells testing was on paper. And evidently the gear load problem was overlooked in the calculations.
Having said that, the Commander line is, nonetheless, a robust if complex airplane whose build method had more in common with military aircraft than with a modern Cirrus or Lancair. And the good news is that since the wing spar AD was released in 1990, the Commander line has had only one AD, in consequential bulletin for the 114TC requiring replacement of an exhaust clamp.
Blazing speed has never been a selling point for any of the Commander singles. At 130 knots or so, the 112 can barely get out of its own way. The lowly fixed-gear Piper Archer with 20 less horsepower comes within one knot of matching it. Even the Beech Sierra, renowned for its casual cross-country pace, can eke out another five knots or so.
As for the 114, it offers what might be called a gentlemanly cruise of about 150 knots. In a side-by-side race some years ago by The Aviation Consumer, a Comanche with the same power not only pulled away but climbed better. However, everybody seems to like the handling, except for two negative points: a tail waggle in turbulence and insufficient rudder for an adequate sideslip in a crosswind landing without crabbing.
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 and Cessna Skylane RG. The 68-gallon fuel supply is enough for four hours or so at high cruise, but the 114 lacks the huge reserves of the Mooney and Skylane RG, both of which carry more fuel and burn less of it.
There were universal raves about the landing gear. Said one pilot: The trailing link landing gear is a great ego booster since it just sops up the bump when you drop one in. Interestingly, there have been a relatively high proportion of gear-collapse accidents in the past, so it may not be quite as good at sopping up thuds as our reader suggests.
True to the military experience Rockwell brought to the Commander line, the airplane has big airplane touches when it comes to systems. The gear system, for example, is massively built and uses a system similar to the Piper Arrow, an electrically driven hydraulic pump. Back-up extension is by releasing the hydraulic uplock and letting gravity drop the wheels.
The ventilation, electrical and fuel systems are well thought out, in our view. Some later models are equipped with air conditioning and 130-amp alternators, more than enough juice to run the most well-equipped cockpit. The fuel system is unique among low-wing aircraft for having a both tanks selected option. The engine compartment suits the overall size of the airplane and the back of the engine is easily accessible to fix what breaks.
Owners give the cabin high grades for roominess and volume if not payload. Said one owner, We often load it with a stroller, crib, fold-up high chair, folding bicycle and assorted pieces of luggage. 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, which had somewhat higher gross weights. Part of this is due to the high-parts-count build; theres a lot of stuff in the airframe.
Theres one flaw in the 114s loading picture: a zero-fuel weight limit of 2732 pounds. This limits cabin payload to about 750 pounds in a typical aircraft, so you cant offload fuel to carry more butts in the seats. The Commanders have plenty of payload for most situations but if you need to carry four 200 pounders, youre out of luck. A zero-fuel limit means that the wing spars bending load limit may be exceeded even though the gross weight is safely below limits.
The big flap over mods appears to have subsided, which is good news for both owners and buyers. The value of the airplane undoubtedly suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of the mod problems. Still, potential buyers would do well to check over the roster of mods and see if the logs reflect compliance. We cant imagine any wouldnt have been fixed but were not buying the airplane, you are.
The 200-HP Lycoming engine on the 112 Commanders is generally considered a reliable player these days, as is the 260-HP Lycoming on the 114. But the turbocharged model had reports of broken or cracked turbine housings and the aforementioned exhaust clamp problem.
The Y shank on the Hartzell prop needs an inspection every five years (a pain in the wallet, said one owner), and of course the wing spar and tail come in for not inexpensive attention every 100 hours-unless owners can work these in at the annual inspections-and until the modification is made. Theres also an AD on the 540s injector lines. Other problem areas reported by owners include nosegear shimmy, corroding flap attach brackets and aileron hinge cracks.
The good news is that there is a factory to support the airplane. Parts availability is, reportedly, no problem at all, although weve heard occasional beefs about customer service. One owner recently wrote us to complain about issues with an airplane the factory inspected and certified for sale as a used airplane. Well examine that in a future issue.
Commander itself filed for Chapter 11 in December of 2002, although it continued to operate. In February 2004, the company announced that Tiger LLC, which makes the Tiger fixed-gear single in Martinsburg, West Virginia, had acquired 80 percent interest in Aviation General, Commanders holding company.
Mods, Owner Groups
Theres a long list of STCs that apply to the Commander aircraft series. This list can be reviewed in PDF form on the Commander support group Web site. Being of a relatively small population, the Commander hasnt been the subject of many major mods. Most of the STCs deal with minor improvements or replacements of existing parts and instruments. The last time we examined the Commander, a company in the southwest was proposing a major speed modification. When we checked up on that, it seems to have disappeared without a trace, which isnt surprising given the economics and aerodynamics.
The current leading owners organization can be found at www.commander.org. The groups Web site has good information on buying and operating these aircraft, plus an open forum. Cost is $75 a year.
I have owned a 1976 Commander 112TC for four years.
No ADs for lets see–how long now?
Extremely comfortable. Long range fuel tanks.
Most 112s/114s are well equipped with avionics.
Trailing link landing gear.
Pilot side door.
Stable IFR platform.
Nice slow speed handling.
Somewhat slower than a Mooney. Over a 300 mile flight, does 15 minutes really matter ? Ill take comfort over being squished for three hours for a 15-minute speed advantage.
Useful load of only 862 pounds.
I purchased my first airplane approximately two years ago and settled on the Commander 114. It has two large cabin doors, wide four-place cabin (Im 5-feet 11 inches and 210 pounds), trailing link landing gear, Lycoming IO-540, cruciform tail, superior useful load and ramp appeal in spades.
It was love at first sight when I happened upon N116RC. I had the avionics upgraded, the seats recovered and replaced some of the plastic inside the cabin.
The wish list is never e nding. But I feel I have met my goal of possessing the ultimate aircraft.
She is built like a military fighter when comparing construction and corrosion proofing techniques between other singles. Her robust trailing-link gear creates the most incredible landings possible.
In March of this year, my wife and I flew her from Greenville, Michigan to Hawks Nest Resort on Cat Island, Bahamas. We made the trip with three other Commanders.
She handled the rough, short runways of the Bahama out islands with ease. Absolutely amazing shortfield performance.
Most of my flying is for my business, which takes me frequently to Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. I no longer contribute to the state police coffers in those states. My 11-hour drives have been reduced to three hours or less. The comfort, reliability and class that the Commander 114 delivers is second to none.
Bottom line: Im built for comfort, not speed. Thankfully, so is my Commander.
-Gary D. Miesch
I have flown a 152, 172, Beech Sierra C24, Mooney M20J and Bonanza A-36 and looked at numerous other airplanes. The greatest things about my Commander 112TC are immaculate safety record and only having three ADs in its history, which began in 1972. Two doors, handling characteristics, stableplatform, main landing gear strength, wet wing, great fuel capacity (68 gallons useable) and great overall cabin size are also attributes. Useful load is pretty much determined by engine size, since the two models occupy the same airframe except for the 112B, TC and TCA models which have the longer wings at almost 36 feet while all others have the 33 foot wings and the TC and TCA 112s which are factory turbocharged and the 114 and 115 TC models which are factory turbocharged.
It has been found, at least among the members of the Commander Owners Group (COG), that owners rarely ever change to another model.
If you want to personally see and meet a number of owners/pilots and their airplanes up-close, you should come to the annual Commander Owners Group (COG) Fly-In scheduled for Gatlinburg, Tennessee beginning October 7th through October 10th, 2004. The potential exists for 30 to 40 Commanders from all points to attend.
We saw our first Commander at Reims airport in France, during a 1995 European tour in a Cherokee. My husband is not a pilot, but after limping out of the cramped cabin of the little PA28-150 and setting eyes upon the large, muscular airframe of the 112TC parked next to us, he immediately declared that if ever we owned our own airplane, it would have to be a Commander.
What a smart move I unintentionally made when parking that time! I tracked down one of the co-owners of G-ERIC, who kindly let me fly the airplane from the right seat a few months after our original sighting.
On my first flight, I decided that Commanders fly like they look. Solid, but not heavy. Responsive, but not over-sensitive. Generally a very forgiving airplane.
We bought a 1993 Commander 114B with 420 hours total time. N114DT is serial number 14576, and was a Commander factory demonstrator in Australia prior to our purchase. She was ferried back to the U.S. in April 2000 and in addition to her enviable Bendix/King panel with HSI, she was fitted with a Garmin GNS430, Stormscope, JPI EDM-800, Ryan TCAD 9900B and 115-style wing and horizontal stabilizer root fairings.
I am based in San Diego and have flown to Aspen in one hop. I arrived feeling fresh and ready for my meeting, without the backache that most small airplanes give you after a long flight.
Equally, trips to San Francisco, Sedona, Grand Canyon, Napa, Yosemite and Phoenix are comfortable and stress free.
The panel content and layout is excellent for extended IFR, and the Bendix/King KFC200 performs flawlessly when needed. We have a useful load of just over 1000 pounds, which is more than enough for most journeys. It is very easy to keep the center of gravity within the generous limits.
I generally plan for 150 KTAS at 65 percent and usually get better than this. Depending on altitude and power setting, the Commanders bullet-proof Lycoming IO-540 drinks around 13 GPH in the cruise, with 68 gallons usable fuel giving an endurance longer than my bladder.
The handling is forgiving and predictable. The stall can produce a sharp wing-drop if you are out of balance, but the airplane really has no vices. The high flap-limiting speeds can make you a real friend to ATC if they request a high-speed rapid descent, and it is possible to fly the ILS at 140 knots-plus.
You can easily slow down and stabilize by adding flaps and gear at the middle marker when mixing with the heavy metal at busy airports. Not recommended for beginners, but possible to accomplish safely when you have some experience. Of course the trailing link landing gear flatters all but the most ham-fisted of landings.
Annual inspections have been around $1000 to $2000, depending on what have I requested as extra maintenance. I have to say that we maintain our airplane to a very high standard and the cost is reasonable. The lack of airframe airworthiness directives helps considerably with both long term costs and peace of mind. Generally, our Commander has been very reliable. We had some hydraulic leaks in the gear retraction system from old seals and one of the Slick magnetos has been replaced. But in around 300 hours of flying, we have had no major problems.
The high airplane value pushes up the insurance costs. I have around 600 total hours, an instrument rating and I do the FAA Wings Program plus a type-specific training and an IPC every year. With $250,000 hull value, our last insurance was around $4000. More hours and a commercial ticket would reduce this cost, as would a lower hull value.
In summary, both my husband and I are delighted with our choice. We have since considered other airplanes, including the Lancair Columbia, Cirrus SR22, and Bonanza A36. However, each time, the combination of space, comfort and build quality reassures us that we have made a great long-term choice.
San Diego, California