Old Friend


Just coming level at 23,000 feet, I bring the props back to 1900 rpm, double-check the altitude with the copilot's altimeter and the Garmin 430, vend myself a cup of hot coffee and sit back to survey with satisfaction the good fortune that presents itself before me: an interesting two-day, three-segment trip in our Cheyenne that will mix business with the pleasure of family. High pressure and good weather dominate the route. Then to my left, I see it. The early morning flight has put us on just such a heading and altitude so that the sun casts a perfect shadow on the left engine. I can see clearly the outline of our windshield wiper etched on the cowling. It is a dark shadow on the sparkling white purposeful-looking structure that houses a Pratt & Whitney PT-6, a magnificent thing in its own right.

I love those wipers. It makes the airplane look like it means business. They look not unlike wipers on the big airliners. I don't use the wipers much, never in flight that I can remember, but I love them. Most often the wipers are useful when taxiing out for the first flight of the day when the airplane has been outdoors overnight. The condensation of humid air on a cold airframe obscures the view but the heated windshields and wipers make a delay unnecessary. Experienced Cheyenne operators claim that the wipers are good for removing ice, too. So far I've never needed any augmentation of the window heat in icing, and I think I would prefer to keep things that way.

These wipers are among the many things that I've come to appreciate about our 29-year-old airplane. "Appreciate" doesn't do justice to the feeling I get when I see again the many small details of an airplane with which I now have a working familiarity. "Smile" and "warmth" are words that more closely describe the sensation. On this morning flight, happy with the sight of the wipers, I wrote down all the things I really enjoy about this airplane. As I went along, I found a few dislikes, too.

There are the obvious things. The power and reliability of the Pratt & Whitney PT-6 is legendary and for good reason. The engines never hiccup. The torque, Ng, oil pressure, fuel flow, oil temperature gauges never oscillate or frighten me with unpredictable or inexplicable readings. The power is quick to come up. The drag of the big props means that the power bleeds off pretty well, too.

The deice and anti-ice features are more robust and trustworthy than they were on previous piston airplanes that I've owned. The windshield is deiced across the breadth of the window, not just a small slice like that provided by the "hot plates" found on many airplanes. The boots work. They are powered by bleed air from the turbines, so there's no worry about vacuum pumps. The prop heat is effective. The "thrrooop" sound of ice hitting the fuselage isn't necessarily welcomed by passengers, but the sound reassures me that things are working. There's a nice fiberglass plate on the side of the nose to catch the ice. Ours shows no signs of difficult icing abuse.

But these are features one expects on a turboprop twin. What I hadn't counted on 10 years ago were the many small, wondrous things that bring me profound pleasure still. When my wife and I sold the Cessna 340 that we loved and stepped into the jet-A world, I had no expectations about anything more than speed, cost and the smell. In the 10 years since I have developed a deep affection for the many small touches that make this airplane mine in all senses of the word.

The heater really puts out the BTUs. There is the sense of warm security that emanates from the floor that is as reassuring as the clanging of an old-style radiator that presaged warmth in my early school days. It is a Janitrol heater; it burns jet fuel and is far more effective than any previous heating arrangement I've known. This efficiency is matched by the air conditioner, a remarkable device driven by the right engine. Even in the Florida summer it is up to the task of cooling me and the passengers by the time we're number one for takeoff.

The recirculation blower is powerful. The air comes rushing out. The vents turn just like they do on an airliner. They are multidirectional, burnished silver in appearance and accessible to crew and passengers alike. Back in the passenger compartment, the vents are near the switches that illuminate the overhead reading lights. These, too, have a big airplane feel, and I like the glow that comes forward into the cockpit when reading is being committed in the back during an evening trip.

In this airplane there is a definite sense of cockpit and passenger compartments. The two are separated by the wingspar and an elaborate coffee dispenser/pantry on one side and library shelves for checklists and Jeppesen binders on the other. That wingspar makes a great sleeping spot for our dog, too. And that's just down low. Above on each side are wooden dividers, rich deep wooden walls that, if I pull the drape that matches the sidewalls across and snap it into place, completely separates me and whatever dire news is on the radar from the unsuspecting inhabitants in back. In this manner, it is very much like an airliner.

Other little things give pleasure. I've always thought the concept of drinking coffee and flying was top drawer and between the thermos that rests neatly in its cupboard in the back of the airplane (aft of the "potty") to the warmer that sits right behind the left seat, I've got a big supply. How convenient, then, are the simple, effective cup holders that deploy from beneath the instrument panel. Their simplicity and functionality deserve a spot in the Museum of Modern Art.

Armrests spring up from the side of each seat. I notice almost all airline captains who fly my airplane use these armrests. Snug in the confines constructed by the armrests, you can feel pretty satisfied. The entire interior is out of Better Homes and Gardens. Rich leather, dark woods and a subtle sidewall carpet make for a home study feel. Mike Duncan of Duncan Interiors in Lakeland, Florida, did the interior almost eight years ago and it still looks brand-new, except for the spot on the pilot's seat where I managed to spill some Icex and then sit on it.

I don't like the throttle quadrant very much, though. It is a flimsy contraption compared to everything else and is definitely not up to King Air standards. Bits of it have been fractured off and reglued on over the years, giving the appearance of a Russian Cold War helicopter. Too bad, too, because you see it just as you come into the cabin. But I hadn't factored in the perfect slot between the throttles and the autopilot controls that holds securely the Higher Power ballpoint pen I use on every flight. Every time I see that pen I think of the two weeks I spent at Higher Power in Dallas getting a Boeing 737 type rating, a life experience for me.

There is ample baggage space in a Cheyenne. Unlike a King Air 90, where all the baggage has to be hoisted into the rear of the cabin, the Cheyenne offers two baggage areas. One, in the nose, is huge. I am always amazed at what I can stuff in there. That's a good thing because, like most airplanes, it is possible to get the center of gravity too far aft. A nice heavy suitcase or case of gin up front is a great antidote to CG worries. Then there is the huge space in the aft portion of the cabin, too. Readily accessible during flight, heated and pressurized, this is the space for computers, sandwiches and perishables. Rugged-looking strapping holds everything in place, a good thing to remember when the airplane slows quickly upon landing when I slip into beta range and those big props go beyond flat and into reverse.

I love the sound of beta -- a special roar -- but I don't use it much. If you are paying for the every six years prop overhauls, you don't overdo the beta. I do like the appearance of the airplane. It is slimmer than a King Air and looks faster. The windshield is proportional and has a nice fast-appearing slope to it. Sometimes I like to lie under the fuselage, looking up at the stain from that workmanlike heater. I admire the sturdy looking wing with nice-looking wingtip tanks. I know the rivets, and there are many rivets, make the airplane slower, but they also make it look solid.

The airstairs are a beautifully engineered set. They are lower profile and less gangly than those on the King Air, which remind me of boarding a boat, not an airplane. The Cheyenne's are compact and subtle. When the door comes down and the stairs automatically deploy, you get the feeling of a welcome mat. At night the stairs are lit up by little lights controlled by the exit light switch. If it weren't for the obvious drain on the battery, I could sit and look at those lit-up stairs for hours.

None of these features makes the airplane any faster and one or two, I guess, make it slower. They do, however, make it beautiful. Performance is a whole other story. Reading the pilot operating manual didn't prepare me for the differences between a Cheyenne and a 340. The turbine reliability, rate of climb and, most importantly, single-engine climb rate make the airplane the most useful of all I have owned.

But this is not a piece about speed. It is about beauty and those small things that any lover finds so irresistible about a perfect match. I know that sentimentality is to be avoided these days, and that a treacly homage to an airplane may be over the line, but if you want to see what I am talking about, walk up to the nose of a Cheyenne, no matter how tired or mistreated. Walk 15 paces backwards, looking right down the axis of the airplane. Now crouch down, admire the landing and taxi lights on the nose-gear strut that look like an airliner's, see the expanse of the horizontal stabilizer and behold the perfectly proportioned windshields with those excellent wipers. See what I mean?.