Its always interesting to contemplate general aviations boom-and-bust cycles. While exceptions certainly abound, it seems every other decade since the 1930s has included introduction of new aircraft or new technologies that further advance the state of the art. The 1970s were an upswing, avocado-green vinyl upholstery and Continentals Tiara engine notwithstanding. In addition to the iconic taper-wing Piper Cherokees, Cessnas original Citation and Beechs Model 200 Super King Air, the 70s also ushered in the Rockwell Commander 112/114 series of four-seat piston singles. For years, what was then called North American Rockwell had been trying to find the right mix of ramp appeal, performance and features to enter the general aviation market in a big way. Early attempts-the Lark and Darter, and efforts to revive the Meyers 200-didnt work out as the company hoped. But in 1972, the FAA granted Rockwell a type certificate for an all-new design, the Model 112, which emphasized cabin volume, ingress and egress ease, and aggressive styling. 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. And like any good GA design, the Commander 112/114 line may again be resurrected. Meanwhile, airplanes already in the field have a loyal following, along with several features making them the right choice for pilots turned off by the standard fare for one reason or another.
Its always interesting to contemplate general aviations boom-and-bust cycles. While exceptions certainly abound, it seems every other decade since the 1930s has included introduction of new aircraft or new technologies that further advance the state of the art. The 1970s were an upswing, avocado-green vinyl upholstery and Continentals Tiara engine notwithstanding. In addition to the iconic taper-wing Piper Cherokees, Cessnas original Citation and Beechs Model 200 Super King Air, the 70s also ushered in the Rockwell
Commander 112/114 series of four-seat piston singles.
For years, what was then called North American Rockwell had been trying to find the right mix of ramp appeal, performance and features to enter the general aviation market in a big way. Early attempts-the Lark and Darter, and efforts to revive the Meyers 200-didnt work out as the company hoped.
But in 1972, the FAA granted Rockwell a type certificate for an all-new design, the Model 112, which emphasized cabin volume, ingress and egress ease, and aggressive styling. 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. And like any good GA design, the Commander 112/114 line may again be resurrected. Meanwhile, airplanes already in the field have a loyal following, along with several features making them the right choice for pilots turned off by the standard fare for one reason or another.
Designed with a mission
As mentioned, 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. Even aviation journalists (Aviation Consumer editors included) were invited to take a look at preliminary designs and make suggestions. The result made its debut in 1972 at a base price of $24,750 and an average equipped about $12,000 more. It emphasized looks, cabin room and comfort over raw performance.
Despite the big cabin, the 112 was quite deficient in useful load, resulting in the 112A model, which came out in 1974. The 112A featured an increased gross weight-from 2550 to 2650 pounds-but only an additional 77 pounds or so 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 1027 pounds. The price had climbed 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 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-T4B5 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, equipped: $63,000.
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 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 in 1988 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.
But 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. Finalization of that deal was pending as this article was being prepared.
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 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-collapse 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 nose gear 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 nose gear trunion/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 Price Digest, 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 fix-for $2500-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, 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 was 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 or Lancair. 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, owners tell us the Commander wing is currently undergoing fatigue testing, with definitive results expected within the next year or so.
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 service bulletins and AD problems. Still, potential buyers would do well to check over the paperwork to verify the logs reflect compliance. Owners familiar with the rest of the fleet tell us there are very few aircraft without the mods, but they do exist. So, its very important for a prospective buyer to verify the AD-required work has been accomplished. Doing the work these days can be very expensive.
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 factory support: Parts availability is, reportedly, no problem at all. And, if the pending acquisition of CPAC goes through, its likely factory-level support will continue indefinitely.
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 recent fatal accident investigation found a 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 pre-flight procedures.
Mods, Owner Groups
Despite a relatively small population in the field, theres a long list of STCs available for the Commander 112/114 series, which can be reviewed on the website of the Commander Owners Group, or COG (www.commander.org). Most offer minor improvements or replacements of existing parts.
One exception is the Hot Shot turbonormalizing system offered by RCM Normalizing Inc, of Big Piney, Wyoming (www.rcmnormalizing.com, 307-276-3386). That company also sells flap gap seals, which its Web site says theyll install for free if you spring for the turbo. Another exception comes courtesy of Vermont-based Aerodyme, which has two STCs for engine upgrades on both 112s and 114s (See sidebar page 26).
COGs Web site 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.commanderpremier.com, and has secured FAA parts manufacturing authority (PMA) for a number of components.
I bought my 1976 Commander 112A in 2000. I chose this as my first aircraft because of its ramp appeal, having two doors, a “both” position on the fuel selector, and being very roomy and comfortable. The plane is a stable IFR platform and I fly about 150 hours a year, mostly IFR.
My insurance is under $2000 for $1 million smooth and $131,000 hull; annuals run me about $2500. Fuel burn is 11 GPH. I have the Hot Shot turbo-normalizer from RCM.
Since I bought the plane, Ive added a custom paint job, a new leather interior, new woodgrain on the instrument panel and lots of avionics (GNS480, GMX200, GDL69A, GTX330, PMS7000CD, Northstar M3/C1, NAV122D, WX500, KEA-130A, Century IIB, STEC 60 GPSS, DAC GDC31 and Xerion Auracle). Ive also put on a VG kit, plus a three-blade prop, and installed a Mattituck-overhauled engine.
I fly between at 6000-10,000 feet, at around 145 knots true.
I purchased my 112A four years ago and have been thrilled with my decision. Two doors, shoulder room, stands tall on the ramp, 130 knots on 10 GPH, super-stable approach with no trimming till 20 degrees of flaps (and then very little).
Annuals have averaged $1600 with oil change. Parts have not been an issue except for the upper door latch cam. I found some in Canada, but I understand that the latest incarnation of Commander Aircraft is offering them from the factory.
Insurance has been exceptionally favorable through AOPA. One million dollars in liability and $90,000 hull runs about $1500 a year…they even lowered it last year! Coverage requirement, on purchase, was five hours dual and a fresh flight review (I had
logged little time in the previous 10 years).
Regarding the 20-knot speed loss when compared to some of the more “state of the art” aircraft available today with 200 HP: My average trip is between one and two hours. The few minutes lost is a small price to pay for an incredible comfort level afforded by the cabin size.
I may be one of only three females owning and flying the Rockwell Commander. I never wish to make a big deal that I am a female pilot, but in this case, its for your readers to know its an easy plane to fly and land. Ive owned and flown a Cessna 172, 182 and 210; Piper Cherokee 140, 180, Navion and Commander 112TC. Currently, I fly a 1997 Rockwell Commander 114B.
On the 112TC, an engine overhaul cost about $40,000 by the time it was all done. Maintenance cost was $5-10,000 a year. Even a simple annual averaged $5000. On the 114B, since its fairly new, and only 945 hours TT, maintenance costs have been lower, running about $5000 a year for the annual and oil changes.
The Commander is extremely comfortable and very easy to fly. I have experienced many five-hour flights in both my 112TC and the 114B, and the only thing making it uncomfortable was my bladder. I am 52″ and find the ergonomics easy for my height. I also know many tall men who find the Commander comfortable. So, it seems to fit all sizes.
On the downside, the Lycoming on both planes are not sufficient. The 112TC had an IO-360 and the 114B has a 540. There is a 580 available, which I recommend and have flown, but to make it ideal, it would have a turbo. To convert my 114B to a 580 sets me back $100K. Although many have made the conversion, I cant seem to justify the upgrade at this time. My cruising speed in the 114B is on an average of 150 KTAS.
I have been an active member of the Commander Owners Group since 2002. Its the best place for information on Commanders. Among other services, they hold an annual fly-in.