The Propeller Makes a Comeback — Again

Just a couple of years ago they were about to close the doors on the facility that makes the ATR line of turboprop regional airliners. Total orders for the ATR 42 and 72 made by the European consortium had dropped to six, and no new customers were on the horizon. The regional jets (RJs) had won, and the era of the turboprop was over, again.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral for the propeller. Oil prices skyrocketed, the financial performance of the world's airlines crashed, and suddenly airlines needed a more efficient and cost-effective way to move passengers over distances of several hundred miles.

Now, ATR has nearly 300 orders from airlines all over the world for its highwing turboprop twins and it is doing its best to ramp up production. The same is true in Canada where Bombardier builds its "Dash" series of turboprop airliners derived from the de Havilland line. The turboprop is back.

For at least 30 years aviation - both airline and business flying - has been announcing the end of the turboprop, but reality keeps intruding.

The first "end of the turboprop" that I remember was in the early 1970s when Cessna introduced the original Citation. That original Model 500 Citation cost about the same as the leading turboprops to buy, and Cessna guaranteed that the jet cost less per mile to operate. At the time Beech, Piper, Aero Commander, Swearingen and Mitsubishi were all building turboprops for business and personal flying. The Citation wasn't fast for a jet, but it was faster than any of the turboprops, and it was easy to fly. It looked like Cessna's prediction would come true.

But the turboprops, at least the popular ones, didn't go away. The Citation was successful, but so was the King Air family. Instead of killing the turboprops, Cessna joined their side with the model 441 Conquest I introduced in 1978 and the 425 Conquest II entering the market in 1981. The Conquest I is among the fastest and longest-range business or personal turboprops ever built, and remains in high demand on the used market today. The Conquest II was among the most basic and modest in performance of any turboprop, and it remains very popular with many used models typically selling for as much as or more than they did new.

If the Conquest family wasn't proof enough that the turboprop lives, Cessna introduced the Caravan in 1985, and it became the bestselling single-engine turboprop ever. Caravan sales continue at a brisk pace today, and the big, bulky single toils at all manner of tasks in every corner of the globe. Even the most ardent jet believer can't find an alternative to the Caravan that doesn't have a propeller.

It is true that the Conquests went out of production, perhaps because building Citations is a better business for Cessna than out of lack of demand. The Cheyennes, Aero Commanders, Merlins and MU-2s are also long out of production, but that may say more about the operations of their parent companies than about demand for turboprops. After all, the King Airs fly on with steady and, recently, markedly increased demand. And, remember, the King Airs were always the most expensive and typically the slowest and least fuel efficient in the turboprop competition, but they clearly deliver what pilots and passengers want - comfort, quality, performance and the biggest cabins.

Though the production life of many turboprop models did end, the turboprop itself still succeeds. In place of the out of production twin turboprops there are three successful singles - the Pilatus PC-12, TBMS (700 and 850), and the Piper Meridian. All are racking up solid sales even though all three cost more than the advertised price of the Eclipse 500 very light jet. Eclipse development has been delayed several times since the original announcement, and fully operational airplanes are not yet being delivered, so that could explain why pilots pay nearly twice the price for a TBM 850. But the Citation Mustang sells for a little less than the TBM, and it's here, fully functional, on schedule, and meets all of its performance and payload projections. Clearly the TBM is attracting pilots with something more than availability.

And now two companies that owe their entire existence to propeller airplanes - Piper and Cirrus - have announced development of single-engine jets. Is this yet another death knell for the propeller? I don't think so.

The reasons the propeller will endure in personal and business aviation are the same that have caused the resurgence in propeller driven regional airliners - costs and flexibility.

Historically, and logically, a usable amount of power will cost less to buy in a turboprop engine than in a turbofan. That situation is somewhat skewed now at the lower power end because Pratt & Whitney and Williams, and soon the Honda/GE partnership, have all designed modern small turbofans, while nobody has modernized the smaller turboprop engine for many years. The only realistic engine choice for a business or personal turboprop is the PT6 series engines from Pratt & Whitney, which are extremely reliable but expensive to build. The new small turbofan engines use turbines and compressors machined from a single piece, for example, while the PT6 has costly wheels with individual turbine or compressor blades fitted into them. The individual parts count and man hours involved in building a PT6 are higher than in the small new jets. And Pratt also has a near monopoly in the turboprop market with the PT6 while it must compete fiercely with Williams, and soon Honda, for the small jet engine business. We all know how those situations go.

The same is not true at the regional airline level. A turbofan engine with enough thrust to move an RJ costs more than a turboprop for a similar size airplane. Part of the reason is that a propeller is more efficient at converting horsepower into thrust at low airspeeds, such as on takeoff, so you need less total power than with a jet. Regional airlines need to use some shorter runways to be successful, and the turboprop wins that game.

Another issue is that a jet must fly substantially higher than a turboprop to operate efficiently. That means the airplane and its systems quickly become more complicated in a jet. Higher altitudes mean greater pressurization differentials, which requires stronger and heavier structure and more complex systems. As a jet speeds up, the loads on its airframe grow, so it must be stronger and heavier. And the loads on the controls increase and soon hydraulics are required to give the pilots some power steering help. Each of those systems costs money to buy and, more importantly, add things that must be maintained and can fail, all of which cuts into dispatch reliability and adds to operating expense.

Bottom line, the public has it right. Jets are more luxurious than propeller airplanes, and luxury always costs more. For a time, with the airlines buying RJs like crazy, it looked like everybody could afford to ride in a jet. But that situation didn't last with fuel price increases and airline costs going through the roof. I predict the same in personal and business flying. The jets are and will continue to be in great demand, but they will cost more to fly than a similar size cabin and payload over the same distance in a turboprop. The propeller has had a good run for more than 100 years, and it has a long way to go.

Is Flight Simulator the Enemy?

The evidence that fewer young people are interested in learning to fly is undeniable. The number of student licenses issued peaked in the mid-1980s and has declined ever since. Every pilot can come up with reasons for this loss of interest in flying, and I'm sure that each of those reasons has at least some validity.

But one of the hopes many of us have had to revive interest in becoming a pilot is the computer flight simulation games. For not much money anybody can buy software that makes their computer "fly" and puts you in the cockpit of almost any airplane in existence. And these programs have been popular, with Microsoft alone selling untold thousands of copies of its Flight Simulator. I understand that Flight Simulator is the company's most popular entertainment program.

However, there is growing evidence, at least to me, that computer flight simulation programs may actually be the enemy of interest in becoming a pilot, not an aid. Sounds crazy at first, but think about what kids do with flight simulator programs - they fly jets, usually fighters. With the computer a kid can zoom around at Mach- plus a lot, blowing up other airplanes or ground targets, and generally having a blast. He can even fly space planes that don't exist, and probably never will.

Now, that same kid goes to the airport and there are no jets in sight. The training airplanes might have a flashy flat glass panel from Avidyne or Garmin, but probably not. And even if it does have a glass cockpit, its top speed will be well under that of any car that excites the kid. He expects to be going 120 at the end of the quarter mile in a car, so cruising in an airplane at that speed holds little magic.

I have no solution for this problem, only an observation. Piston singles are included in many computer flight simulator programs so kids can play with the "real" thing before going to the airport, if they want. But once you have been through the sound barrier, can a Skyhawk compete?

Who Needs Solo Time?The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has proposed that its member countries consider a new pilot license that is restricted to crew flying only. The idea is that people training to become professional pilots will always be part of a crew, so the multi-crew license (MPL) would be a more efficient and effective way to train new pilots.

I think that the MPL is a great idea because it recognizes the vast difference between flying single pilot, or as part of a crew. And the MPL doesn't shortchange single-pilot flight. The holder of an MPL could not fly by themselves without completing additional training and checking as a single pilot. Much progress has been made in crew resource management (CRM) training over the years as we have been taught to work as a team in the cockpit. But the reason many of us need CRM training is that the fundamental pilot training for the private, commercial and even ATP required us to do every task by ourselves. Then, when you start flying as a crew, you have to unlearn your original training. With the MPL people would never fly by themselves during the learning process, and they would naturally learn to work with the pilot in the other seat at every step of the training.

The major university and flight academy training programs already come close to an MPL style of training with crew coordination teaching as part of the curriculum from the beginning. But adoption of a formal MPL would allow them to skip over the solo requirements necessary for conventional certificates and fly crew only all the way from the beginning. I hope the FAA gets onboard with an MPL. I think it would help create better professional pilots right out of school.

Oshkosh When It's NotNothing compares to the EAA's annual Oshkosh fly-in with more than 10,000 airplanes and hundreds of thousands of people visiting during the week. But if you have only been to Oshkosh during the show, you're missing a lot.

I flew into Oshkosh not long ago and, as usual, was startled by the wide open spaces of the airport and the relaxed traffic pattern with its few airplanes. The place is almost unrecognizable compared to the week of the show.

But year round the EAA has lots going on right on Wittman Field. The AirVenture museum is open every day and is a spectacular presentation of antique, sport, racing, homebuilt, personal and warbird airplanes. Much of the time the EAA flies its antique airplanes out of the adjacent Pioneer Airport with its sod field and golden age-styled hangars. You can take a flight, or at least admire the dozens of airplanes on Pioneer Airport. The EAA works hard to have exhibits, movies and events for the entire family.

Best of all you can get a hotel room in Oshkosh, including at the Hilton Garden that is located on the north side of the airport. The Oshkosh Hilton is the only hotel that I have been to that has its own ramp, and you can tie down your airplane right outside your hotel room window. The place is long sold out for the show, but treat yourself to a trip to Oshkosh on any other week and you will be delighted.


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