Me and my aircraft; Piston twins: Numbers decline, but the humble piston twin still earns its keep all around Europe
September 10, 2012:
The piston twin in Europe is undoubtedly in decline. This edition of European Business Air News will be sent to owners and operators of all 1,431 such aircraft in Europe and the Middle East, but this number has declined substantially from the 1,646 this time just a year ago, and from the 2,572 around the continent five years ago.
Yet despite this, in this feature we talked to owners of a variety of piston twin aircraft types, and found that there is life in this sector yet.
Maintaining its place at the top of the table as Europe's most popular light twin, the venerable Seneca has moved with the times and is still available factory-new today. The latest Seneca V has 197ktas maximum cruise speed, 828nm range at long-range power settings and a 25,000ft operating altitude.
To find out more about the Seneca in central Europe you might find yourself talking to Lubomir Cornak at local distributor OK Aviation Group.
"The best thing about the Seneca," he says, "is the best performance-to-cost value in its class. It is the optimum aircraft for those who prefer a twin for peace of mind, want de-icing, radar and other goodies, but don't want to spend extra money for a turboprop."
He concedes that there are downsides to the long-established market leader, including low payload. "Older Senecas were lighter, but the new ones gained a lot of weight on equipment and various improvements, but without any boost in MTOW," he says.
"I like the availability of full ice protection on this aircraft, combined with the powerful turbocharged engines. You can almost always climb out of ice, which is not the case with other small twins.
"These days most private customers upgrade from piston singles directly to turboprop singles such as the Meridian. The twin era is gone, no doubts about that.
"But still, now and then, we sell a Seneca to a private owner who prefers two sets of pistons over one shaft. And of course, there is still demand from flight schools. While there are several low-cost twins on the market (the Diamond, Tecnam as well as our Seminole), the Seneca offers much more training utility. Beside the basic asymmetric thrust training, in the Seneca a student can train on how to use radar, how to fly in icing conditions and so on."
Last year OK Aviation Group also delivered a Seneca as a platform for scientific equipment.
Even after 35 years, older Senecas are still pleasing their owners, such as Ian Middleton of Direct Aviation Management. He is satisfied with every aspect of his Seneca II, and particulalry rates the performance and handling. Less good is the electrical system, and his most coveted upgrade would be a three-bladed prop and de-ice.
Popular in the UK and France especially, Beech Barons can be found throughout Europe. In production for over fifty years, it has always been targeted at the top end of the light twin comfort and performance range, and the current G58 model is no exception: "The new generation Baron G58 flies farther and faster with more payload than any other twin-piston aircraft," says Hawker Beechcraft.
As we go to press, Baron owners from many countries are expected to fly to an exclusive fly-in event at Hawarden airport in Chester on September 7th, which is being hosted by the manufacturer.
EBAN reader Steve Rogers replied to our survey to report on his Baron 58, and declared himself satisfied with the availability of support. "There are excellent sources of experienced engineers on the type available throughout Europe and the MRO that we use is well experienced in Beech products," he says, pointing out that the best value can be found at independent maintenance companies.
"In all the years I have been involved in the aircraft and since owning it, it has only let me down once and that was the fault of an MRO not having carried out a check when it was due.
"It is perfect for what I use it for – commuting between the Channels Islands and the UK and getting around western Europe. The savings in time and hence money are well worth the expense of the aircraft."
Rogers says that the best attribute of the Baron is its performance, range and payload and particularly the access to the cabin through the double rear doors. The worst is the fact that its maximum weight is just over 2,000kg so it attracts Eurocontrol charges.
Upgrading older Barons to modern avionics is well worthwhile, he believes: "We fitted a Garmin package, along with TCAS and TAWS and will probably fit EFIS at a later date."
Navajos and Chieftains have been the workhorses of economical air charter for many years, and still have many satisfied operators.
"The Piper Navajo is strong, powerful and good to operate into out-back airports," says Jon Sigurdsson of Atlantsflug ehf, reporting on his PA31-310.
And as a former operator of Cessna 402 and Partenavia P68 aircraft as well, he is in a good position to compare the types: "In comparison between the Cessna 402 and the PA31, I can only say that maintenance is easier to perform on the Piper and these two aircraft types are built to meet the same criteria for certification so that sets the standards pretty much," he says.
"There is more cabin space in the Cessna 402 as well as more space for luggage. For my operation the Piper exceeds the Cessna 402 in many ways, especially the larger windows for passengers, and the direct linkage toward the nose wheel steering on the Piper 31 compared to the indirect (spring) input the pilots have on the Cessna 400 nose wheel steering. This is not a problem when operating out of paved runways but when you are flying back country gravel runways this means everything.
"Now I find Piper services to have improved over the past few years and parts are easy to get as well as support and that is an important factor for an operator. If we could get these aircraft back into production and perhaps with more economical engines then that would be great, but then on the other hand the Lycoming TIO-540 on the PA31 has proven to be a reliable engine, and being able to lean the Navajo down to 12.5 gallons per engine and still cruise at 150-160kts at 4,000 feet is acceptable to my operation."
Recent 'crazy' increases in fuel prices mean that the Piper's fuel economy is more of a problem, reports Sigurdsson.
"Yes, I like the Navajo a lot. I believe the fuel cost is bad but one must remember that turboprops are much more expensive to buy and operate and they burn much more volume, and the Jet A1 in comparison to 100LL is not much cheaper, so fuel cost is not less on the turboprops compared to the pistons.
"On short flights speed is not the issue, but pressurisation might be an issue to get out of weather. Still my biggest concerns are two-fold – the skyrocketing price of fuel and the availability of 100LL."
Other fans of the PA31 have opted to improve its performance still further by taking advantage of the available after-market upgrade packages. One such is Richard Battersby of Neric Limited, who has a Seneca V, but has also invested in a Panther conversion for his PA31-310C.
"I bought the plane originally in 1999 as a standard Navajo. After about six months I had it flown to Nashville for the work to be done, then I flew the CAA inspector over to certify it for the UK register and then it was flown back in new form, it was painted and had a new registration," he says. "It was a good project!"
Battersby had the 350 Chieftain engines installed together with the four-bladed Q-tip propellers, the winglets and the long-range locker tanks. There are additional recognition lights built into the winglets. In all, the aircraft carries 242 litres of fuel and has about six hours endurance. "I don't fly it that far in one go but it gives options about where to refuel in these days of high fuel prices," he says. It is around 15kts faster than the standard machine, has a better climb rate and stability in turns and significantly greater range.
The down-sides of the PA31, that it is becoming more expensive in terms of parts costs and EASA compliance, are easily outweighed. "It is a very solid, rugged aircraft which performs well within limitations," says Battersby.
Most other respondents to our survey were pleased with the aircraft: Gwyndaf Williams of Haverfordwest Air Charter Services (FlyWales) reports very good dispatch rates and reliability; Lisa Humphries of Capital Air Charter says her company's six Chieftains are "very adaptable aircraft offering a range of different configurations"; René Jorgensen of Dane Swede Aviation is satisfied with the PA31-325CR; while Ahmad Jahanfar and John Stevens of Eastern Executive Air Charter say the PA31 is a "reliable species" with no bad features.
One dissenting voice comes from Piret Prääts of Pakker Avio who is unhappy with maintenance support and value for money as far as the Navajo is concerned.
Cabin pressurisation and eight-seat configuration combine to make the Cessna 421 series a highly capable aircraft in private and economy charter service. There are B and C models all over the continent, but especially in the UK and Germany.
Richard Bateman has a 421B Golden Eagle, selected because it offered the best available combination of range, speed and comfort. "It has a quiet and comfortable cabin, a toilet for long trips, and enough luggage space for golf clubs," he says.
"However, some parts are becoming difficult to find when you are running to EASA regulations, and the cost of Avgas and lack of its availability at some international destinations mean that fuel stops can be required."
His most desired upgrade would be auxiliary tanks and de-icing kit, but: "It is a wonderful aircraft, under-rated and great value for money. It cruises at 200kts at 20,000ft."
Popular for training, utility roles and personal transport, the Diamond DA-42 is rapidly climbing the popularity charts and new operators regularly find their way into the pages of EBAN. It is at the smaller end of the light twin range with only four seats, but is thoroughly modern with its composite construction and Garmin glass cockpit.
One major advantage over other light piston twins is the use of jet fuel by its aerodiesel engines, greatly expanding the number of airports where fuel is available.
DA-42s are now registered in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK.
First produced, and often still referred to, as the Partenavia P68, this utility favourite is available factory-new in regular and turbocharged varieties. The type has multiple operators in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK especially.
MercŹ Martí reports experience gained while flying four new Vulcanair P68 Observer 2s, saying they are easy to maintain and that there is good support from the manufacturer. Dispatch reliability is good, as are value and operating capabilities. In short, "it is a fantastic aircraft for aerial work, observation, surveillance, photography and tourist flights." The worst thing is that, in summer, the cockpit can be too hot.
Another highly satisfied fleet operator, this time with seven P68B and one Observer type, is Jeff Nuttall: "Having operated these aircraft for some time we have established a good spares holding. However, the factory has provided timely support for items we do not hold.
"With fixed undercarriage and normally-aspirated engines, this is a relatively simple aircraft and we achieve a very high level of dispatch reliability. With the combination of long range fuel tanks and de-icing features and good low speed flying capability this type meets all of our requirements."
The worst thing, says Nuttall, is that magneto and oil filter changes are time consuming. Short of an engine change to one which burns diesel fuel, there is little to fault: "The aircraft has good handling qualities and conversion to type for low experience pilots is very straightforward," he adds.
Former P68 owner Jon Sigurdsson of Atlantsflug ehf says: "The Partanavia P68 is not something to compare to the PA 31 and the Cessna 402, but the P68 is a versatile aircraft and well suited for small operators both for short haul charter and for sight-seeing flights. The aircraft is economical to operate with the Lycoming IO360 and has good cruising speed and payload. The drawback is the price on used and new aircraft which make you look more toward a Piper PA31 that gives you more opportunities for IFR charter and can carry more passengers. But there is no aircraft built that does all you want from one aircraft, so for that reason a Partanavia might fit well within a Piper PA31 or Cessna 402 operation."
As reported in EBAN only last month, the Britten-Norman Islander is now being assembled in the UK once more. The latest version includes enlarged baggage bay door options, three-bladed scimitar propellers, low drag fairings, modern interior, all new ergonomically designed leather seats, on board entertainment options and club seating arrangements.
Once one of the most popular twin models in Europe, the venerable Apache/Aztec is showing its age and is now mainly in private and flying club operation. The largest population is in France.
These days you are also most likely to track down a Cessna 310 in France, although there are fleets of four apiece in the hands of Air Atlantique and Air Charter Scotland in the UK.
Owning any variety of light twins may be economical compared to turboprops, but it is never going to be cheap. Tyrone Courtman has a 1976-vintage Cessna 310R, and loves the performance, load carrying capability, and its looks. "It still remains a personal rocket ship!" he says.
However, supplementary inspections required recently have become expensive. "I had the first round at the end of 2006 when the works necessarily included the removal of the gear, tip tanks, rudder and tail, engines and support beams. That took the aircraft out of operation for three months.
"Earlier this year I had another round, which primarily involved the removal of the wings and inspection of the wing spar and attachments. That was another three months out of service.
"You have to be philosophical about these works. The aircraft was originally built in 1976 and it was bought by me in 2004."
Courtman continues: "I fell in love with the 310 back in 2002 when I did my instrument rating in one, in the earlier days of Atlantic Flight Training, based out of Coventry. I love the design and performance. For me it's a bit like a classic car. I love its retro looks, although in my mind it still looks as good today as when it was made in 1976. You simply can't go out and buy a new 310R today. Arguably, you could get a new Beech Baron, but then that's at least a million dollars, and while the jury has always been out on which aircraft has the better performance, the 310R for me leaves it standing on its good looks alone!
"As regards the SIDs, I have debated whether I place the aircraft on the US register where I understand many of the SIDs are an option rather than the CAA's mandatory approach. But for me, I am where the CAA is. I've reconciled it like this: If I'm taking the family to the Channel Islands I want to know that the aircraft is still structurally sound. If I can't afford inspections that Cessna recommend (and I appreciate many are driven by Cessna's desire to cover their litigation risk) then I shouldn't be flying it. As regards flying and safety, my view is that there can be no compromise!"
The other significant expense Courtman encountered was replacing both engines in 2007. "They were 25 years old and were some 100 hours off TBO when I had the CSU high pressure oil feed shaft shear on one which meant I lost thrust shortly after take-off out of East Midlands on the port side. Repair and overhaul was going to be nearly as much as a remanufactured unit and given that the aircraft was going to be out of action while the works were undertaken I decided it was the right time to replace both. Do you remember back then we got over two dollars to the pound?
"All my maintenance has been conducted by IAE at Cranfield, and while I would acknowledge they are not the cheapest, I would have no hesitation in recommending them. Andy Baker has known and worked on the aircraft for many years, in fact way before I acquired it.
"As regards fuel, I have no issues really, aside from rising costs of course and fears surrounding future availability of 100LL. You can only reconcile it by acknowledging that it's never going to be any cheaper! The aircraft has recently had its auxiliary tanks replaced. But I can't complain really. They were the original items installed by Cessna in 1975.
"I have owned the aircraft since August 2004. Not only was it my first twin, it was my first aircraft. I use it predominantly for pleasure and very occasionally for business. Trips to Copenhagen, Annemasse, La Rochelle, and Lyon have been among the most memorable. But there are many.
"I am the immediate past president of the Turnaround Management Association and used the aircraft to attend a couple of its European conferences in Berlin and Cannes for example."
Harald Urban of Urban Air Bedarfsflug enjoys the speed and reliability of his Cessna 310R Turbo, and sees the best upgrade as switching to a TBM700!
Other 300-series Cessnas are also widely used in Europe. These include the Cessna 340 flown by Markus Salomon of CCF Manager Airline, but marketed separately by LPS Rodenkirchen, with which he declares himself satisfied with everything but the operating capabilities.
Roche Bentley of Rochair is fully satisfied with his Cessna T303 Crusader: "Marshall Aerospace at Cambridge do a very good job with maintenance. Parts aren't cheap but they manage to source them.
"Compared with a much more sophisticated aircraft the 303 is excellent value and can carry six people and luggage. It can operate safely from grass strips and is a great all-round serviceable aircraft. I hope to get another ten years use before Avgas is phased out."
Bentley has both the Garmin 530 and the Bendix colour weather radar installed.
The final entrant in our top ten most prolific piston twins in Europe, the Beechcraft 76 is a T-tail model with counter-rotating propellers. There are occasional aircraft dotted around Europe, but the huge majority of the fleet is in the UK.
The top ten most popular piston twins around Europe and the Middle East
- Piper PA34 275
- * Beech Baron 268
- Piper PA31 134
- Cessna 421 128
- * Diamond DA-42 88
- * Vulcanair P68 87
- * Britten-Norman Islander 82
- Piper PA23 80
- Cessna 310 55
- Beech Duchess 40
* Available factory-new.
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