Ultimate Aerostar: the 702P
The current state of the Aerostar art is the 702P, a mod package with a list of standard options that can turn a large number of existing Aerostars, even those with previous mods, into the latest and greatest. A completely redone airplane with zero-time engines and all the bells and whistles, like the one I flew recently, can be had for around $700,000, airplane included. The mod can be applied to just about any pressurized Aerostar, though it will cost more to perform on some airplanes than on others.
As you'd expect, the new turbocharged 540s make up the lion's share of the expense. Because there are several different flavors of 350 hp engines in the field-the subject could itself be a long article-the question of which engine to install or modify is complicated, but Christy says that his company, which can do all of Machen's mods under license, can accommodate just about any owner's needs.
Another core feature of the 702P mod is a huge weight increase, as much as 850 pounds on some models and around 600 pounds on many others. The weight increase package requires the addition of new heavy-duty wheels and brakes, beefed up landing gear and higher-speed tires. And it's not only the max takeoff weight that improves: landing, ramp, takeoff and zero-fuel weights are all increased.
Also included is a barrage of clever aerodynamic fixes using vortex generators, nose strakes, fences and hinge guards, which bring the stall speed way down and solve some sub-Vmc control issues present on the production version. And pressurization is increased, from 4.25 to 5.5 psi, and a new autopilot, the Bendix/King KFC 225, is added to the list.
When all is said and done, is it a new airplane? No. In just about every way, it's a lot better.
Too Hot to Handle?
I flew a newly refurbished Aerostar 702P with Jim Christy recently, and I was surprised on a number of fronts.
The feel of the 702P is pure business, with its cabin-style door and flush-riveted, stressed skin construction. For passengers to enter the airplane, you need to slide the pilot's seat all the way forward, a quirk of the Aerostar design, but one that allows the use of a clamshell airstair-style door while not requiring the pilot to climb through the back, as is the case with most cabin-class piston twins.
One of the biggest gripes about the Aerostar is that it's small inside, but in my view that's kind of a cheap shot. While it might be small compared to turboprop twins, the interior is larger than that of a Baron, especially at the rear, and there's a good deal of baggage space in an outside fuselage compartment. In any case, there's no mistaking you're in a light twin, but it's not small in that context at all.
To taxi the airplane you use a console-mounted rocker switch that controls the nosewheel steering. For some pilots new to the Aerostar, it can take some getting used to, Christy told me, but I found it easy and intuitive to use, and it has the added advantage of being powerful enough to control the airplane on the ground with one engine shut down. It's also a little like a tiller, which many bizjets use for ground steering, adding to the big-airplane mystique.
Likewise on takeoff the airplane feels more like a jet than a piston twin. With its high wing loading, quick acceleration-differential braking keeps it straight until 40 knots or so-and a rotation speed of around 90 knots, the airplane requires your full attention on the roll.
When we were climbing out, fairly light and on a slightly hotter than standard day, I immediately saw one of the biggest reasons the Aerostar appeals to pilots who love performance. Our rate of climb at the 145-knot cruise climb airspeed was better than 2,000 fpm, a rate we could keep up for less than a minute, since we needed to stay below Tampa's Class B airspace. More typical rates of climb at heavier weights are still around 1,500 fpm, and the airplane can hold that up into the 20s.
At altitude the Aerostar is a going machine. While the 702P can cruise at better than 260 knots at 25,000 feet, it burns nearly 50 gallons per hour total while doing it. Many owners fly it at 65 percent power, which gives them around 245 true at around 45 gallons per hour. One popular modification, the addition of an auxiliary fuel tank, boosts capacity to 209.5 gallons total, which helps increase the airplane's range substantially.
Perhaps the most pervasive Aerostar myth is that it's a hard airplane to handle. Based on my flight in the 702P, nothing could be further from the truth. While it's true that waypoints come and go fast when you're flying at 260 knots, the airplane is easy to fly slow, and it exhibits extremely docile handling characteristics and excellent single-engine manners (in many ways much better than the Twin Star I flew for my multiengine rating in January).
The combination of gear, speed brakes and approach flaps makes losing speed and altitude a no brainer, and the airplane handles very smoothly and solidly in the pattern. As on takeoff, in the landing phase the Aerostar feels a little more like a jet than a piston twin, and the best method is to cop an attitude and flare just slightly. I made a few good landings that way and one pretty ugly one when I tried to flare too much. Coming or going: The Aerostar uses precious little runway for an airplane that's as fast as it is in cruise.
Moving Up: The Aerostar Option
It is true that there's a lot going on in an Aerostar that pilots don't have to worry about in a Skylane, an SR22 or a Columbia. You've got retractable landing gear, for one thing, pneumatic deicing boots, a slightly more complicated fuel system, pressurization and, oh yeah, the possibility of having to fly it on one engine. It seems to me, and Christy agreed, that a reasonably experienced pilot of high-performance airplanes with a multiengine rating, like me, could move into the Aerostar with a relatively short, 10-or-15-hour transition course.
There are, of course, other ownership issues. Getting insured to fly the airplane won't break the bank-it shouldn't be much more than for an expensive high-performance single-but you'll probably need to have a good deal of multi time to get the policy in the first place. Christy sees this as one of the big sticking points to getting more pilots into the left seat of a 702P. And the upkeep on an Aerostar and its two engines is going to be a good deal more, probably well more than twice as much, as a high-performance single.
But what you get for the additional money is pretty impressive: fabulous speed, high-cruising altitudes, known-ice capability and a near cabin-class experience. For pilots who've gotten used to the high-flying style and performance of an Aerostar, it's hard to find another airplane that offers even close to as much bang for the buck.
For more information about the 702P modification package, visit aerostaraircraft.com.