Twin Commander pilots gather to learn at ‘TCU’

 - October 11, 2007, 11:04 AM

During its 50-year history the Twin Commander line of business aircraft has occupied a special niche. Today, just as when the original purpose-built corporate and executive transport, the $45,000 Aero Commander Model 520, entered the market in January 1952, a high percentage of these aircraft–even the turbine-powered models–are flown not by full-time professional pilots but by their owners.

Because of that, every other year Twin Commander owners, operators and pilots from around the world, representing every piston and turboprop model and vintage, convene for a three-day “Twin Commander University (TCU),” where they experience an intensive immersion in type-specific topics. The sixth of these get-togethers, presented by the current holder of the Commander twin type certificates, Twin Commander Aircraft Corp. (TCAC), of Arlington, Wash., took place at the end of March in Paradise Valley, Ariz., at the La Posada Resort.

At seminars, on demonstration flights and in the exhibit room where vendors and service providers displayed their wares, owners, pilots and maintainers were exposed to all aspects regarding the care and feeding of their distinctive aircraft. Representatives of Twin Commander service centers, suppliers, engine, propeller and avionics manufacturers, pilot training specialists and insurance and tax advisors covered material ranging from service bulletins and airworthiness directives to the latest Twin Commander-certified systems and piloting techniques.

Jeff Cousins, TCAC v-p and general manager, told AIN that, as befitting a family of aircraft first developed by the legendary Ted Smith and a small group of fellow engineers, financed by them and built with their own hands, a majority of Twin Commanders are today flown by their owners. They include entrepreneurs, professional people and heads of companies generally having 100 or fewer employees. Typical of the Twin Commander University’s 197 attendees were electrical contractors, builders, company presidents, lawyers, doctors and salesmen from across the U.S. as well as from Canada and Latin America. Two Colorado pilot-owners, from Aspen and Telluride, brought along four-legged “copilots”–a golden retriever and a standard poodle. Cousins said that, compared to other turboprop models in the general aviation fleet, Twin Commanders represent the highest percentage of owner-flown aircraft. He added that TCAC planned to begin a survey in April to develop a more precise count of owner-flown Commander twins.

Cousins noted that Twin Commander owner-pilots, with relatively few hours vis a vis full-time corporate pilots, are especially fond of the aircraft’s handling qualities and stability–attributable in large part to a forward c.g. He said these pilots over the years have tended to remain with Twin Commanders and are less likely to transition into larger turboprops and jets. Serving to encourage brand loyalty are the brand’s docile minimum speeds, typically 93 kias Vmc, 77 kias stall speed (clean) and 75 kias (landing configuration) for the turboprop models; and as low as 75 kias Vmc and 59 kias stall speed (gear and flaps down) for the Lycoming IO-540-powered 500S Shrike Commander long flown in Bob Hoover’s dazzling airshow routines.

The Twin Commander University covered subjects of need-to-know importance for individuals who must remain current in all those areas usually handled by specialists in corporate flight departments. The curriculum provided an intensive exposure to Twin Commander-related topics from the latest service bulletins and optional parts kits to insurance issues and system trouble-shooting. Break-out sessions dealt with matters specific to turbine and piston-powered Twin Commanders. Gatherings of general interest highlighted the Meggitt Magic EFIS and digital flight control systems newly certified on turbine Twin Commander models, as well as recent tax developments and airspace use issues. Attendees were updated not only on maintaining airworthiness of the fleet but the availability and benefits of various modifications and enhancements, including the Renaissance Commander aircraft restoration and modernization program.

Presenters, in addition to those from TCAC, came from FlightSafety International’s Twin Commander learning center, Honeywell’s engines and corporate avionics groups, Meggitt Avionics, Garmin, several insurance brokerages and underwriters, and Advocate Aircraft Taxation Company, consultants on tax issues.

Billed by Cousins as “The only time and place you’ll find all the information on Twin Commanders, and all the people who operate and support the airplane gathered together,” the event drew 36 fly-in Twin Commanders of various marks to nearby Scottsdale Airport. They included an immaculately restored 1959 model of Guatemalan registry, purchased new by Manfredo Lippman, its current owner. Twin Commander factory service center Executive Aircraft Services hosted the transient line.

Pierre deBruge, TCAC engineering director, reviewed initiatives to keep Twin Commanders, the newest of which are 17 years old, in the air. He said inspection procedures are being standardized among all Twin Commander service centers–for example, landing-gear inspections that can range from “scraping some paint off and looking at what’s underneath,” to a thorough disassembly, which the company recommends. He described how various parts and components such as forgings and castings that are no longer available are being replaced with machined equivalents that in many cases are stronger. In the product improvement areas deBruge cited a new wing spar cap using different material and fabrication processes from the OEM item, incorporating design changes based on analysis of failed or broken parts sent from service centers. He added that computer-aided design is reducing dependence on 55-year-old engineering and production documents.

Custom parts kits available to maintain or improve aircraft performance and integrity include:

• A heavier replacement picture-window frame to correct pressurization leakage. (“Turning off the alarm bell isn’t going to solve the problem,” deBruge advised.)

• New flexible environmental ducts for Models 681, 690 and earlier, replacing rigid ducts.

• An optional dry fuel boost-pump kit for the 690A and B, described as more accessible, reliable and maintainable.

• CK 159, a nose-gear improvement kit that deBruge called “better than the original” and “half the cost of a new nose landing-gear system,” according to Cousins.

Regarding a replacement lower rib in the vertical tail, which eliminates an inspection required under Service Bulletin 218, a questioner asked the cost. DeBruge drew chuckles when he replied, “I’m just an engineer. I only work for the advancement of science.”

Discussion of the Meggitt Magic avionics centered on the 2100 digital flight control system designed to interface with the Meggitt EFIS. “Twin Commander has invested half a million dollars in the Magic program,” said Cousins, explaining that support for the original avionics is becoming increasingly unavailable. The 2100 DFGS is STC’d for the Commander 690/695 series, and certification on the Commander 1000 is expected within the year. Meggitt regional sales representative Colin Heffley told AIN that an STC has been issued for the three-axis digital autopilot on the Cessna 441 and that others are in progress for the Piper Cheyenne II and King Air C90.

The autopilot has an integral solid-state air data/attitude-heading reference system and is GPS coupled for en route nav and approaches down to 200 feet and a half mile. Cousins said the new digital autopilot’s air data processor will save approximately $20,000 to $25,000 on an aircraft’s approval for RVSM. Meggitt’s Ken Paul said the Magic EFIS/autopilot suite is planned to become domestic RVSM compliant by the first quarter of next year.

He added that the Magic EFIS and optional engine instrument display have also been STC’d to be compatible with the King KFC 300 analog autopilot found in many Twin Commanders.

Less Taxing Activities
Of particular interest to TCU attendees, many of them entrepreneurs and small business owners, was the session on recent favorable tax rulings, regulations and interpretations. Louis Meiners Jr., president of Indianapolis-based Advocate Consulting, offered perspective on new accelerated depreciation opportunities under the 2002 tax bill affecting used aircraft such as the Twin Commander. Meiners, a CPA, attorney and twin-turboprop pilot, described how even when an aircraft is flown primarily for personal use, courts have allowed full depreciation and expense write-offs. He outlined how individuals with significant investment or non-employee income can form a separate corporate structure for asset management to qualify for an advantageous optional IRS method of taxing personal use of an aircraft. Meiners also described how buyers of used aircraft such as Twin Commanders can exploit 30 percent bonus first-year depreciation features of the law aimed primarily at new equipment.

He cited the example of someone who purchases a used machine and spends additional funds to recondition it. Although the purchase price does not qualify for the added depreciation, the cost of a full Renaissance Commander refurbishment program, typically $600,000 to $900,000 for a Model 690A, will be eligible. Thus, 44 percent of the refurb investment can be depreciated in the first year of the five-year depreciation schedule applicable to an aircraft operated under Part 91, as are most Twin Commanders.

Convincing the Insurors
Hal Williams, chairman of NationAir Insurance brokers and pilot of a 690B Turbo Commander for the past eight years, introduced a panel that included John DeAngelone, executive v-p and manager of Global Aerospace Underwriting; Ken Schmidt, of W. Brown & Associates in Los Angeles; Jim Anderson, with AIG Aviation in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Ralph Valenzi, v-p in AIG’s Pittsburgh branch. Williams observed that many insurance companies have not been interested in Twin Commanders because “it was just an unsupported old airplane in the underwriters’ eyes.” He commented, “I was astounded to find underwriters didn’t consider the Twin Commander a modern, safe airplane.” He said that after underwriters were educated about the Twin Commander service center network and FlightSafety pilot training programs, “All the (insurance) companies today assure us they are putting Twin Commanders into the best risk category.”

One of the many audience questions was, “Why can’t we get lower premiums for operating out of the U.S., since settlement costs are lower?” DeAngelone replied, “Our legal system will bring that loss, one way or another, back to the U.S.” To a question about the future of single-pilot operations in turbine aircraft, he responded, “We’re trying to figure what to do with the new light jet market, the Mustangs, and so on. But I assure you there is no move afoot in the aviation insurance industry to do away with single-pilot turbine flying.”

Anderson was asked if there is an age limit on insuring a pilot who is current in training and experience. He answered, “Until recently I had a 101-year-old pilot. He didn’t renew, and I didn’t follow up on him.”

What do aircraft insurance underwriters look for? DeAngelone said that factors such as aircraft age, accident history, kinds of use and maintenance records all go into the equation. Williams added that “If your aircraft is serviced by a Twin Commander service center, you must be sure to let the underwriter know because it will have a favorable effect on your premium.”