Four to five years ago it looked like the turboprop was on its way out. Prices of used turboprops were in freefall, and the sales of the few turboprop twins still in production were slumping. Vref, a leading aircraft value reference, reported that an index of average selling prices forpopular used turboprops lost 25 percent of its value from 2001 to 2004.
But that is now ancient history. Vref's index shows that the average value for many used turboprops has returned to its 2001 peak, and several models have passed that level as demand grows.
The nosedive in prices is linked directly to the overall economic skid that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The buzz about a crop of new, lower cost business jets probably also helped depress turboprop prices. Turboprops have been counted out several times in the past and have always bounced back, but it's hard to remember a time when the reversal in value and demand has happened so quickly.
The virtues of a turboprop when compared to a jet have always been simplicity, short field performance, less regulation and greater fuel efficiency. All of those characteristics remain, but fuel efficiency in the era of $5 and $6 per gallon jet fuel has overwhelming importance. Newly designed jets continue to gain efficiency, but a turboprop engine will still power the same size cabin over the same distance for less fuel than a jet.
Which used turboprop is truly best depends, as always, on your particular mission and available resources. There are as many specific turboprop missions as there are airplane owners, but I have decided to divide the available airplanes into four categories. The first is personal flying, where the pilot is also the principal passenger. The second I'll call corporate, where the most important people being transported ride in the cabin. A third category flies a combined mission, where the pilot and/or the passengers can be the principals. And finally, there is a category I'll call value, for airplanes that have a lot of capability but face some questions about their future.
Best Personal Turboprop The best used personal turboprop is hands down the TBM 700. It is faster than nearly all of the twin turboprops and has long range, but with only one engine it is the most fuel efficient for its speed. And the airplane has an amazing track record of holding its value in the used market.
The first TBM 700s were delivered in 1991 with a typical price of just under $1.3 million. Those oldest models are selling now for - you guessed it - just under $1.3 million. Inflation, of course, means that the airplane does not really sell for the same corrected dollars as it did 16 years ago, but that is still impressive value retention.
The TBM 700 can get close to 300 knots true airspeed with all conditions just right, but can make 280 knots at any weight or temperature. Its range with solid IFR reserves is about 1,500 nm. And it can routinely use runways of 2,500 feet or less. Best of all, its specific range - which is nautical miles flown for each pound of fuel burned - is about 0.9. That means on a windless 1,000 nm trip, you will burn about 1,100 pounds of fuel. No turbine airplane can fly that far that fast for so little fuel. In case you don't want to do the math, that is 164 gallons, less than a full fuel load in a Baron that would need all of that fuel to make the same distance while flying 90 or more knots slower.
The TBM 700 cabin is on par with six-seat piston singles such as the Piper Malibu or Saratoga, or the Beech A36 Bonanza, but that is not an issue in the personal category. The pilot's seat is as comfortable as in much larger turboprops, and seating for another couple is just fine. Baggage space is limited, but again, there are about at most two couples traveling, and often just one or two total onboard.
The efficiency of the TBM's single engine flows through all areas of operating cost. At engine overhaul time, the tab will be half as much. Routine maintenance is also reduced because there is only one engine. And insurance premiums for many pilots will be less than for a twin. More importantly, insurance for a twin turboprop may not be available at all for a pilot with little or no multiengine experience, but that's not an issue in the TBM.
The first few TBM 700s had an unacceptably poor interior design that was upgraded in later models. Most TBMs on the market will also have had avionics upgrades, and because most are owner-flown you can expect above-average care of the paint and interior. Socata, the French-based manufacturer of the TBM, went through some service and support issues in the 1990s, but those problems were resolved years ago, so you can expect replacement parts and service expertise to be immediately available. And the engine is, of course, the venerable Pratt & Whitney PT6A that has a vast service and support network.
Finally, one of the most important considerations when buying a used TBM 700 is the wild popularity of the new 850 model with its higher cruise speed. There is nothing like continued success of an airplane to ensure demand, and thus value retention, when selecting a used airplane. TBM 700 prices march upward from $50,000 to $100,000 per model year from the approximately $1.3 million price of the 1991 original, topping the $2 million mark for one that is two to three years old.
Best Corporate Turboprop Again, this is an easy choice - the Beechcraft King Air B200. As a combination of passenger comfort, cruise speed, range and short runway capability, it is almost impossible to beat the T-tailed B200. And the proof is in the average selling price that has rebounded to match or even exceed the Super King Air's peak selling price that was posted in 2001.
The 200 is my pick for best used corporate turboprop because its cabin is comfortable and roomy. There is a private potty area in the aft cabin, lots of baggage room and enough cabin height to move around without cramping up. There are aftermarket kits to convert the aft portion of the engine nacelles into more baggage space. And on the ramp with its tall stance and high tail, the King Air 200 gives passengers a powerful impression of substance and strength, a judgment that has proven accurate over the more than 30 years that the 200 has been flying.