TBM 850: A Jet With a Prop

This Luxury Turboprop Makes a Good Living at the Flight Levels

TBM 850
TBM 850
TBM 850

__Flight level 280 in a TBM 850 was just perfect for us coming out of Peachtree in Georgia, headed down to cozy North Perry Airport near Fort Lauderdale in south Florida. On a really long trip we could have climbed up to FL 310, lost a few knots, saved a few gallons per hour and been perfectly happy. But the airplane we were flying, while RVSM-ready, wasn’t yet RVSM-approved. On that trip, it didn’t matter. We were happy with the few extra knots we got down at 280.

The airplane we were flying was a very special TBM 850 built to commemorate a milestone the likes of which none of us has seen before, the 100th anniversary of an airplane manufacturer.

Our trip out of Atlanta was a typical trip for the 850, but then again, there aren’t many that aren’t typical.

I flew into Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International from my home base of Austin, Texas, on Delta, and got a lift over slow, rainy Atlanta highways up to Daher-Socata’s sales office at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK), where the TBM awaited. The weather was cruddy, about 400 overcast with light rain, but I knew from my airline trip into town a little earlier that the ride was decent and the tops weren’t very high, maybe around 15,000 feet. In this case, I was able to provide my own pirep.

The 100th anniversary TBM — its N-number is 1911Y; get it? — is a gorgeous airplane, with a special paint scheme, gold-plated air vents, creamy leather upholstery and commemorative placards. I tried to think of what else the company could have done to distinguish it. There’s not much, really. Just about every TBM comes out of the factory loaded, with air conditioning, the Garmin G1000 avionics system with GFC 700 autopilot and sumptuous interior. There aren’t even that many options, and the best feature is standard: 320 knots.

The airplane gets its letter-designation from a combination of the company’s home base of Tarbes, France, and the “M” standing, as improbable as it sounds, for “Mooney,” which was French-owned for a time and which participated in the design of the TBM. Plans were to produce the airplane in Texas, but because of a combination of corporate drama and a market downturn, that never happened.

Instead, every TBM is built in Tarbes and is made ready to deliver with paint, interior and systems before being flown to the United States via the North Atlantic route: Scotland; Iceland; Greenland (usually); Goose Bay, Newfoundland; Bangor, Maine; and then down to North Perry. Because of the 850’s impressive range, no ferry tanks are required to make the trip.

Now, the TBM has the reputation for being a bit of a tight fit, which is entirely undeserved. The electrically operated door is huge, and the cabin is very comfortable. The rear occupants, who sit in a club seating arrangement, have plenty of room to sit facing each other without their knees coming close. (Intertwining knees is the way it’s done on more than one club-seating airplane.) The atmosphere, thanks to lots of glass, is airy, and with the introduction of the 850, there was another big cabin improvement — dual zone heating and cooling, which keeps both pilots and passengers happy.

One gripe that is at least somewhat deserved is that it’s a tight fit between the seats for the pilot to thread his way up front after getting in through the airstair door. Daher-Socata answers this shortcoming with one option that is popular with charter operators: the crew door, a forward-of-the-wing portal that allows the crew to get to their places without disturbing the passengers. It’s a $90,000 option that adds around 45 pounds to the weight of the airplane while detracting only very slightly from outside visibility. The airplane I flew did not have the crew door. If I were ordering the airplane, it would be a tough call. It’s not a cheap option, but it gives the pilot and front-seat occupant a great way to get out of the airplane in an emergency, and it does keep the cabin and cockpit separate.

The biggest news on the TBM, and it's not all that recent, is the Garmin G1000 panel, which has been around for a couple of years now. At the time of the flat-panel makeover, Daher-Socata was reluctant to join the LCD crowd, but once it did, the move made nothing but sense. Daher-Socata vice president of sales Michel Adam de Villiers told me that, in all the time that the company has been ferrying G1000 airplanes across the North Atlantic, there hasn't been a single avionics squawk. Before Garmin, it was a regular occurrence. This is, of course, just one in a long list of advantages that promote seeing the glass completely full.

The G1000 also saves a lot of weight, around 120 pounds. That’s a nearly grown kid, a giant dog or a couple of duffels filled with toys. Plus, the flat panels give you room to take that extra weight, since the greatly reduced depth of the displays opens up the entire forward baggage space, an area that previously was lost to the depth of the EFIS boxes. You can fit a couple of modest-size golf bags in the compartment, I’m told.

Moreover, G1000 cleans up an admittedly well-designed panel even more, allowing for a much cleaner look and, more importantly, greatly enhanced ease of use. Every switch, knob and lever is grouped into sensible clusters, some of them on a smartly designed overhead panel. To free up space in the cockpit, the quick-donning masks are located on the side-walls just behind the pilot and copilot seats.

You’d think that one G1000 installation would be pretty much the same as any other G1000 installation, but you’d be wrong. The location and size of the displays, controllers and keypads are set up differently from model to model because of panel restrictions and the need for additional components, especially the keypad, a nice addition to any installation. In the TBM there is a 15-inch center mounted MFD and dual PFDs. The huge MFD not only allows the pilot to see a lot of information, but it also allows for a big map along with engine instruments. On the TBM 850, as is the case on many other Garmin-equipped turbine airplanes, the crew alerting system (CAS) is handled through the displays, so you don’t have to monitor a Christmas tree full of warning lights. There’s a master warning light and a master caution, and that’s it. Everything else on the CAS resides in the displays.

850 versus 700
The introduction of the TBM 850 in 2006 took an arguably great airplane and made it even better, thanks to the addition of power, which always seems to do nice things for airplanes. The additional oomph came with the change to the Pratt & Whitney PT-6A-66D, which is limited to 700 shp for takeoff and landing but which can be asked to produce up to 850 shp for cruise. The result is an airplane that went from around 285 knots true to around 320 knots true, a huge increase in speed, while keeping the range about the same, at around 1,500 nm, as in previous TBMs, even though it burns a couple more gallons per hour than the 700. In case you were wondering, Daher-Socata uses gallons per hour for the 850, instead of pounds per hour, which is the more typical unit of measure in turbine airplanes.

In addition to the extra speed, the 850 also got a weight increase, up to 7,430 pounds maximum ramp weight, an increase of better than 800 pounds over the B-model. (The increase was first added to the C-model.) The additional weight meant that the company needed to get an increase in landing speed, up to 65 knots from 61, which it did without a stick pusher by earning credit for more crashworthy seats and better belts, among other measures. As fuel burns off and the weight comes down over the course of the trip, the stall speed comes down too, of course.

Besides the additional power, there are only very subtle outward differences between the 700 and the 850. The latter, by the way, is officially a 700 too, the 700N. The 850 designation is a marketing name. I guess the company wanted to make it clear that 850 was the superlative horsepower figure. I’d want prospective customers to know that too.

Up at cruise, when you want to “shift” from 700 to 850 hp, you do it in an ingenious way. The additional power is accessed via a detent built right into the flap lever. It is located one notch above the zero flap setting, so you physically can’t have any flaps and increased power. If you haven’t already returned to normal output when you bring in landing flaps, you have to do it then. It’s a fail-safe solution.

Flying High, Flying Fast
Cleared for takeoff by the Peachtree tower, I rolled out to the centerline of Runway 20L, held the brakes, brought in the power to just under 100 percent and let it run. With 700 hp available for takeoff, the 850 is clearly a powerful airplane, and it accelerates briskly but predictably. I rotated at 80 knots, let it accelerate, raised the gear, then flaps and started our climb.

We were in the soup a few seconds later and getting bounced around a bit. Hand-flying the airplane with the flight director, it was clear to me that this was no lightweight — our takeoff weight that day was around 7,000 pounds, more than 400 pounds below our maximum but still a thousand pounds heavier than a fully laden Eclipse jet. The yokes in the TBM give you a great deal of leverage, and the trim, while not lightning-quick, got the job done. Before I knew it, I had
it trimmed up for our quick 2,000-foot climb to our initial altitude of 3,000 feet.

Under the shelf of the Class Bravo, I had to pull power back — my right-seater, Daher-Socata’s Mike Sarsfield, correctly informed me from experience that 80 percent power would give me right around 200 knots, and it did.

Takeoff out of Peachtree was in our southerly direction of flight, but as is the case with some busy reliever airports around the country, a climb directly to our requested altitude of 28,000 was simply not in the cards. The controller gave us 3,000 feet and we just kind of stayed there, occasionally getting a vector five degrees this way or five degrees that way but never getting higher. I asked Mike how long they were going to keep us down here. He replied, “It will seem like forever.”

"Forever" finally passed, and we were cleared in quick steps up to 260 and then, after a bit, to 280.
The wind wasn't much help, 45 knots almost directly across the bow, a fact that still left us with better than 315 knots groundspeed. It would be a quick two hours en route while using right around 120 gallons of jet-A.

Arrival
As we passed Ormond Beach, Florida, along the Atlantic coast, ATC started descending us. The vertical navigation capabilities of the G1000 make descent planning almost embarrassingly easy. Set in the desired altitude next to the waypoint, hit vertical nav, check to make sure the map shows your top of descent point (TOD), and you're good to go. Descending is fast, which is nice. With a Vmo of 270 knots, much higher than most of the competition, you can stay fast all the way down and get to your destination sooner. The speed limit below 10,000 feet is 250 knots, so you do need to be aware of that restriction.

By the time we were in the terminal area, we were still fairly high, though descending in a pressurized airplane is a piece of cake compared with doing so in a nonpressurized model. The human ear can take only so much pressure change so fast. I was, I admit, a little nervous about landing a big turboprop, single or not, on a 3,255-foot-long runway, but Mike was so sanguine about the prospects, I figured he knew something I didn’t.

There are no speedbrakes on the 850, but the flaps and gear come in at 178 indicated, so there’s no real need. Mike counseled 85 to 90 on final, which you can do with a pronounced nose-down attitude, unlike on the Cirrus I regularly fly. The big prop on the Pratt is the world’s best speedbrake.

Another pertinent figure is 3,255, the length in feet of Runway 9 Right at North Perry.

With Runway 9R being the longest of four runways, they don’t get a lot of jet traffic at North Perry. The airport is home to a lot of Piper and Cessna singles, a few banner towing operations and a couple of flight schools.

Strangely enough, it’s also home to Daher-Socata North America, and a busy sales and service center. How many thousands of landings at North Perry TBMs have made over the years I can only begin to guess. It is an airplane, a 315-plus knot airplane, I might add, that feels right at home here.

As has been written countless times, you flare lower than you think you should. I was about 10 feet high but had a little residual speed. It was a firm arrival, nothing to write home about. A little beta, another huge advantage of the prop, and we were down and stopped with plenty of runway to spare without any brakes at all. It was immediately clear to me just how suitable cozy little North Perry is for the TBM.

VLJ Versus TBM
It's a little hard to compare the TBM 850 with any other airplane. In the market, it competes with the Cessna Citation Mustang and the Embraer Phenom 100, though both of those airplanes are twinjets, require type ratings and, while inexpensive to operate in jet terms, cost more per hour than the TBM. They're both faster too, and they both fly higher than the 31,000-foot ceiling of the 850. The Eclipse is a strong competitor to the 850, though it is not yet back in production. A more apt comparison might be with

single-engine jets, though, again, there aren’t any that have yet achieved certification. Once it’s on the market, the Piper Altaire might be a strong competitor, though turboprops have notable advantages over jets at altitudes below 30,000 feet.

Then again, the TBM might survive just fine, just as the Beech King Air has outlived by several decades predictions of its imminent demise. Besides enjoying low hourly operating costs, projected at just $450 per hour by Daher-Socata, the TBM 850 is an easy airplane to transition into. Sarsfield told me that the typical customer is a Cirrus or Meridian owner who wants to step up to a faster airplane that is still within his or her comfort level. The TBM fits that bill perfectly. A typical transition time is 15 to 25 hours, though some pilots, he said, are ready to fly themselves well before that.

Daher-Socata has worked to eliminate one big qualm that some prospects have, the lack of a potty. The company has introduced an optional potty, complete with privacy curtains, that replaces one of the rear-facing seats.

Sarsfield emphasized that once pilots get a TBM, despite it being “just” a turboprop single, they stop flying on the airlines.

“Even on a transcontinental trip,” he said, “door to door the TBM wins nearly every time.”

And this is coming from a guy who once flew nonstop from San Diego to Atlanta in an 850.

Trials and Triumph
After 21 years and nearly 550 TBMs, the airplane has approached what seems to be an extremely mature state.

The early reception was tepid at best, though not through any fault of the airplane. At the time there wasn’t any competition in the pressurized turboprop niche — the Pilatus PC-12 would come around a few years later and, if anything, help validate the concept. For several years the company built only a relative handful of airplanes before the market caught on. Ever since the mid-’90s, TBMs have been rolling off the production line at Tarbes at the rate of between 35 and 45 a year, with the high water mark being 85 a few years back, a rate of production that, de Villiers told me, took a tremendous investment to achieve. Even with the recession, the TBM has continued to sell well. Last year Daher-Socata sold 35 TBM 850s. At just over $3 million a copy, it’s a profitable business.

Thanks to advances in technology, the airplane will get better — this we know from experience — but that's an article of faith: While you're flying the TBM 850, it's hard to focus on anything but the positives. It's a very nicely optimized airplane, one that's likely to command a substantial following for many years to come.
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For a detailed look at 100 years of Daher-Socata airplanes, and more, download the May edition of Flying for the iPad._