Fixed-Wing Aircraft

Piston-Engine Airplanes

Piston-engine propeller airplanes make up about 80 percent of the fixed-wing fleet. A large majority of these airplanes are very small, having six or fewer seats, weighing less than 5,000 pounds when fully loaded, and equipped with a single reciprocating engine. Single-engine aircraft account for about 90 percent of piston-engine airplanes in the civil fleet (see Table 2-1). With few exceptions, large multiengine piston aircraft, once common in the U.S. commercial fleet, have been displaced by more reliable and powerful turbine aircraft, which require less maintenance in heavy-duty use.

Most small piston-engine aircraft have normal cruise speeds of 120 to 175 mph and maximum ranges of between 500 and 1,200 miles, depending on fuel capacity, weight, cruising altitude, and other design and use characteristics.2 Some high-performance single-engine piston aircraft, such as the Mooney Bravo, can cruise at more than 250 mph, and some twin-engine aircraft, such as the Beech Baron, can fly for more than 1,500 miles. Piston-engine aircraft are seldom flown higher than 10,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level, since few are pressurized or designed for efficient operations at high altitudes. Small piston-engine aircraft have the advantage of needing only 750- to 2,500-foot runways for takeoff and landing.

Over the past two decades, demand for new piston-engine aircraft has declined overall, although in recent years it has grown slightly. Domestic sales fell from 10,500 units in 1980 to fewer than 1,000 in 1995 and about 1,700 in 1998 (see Figure 2-1). There has been much speculation about the causes of this dramatic decline, from rising interest rates and product liability costs to changes in tax policy and a shrinking population of private pilots interested in recreational flying. Because many piston-engine aircraft are used sporadically—on the average, less than 150 hours per year (FAA 2000b, V-7)—there is an ample supply of used aircraft, which has contributed to the limited demand for new aircraft. The average age of a piston-engine aircraft is 30 years (GAMA 1999a; GAMA 1999b). Hence, despite the major drop in production beginning in the 1980s, the size of the fleet has fallen by only 15 percent since 1980 because of the large number of older and reconditioned aircraft still in operation.

Faced with declining demand, a number of general aviation (GA) manufacturers have failed over the past two decades, and many others have had to revamp their product lines to attract a new base of customers. New manufacturers, such as Cirrus Design Corporation and Lancair Company, have emphasized ease of operation, advanced avionics, and modest prices to appeal to customers interested in aircraft for both personal and business uses.3 Cirrus even includes a whole-airframe parachute as a safety attraction for its four-seat SR20. Long-time GA manufacturers such as Raytheon Aircraft Company and Cessna Aircraft have increasingly emphasized speed and styling in their new piston-engine designs, promoting them as affordable, comfortable, and practical for business travel.


Detailed information on aircraft dimensions, specifications, and performance characteristics can be found in the Aerospace Source Book, published annually by Aviation Week, McGraw-Hill. The most recent edition, January 15, 2001, was referenced in this chapter.


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