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.
The King Air 200 cruises at around 280 knots under most conditions, and its IFR range can stretch out to around 1,700 nm, though you will need to slow down some to achieve that maximum range. Runways of less than 4,000 feet work just fine for the airplane, unless air temperatures or field elevations are very high. But even under those conditions the B200 needs less than 5,000 feet to depart.
Some King Air 200s are owner-flown, but most fly with a crew of one or two professional pilots. Because maximum takeoff weight is 12,500 pounds, the 200 operates under the rules that govern small airplanes, so no type rating is required to fly it and there are no restrictions on using one or two pilots. However, the airplane has the power and crucial system redundancy to essentially match the safety potential of a jet if the operator follows standard jet procedures. And that's an advantage. The King Air 200 operator can choose to use only runways that ensure a safe stop, or takeoff, should an engine fail, the same procedures you apply in a jet, but it is not required. The responsibility is on the pilot who can choose to trade the convenience of using a shorter runway for a small increase in risk, or can reduce those risks to absolute minimum by observing transport category practices.
King Air 200s are, and always have been, near the top of the turboprop price category. A new one costs around $5 million, and a 20-year-old B200 that is in good condition sells for just under $2 million. Prices for the oldest King Air 200s, which was introduced in 1974, get down to $1 million or less, but introduction of the B200 model in 1981 brought many improvements, including higher cabin pressurization and increased cruise speed. Still, nothing delivers more passenger comfort and performance for the price, so when the guy in the back is writing the check for a turboprop, the B200 is the one to buy.
Combined Corporate & Personal There are three turboprops that have a lot to offer both a passenger in the cabin and an owner pilot in the left seat. Those are the Cessna 441 Conquest II, Pilatus PC-12 and King Air C90B.
The 441, which Cessna built from 1978 through 1986, is among the fastest and longest range twin turboprops available. With its original Garrett TPE 331-8 engines it can top 290 knots at lower cruise altitudes. But many 441s have been converted to the more powerful Dash 10 version of the engine that retains its power to higher cruise levels, so the Conquest can turn in 280 to 290 knots true airspeed, or even a little more, at higher and more efficient flight levels. That all adds up to maximum endurance of five, six, seven or even more hours with good true airspeed. Throw in a little tailwind and a 441 could make a 2,000 nm trip nonstop with reserves.
The Conquest II has a seven-seat cabin, so it can fill the corporate style mission with professional pilots in the front and "paying" passengers in the back. But the cabin cross section is significantly smaller than the King Air, and the potty situation is not nearly as private and convenient. The extremely long potential fuel endurance of the 441 offers capabilities that an owner pilot would happily use, but many nonpilot passengers will find objectionable, so that's why I have the 441 in the combined mission category.
The 441 arrived later than most twin turboprops, and soon after its introduction the market for all types of airplanes went south in the 1980s. About 360 were built and for a number of years the airplane languished on the market. But in the 1990s pilots noticed that the 441 could fly trips in terms of range and speed that no other airplane anywhere near the price could manage. The Dash 10 engine conversion made climb rate and high altitude cruise speed that much better, and prices took off. Used 441s are selling for between $1 million and just under $2 million, depending on age and condition. The engine conversion adds around a quarter-million dollars to the price. Current used prices are very close to the original list prices, and Vref reports strong upward pressure on the prices for the past several months.
The Pilatus PC-12 is another turboprop that offers a very comfortable cabin for important passengers, but with its single engine and very long range gives the owner pilot what he wants. The PC-12 cabin is very close in size to the King Air 200, and with its standard big aft cargo door, offers more loading flexibility than any typical passenger turboprop.
The single-engine obviously saves fuel, but it also increases range because there is no need to feed a second engine. With its tanks full with 2,704 pounds of fuel, and speed set at around 250 knots true, the PC-12 has an IFR range of about 1,550 nm. Slowed down to its most efficient true airspeed of around 207 knots, the airplane can stretch out to nearly 2,000 nm, if you're willing to sit there for nine or so hours. It's that range potential, combined with very short field capability and operating economics that make the PC-12 so interesting for owner pilots. But a passenger interested in a more typical mission can ride in a very comfortable cabin while making 500 nm trips in under two hours.
The single-engine gives the PC-12 the same virtues as the TBM 700 when it comes to saving money on fuel, maintenance and insurance for the pilot without extensive multiengine experience. And all of these remarkable characteristics show up in used prices with the Aircraft Bluebook-Price Digest reporting that a five-year-old PC-12 sells for $3 million, almost exactly what the list price was in 2002. The order book is so full for Pilatus that the Bluebook reports people are paying even above new list price for the very few one- or two-year-old PC-12s that come on the used market. The PC-12 is an expensive turboprop no matter how you look at it, but its history of value retention is almost unbelievable, and its unique combination of size and single-engine simplicity is obviously in huge demand.
The Beech King Air 90 is my third choice for a used turboprop that can go both ways. Its cabin cross section is identical to its big sister, the 200, or even the 350, so four passengers ride in almost equal comfort in the 90. However, its price and operating economics make the 90 ideal for an owner pilot.
The King Air 90 has been in continuous production since 1965, so there are many airplanes available on the used market. The 90 has been upgraded continuously during its production history, and one of the most important changes came with the C90A model in 1984. That airplane had the ram air "pitot style" engine air inlets, the higher 5.5 psi cabin pressurization and hydraulically operated landing gear. The interior was also improved over early models. Those features are so important that the Bluebook shows a jump in average used price from $760,000 for a 1983 C90-1 to $900,000 for the 1984 C90A. There were more improvements to the interior in later years, and four-blade props became standard with the C90B in 1992, but there was no price spike. Clearly the King Air 90 to consider are those built from 1984 on.
The King Air 90 is not known for speed with a typical top cruise of around 240 knots, and that only at lower, less fuel-efficient altitudes. But a switch to Dash 135A versions of the PT6A engines can add 25 to 30 knots to that cruise with no fuel penalty, thanks to the added efficiency and power of the engines at higher cruise flight levels. The new 90GT introduced last year has the Dash 135A engines, but they can be added to existing 90s under STC conversions for $650,000 or maybe a little less.
The King Air 90 is a great fit for the owner pilot because of its rugged airframe, robust systems and predictable flying qualities. All of those characteristics proven over 40 years of experience give the insurance companies confidence in the airplane, and thus make them more willing to insure lower-time pilots than in other turboprop twins. There is no better airplane for the lower-time multiengine pilot ready to step up to a turboprop than the King Air 90. Used prices for a C90A or C90B range from just under $1 million to about $2 million for a three- or four-year-old airplane.
Value Conscious Turboprops Using the word value to measure the most performance and comfort for the used purchase price leads me to two airplanes - the Piper Cheyenne I and Aero Commander 690. Unlike many other turboprops, the used prices of these airplanes is flat. As others in the market recovered to match the previous price peak, the Cheyenne and 690 merely stopped declining. That makes them a great value, if you understand the risk.
By risk, I don't mean there is anything that makes the Cheyenne or Commander less safe to fly. I believe that the perceived risk that is holding down prices is the long absence of new production, or the less certainty of manufacturer's support.
The last Commander 690 was built in 1979, and the last Commander turboprop of any kind was built in 1984. Twin Commander is the current parent company and does a good job of supporting the airplanes, but it has not manufactured any new ones. The 690s were very hot in the market in the 1990s, but that demand didn't survive the downturn after 2001.
The Piper Cheyenne I, and other members of the Cheyenne family, have a similar value history. Prices dropped in the turboprop slump but have not recovered. Piper still exists, but it is a successor company to the one that built the Cheyenne. The Cheyenne I, the smallest member of the family, stayed in production until 1985, and the longer cabin Cheyenne III and 400LS made it until 1991, but bankruptcy and corporate turmoil followed. I don't know of any lack of spare parts issues for Cheyennes, or other support problems, but a lack of confidence is all that can explain the way the Pipers and Commanders lag the rest of the turboprop market.
The Commander 690A is, in most respects, an excellent choice for an owner-flown turboprop. It can manage around 280 knots at high-speed cruise, and range can stretch out to 1,000 nm. It, too, benefits from the Dash 10 conversion of its Garrett engines to improve climb, high altitude cruise speed and range. The cabin is not a passenger favorite, but its flying qualities are sound - except on the ground. The oddball hydraulic nose- wheel steering system operated through the rudder pedals will confound any pilot for the first many hours, but when you become accustomed to its idiosyncrasies you can taxi to and from the runway with only the occasional lurch.
Used prices for a 690 range between $400,000 and about $700,000, though a Dash 10 engine conversion will add several hundred-thousand dollars to those values. There is an issue with the wing spar, and a modification that ends repetitive inspections can cost $100,000 or more. Twin Commander offers a total bare airframe-up restoration with new avionics for around $1.3 to $1.5 million.
The Piper Cheyenne I is not a speedy turboprop with max cruise of around 240 knots, but it certainly matches the cruise of an unmodified King Air 90. The cabin cross section is not as big and comfortable as the King Air, but an owner pilot is likely to be pleased with the airplane. The flying qualities are predictable and pleasant, the systems are uncomplicated, but the avionics in most Cheyenne Is could use updating. But very nice condition airplanes can be had for $500,000 to $600,000, about the price of some new piston singles.
The Commander and Cheyenne can be excellent used turboprop bargains, but only if you understand that the airplane will not be as easy to sell as the other models we have considered, and you should also expect further price depreciation. However, if you want to buy the airplane and keep it for a long time, those factors will not matter.
Looking at Used Turboprops From the Left Seat
By Dick Karl
A review of the best of used turboprops recapitulates my day at work with striking fidelity. That's to say that when I should be working, I'm surfing the internet looking at used turboprops for sale, then checking their prices and performance in the Aircraft Bluebook - Price Digest, and finally, when I've spotted one I'd love to have, I look up its recent flight history on flightaware.com. Does that thing really go as fast and as far as they say it does? Is that asking price anywhere near average retail?
This obsession with turboprops is not new and my affection for them is not evanescent. Since my wife and I bought a Cheyenne I in 2000, I've become an ardent proponent for just the reasons cited in the accompanying piece. You'll note that Mac has referred to our airplane as a "value" airplane with a cloudy resale future and a modest cruise speed. I've also heard it called a "K-Mart King Air." But for my money ($600,000 seven years ago), it is a very good deal and most likely the pinnacle of my 36 years of airplane ownership.
Here's what I learned in over a thousand hours of ownership and hundreds of fun flights.
First, those PT-6s are very reliable. When compared to a piston twin, where operators become accustomed to an occasional shudder, like a dog shaking to dry off, when one engine falls out of synch with the other, turboprops do not waver. Set the power and it will go; there is never a needle flicker. Second, turboprop engines aren't bothered by shock cooling, you can just pull the power back to idle and descend comfortably at 2,500 feet a minute. Third, reliable power breeds security and respect. I find myself tackling flights and weather that I'd shy away from in our old Cessna 340. The Cheyenne is faster at circumventing weather and I just don't worry about those engines. They say if you can get them started, they will run forever. Fourth, reliable power means fewer trips to the shop. I usually go to Bartow, Florida, from Tampa (39 nautical miles) just for an excuse to see our mechanic, Bill Turley, and get some air in my tires.
There are some downsides. Though more efficient than a jet, our turboprop sucks 62 gallons an hour and that is at altitude. The engines are much more efficient up high, so flights into the wind are usually conducted at Flight Level 180 or higher even if there's a gale. Lowest groundspeed ever? 124 knots heading southwest bound over Kennedy at Flight Level 260. Of course, my first airplane, a Musketeer, was lucky to do 124 knots on descent. The "TBO" on a PT-6 is 3,500 hours, but there is a "hot section" inspection at the halfway mark. One of those ran $38,000 last summer. An overhaul can be $125,000. Those engines may not need much attention, but when they do, it can be expensive.
These costly shortcomings notwithstanding, a Cheyenne like ours will deliver an honest 230 knots, carry six people and baggage and be very comfortable. I have some personal minimums that include a takeoff distance of 3,000 feet when it is hot and we're at gross. I land with 400 pounds of fuel minimum. That's about an hour at reduced power. Longest legs have been Oakland to Sioux Falls, a distance of 1,250 nm, and Sioux Falls to Tampa, about 1,210. Both were conducted with a tailwind and left us with 600 pounds of jet-A.
Many of the airplanes that Mac has mentioned are far more expensive to buy and operate than our airplane. I'm always amazed that we can play in the flight levels and burn jet-A for the price we do. We may be the bottom of the ladder, but heading northeast-bound at FL 250, lots of people and baggage in the back, I feel like the luckiest man alive.