For the moment, let’s set aside the vulgar discussion of money and consider whether turbine aircraft are all they’re claimed to be. Well, of course they are. Case closed. Turbines are faster than piston-engine aircraft, fly higher and since all the engines’ moving parts are always rotating in the same direction, they’re generally more reliable.
Moreover, the owner of a turbine aircraft is untroubled by that pesky problem of whether a high-octane fuel will be available and what it will cost. There’s no argument that Jet A is the world fuel of the future and it’s available in parts of the world where high-octane avgas has long since disappeared.
For owners looking to ditch their piston aircraft in favor of a kerosene burner, there are more choices than ever. Older twin turbines like the King Air can be had for a song and there are turbine conversions of piston airframes (Mirage Bonanza, Cessna P210) and high-performing new single-engine turbines such as the Piper Meridian, the Pilatus PC-12 and Aerospatiale TBM series. The would-be buyer hardly lacks for choice.
Having dispensed with the I-must-have-it phase of the discussion, the reality of turbine ownership pivots not so much on which one or whether it should be a single or a twin, but how much will it cost or, more broadly, what you might expect to spend a year on turbine ownership. It’s obviously going to be more, but how much more?
What’s This Gonna Cost?
If you budget, say, $35,000 a year for a high-performance single or twin, a turbine could easily be twice that and it goes up from there. Even though purchase prices on some turbines are reasonable if not rock bottom, they burn more fuel—sometimes a lot more—and although the maintenance invoices may come less frequently, they tend to be much larger when they do come. For instance, the overhaul cost on Continental TSIO-550 is around $38,000. A Pratt PT6A will be four times that, if everything goes well. To be fair, the Pratt—depending on the variant—has a 3600-hour TBO, but the wise owner won’t budget as though that number is written in stone.
New turbine owners don’t blink at insurance bills totaling $25,000 a year and some have to take recurrency training twice a year to get that. An annual on a piston airplane invoicing at $15,000 would cause the owner to think twice about keeping the old dog, but that’s chickenfeed in turbine land.
There are exceptions, however, and some turbine owners tell us it’s possible to get into the world of Jet A without mortgaging everything you own. Just don’t expect to enter into turbine ownership on the cheap with a factory-new Meridian or PC12.
The graphics above and on page 17 give a broad sense of what turbine airplanes are available, what they cost and how they perform. All of the owners we interviewed told us it makes the most sense to match the mission to the budget and then pick the airplane that meets both.
“For me, the MU-2 was a complete no-brainer compared to the King Air,” said owner Dennis Wolf, who went from a Cessna 421 to the MU-2. “The King Air is 40 to 50 knots slower and burns 30 to 40 percent more gas,” he added. That’s another way of saying don’t buy a turbine just because it’s cheap. Spending more to match the mission with regard to speed, range and payload may make more sense.
And so will spending more on a particular airplane rather than picking up a hangar queen on the cheap. Twin Commander owner Nathan Thompson told us he carefully analyzed all the aircraft options—MU-2, King Air, Conquest—before stepping from his Cessna P337.
“And that’s when I started making mistakes. I put a little too much emphasis on purchase price. I should have spent $100,000 more and purchased a better maintained airplane. More money up front translates to less money over time,” he says.
What You Get
Our interviews with owners and operators of turbine aircraft revealed a number of constants. Obviously, they are definitely more expensive. Second, turbine aircraft have a reputation for dispatch reliability and this doesn’t seem overstated. Third, a turbine-powered aircraft will in some cases, but not all, completely change the mission possibilities with regard to weather and distance. Owners say they can make trips in a turbine that wouldn’t have been possible in a piston airplane.
Fourth, while turbines are easier to fly, they are more demanding to flight plan for reasons of fuel burn and weather encounters. Fifth, by dint of insurance requirements, the training load may be much higher and for some owners, that’s as much a question of time as it is money.
Our impression of the easiest step-up turbine route is either of the two conversions powered by the Allison/Rolls 250. One is the Tradewinds Bonanza conversion, the other O & N’s Cessna P and T210 conversion. Tradewinds is no longer converting, but O&N is and you can budget just short of $1 million for the job, or buy one used for anywhere from about $500,000 to $800,000, depending on engine state.
Owners tell us performance is just a bit better than a turbocharged piston would be, but runway performance is vastly improved, especially for the Silver Eagle mod, which has reverse thrust for stopping on short or contaminated runways.
“Basically, you’ve got 450 HP compared to 300 HP so there isn’t any field you can’t get in or out of,” says Tradewinds Bonanza owner Dave Cooper. “Then you can climb out at 3000 feet per minute at 70 knots; that’s the max climb. The big thing is stopping. You can stop in a couple of hundred feet. It’s kind of made me a worse pilot, it’s so easy to fly,” he adds.
For the Tradewinds conversion, because of the higher fuel consumption, Cooper says range is a problem. It’s less so for the Silver Eagle 210, which carries more fuel.
“The big thing that kept me away from the Meridian is that the fuel burn is dramatically more. I’m averaging only about 23 gallons an hour. The Meridian idles at that,” says Bob Mittelstaedt, who converted a P210 to the O&N Silver Eagle four years ago. Overall, he says, his fuel costs are close to the same for about a 20 percent increase in cruise speed with similar maintenance costs to the piston P210, but a much greater confidence level in the engine. “The reliability has been just fabulous,” he told us. The biggest cost hit is the capital tied up in the airplane—roughly $1 million. At even 3 percent a year, that’s $30,000—three times the cost of his insurance. On the other hand, some turbine twins such as early Twin Commanders, MU-2s and King Airs can be had for under $300,000. But unless you need the second engine, the operating costs may offset the capital savings. But some owners do want the second engine.
Commander owner Glenn Kautt told us he has been flying since 1964 with the typical layoffs that most of us have experienced. “When I came back, my wife said I could fly anything I wanted as long as it has two motors. That was the call to action,” Kautt says.
That led him to a Cessna 310, a 414 and eventually a TPE331-powered Twin Commander. Like all of the owners we spoke to, Kautt, who is a financial planner, ran the numbers for several aircraft and arrived at the Commander as representing the best combination of purchase price, performance and operating costs even against less expensive airplanes to operate such as the JetProp conversion or the Meridian.
Kautt told us a tale we heard several times. The financial meltdown in 2008 tanked aircraft values, especially twins, and many would-be turbine buyers were sufficiently hedged to be able to make exceptionally high-value purchases on both turboprops and jets. As a result, we suspect there’s a small turbine ownership bump between 2008 and 2010, when prices started to recover slightly.
The single-versus-twin equation for turbines runs in parallel to the same discussion framed for piston airplanes. However, there are some subtle differences. For one, insurers may not require much recurrent training for a modest piston twin, but they may for a turbine. Second, in most circumstances, twin turbines deliver on second-engine redundancy in ways that piston twins don’t.
In a Cessna 310 loaded to the gunwales, you’ll need to be on your game to eke out a 300 FPM climb. But in a turbine, with the bad engine properly caged, 1000 FPM is more the norm. But it’s a mistake to assume a turbine twin is therefore more bulletproof.
“There is a regime in the MU-2 if you lose an engine from the time you rotated until you have 125 knots, you’re landing straight ahead. End of discussion,” says Dennis Wolf, who upgraded from a Cessna 421 to an MU-2 and who instructs in that airplane.
He says that anyone looking to move into a twin turbine needs to shuffle the performance numbers across a range of considerations to include how the airplane will perform on a single-engine after takeoff, in cruise and especially over mountainous terrain where driftdown could be a factor. Furthermore, stepping up to a turbine of any kind, says Wolf, requires more training, experience and situational awareness than meets the eye.
“Flight planning is a big one: You’ve got to know about weather in the flight levels, you’ve got to know about winds and you have to be used to fuel burns in the 100-gallon-an-hour range rather than 20 gallons. It’s a whole different ball game,” he says.
The warning about fuel management was echoed by other owners, some of whom said they were shocked at how fast the fuel goes away in a turbine. And into winter winds, a turbine’s otherwise impressive range might easily shrink to piston performance and the wise owner will learn not to push it.
Straight to a Jet?
Interestingly, because of the aforementioned financial crisis, some owners found themselves in a position to step directly from a piston airplane into a jet whose selling price was substantially marked down post-2008. Miami-based Raul Segredo told us he did exactly this, after his position on a new Eclipse EA-500 was lost in the company’s bankruptcy in 2008. At the time, he had been flying a Bonanza for use in his avionics business, which sells into an international market at the air transport level. Prior to Eclipse’s demise, Segredo had earned a type rating in the company’s simulator. But when he bought a Cessna Citation 501SP, he did the training in the airplane. And he told us something curious.
“Having the perspective of having done both the simulator training and the in-the-aircraft training, I would say that the airplane is far more beneficial if you can afford it,” he said. Speaking of which, we asked how he was able to get insurance in stepping directly to the Citation. His insurer didn’t balk, but did require a full-year of flying with a type-rated co-pilot. “With the benefit of hindsight, I think a year’s worth of supervised operation was well advised,” Segredo said.
And speaking of insurance, although the premiums aren’t cheap, none of the owners we spoke to said they were insurance-limited in any way, including high limits on smooth coverage. One owner based in Europe told us a European carrier wrote $8 million in liability on his Silver Eagle conversion.
As far as the jet cost compared to the piston, Segredo said it’s a huge leap from the Bonanza. “It’s five times more per mile. Ten times more per hour,” he said. (Call it about $1300 an hour.)
But for Segredo, the payoff is more productivity for business appointments. “I can now actually get out and back from trips I would just otherwise not take in the Bonanza,” he told us.
He says there’s no reason to believe that with the right training, a pilot should expect to have to do a stint in a turboprop before stepping up to a jet, at least one as simple as the Citation is to fly. And besides, he repeated a sentiment we heard from many other owners. “There’s no better way to get a big grin than to light up a couple of turbines and make a lot of noise.”