Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

As I Recall: Part III

"How did we get

this way?"

Jim Hanson

I picked the age of the AOPA and FLYING magazines reviewed in this series (late 50s and early 60s) because it was about the time I started flying. It is also a chance to contrast and compare what flying was like back then, compared to today. The difference between that time and today are many, and in revisiting the articles and advertisements, might even give us insight as to why General Aviation (though the term hadn’t been invented yet) was in its ascendancy then, and in decline today.

Industries and ideas tend to thrive in transitional times — and the late 1950s and early 60s WERE transitional times. Watch for the following when revisiting the old magazines:

PILOTS: Hundreds of pilots were trained during WWII. Though many of these pilots quit flying after the war, many did not. Others came back to flying after getting back into civilian life — going to college and establishing families, 15 years after the war. Still others took advantage of the GI bill to learn to fly in the first place. The result? GA was popular — it had a huge number of pilots, and those pilots also talked up aviation for their families and friends. With their careers established, they could start to think about acquiring planes.

PLANES: Airplanes were specifically designed for the mission. Though “conventional” landing gear aircraft were still produced, the majority of the new airplanes incorporated tricycle gear. Cessna introduced the 150 by putting a slightly bigger engine, square tail, bigger flaps, and tri-gear on the Cessna 140A. Piper created a trainer by removing the rear seats and doors from the Tri-Pacer, removing the flaps, and installing a smaller engine, creating the Colt. The stripped-down airplane cost only $4995 (about $39,410 in today’s dollars).

Pilots returning to aviation weren’t looking for warmed-over pre-war designs. They wanted airplanes with electrical systems, provision for radios, and reasonable cabin comfort. There were plenty of used Champs, Cubs, Ercoupes, and Taylorcrafts available on the used market to satisfy those who wanted a basic aircraft (These airplanes could often be purchased for around $1000 at the time—sometimes even less). Cessna introduced the 172 and 182 in 1956 by installing tri-gear on the 170 and 180, and introducing the retractable 210. By 1960, all had evolved into distinctly different aircraft, with swept tails and lowered landing gear. Piper was still producing the Tri-Pacer as an alternative to the 172 — but had already introduced the retractable, all-metal Comanche. The Navion was re-introduced as the Rangemaster — with a bigger engine, bigger cabin, tip tanks, and a door to replace the sliding canopy. Here in Minnesota, Downer Aircraft of Alexandria put tri-gear and a bigger engine on the Bellanca Cruisemaster (though it would be a while before the triple-tail was changed to produce the Viking). Champion Aircraft of Osceola upgraded the old Champ with bigger engines — some models had tri-gear (and even the “tri-con” experiment with the “nosewheel” under the rear fuselage). They even widened it out to make it a 3-place (ads show 3 businessmen getting into it, but it would have to be tight!). They even put a control wheel in the front cockpit in an attempt to make it “more modern.” Perhaps the ultimate Champ derivative was the Lancer — a low-cost trainer with a wheel in the front, a stick in the back, fixed gear, and two 100 hp Continentals mounted Aero-Commander style on the wings, driving fixed wooden propellers.

Beechcraft had flight-tested the Musketeer, and continued to upgrade the Bonanza by adding almost 100 horsepower, lengthening the cabin, and adding fuel tanks — but it still sported the distinctive V tail. Beech would introduce the straight-tailed Model 33 in 1960 to counter the competition from the Cessna 210 and Piper Comanche — and for those who didn’t like the V-tail configuration from Beech. Beech initially took pains to say that the Debonaire was NOT a Bonanza (“after all, it doesn’t have the V-tail or the amenities of the top-of-the-line single” they sniffed) but later reversed themselves by calling BOTH airplanes “Bonanzas.”

Mooney was still building their airplanes with wooden tails and wings, but with the “B” model, they became all-metal. Mooney also wanted to have a fixed-gear model, so they produced the “Master” — a Mooney with fixed gear. After learning to fly it, the owner could take it back to the factory and have the gear retracting mechanism installed for $1600. There were specialty airplanes produced as well — Call-Air made a 4-place version of their spray plane — Lake Aircraft produced the LA-4 — and Meyers made the Model 200 — a real speedster. Piper continued to produce the Super Cub for back country operations, and it was available in an ag version with a belly tank spray system from Sorenson’s in Worthington, MN. In 1960, Piper introduced a dedicated spray plane by introducing the Pawnee. It used the same 150 horse Lycoming as the Super Cub — Super Cub wings, gear, and tail, and heavier struts from the Tri-Pacer. It put the wings on the bottom for viewing in a turn while doing ag work, and mounted the tank in front of the pilot for safety. Piper had the Cherokee under R&D — but wouldn’t introduce it until late 1961. It seems that every issue of the magazines had the introduction of another new airplane!

Pilots and planes were viewed differently then. People were still in awe of the pilots that fought in WW II and Korea. The “sound barrier” was broken — the “X-planes” were making huge strides in the record books. Out in the high desert West, the X-15 was going Mach 6.7 — and penetrated the threshold of space (though most people didn’t know it then). The “Space Race” was on with satellites, the Russians put Gagarin into orbit, and President Kennedy audaciously set a goal of “a man on the moon within a decade.” We ordered fighter planes by the thousands back then, and the airlines were converting to jets. It was an exciting time of technological leaps and unbridled optimism — a time when “Nothing is impossible.” It was a time of “The Right Stuff” — pilots wore leather jackets and aviator watches — being a pilot identified you as an adventurer.

There were big changes in HOW people flew. WW II, Korea, and the GI bill had produced instrument-rated pilots — something of a rarity among non-airline pilots prior to the war. Those pilots didn’t want to be limited in the use of their airplanes (“after all, some of those airplanes cost over $10,000!”) so many of the new airplanes sported “full gyro panels”. They gyros, however, were usually surplus “A-N” instruments from WW II production — and some airplanes didn’t have vacuum pumps installed. Aftermarket kits were available for vacuum pumps — but some airplanes still depended on venturi tubes to provide suction for gyros. It would take a combination of infrastructure investment from the government (“omni”—or VORs) as well as comparatively cheap and reliable transistorized GA radios to make instrument flying safe and affordable. Low-Frequency radio ranges still ruled for enroute and approaches, but Automatic Direction Finding was available for those who could afford it and knew how to use it. “Bird Dogs” were cheaper for the VFR pilot — they gave a simple left-right of the nose to point to the station. “Omni” was new — and the new radios were also able to channel “Localizers” for an approach to a specific runway. Narco and King eached introduced crystal-controlled radios, each with a whopping 90 channels! Each later introduced the “1 ½ system” — a transmitter/receiver, PLUS a VOR receiver. Narco was introducing the very first DME — but it cost 20% of the cost of a new Skyhawk! Wilcox was fiddling with something called a “radar transponder” — but they were heavy, and cost even more than a DME. The first transponders had only 64 codes—you squawked “12” instead of “1200” — discrete transponder codes were not available — one might squawk “11” for an entire IFR flight, as there were so few transponders. Encoders? “Fuggetaboutit” — they were still in the future.

On the ground side, there were many more Flight Service Stations than there are today. In the local area, Alexandria, Redwood Falls, and Mason City are some that come to mind. A pilot could walk in — get a personal briefing (with the clattering of multiple teletypes in the background), and file a flight plan. There were no 800-numbers for FSS — instead, pilots bought radios that received low-frequency broadcasts (Minneapolis was on 266 kc.). The broadcast gave local “sequence reports,” plus “route briefings (“Minneapolis to Rochester to LaCrosse to Janesville to Chicago”).

Pilots became very adept at copying the weather through the static on the radio — usually using the teletype symbols for sky condition. FSS personnel also read weather information on “omni” frequencies at 15 minutes past each hour for weather within 100 miles of the FSS, and 45 minutes after the hour for longer-range weather. Discrete FSS contacts while airborne were rare — pilots would usually transmit on frequency 122.1 (one of only 9 crystals in many of the radios in use!) and receive over the local “omni” station. The local FSS personnel not only gave briefings and took flight plans, but also took weather observations. They aided lost pilots with what was called a “DF (Direction Finding) Steer” — the pilot would ask for a steer — the FSS would home on the direction of his transmission, giving the bearing to or from the station. They would then ask the pilot to change heading for a specific period of time, and ask him to transmit again.

By triangulation, the FSS could then give the distance to the FSS station. FSS personnel also gave traffic advisories to their home airports — starting in the late 1960s, the new (and much reviled) FAA required pilots to contact FSS when landing at the airport. Those with only a receiver were required to maintain a listening watch. Those without a radio were free to land anyway.

The common FSS advisory frequency was 126.7 — the same as it is in Canada and many other countries today. Control towers had discrete frequencies, but if you didn’t have that frequency on your older radio, you could call them on 122.5 and receive on their discrete frequency. You may have had to ask them for a “short count” to make sure that you had tuned the frequency correctly on the tunable receiver. If you were going to fly enroute IFR, there was little or no radar available outside the terminal area — position was via “report passing” points, crossing radial from another VOR, or estimates. It was not uncommon to have a single Center frequency for an entire trip.

Corporate Aviation was on the rise. Every pilot aspired to have a “twin” airplane. For corporate operators, many had converted DC-3s or ex-military Twin Beeches. The bigger corporations had converted Lockheed Lodestars, and several companies converted B-26s — some even with pressurization. These were fast, 300 mph airplanes — but the writing was on the wall — Grumman had introduced the turboprop Gulfstream (it was just “Gulfstream” back then, as there was no Roman Numeral after it). People marveled that ANY corporation would pay almost a million dollars for an airplane! Little did they know that in the next couple of years, jets would be available.

For the small business or owner-pilot looking for a twin, Piper had been selling the Apache for several years, and in 1960, would introduce the higher-powered Aztec. Cessna had been producing the 310 for both the civil and military market — and they kept getting bigger and faster. Cessna took a stab at the “big guy” corporate market with their 4-engine Model 620 (so named because it was “twice the 310” featuring a stand-up cabin and pressurization — but the airplane couldn’t compete on price against the converted ex-military airplanes, and the program was abruptly terminated.

Beech had the BE-95 Travelaire economy twin, with 180 hp per side, and in 1960, Beech put 260 horsepower engines on it and certified it as the Baron. Beech was still producing its flagship Model 18 Twin Beech. It sold well to corporate operators, but the tailwheel configuration and the resultant slanting floor put it out of favor. A tri-gear mod was available, and it could even be installed at the factory, but pilots also didn’t like the oil-dripping, “draggy” radial engines.

Beech was still producing the “Twin Bonanza.” The first “T-Bones” were produced by splitting a Bonanza down the middle and inserting a spacer — resulting in 3-abreast seating. Since Beech was still using the “throw-over” control yoke, that meant that the co-pilot sat in the middle. Beech solved that problem by engineering an airstair door on the right side of the fuselage, and changing to a 2+2+2 configuration. Beech went on to produce the Queen Air 65 and 80 series airplanes — with similar wings, engines, and gear, but a different fuselage. The Queen Air was modified to become the turboprop King Air prototype during this time. There were two notable modifiers of single-engine designs to twins — the “Super V” was a conversion on a Bonanza — using 180 hp wing-mounted engines. It set an around-the-world speed record, but Beech eclipsed it with the new-manufactured Travel Air. The Navion was converted to a twin using 170 hp (later 240 hp) engines, but the new-manufactured airplanes and the sliding canopy doomed it.

Just as important as the hardware is what pilots DID with the airplanes. With capable and comfortable airplanes, people were using them for personal transportation. Business could keep a more reliable schedule — and the increased speed and range gave greater utility by making more destinations available. Some of these aircraft cruised at speeds that rivaled all but the new jet airliners — almost like many of today’s airplane owners having the speed of a passenger plane. GA airplanes not only flew IFR, but Max Conrad (from Winona) was flying the Atlantic and Pacific. AOPA editor Max Karant was even flying the Atlantic, and two women, Sheila Scott (Piper Apache) and Jerrie Mock (Cessna 180) were even racing around the world (Mock won). Pilots and businesses bought the new technology.

On the AIRFIELD side, most GA airports didn’t have jet fuel yet. Airports needed upgrades — not only for runways, but for hangars and waiting areas. MN/DOT Aeronautics invested heavily in VORs — with more VORs than any other state. ATC radars were installed. Pilot training was upgraded as more pilots became instrument rated and acquired type-specific training.

You might ask — how did all of these changes happen so fast? How could all of these airplanes and equipment modifications be certified? How could all of these airmen be certified? The answer is — the FAA didn’t come about until 1958 — there were far fewer regulations on pilots and certification of equipment at that time. Many of the aircraft introduced were modifications or derivatives of older aircraft certified under the old “CAR-3” standards — much easier to certify.

Personnel at the General Aviation District Offices (FSDOs) had fewer regulations to enforce, and had more time to spend on approvals. Unlike today, most FAA personnel were pilots (the FAA even owned airplanes for them to fly!). FAA maintenance personnel were not as worried about the process of certification and signoffs — they were more concerned on whether something worked. New airplanes could often be “piggybacked” on older designs — example, the Beech King Air is built on the type certificate of the Queen Air, which itself is based largely on the Twin Bonanza — thus, the King Air 90 is a “BE-80/C90.”

The system worked — the King Air is one of the safest fixed-wing airplanes ever. Compare that with the time and expense of certificating a new airplane today — it takes years and millions of dollars. It has stifled the introduction of new airplanes and added tens of thousands of dollars to the acquisition price — consider the frenetic pace of new products in the early 60s with the few new designs today. Today, it is easier to certify an airplane in another country and then certify it in the U.S. on the basis of reciprocity — is it any wonder that most new designs are imported?

We USED to lead the world in aircraft production — a positive in the balance of trade — but not today. Fortunately, SOMEBODY in the FAA listened — the new Part 23 certification rules have as a goal to “cut certification costs in half while doubling safety.” Not only will the new rules cut costs and speed up certification, but they are “performance-based” — instead of hidebound rules, they will allow for alternate means of assuring safety.

Throughout this series, I’ve given prices for aircraft converted to today’s dollars. Most airplanes are incredibly cheap. Most avionics were far more expensive — like most electronics, they get cheaper with time. The price of aircraft, like cars, homes, or anything else built by hand, can be linked to many factors — the price of government regulations on industry — the litigious cost of insurance against higher and higher lawsuits — higher labor costs.

Perhaps an even BIGGER factor is the fact that unlike today, people had a larger percentage of their paycheck to keep. In the late 1950s, a good job would pay about $10,000 — and coincidentally, that was the price of a new Skyhawk — an airplane for one year’s pay. At that time, the tax on that $10,000 might be only about 10%. There was no sales tax then — so a worker might be able to KEEP 90 percent of what they made. Today, that $10,000 annual wage would be $78,900, while the price of a new Skyhawk is approaching $400,000. Meanwhile, between federal, state, local, various other taxes, Social Security/Medicare, and sales taxes, the tax bite for the average worker’s wage is just over 33 percent, or $26,400 on $80,000 in wages after deductions. That’s money NOT available for spending yourself. The difference between 10 percent tax in 1960 and 33 percent tax in 2013 is $18,400 in today’s dollars, or $1533 a month — enough to buy your own plane.


1. Easier and cheaper aircraft certification for new aircraft. It worked in the 60s, and it will work again. It will bring down the cost of flying, and bring jobs back to the U.S.

2. Relaxed rules on existing aircraft being used as LSAs. Let existing 2-place aircraft (and 4-place aircraft with only 2 seats) come under the same rules as LSAs. Is there REALLY any difference in the danger between the two?

3. Many avionics producers have seen the burgeoning market in experimental aircraft, and produced non-certified and very capable units for that market at a fraction of the price of certified units. If the FAA is REALLY CONCERNED about aviation safety, let these also be installed in non-commercial aircraft — safety will be served, and training will be better.

4. Give the FAA personnel more authority to approve modifications at the local level, rather than “kicking it upstairs” — much as the FAA has done with local medical examiners.

5. Allow LSA pilots to fly existing aircraft with fixed gear, fixed prop, and carrying one passenger without a medical certificate. The LSA, glider, and balloon experience supports that this is safe.

General Aviation has been hurt by the stroke of the regulatory pen — but the solution can also be found by using that same regulatory pen to undo the damage and return to what has been proven to work before.

Jim Hanson is the long-time FBO at Albert Lea, and has been flying for over 50 years. Jim says “Do you ever wonder why old-timers get to be so ornery? It’s because they know for themselves what USED to work before it got fouled up!” Like many old-timers, Jim can remember what happened 50 years ago, but may not remember what happened last week. If you would like to bring him back to reality, contact him at his airport office (507) 373-0608, or at


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