When it’s all said and done, if the customer decides to include new avionics and the Dash 10T engine upgrade, the cost for a Grand Renaissance project can be more than $2 million, but it all depends on the history of the airplane and the current cost of the engine and avionics. Isely said 41 Grand Renaissance projects have been completed since the program began in the mid-’90s.
The benefit of the Grand Renaissance program extends to other Commander customers.
“It really keeps the parts movement active and keeps the airplanes flying,” said Byerly. And parts availability for this legacy airplane does not seem to be a problem. “Ninety-five percent of everything we sell for Commanders gets shipped out the door the same day,” said Isely.
On a beautiful summer day in Hillsboro, Oregon, I stepped into N71AA, one of Aero Air’s 690Bs with the Dash 10T conversion. Entering the airplane was easier than getting into my car. The bottom of the fuselage is close to the ground, and Aero Air created an STC that removes the short airstair and allows the door to be opened all the way, flush with the fuselage, which provides significantly more space in the doorway. This is particularly helpful for operators, such as Aero Air, that use the airplane for medical transport.
The flat floor also makes it easy to move around the cabin. But, as often is the case with this class of airplane, climbing into the seats in the cockpit is not the easiest feat, because there is not much space between the seats and the center column.
But once I had strapped myself in I was impressed with the comfort and visibility. The Commander has a large, heated, wrap-around windshield and a skylight above each side window, providing terrific forward and side visibility as well as natural light in the cockpit.
McCullough explained that the direct-drive engines give the Commander 690B a propensity for hot starts, but as long as you watch the EGTs on start-up and shut the engine down at the first sign of a potential hot start, there is nothing to worry about. We got both engines started without a hitch.
Another potential gotcha is steering the Commander. Unlike many nose-wheel-equipped airplanes, there is no mechanical link between the rudder pedals and the nose gear. Instead, the steering is hydraulically actuated through the first part of the toe brakes, which activates a cylinder that turns the nose gear. Press the toe brakes further and the brakes on the main wheels are activated. The system allows the pilot to apply full rudder in one direction while applying steering in the other, which (while there is no good reason to do it) is quite unique. I agree that steering was a little tricky at first, but it didn’t take me long to get the hang of it, and I taxied the airplane smoothly toward Runway 31 at Portland-Hillsboro Airport (KHIO).
With an airplane coming in on final, we made a rolling takeoff, and while I pushed the throttles slowly, the power they responded with was remarkable. We got off the ground in no time and used a fraction of the 6,600-foot runway. McCullough claims he has landed and taken off with 71AA on a 1,900-foot airstrip, though he doesn’t recommend it for inexperienced Commander pilots.
We weren’t anywhere near gross weight with only three people on board, three-quarters worth of fuel in the tanks and no luggage, but the 4,000 fpm climb rate at 130 knots was still impressive. Satisfied with seeing that kind of performance capability, we pushed the nose over, and even at 160 knots we were pushing 3,000 fpm.
In addition to providing great climb performance, the Dash 10T engines reduce the performance issues associated with an engine failure. McCullough said it “climbs 1,000 fpm on one engine at gross weight.” And with the large rudder surface, asymmetrical thrust is easy to control. You can even trim the airplane out and put your feet on the floor. Several people I spoke with about the Twin Commander said an engine failure is a “non-event.” We didn’t kill an engine completely, but pulled the throttle back on the right one, and I felt that it was easy to control the airplane.
We did some stalls, and McCullough explained that the long, thick wing helps make the stall speed and Vmc within two knots of each other.
“If I lose an engine, I can maintain directional control of the airplane right to the stall,” he said.
With a clean configuration, the buffet came at 75 knots and with flaps 72 knots. I felt no tendency for either wing to drop.
I also played around with steep turns and got a good feel for the large control surfaces. I lost some altitude on my first attempt, but the second one was right on the mark. Despite being a heavy airplane, the 690B is fun and easy to hand-fly.
Although my preferred seat in an airplane is always up front, I unbuckled my seatbelt to check out the passenger experience. It was impressive. The interior was equally as nice as any airplane rolling off a factory floor, and there was plenty of legroom. But the most impressive thing was the massive picture windows in the rear, which provide the passengers with a view that nearly equals the pilot’s.
Returning for the landing, we were cleared for the shorter Runway 2. Through clear skies, I was looking right at Mount Rainier on final, approaching at 110 knots. As I got closer, I slowed to 95 knots over the fence and managed to finish the flight with a decent landing.
I have to admit that I always thought the Commanders looked a little strange. But after having a chance to fly a Turbo Commander, I now understand why the passion for these airplanes runs deep with those who fly them.
“It’s one of the cool things about Commanders — they’ve got kind of like a cult following,” said Byerly.
And it’s the same for those who work on these airplanes. Isely said some employees at the 18 Twin Commander service centers have been working on Commanders for more than 50 years, and the total amount of Commander experience for the employees adds up to more than 1,000 years.
Commanders might have been out of production for decades, but with hundreds still flying regularly and with strong support from Twin Commander, these airplanes should continue to fly for decades to come.