The Aero Commander 500 family is a series of light-twin piston-engined and turboprop aircraft originally built by the Aero Design and Engineering Company in the late 1940s, renamed the Aero Commander company in 1950, and a division of Rockwell International from 1965. The initial production version was the Aero Commander 520. Piston-engined versions manufactured after 1967 are known as the Shrike Commander.
The idea for the Commander light business twin was conceived by Ted Smith, a project engineer at the Douglas Aircraft Company. Working part-time after hours through 1944, a group of A-20 engineers formed the Aero Design and Engineering Company to design and build the proposed aircraft with a layout similar to their A-20 bomber. Originally, the new company was going to build three pre-production aircraft, but as the first aircraft was being built, they decided to build just one prototype. The final configuration was completed in July 1946 and was designated the Model L3805.
The prototype flew successfully and the company leased, at no cost, a new 26,000 square-foot factory at Bethany near Oklahoma City to build a production version, certified on 30 June 1950. Nearly 10,000 hours of redesign work went into the model, including more powerful Lycoming GO-435-C2 engines, with a combined rating of 520 horsepower. The production model was named the Commander 520. The first Commander 520 was rolled out of the new factory in August 1951. Serial number 1 was used as a demonstrator, then sold in October 1952 to the Asahi Shimbun Press Company of Tokyo.
Under ownership of Rockwell in the 1960s, World War II pilot R. A. "Bob" Hoover demonstrated the Shrike Commander 500S for decades in a variety of "managed energy" routines, including single-engine and engine-out aerobatics. His Shrike Commander is displayed in the colors of his last sponsor, Evergreen International Aviation, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Bob Odegaard continued the tradition in 2012, flying a 1975 Shrike 500S in a Bob Hoover tribute routine.
One U-4B became a presidential transport aircraft for Dwight D. Eisenhower between 1956 and 1960. This was the smallest "Air Force One," and the first to wear the now-familiar blue-and-white livery.
The unpressurized, long-fuselage 680FL was operated as a small package freighter by Combs Freightair in the 1970s and 1980s, and by Suburban Air Freight in the 1980s and 1990s. The aircraft was popular with pilots, because it was extremely "pilot friendly" and with its 380 hp supercharged engines did well in icing meteorological conditions. A number are still operated on contracts for cargo and fire control applications, as their piston engines offer good fuel specifics at low altitudes and longer loiter times.
In 1950, when the developers were working to satisfy Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) regulations for certification of the 500, they chose a novel method of demonstrating its single-engine safety and performance: They removed one of the two-bladed propellers, secured it in the aft cabin, and flew from Bethany to Washington, D.C. on one engine. There they met with CAA personnel, then replaced the propeller and returned to Oklahoma in the conventional manner. The flight received nationwide coverage in the press.
Beginning in June 1991, senior engineers met with FAA officials to discuss concerns over the Aero Commander's main wing spar, which was believed to be susceptible to stress fatigue and subsequent cracking, and was believed to have resulted in a number of fatal crashes. From approximately 1961 to 1993, 24 aircraft crashed when spar failures caused the loss of the wing in flight. Thirty-five more spars were found cracked during inspections.
World War II hero and actor Audie Murphy died in an Aero Commander 680 while flying as a passenger in a thunderstorm over Roanoke, Virginia on 28 May 1971. Five others and the pilot were also killed.