COMANCHE TECH TALK
BEGINNER'S LUCK – PART TWO
by John D. Trudel
In my last article, we talked about the most dangerous time being when you do something – anything! – new. My speculation is that this relates particularly to our Comanche aircraft, which, unfortunately, has an accident record that is above the norm.
The bad news is that, per hour flown, our accident rate as calculated for 100,000 flight hours by the AOPA Comanche Safety Review, 1997, for singles is 1.74 times worse than comparable aircraft (Figure 11, page 1-12). For serious accidents, it is 1.82 times worse. For our twins these numbers are 1.37 and 1.26, respectively (Figure 29, page 1-32). Some similar figures were presented in Aviation Consumer, the April 15, 1984 issue. Other metrics are kinder to the Comanche –for example, IMC accidents of the Twin Comanche, per 100,000 hours, are lower than comparable aircraft (Figure 30, page 1-33), but insurance companies tend to rank risk on the general per-hour-flown basis. Thus, the Comanche, single or twin, takes a "hit" for insurability.
The good news is that virtually all the Comanche accidents are caused by pilot error, usually fuel mismanagement and/or not putting the gear down. These are quite preventable. Many or most seem to happen when the pilot is new to the aircraft.
In the case of the Comanche, that's a particular problem because the manufacturer doesn't enforce training standards, and support from ICS has been, with notable exceptions, ah, mixed. There are some superb Comanche instructors, but if you go down to the local airport and ask for someone to check you out, that person, quite likely, is not one of these. So be careful.
Lest you think that old, seasoned pilots are above this, or that I somehow purport to know all the answers, let me assure you that's not true. I don't.
When I bought it, my PA-30 had been virtually unused for years. It was in Tucson, a thousand miles from my home airport. I took the most experienced people that I could find along with me for the pre-purchase inspection and the flight back.
One was a high time pilot who used to deliver Comanches for the factory. A trusted friend who ran a long-time aircraft sales business. He brought along his mechanic, who happened to own a Comanche. We inspected the aircraft and its logs meticulously, the plane passed, and we handed over a check. I now owned a Twin Comanche, and we adjourned to the bar to discuss the day.
After discussing how nice the plane was, I asked, "How are we going to get it back?" My friends blinked and looked at each other. Then they looked at me.
"You're going to fly it back," said one, in a puzzled tone. "You used to own a Comanche."
"I don't have a multi-engine rating," I replied. "No twin time at all. You've got thousands of hours in Twin Comanches, Harry," I said (not his real name). "You fly it back."
"I don't have a medical."
"Oh…." The word seemed to hang in the air. Assumptions can get you in trouble.
We all exchanged looks. Fortunately, the mechanic had a multi-engine instructor rating. We decided that it would be legal for him to fly right seat, for Harry to sit in the back and supervise, and for me to use the flight back home as my first multi-engine training. We had a plan.
I spent the night reading the manuals, trying to remember the PA-24 that I'd owned fifteen years before and how its systems worked. And hoping for good weather.
The next day dawned bright and clear. As pilot in command, I filled all the tanks (probably the only thing I did right that day), preflighted the airplane, and got in.
"How do I get the engines started?" I asked. They told me. We started up, taxied out, and did the run up. One engine was quite rough, the left, as I recall. I fiddled with it for a time, finally announcing. "It's a no go. Too much mag drop."
"Let me try," said the mechanic. He leaned it, ran it up, and fiddled with things. It finally passed, barely. "Dirty plugs," he said. "It's been sitting."
"What do you think?" I asked Harry dubiously.
"It's good to go," he said. "No problem. Climb at blue line."
"OK," I said. And, so, off we went into the wild blue yonder, heading out across the desert for home. We were about 15 minutes out at ten thousand feet when the right engine quit.
"Boost pumps," chorused Harry and the mechanic in unison.
"They're on," I said. That didn't seem to help. Thus it was that I got my first engine-out training. We slowly drifted down with the prop windmilling. At least the desert looked pretty flat.
I switched tanks and the engine finally came back to life. Eventually we even got it to run off the "bad" tank. "Why did it quit?" I asked. I'd drained a lot of fuel in the preflight.
No one knew. The reason why turned out to be an idiosyncrasy of the aircraft that it took me several years and a lot of research to identify and cure.
We passed over Las Vegas where the weather was severe clear, and learned that Reno, an hour away, had 12,000 feet overcast. "We can fuel and have lunch there," I said.
"Good plan," said Harry. But we never got to Reno. Staying VFR, we were forced ever lower by clouds, until we finally lost communications. That was puzzling. About fifty miles out, we got the Reno ATIS and special weather. Three hundred indefinite, half a mile in blowing snow.
So far, the trip was not going real well, and it didn't get any better. We had to divert to Sacramento, which required veering west over the Sierra Mountains at 14,000 feet, with an inoperative heater, at -25 C. We had no jackets or warm clothes, and soon my "instructor" was turning blue. His teeth were chattering so badly that we couldn't understand a word he was saying. We had to help him out of the plane and give him three cups of hot soup before he stopped shaking.
My friends promptly went to sleep when we got back to altitude. But they woke up as we dropped through the clouds into Portland, with the props slinging large chunks of ice against the nose of my newly purchased, and, until then, unblemished aircraft. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
Now I'm not a pro, so maybe you can do better. Still, I have a friend who crunched his Twin Comanche not long after he bought it. He is a pro, and one with most impressive credentials.
Bob (not his real name) had over 30,000 accident-free hours in his logbooks and had run training for a major airline. He was in the traffic pattern at his home airport, practicing touch and goes in his recently purchased PA-30 with his dog in the back seat.
Bob got distracted because of slower traffic in the pattern and neglected to put the gear down. His dog missed the checklist call and didn't wake up until they were sliding down the runway on their belly. The dog was absolved, but the FAA made Bob take remedial training.
Once again: Any time you do something new is a dangerous time. If you are considering buying a Comanche, read the manuals, seek out seasoned owners, and find an instructor who is type-knowledgeable. Then ask lots of questions before you climb into the airplane. Good luck.
John D. Trudel is CEO of the Trudel Group (TTG), a management-consulting firm that he established in 1988. See www.trudelgroup.com for more information. John has written for Electronic Design, Upside, IEEE Spectrum, Barrons, Analog, IEEE Engineering Management Review, and many other publications. John is the author of High Tech with Low Risk and Engines of Prosperity. He gives keynote talks and has been quoted (and sometimes misquoted) by media including Electronic Business, Fortune, and Wall Street Journal. He owns an upgraded PA-30 and has been flying light aircraft since he was 15 years old.