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by John D. Trudel


I've been asked by some of the "old hands" to write some articles about flying the Comanche aircraft. That's an honor, but I must make my purpose and viewpoint clear to my readers at the outset.

You should think of me as an "Amateur Authority," and I ask you to take my comments and opinions in that vein.  I don't make my living as a pilot (never have).  I don't hold a commercial license though I did once take (and pass) the test.  Still, I've worked in aviation, and I actually had a pilot's license before I had a driver's license.

I spent my formative years as a civilian engineer who avoided boredom by flying around in the back of USAF "special ops" aircraft.  Those folks were extremely competent, if unconventional.   One once told me that I would make a safe pilot.  Not because of my skill and talent, but because I'd heard all the horror stories.  He was drunk at the time, but I still hoped it was true.

I now have several decades of flying experience, much of it commuting around the Western Hemisphere in both Single and Twin Comanches to serve clients and give talks.  I owned a 260 and now have a nicely upgraded turbo PA-30.  In all that time, I only hurt an aircraft once.

What motivated me to write these articles is a desire to help owners enjoy their aircraft safely and the fact that I've noticed a strange paradox.  The Comanche is technically one of the most "bullet proof" (simple, reliable systems and good performance) light aircraft around, but it suffers from a poor accident record and, at least at times, has had a bad reputation.

The negative aspects of the Comanche are attributable to "pilot error," sometimes exacerbated by misguided policies for training.   If we eliminated gear and fuel management accidents, its safety record would be superb.  I have some opinions as to why it's not.

The plane has been without factory support for decades, and the support it gets from its "type club" has been, well, spotty.  Admonishing Comanche pilots for being fools who run out of fuel or neglect to put their gear down is not the answer.  But it may be helpful if we understood the factors that cause recurrent Comanche accidents, so we can avoid them.

I pose something for you to consider and accept as fact.  The most dangerous time is when you do something new.  Always.

That's what I do for a living.  I help companies do new things.  People always make mistakes when they do something new.  There is simply no way to learn something new without making mistakes.  The trick is managing that risk and experience so that benefit results instead of harm.  (Most new businesses and products are failures, incidentally.)

When you buy your "new" (new to you) Comanche, the odds are that you don't have much Comanche experience. You're in danger.  Realize that.  You have one strike against you.

To manage that risk, you usually hire an instructor to "check you out."  Unfortunately, Comanches are not commonly found as rental or training aircraft (for good reasons), so the instructor you found probably has little, if any, recent Comanche time.  He's not familiar with the type either, so he's in danger too.  Strike two.

If you press on without sufficient caution and due diligence, you might have something else go wrong.  Three strikes and you're out. The experience could be painful and expensive.

In 1999, a PA-24 crashed at Hillsboro, OR on a training flight with three seasoned pilots on board. There was a commercial-rated pilot-in-command, an instructor in the right seat, and the owner in the back seat watching events unfold.  Some days you just can't win.

What happened?  Well, the alternator belt was loose.  While they were practicing, the battery became drained and the gear did not extend.  They bellied it in.  The instructor stated after the crash that they'd noted a discharge and had elected to continue the flight.  Bad move.

My conclusion:  They didn't understand the aircraft's systems well enough.

It gets worse.  In 2003, a prospective new owner was getting checked out in a PA-30 in Wolverhampton, England.  He had one hour in type and the aircraft had been sitting in an unheated hangar with low tanks for about three months.

They fueled the plane, flew around for about 30 minutes, and then returned to the field, presumably satisfied with the aircraft.  But then the right engine lost power.  By the time they were on downwind it had quit and was windmilling.  They did not feather it or switch tanks, but instead elected to try to land.  The instructor took over.

At 500 feet he extended the gear, but failed to get a gear-down light.  At 300 feet the instructor attempted a go around.  That last was a very bad move.

Now a Twin Comanche flies pretty well on one engine.  With the gear up and the "inop" engine feathered, it can fly indefinitely.  That's why you buy a twin.  Still, it cannot climb with either a windmilling prop or the gear down. And, of course, with both, it didn't have a chance.

They never even made it to the airport, but they were lucky.  At least they crashed under control and escaped injury.  I have no idea what the owner said when he saw his severely damaged aircraft or if the sale proceeded.  The green light was "inop" and there was water in the fuel.

My conclusion: They didn't understand the aircraft's systems well enough.

Moral of the story: 

Read the Owner's Manual, and learn the systems before you go flying.  Do some ground-school.  Sit in the cockpit and touch switches.  It won't hurt you.  Airline pilots spend weeks in intensive training before they are allowed near a simulator, much less an actual aircraft.

It would also be best to have a seasoned and current Comanche instructor, familiar with that specific aircraft.  If he's not, have him read the Owner's Manual too.  We'll talk more about such things in my next article.


John D.  Trudel is CEO of the Trudel Group (TTG), a management-consulting firm that he established in 1988.   See 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.


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