Getting Around in Style
Flight in the middle altitudes is where turbos deliver more speed, but it's not that simple
-- a sidebar by Dick Karl
What to say when the owner of a twin turboprop of a certain age gets to fly a new TBM 850? That it is a remarkable airplane; at once familiar in its systems yet exotic in its performance? That the glass makes the experience, from the sounds of the turbine winding up to the smell of jet-A, all the more intoxicating?
All this and more raced through my mind as I got to fly not just any TBM 850, but the one actually pictured in Mac McClellan's accompanying article. Mike Shealy, EADS Socata's North American sales director, picked me up in Palm Beach, Florida, (PBI) and shepherded me on flights to Tampa, Kissimmee and back to Palm Beach. An active thunderstorm pattern gave a chance for the glass to shine, so to speak.
First impressions: a huge flight deck that looks a lot more like a new 737 than a single-engine turboprop, the smell of a new airplane, and a long snout, at least much longer than my Cheyenne.
Start-up was pretty normal for a turboprop: get the compressor going, add fuel, disengage the starter and watch the engine settle down. Once the avionics were on, though, the show got very impressive. The MFD in the center of the panel is huge. Socata says it is only 15 inches, but it looks like the 42-inch screen you'll find in high-end hotel rooms. There is glass, glass and more glass.
As we taxied out with the MFD on the airport page, I noticed the names of the FBOs dance by. Runway incursion hot spots were marked with red circles. The whole thing looked huge compared to the small screen in my airplane.
Mike had filed for Flight Level 220, even though the distance to Tampa was only 155 nautical miles, just a subtle reminder of this airplane's eagerness to climb. We were led to a short runway with a 12-knot cross/slight tailwind. The use of beta (a kind of prop reverse) made the need for braking minimal. As we took the runway, Mike removed the last of the CAS lights by making sure the pitot heats were on and the inertial separator was stowed. (Sometimes called an "ice door," the inertial separator keeps bad things from finding their way into the engine: FOD on the ground, ice in the air.)
Off we went, separator and yaw damper on, in and out of bumpy clouds, climbing at 1,500 feet per minute at an airspeed of 160 knots. The flight guidance panel looked to me indistinguishable from the Boeing 737-700, except it appeared more substantial in the turboprop, devoid of any shuddering or vibration.
As we climbed, the Nexrad seemed to fill the cockpit with ominous splotches of red and yellow, and as we switched back and forth to the radar display I was once again reminded as to how complementary the two weather information systems are. The radar depiction was huge and, given the weather, very helpful.
The flight guidance panel has both Vs (vertical speed) and FLC (flight level change) functions. With the former, the rate of climb or descent can be captured; with the latter, a steady air speed can be selected. These functions, as well as heading, nav and approach, operated in a manner so smooth that I felt like I was in some sort of simulator except for jolts provided by the convective weather. These jolts made the heftiness of the TBM pretty obvious -- she has a tank-like approach to turbulence, leaving the pilot and passengers secure in her structural integrity.
Our landing in Tampa reminded me that most airplanes require a few tries before you get the hang of it. Mike was generous, saying "You landed on the mains first and on the center line. That is all I ask." He did admit that TBM landings usually take some practice and that twin turboprop pilots like me take a while to get used to the slow landing speeds. Piston pilots, on the other hand, aren't used to using beta for slowing after landing and jump on the brakes, he said.
Off to Kissimmee, the G1000 navigation seemed just like the little Garmin in the Cheyenne, except the data could be entered by key as well as by rotating knobs. We set the autopilot up for the WAAS GPS approach to Runway 33, sat back and watched a flawless rock-solid approach that required only approach flaps and gear deployment by the crew. "If you deleted the altitude preselect for the MDA," Mike said, "You'd crash right on the centerline!"
On the trip back to Palm Beach, I asked Mike to fly so I could watch a professional. He's been with Socata for 12 years and has over 700 hours in the TBM. It showed. Climbing out of 8,000 with thunderstorms all about and a mass of them moving out into the Atlantic at 27 knots according to our G1000, Mike was clear with Miami Center: We weren't going offshore. The center got the message and we were soon cleared to cross 20 north of Pahokee at 6,000 feet. This gave Mike a chance to show off the VNAV function and allowed us to make the crossing restriction with a minimum of fuss. As our radar was on a 40-mile range, I asked what the orange arc meant just outside our range. "It means there are intense echoes further out there," was all Mike said. Very impressive.
As we descended I got a sense of loss. Soon I'd be out of the new airplane smell and back in a 28-year-old turboprop. Mike reminded me that I fit the TBM demographics. "The glass has helped our sales," he said. "I think most owners were worried about resale until we got the glass just right." Mike personally sells an average of five new and three or so used copies of these magnificent machines a year. He says that he and his colleagues at Socata North America know almost all of the U.S. TBM owners personally. "We keep $3 million in parts in our facility," he said. "We stay in touch."
As we came in for a smooth landing in air that had been clarified by a just departed thunderstorm, I marveled at the fact that our approach to landing was 20 knots slower than a twin turboprop would traditionally fly. Yet we were settling to earth in an airplane that could outrun a Cheyenne by 65 knots in cruise, while burning less gas. Amazing.