Pushing Boundaries, Uncategorized

Forked-Tail Doctor Killer: The Beechcraft Bonanza


At the end of WW2 men who had been trained by our nation’s military to fly wanted to continue flying as a hobby. As they found employment and disposable income they began buying aircraft. Two companies saw the coming general aviation boom and prepared for it. Cessna built their Model 195, which was basically a continuation of their pre-war designs. It had a high wing, tailwheel design a radial engine. Beechcraft, on the other hand, designed an all new plane with a metal low-wing, monoplane design using Continental’s E-185 horizontally opposed six cylinder engine, and retractable landing gear.

Known as the Model 35 Bonanza, it went on sale in 1947. The most obvious design feature is the V-tail. Rather than the standard horizontal and vertical stabilizers, the Beechcraft design team decided to combine the functions of these control surfaces on two control surfaces called “ruddervators”.

The Bonanza is a very high performing aircraft and quickly gained a reputation as the “forked-tail doctor killer”. Overconfident pilots, often in very skilled non-aviation careers, have crashed a fair number of Bonanzas. Steve Wozniak is among those who have been bit by the Bonanza. A V-tail Bonanza, tail number N3794N, is the aircraft that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were riding in when it crashed shortly after take-off on Feb. 3, 1959 killing all three and pilot Roger Peterson.

It’s not all grim news, however. The fourth Beechcraft Bonanza produced, named Waikiki Beach, was flown by Captain William Odom from Honolulu, HI to the continental US in January 1949. This was the first time a light aircraft had made this flight. Of course, it had been fitted with extra fuel tanks to allow such a long flight. In March of the same year, Capt. Odom flew Waikiki Beach from Honolulu to Teterboro, NJ setting a nonstop flight record of 5,273 miles.

The Model 33 Debonair (later Bonanza) was a Model 35 with conventional control surfaces released in 1959. It is still in production as the Model 36.

  • Nobody's ever clued me in as to WHY the V-tailed Bonzai-bird was so accident prone. Was the tail design at fault? Did it contribute to the craft being hard to control, or make spin recovery more difficult? Or was it just the hot-performing plane of choice for underskilled pilots?

    • It was more prone to roll than most of its peers, but an attentive and skilled pilot would not have a problem with this. The issue does seem to be more the latter — it was the plane to have and many people were buying them and flying without the necessary skill level and/or without the correct certification level (they required a High Performance endorsement on your pilot's license). Wozniak, for example, was cited after his accident for not having the correct endorsements. This would lead to the aircraft being operated outside its envelope (usually an overspeed condition) which could cause structural failure.

  • My ol' Dad got his pilot's license indirectly through the military; he used his G.I. Bill rights to get flight certified. I don't know if he was ever serious about piloting as a career. Mom probably put the kibosh on that after a few flights with him.

    Personal aircraft were familiar to me, but one day a few years after the Berlin Wall came down I invited an exchange student from St. Petersburg (the erstwhile Petrograd) to fly back to Boston with me and retrieve my Laverda. (These kids were stuck on a rural college campus, not really getting a good idea of the USA.) He looked at the plane Dad had rented, turned to me and asked, "What is this kind of plane used for?" It became apparent that, growing up in the '80s in the land of the Antonov 225 the whole concept of personal aircraft was a new one to the kid. The smallest thing he ever saw flying was probably military. I let him sit in the front.

  • cruisintime

    You can see the failure in the Empenage, loss of lateral stability.

  • nanoop

    1947? Quite a nice, long-living design, at least from anesthetic point of view.

    • I fully agree. Wait, was that a doctor joke?

      • nanoop

        I actually think it looks stunning, especially for its aera. The doctor's out.

        • NotJustDucky

          It was a very subcutaneous joke, I don't think Batshitbox should be needled for almost missing it.

    • Tiller188

      The controls, on the other hand, were criticized as being a bit numb.

  • procrastininja

    I'm sure it's bigger on the inside.

    • Mike England

      I love the Tardis reference

  • NotJustDucky

    There's one of those parked outside at my local municipal airfield. Not knowing a whole lot about airplanes, I never paid it much attention until I was in a doctor's waiting room reading an aircraft magazine and I read an article about it being the “forked-tail doctor killer”, and then it kind of dawned on me that I'm fairly sure that in the ten years that I've been driving by it, it's never moved, and now I had an idea why.

  • cruisintime

    Those V-Tail Bonanza's had a tendency to go into the death spiral.

  • chrystlubitshi

    I haven't been in a vtail yet. my first one will be a Cirrus jet in 2016 or so, when my father's gets built. currently, we fly in a cirrus sr-22 and a twin commander. I have also been up in numerous cessna and beech small aircraft

    • The three aircraft I've flown have all been Cessna products – 152, 172 and 182RG. The 182RG was quite a fun plane…given my only other 2 reference points.

      • Number_Six

        I've been lucky enough to have flown in a v-tail Bonanza and almost be killed by one in a near-collision over Oshkosh. They feel like a sporty thing just to ride in. My other fave small plane is the Cessna Turbo Centurion…which needs to be written up here.

      • When I imagine buying a plane of my own, I either think quasi-realistically and long for a 172RG Cutlass (even though people say they're a bad price/performance choice, I love the idea of a Hawk XP with a smooth belly) or I imagine myself instrument rated and flying somthing like an Aerostar or Twin Commander.

        Or I go totally "so I win the lottery" and imagine having a Paris Jet for long flights and a Rans S7 for fun.

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