It's a pretty picture, that's for sure. Tooling along at Flight Level 280, truing out at 260 knots in pressurized comfort, a pair of powerplants humming away as the miles slip behind you. If you hadn't already read the title, you'd probably be thinking "turboprop" right now. Unless you already fly an Aerostar. Then you'd know.
Designed by aviation legend Ted Smith, the Aerostar twin has been around for more than 40 years, though it's been out of production for more than 20. While the Aerostar 702P isn't a new airplane, this mod package, done by and at the factory, represents the likely pinnacle of Aerostar development. Short of bolting on turbofan or turboprop engines, just about everything that could conceivably be done to make the airplane fly faster or handle better has already been done.
At around $700,000 for a no-expense-spared job, the cost of a 702P isn't cheap, but what you get is an airplane that if it were made today would cost twice as much, which is one of the reasons the Aerostar isn't being built anymore.
Impressive Airplane, Checkered History
Like every airplane Smith designed-he was the brains behind the Aero Commander series of twins and the Jet Commander, one of the first bizjets-the Aerostar light twin was intentionally overbuilt from the get-go. The idea, and Smith wasn't shy about saying so, was that with a beefy airframe the design could continue to grow in performance over time, including the possible adoption of turbofan engines. Toward that end, the Aerostar has wing skins twice as thick as typical piston twins, triple wing spars and a tail that withstood 14 Gs during initial certification tests.
And while there hasn't been an Aerostar jet-at least not yet-the piston twin has grown by leaps and bounds since its humble beginnings as the unpressurized 290 hp (per side) Model 600.
The Aerostar was originally manufactured by Smith's own company starting in the mid-1960s. Over time more power and then turbocharging were added, followed by pressurization. There were fuel problems early on, which resulted in a number of fuel starvation accidents. Those issues were soon straightened out, and the airplane continued to sell steadily, if not spectacularly. It earned a reputation as a remarkably fast personal twin, while getting a controversial rap for being in too many cases too much airplane for the kind of pilot flying it. By the end of the series' run in 1984 the ultimate Aerostar, by then built by Piper, was a pressurized 260-knot machine with an impressive suite of avionics and a ceiling of 25,000 feet. It was the hottest piston-powered production airplane of the day. Only 25 700Ps were built. (Interestingly, Piper's airplane was nearly identical to a modification that was being done by Aerostar specialists Machen, called the Super 700.)
Life After Production
Even during its production life, the Aerostar was the beneficiary of an impressive number of mods, many done by Machen. The company had engine upgrades for every model, including adding turbocharging to nonturbo models and intercoolers to early turbocharged versions. In terms of market penetration, the Aerostar may be the most thoroughly modified airplane type in existence, a fact that requires potential buyers to study up before writing that check.
Fortunately for the owners of the roughly 600-700 Aerostars that are still on the books (out of around 1,000 built), the airplane remains well supported. Aerostar Aircraft Corporation is not only the owner of the type certificates, but it has dozens of mods of its own for the various models. The company is headed by Steve Speer and Jim Christy, both of whom worked for Ted Smith back in the day and never wandered far from the Aerostar universe. Today the company, located in beautiful Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, does everything an aircraft manufacturer would normally do except build new airplanes. It handles service bulletins, builds new parts for the various Aerostar models-the airplane was a work in constant progress-and completes about a half-dozen refurbishments a year.
|The aircraft flown for this report is a Piper 700P modified by Aerostar Aircraft into an Aerostar 702P. It is equipped with a pair of Lycoming TIO-540-U2A turbocharged, intercooled engines-two other engine options are available depending on the airplane being modified. It has the higher-weight STC, so it is equipped with heavy-duty wheels and brakes. It has the aerodynamic improvements modifications, a pressurization increase STC and auxiliary fuel tanks. As part of the package, it has the Bendix/King KFC 225 autopilot installed. The airplane's service ceiling is 30,000, though that is not a usable altitude for non-RVSM-certified airplanes. All figures are per the manufacturer and are for standard conditions at gross weight unless otherwise noted.|
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.