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Whether the company employs one or hundreds- the best business aircraft choice is the airplane best suited to fulfill the need identified by the company – at a cost that keeps the airplane an asset- not a liability.

Dave Higdon   |   1st December 2010
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Propjets Examined
Turbine advantages- propeller frugalities.

Whether the company employs one or hundreds- the best business aircraft choice is the airplane best suited to fulfill the need identified by the company – at a cost that keeps the airplane an asset- not a liability.

With today’s wide choice of business-capable airplanes- it’s sometimes difficult to understand hesitation to embrace the benefits of a cost-effective airplane by the two groups of workers who would most benefit; namely the regular airline-bound executive repeatedly suffering the inconveniences of airline travel- and also the regional representatives and field directors who spend quadruple the lengths of their appointments driving an endlessly circuitous loop of highways- motels and diners.

The latter could move to a small plane and gain two extra nights at home each week; the former could move to a small plane- hit all the same stops – in no more than the wholly weighted travel times entailed with commercial airlines – and gain control of timing and costs- regularly shaving a day (and associated costs) off a round-robin trip.

The trick is to get the lines to cross between need and finances. For decades large and small businesses found a turboprop at the spot where those lines crossed.

Not two decades ago the emergence of new- smaller turbofans enthralled business aviation to the point that some predicted the ultimate demise of the turboprop – at least in all but utility and special-mission roles. Yet these days- prospective operators enjoy more turboprop choices than they have for many years.

The market shaped up as it has entirely because the airplanes found ready acceptance within the markets for pilots- company owners- owner/pilots and commercial operators. The propeller and the turbine- whether called “propjet” or “turboprop-” still remains the best choice for many a mission- and a hands-down economic winner for missions up to 500 nautical miles.

Contenders within the segment today represent a broad cross-section of turbine performance and cost-effectiveness- coupled with cruise performance capabilities that increasingly challenge the smallest of today’s jets. In some cases they even beat them at their own game- with cabin and cockpit accoutrements that rival the best of the fanjet strata. Without further discussion- let’s meet the pack.

Now the elder statesman of the propjet single population- the Caravans of today differ somewhat from their predecessors first delivered over a quarter-century ago. With more than 3-000 flying in every imaginable climate and environment- the Caravan has succeeded because it fulfilled its promise of a sturdy- simple- easily handled big-lifter.

Today both the original “short-body” 208- 675 and the stretched 208B sport more power thanks to flat-rated- 675-horsepower P&WC PT6A-114A powerplants. Both also employ Garmin’s highly popular G1000 integrated cockpit- keeping the Caravans on the same avionics level as Cessna’s smaller piston singles and the Citation Mustang.

The Grand Caravan offers capacity advantages over the original short-body model thanks to a four-foot fuselage stretch- although both can be fitted with belly pods- both amphibious and straight floats- and snow skis- allowing them extreme operating versatility.

Payload-wise- the Caravans are true heavy-haulers- with the 208-675 capable of carrying 900 lbs in the cabin while carrying full fuel- while the Grand can carry 1-300 lbs. Both can make excellent use of the open space thanks to large aft-fuselage doors. For the operator seeking a large-capacity executive propjet- the optional Oasis interior from Millennium Concepts and Yingling Aviation imbues the Caravan with a svelte feel that should fit in with any executive jet parked next to it on the ramp. The Grand can seat up to 12- the 208-675 nine.

Never intended for speed- the Caravan doesn’t match most others in the single-engine field (just as most of them can’t compare where hauling capacity is the comparator)- yet with 186 knots available from the 208-675 (182 knots from the Grand)- there’s nothing lackluster about the Caravan’s ability to cover ground for its typical missions. Many of the upgrades employed on new Caravans can be added as retrofits- among them the interior- TKS de-ice system and engine enhancements.

About two weeks after NBAA- a local engineer’s camera phone captured images of an airplane (being identified – outside of Cessna- at least – as a “turboprop Mustang”) and passed them on to internet aviation-news outlet AvWeb.

No launch announcement is imminent- according to Cessna- but Cessna is known to be test-flying a 500-shp flat-rated PT6-powered “technology demonstrator” created to help the company decide whether to- and what would best fill the gap between the speedy Corvalis 400 piston single and its Citation Mustang. It may or may not- says Cessna- become a new model. If it does- Wichita betting is on a new- fast- pressurized propjet single.

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Let there be no doubt: The TBM 850 performs at a level that can make a fanjet prospect think twice. How fast can it move? A speedy 320 knots true at FL260 is well within the TBM 850’s performance envelope. Going higher to cruise slower- and with more fuel-efficiency takes precious little time; the TBM 850 needs as little as 20 minutes to climb directly to FL310.

This airplane utilizes runways under 2-500 feet; can operate from 2-100 at gross; and can still cover 1-400 nautical on a full fuel load - admittedly a much smaller fuel load than the typical entry level jet cruising in the same speed range.

The TBM 850 is an effective one-stop continent crosser. Alternatively- it’s capable of stringing together three legs of 350 miles or less- without topping-up on fuel. The upgrade to the TBM 850 from the TBM 700 included an upgraded powerplant and a new panel system – Garmin’s G1000. Configured with a huge- centrally mounted 15-inch MFD flanked by two 10.4-inch PFDs- the 850’s avionics suite amply covers the single pilot’s needs.

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A local political tussle recently resolved in favor of plans to relocate EA-500 production from Extra’s Dusseldorf- Germany home to Montrose- Colorado in the near future. The plane’s margins- Extra’s American owner- Ken Keith says- improve with U.S. completion- given the exchange-rate challenges between the Euro and the Dollar.

Updated last year with an Avidyne Entegra glass panel and a new six-place interior- the 500 can turn in cruise speeds as high as 230 knots and fly at altitudes up to FL250. The Extra 500 – the youngest of today’s current crop of certificated propjets – carries two distinctions from its hangar-mates in the field: one its powerplant- the other its airframe.

On the power side we have the only installation in this segment of a Rolls-Royce 250 (450-horsepower 250-B17F/2)- coupled with a five-blade MT composite prop. On the airframe front- the Extra 500 boasts a unique-to-segment carbon-fiber composite airframe. Range can go beyond 1-400nm- while a lower cruise speed can give the pilot the option of using less than full fuel to increase cabin payload beyond the approximately 400 pounds available at full fuel. Regardless- airplanes in this speed and size segment generally carry no more than two for about 350 nautical.

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Formerly identified as the Farnborough Aircraft F1- the Kestrel program boasts some clout. With Alan Klapmeier- one of the founders of Cirrus Design Corp.- as Chairman- Anthony Galley - the son of the previous developer of the Farnborough F1 - is also involved. Indeed- the credibility of this pair is helping the company acquire capital to use in the development.

Brunswick- Maine- has been announced as the location of Kestrel’s new headquarters- with plans unveiled to build the aircraft in a factory at a new aviation cluster converted from a Navy air station facility. The concept demonstrator airplane shown at Oshkosh is not the final form: the wing- Klapmeier said- will change- as will some of the sizing and proportions of the cabin. The engine and panel gear remains in play; the final targets- while flexible- are not.

Kestrel will be all-composite; seat six to seven; fly in FL300 territory; and- if the engineers hit their targets- manage a 350-knot cruise speed with range well above 1-000nm.

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Perhaps some days you need an executive aircraft- speedy and frugal; other days- a utility hauler fills the bill; still others you need a near-STOL variant of that corporate airplane. This type of variety can be met with a Pilatus PC-12NG.

A cargo door compliments a passenger door- and a flexible-configuration interior allows for a cabin offering a variety of options. A commuter configuration allows for as many as nine seats- while an executiveconfiguration would offer room for eight seats (more typically referred to as Pilatus’ 6+2). Four seats and cargo space is also a possibility with this aircraft.

The PC-12NG offers the operator ability to run the PT6A-67P at its full flat-rated 1-200 shp - and in turn the aircraft can climb directly to FL280 in a mere 30 minutes. In the cockpit Honeywell’s Primus Apex integrated flight deck system provides the single- or two-pilot crew a level of information comparable to the Primus Epic system chosen for a variety of medium jets.

Sporting four 10.4-inch screens (one PFD for each seat plus two more vertically mounted in the center stack) Primus Apex controls everything from radio frequency selection to FMS functions- pressurization- monitor systems- and delivers datalink weather- charts and more.

Approaching a mid-cabin jet in cabin size – the PC-12NG can- as stated- carry as many as nine passengers- is single pilot certified- and has ability to utilize runways as short as 2-600 feet. Speeds of 300 knots are achievable- as is FL300- and a range of 1-500 nm (carrying four and full fuel).

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Piper’s Meridian has evolved significantly since first deliveries a decade ago. Yet at its core Piper’s only current in-production turbine remains true to its origins: a pressurized single designed around a single pilot managing its 260-knot- 1-000-mile-plus capabilities. Early changes raised gross weight and helped improve the Meridian’s full-fuel payload; the PT6A-42A engine’s flat-rated 500shp delivers the thrust to carry it to its service ceiling of FL300; and the combination of power and aerodynamics keep the airplane at home on runways as short as 2-500 feet.

However- it’s in the cabin and on the flight deck where Piper showed the most creativity- allowing pilots and owners a choice seldom available at any level of production of business aircraft: a choice of avionics manufacturers - either Avidyne or Garmin.

From Avidyne- Piper tapped an Entegra package sporting a pair of PFDs and a largescreen center-mounted MFD. The PFD displays all the attitude- heading- course and air data; the MFD displays navigation and moving- map imagery- plus traffic- weather datalink and weather radar graphics (as well as engine and aircraft-systems status and cautions).

Piper packages the Entegra system with a pair of WAAS-enabled Garmin GNS 430 GPS/Nav/Comm radios- as well as the Magic 1500 automatic flight-control system from S-Tec- and color weather radar. Among the most popular options: XM Satellite Datalink weather and Avidyne’s excellent CMax electronic charts.

The Garmin option is the popular G1000 system packaged specifically for this airplane with a pair of 10.4-inch PFDs flanking a 15-inch MFD – configured largely to perform the same functions as the standard package. Each PFD sports its own control panel to select avionics functions and frequencies- while the system includes the fully integrated GFC 700 digital flight-control package.

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Finally for the propjet singles- the Kodiak is the newest in the group- and a new contender for those in need of a heavy hauling utility player.

Available in a variety of configurations- the basic Kodiak sports a large aft-cabin loading door- wide- flat floor and a high overhead – making its 248 cubic feet of useable cargo space useful for hauling everything from barrels of liquids to building and drilling supplies- to medical gear or express parcels - or- of course- people.

If the cabin can’t hold all you need- you need the optional cargo pod- which ups the volume by an additional 62 cubic feet – making the Kodiak’s volume total 310 cubic feet. The PT6A-34 powerplant is rated for 700shp continuous (750shp for a limited period)- giving the Kodiak ability to operate from short- unimproved strips- cover 900 miles with NBAA reserves at speeds as high as 179 knots true- while carrying more than 900 pounds of cabin payload.

The Quest Kodiak version of Garmin International’s G1000 integrated flight deck sports three 10.4 inch displays in the familiar two PFD- one MFD configuration- along with options like datalink weather and Garmin’s sophisticated Synthetic Vision System to enhance the pilot’s situational awareness.

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Taking a proven- established performer can be risky business; existing customers who love the plane seldom welcome a new incarnation as a move-up prospect- unless the substitute first retains all traits they already embrace. After that- they look for genuine improvements that don’t add costs. So HBC wisely tapped the opinions of existing King Air B200 operators before introducing the King Air 250.

The King Air 250 reflects the results of those opinions – and by the numbers it does nothing to undermine the strength of the 200GT it replaces- but offers a lot that makes the 250 stronger. The secret: Aggressive weight-cutting and performance-improving changes to the basic B200GT.

It still sports the same proven- popular Pro Line 21 panel as the B200GT- and it uses the same PT6A-52 engines making 850shp each - but employs a pair of new-design Hartzell props. With lightweight composite blades shaped by sophisticated airfoils- the props- their spinners- and a new ram-air recovery system deliver more thrust longer- and higher than ever before. The 250 also sports new composite winglets from Boundary Layer Research improving lift and fuel efficiency across the operating envelope.

Maximum cruise stands at 310ktas- while takeoff capability stands at 2-111 feet at gross weight (standard conditions)- clearing the FAA-standard 50-foot obstacle. That’s 16 percent under what the B200GT delivered. Up the ante to 5-000msl on a 25°C day- and the 250 still needs only 3-094 feet (18.5 percent shorter than the B200GT). What’s not to like about gaining access to an additional 1-100 airports?

The King Air 250 is known-icing approved- but offering the ability to cruise as high as FL350 is no small matter when weather is a factor. Finally- the King Air 250 can fly almost 1-200 nautical. Opt for maximum payload and allowable fuel (2-200lbs)- and you can still manage trips of almost 350nm – with reserves. Initial deliveries should begin in the second quarter of 2011.

The King Air C90GTx lays claim to its long life thanks to its ability to deliver what operators need- and to improve and evolve with time. Hence changes in engine – the model of PT6- not the type – and props and avionics that the King Air 90 series has enjoyed over the decades.

The latest incarnation- the C90GTx- benefits from that evolution with its Pro Line 21 flight deck and 550shp PT6A-135 engines- which deliver fuel specifics solid enough to provide a range of nearly 1-200 nautical with crew- four passengers and allowable fuel. Maximum range with max fuel and allowable payload shifts slightly upwards to 1-236 miles. That represents both a longer distance- and about double the payload available at its predecessor’s full-fuel capacity.

Capable of climbing to- and cruising at FL300 with a top speed of 272 knots- the C90GTx remains a competitive- economical solution for the small operator- the remote operator or the owner/pilot who needs a rugged turbine twin.

Currently the biggest propjet available- the King Air 350i shares the dominant traits of its siblings the C90GTx and 250- starting in the panel with the three-screen Pro Line 21 stack- and continuing out to engine and prop manufacturers in P&WC and Hartzell.

They also share their ruggedness and their ability to operate in tough environments. For example- the 350i is capable of carrying more than 1-500 pounds with full fuel- translating into eight in the cabin- a pilot – and fuel to cover more than 1-500nm…non-stop! Cut the payload and fill the tanks- and the distance grows to 2-200nm.

This is a big airplane- with a maximum take-off weight of 16-500 pounds – but with speed- distance- space and cost numbers that would turn the head of many prospective light jets buyers.

The 313-knot max cruise speed and max-climb rate - approaching 2-800 fpm - is more than competitive with many jets on trips up to more than two hours- and the ability to use runways under 3-500 feet simply enhances the appeal of the King Air 350i.

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Our final propjet stands alone in the class in terms of its per-mile operating costs- reach and speed. The Piaggio P-180 Avanti II stands alone for its unique configuration and a cabin style. While it may remind

some of the Beech Starship with its pusher powerplant arrangement and distinctive forewing- no one who had to write the checks for fuel would confuse the P-180 for anything else with a PT6A engine.

Nothing else with a propeller – or propellers – comes within 80 knots of the Avanti II’s 400-plus-knot top cruise speed; and nothing else can cover the distances the latest P- 180 can cover on the relatively smaller amounts of Jet A required. At its long-range cruise speed – nearly 320 knots – the Avanti II ties the next-fastest in the propjet-twin arena.

The pair of P&WC PT6A-66B powerplants turn five-blade props into 850shp of power- flat rated to ISA+28°C – the motive force behind the Avanti II’s remarkable speed and fuel efficiency.

Aside from the high-speed abilities of engine and airframe – a smooth-as composite aluminum structure – the combination also allows a fully loaded P-180 to operate with as little as 2-868 feet to clear a 50-foot obstacle; landing takes barely an additional 10 feet.

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