The International Comanche Society is an excellent resource for Comanche owners – both singles and twins. I have taken advantage of their expertise, tool borrowing programs, Pilot Proficiency Training, and other assets. These folks gave me the opportunity to highlight what I’ve done with my airplane by publishing this article for me. I am pleased that they’ve done this, and repeat the text here.
Twin-engine Comanche Flying (the obvious choice…)
BACKGROUND: When I was 8 years old, my father took me up to the National Guard base at Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania. His job was taking care of the Cessna O-2 aircraft the forward air controllers used in Viet Nam. I sat there and watched him start the engines; watched the propeller turn over; and was drawn into all the sights, smells, and sounds of the moment. It was then that I became determined to learn how to fly.
More than 20 years later, in 1987, I earned a private pilot rating and started flying my friends and family around the area. I had no plans or aspirations to take flying any further than that, and was content renting Tomahawks for the next few years. Eventually I did get bored with this and decided to add an instrument rating to keep my love of aviation alive. During that process I learned that it was the training that interested me the most. I liked the challenge, and enjoyed learning new skills and then applying them. I had found my reason to keep on flying, and it set me on a course to get one rating after another. Sort of like finishing a really great book, only to find the next five sequels laying at your feet.
By 2001 I was working part time as a CFII and finding enjoyment in teaching others to fly. That was the year my wife Beverly encouraged me to go find our first airplane, a 1980 Piper Warrior II. Bev and I completely overhauled that machine into a capable IFR airplane I could train in and we could use for travel. We flew that airplane to South Dakota, the Florida Keys, and multiple trips to Orlando and Michigan over the seven years we owned it. I began doing Angel Flights around that time, adding a sense of mission to my flying. I was certain that this airplane would suit me fine for the rest of my life.
ADVANCED EXPERIENCE: Bev and I began building a new house during the summer of 2004, which gave us a unique opportunity to commute to work by air while it was being completed. Often flying two approaches to minimums at night in the same day, I was able to achieve a very high level of instrument proficiency and confidence. During that time I purchased an FAA approved flight simulator, began flight instructing in Cirrus and other aircraft, and got even more excited about doing more in aviation. It was an effective way for me to relieve the stresses of the work I was doing.
Looking around for something else to train on, I decided to earn a multi-engine rating. I began by reading and working on the simulator, and progressed to training in a Grumman Cougar out of Lancaster, and a Beech Travel-Air out of Wilmington. By 2007 I had earned a multi-engine instrument instructor rating and began instructing students. One candidate came to me to get ready for his Multi-engine ATP, and we worked him hard on the simulator before he started that phase of his training.
He sailed through his ATP training and ME-ATP check-ride with flying colors, and was so enthusiastic about our preparation that I decided to go work on my own ATP in the same manner. In June of 2009, I passed my ME-ATP check-ride, and found it to be the easiest check-ride I’d experienced to date. This was due in large part due to the amount of preparation I’d done on a desktop simulator before signing up. Even with that success, I knew I wouldn’t remain proficient flying light twins so infrequently, and wasn’t sure what my next steps should be.
I went back to flying my beautiful Warrior II for a few months while I considered what to do next. Finally, Beverly read my mind and we decided to upgrade to something more challenging than our Warrior. Her response was without pause – ‘you work hard all week and have earned this…. just go find something and buy it’. I started shopping for a twin that night.
SEARCHING FOR A TWIN: My search began by talking with mechanics, instructors, and friends about which twins would be good options for me. Most of my missions would be lightly loaded and for training, and I was just as concerned with operating costs as I was with purchase price. I
was most familiar with the Cougar, followed by the the Travel-Air. I had also flown the Seneca II, and Seminole at this point, and knew I’d be able to master them as well. Talking with Paul Phillips at 33N, he convinced me to look hard at the Twin Comanche for it’s fuel efficiency and speed before I made the decision. Further research made it made it clear that it would be hard to beat the speed and efficiency of this machine. Even though I’d never even sat in one, it became my first choice.
I sought out opportunities to get a closer look at the PA-30s, and joined ICS to start learning more about the machine and developing a network to talk with. David Pyle spent time talking with me via email early on, and introduced me to a knowledgable owner by the name of Scot Ducey. I spent a good amount of time talking with both of them by email. They were patient and supportive with all my questions. Scot offered to take me for a ride at the time, but our respective work schedules kept that from happening. Another good friend, Alex, heard what I was trying to do, and arranged to borrow a PA30 so he could take me flying. People are awesome. Alex helped me prove to myself that I could fly this airplane well with a little time, so the decision on type was made.
Over the next several days, I did an internet search (when I should have been working). I planned weekend flights in the Warrior to fly out to inspect examples I could reach in the area. Not finding anything I thought I would want to invest in, I extended my search and found what appeared to be a solid example sitting in Tulsa. The avionics were dated, but I’d be updating the panel to my preferences anyway. I ordered a remote pre-buy inspection, sight unseen, and arranged for a local rated instructor to fly it with me, should I decide to pursue the airplane further once out there. Inspection complete, I flew out commercially to have a closer look myself a few days later. The interior was a six, paint an eight, and avionics about a five. The airplane structurally looked fantastic, with no major flaws that were obvious to me.
I purchased the airplane on the spot, and completed the paperwork and funds transfer that I’d already set up. We filled the tanks and the PIC and I waited in the hangar for the weather to come up so we could go flying. Since I needed five hours in type before my insurance would let me fly it home, I had to be patient and sit tight for awhile. I studied the manuals and sat in the airplane getting myself familiar while the low IFR sat over the field for several more days. If ever there was a potential for get-there-itis, this was it.
MINIMUM EXPERIENCE: While I had hoped for at least four hours of VFR instruction in this airplane to build in a margin of safety, that wasn’t meant to be. At the very least, I looked for higher IFR for the familiarization flights to ensure we could get back into the same airport once we’d left. On the third day we made the one serious effort to get some flying done by departing VFR in the local area, and staying very low. The instructor was as anxious as I was to get the training in, and together we thought this might work.
Zooming along at 1000′ agl as the transmission towers whizzed by in the murk, the instructor comforted me by repeating how familiar he was with the area. I flew along for a few minutes on a short but harrowing adventure, deciding to end the attempt about 15 minutes in. Flying that low and scud running was not adding to my knowledge or safety at all, so we turned it around and headed back. I landed the airplane on my own just fine, and I surprised the tower, the instructor, and myself. Like golf – everyone gets lucky now and again.
HEADING HOME WITH A BAG OF FIRSTS: The fourth day dawned and the PIC’s time was even more limited. We managed another short flight with two landings, but we were both out of time. I departed Tulsa later that day for Delaware by climbing through layers on lethargic instruments up to 11,000′ so I could get on top. Another front was coming in and and the weather wasn’t going to change anytime soon.
The flight home was to be the a flight of FIRSTs for me. This would be my first solo cross-country flight in a multi-engine airplane; first solo in a Twin Comanche; first solo landing in a Twin
Comanche, and I was cautioned that these were difficult; highest altitude I’d flown in a light airplane; and first time I had to manage fuel in a twin with 6 tanks when it really mattered. I actually hadn’t thought about the fact that switching the tanks would also switch the fuel senders, and figured all that out on my way to the first stop in Indiana.
Landing for fuel, my first solo landing in my newly owned airplane was absolutely terrible. I thumped it on nicely, requiring a glance out at the wings to see if the struts were poking through. It apparently wasn’t as bad as it felt, or maybe it was that this airplane is more solid than I thought. With knees shaking, I had the airplane refueled and went inside for bite to eat. After a time, I filed IFR to Delaware Airpark, and looked forward to getting the airplane home to it’s hangar there. Paul Phillips of PhillAir would be doing a more detailed inspection once I got it home. He is the one who encouraged me to look at the PA-30 in the first place, and introduced me to the existence of ICS as well.
I was giddy with speed all the way home and zoomed into Dover’s airspace at well over 200 kts, while still at six thousand feet. The controllers were in no hurry to bring me down, and I was having a ball zooming along, not thinking far enough ahead. Once in the descent, the numbers looked even more thrilling until I finally realized I had to slow down without shock cooling my engines. Bringing back the power at two inches a minute, and then pushing the nose over ever so slightly, I was pushing into the yellow airspeed range and descending at only three hundred feet a minute. The result was that I ended up well over New Jersey before I came out of warp speed enough to turn base. The third landing in my new airplane was almost anticlimactic, but my knees were shaking. It was definitely time for a cold beer.
UPDATING N833DF: Owning this twin is not much different than owning the Warrior. I had purchased a solid airframe, and now set out to update and reconfigure it to my standards. Significant steps I’ve taken since ownership include over-hauling the props and the landing gear system; replacing all four rubber fuel bladders; gutting the interior and ensuring full fire and sound protection; new glass; adding a leather interior; updating ELT equipment, re-painting the airplane, and most recently, adding a GTX-345 transponder for the ADS-B mandate.
As you can see from the photos, N833DF sports an impressive IFR panel that was installed by Penn Avionics at Brandywine Airfield. The carpet and leather interior was installed along with fire and sound proofing by Dodd Stretch and the AirTex folks up in Trenton. Landing gear, propellers, fuel bladders, and mechanicals were done initially by Paul Phillips at Phill-Air, and later by Rob Danzi down at Sussex Aero when I moved the airplane. Both experienced resources that know the PA30 well.
N833DF flies fully automated approaches using the Aspen PFD as a centerpiece. The Aspen is integrated with both the Garmin 530 WAAS and the Garmin 496, which provides audible obstacle and terrain warnings via the PS Engineering 8000b audio panel. I recently retired XM Weather on the Garmin 496 when I installed the GTX-345 transponder to become ADS-B compliant. That addition gets me traffic and weather on the 530W and yoke mounted iPads. The KX-155 is my second radio, which smoothly integrates with the Aspen PFD as you’d expect.
I’m retired now, and working with Matt Sager at the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation (DAMF) in Georgetown to learn how to perform maintenance under supervision on the B25 Panchito as well as my own airplane. Panchito’s owner is Larry Kelley, who also owns a Twin Comanche that he flies for personal use and in support of the museum. That happy coincidence allowed me to help the museum out on occasion by flying Larry’s machine. PA30 experience has helped me to add value to an organization that, in turn, allows me to fly a B25. Nice.
FLIGHT TRAINING IN THE PA30: Learning the airplane began after I got it home and mostly after I updated the older avionics to ensure they were safe for IFR. Previous owners only flew VFR, but not me. With that accomplished, I signed up for my first Comanche Pilot Proficiency Program (CPPP) with my good friend Mike. I met Mike while checking him out in a Cirrus SR20,
and we became friends that flew together often. He was proficient in the Seminole when I met him, and he introduced me to that airplane on several flights that we’d taken together. Mike loves to research every detail of the equipment he is flying, and I looked forward to learning about my new machine along with him.
I’ve always found training fun, and teaching myself to fly professionally in my own airplane would be no exception. There are a few experiences in this airplane that readily stand out in my mind, and make me look back and chuckle about what I didn’t know at the time. I’d like to share a few learning moments with you now.
PERCEIVED GEAR ‘EMERGENCY’: This experience happened right after I got home with the airplane, and took it out on a familiarization flight. Mike flew with me down to Salisbury for some approaches while I learned more about out the systems on the aircraft. Practice approaches in VFR weather was the plan. At the final approach fix on the very first approach, I put the gear down and did not get a green gear-down light. There is only one green and one amber gear light in this airplane, so when the green light didn’t come on with the gear down, I knew to switch the light bulbs and use the amber gear in transit light that I know was working. When the second light also didn’t light up, I knew that the gear unsafe indication was consistent. On the final approach segment of the ILS32 at Salisbury, I notified the tower that I was working a gear problem. I told them I’d like to enter the hold to diagnose the problem, and continue VFR flight following in the interim. They would help keep me clear of traffic while I worked the problem, and I’d be talking with them if things got worse.
I could see the gear was deployed out the window, and the gear mechanism inside looked fine as far as I knew. I wasn’t worried at all. I knew that the gear design in the PA30 gives you all or nothing, and was considering this a false indication or electrical sensor failure. I expected the gear would hold up as it was; but reviewed the emergency gear extension procedure to be thorough.
I requested a low and slow fly-by over the runway with the tower, and they sent a truck out to wait for me. They reported that is appeared down and normal, and were upset when I retracted the gear on the go by habit. You should have heard how excited they got. I informed them I was certain this was electrical, and that cycling the gear might resolve the issue. We parted company and I headed to Georgetown thinking that they were probably right.
Over Georgetown I did the same low pass with some folks out there looking. I kept the gear down after the pass this time, but still had an unsafe gear indication (green light out). The pass looked good to the guys below, and the landing was uneventful. I gingerly taxied off the runway and shut down in the run-up area to check things out.
I had no idea if the gear was safe or not, so at this point I just sat there to regroup and made sure no one stuck their head under the airplane. As I was sitting there, I decided to put the lights back into their respective sockets before I got out. Looking directly at the light while I unscrewed it, and I could see little metal jaws inside the light opening as I unscrewed it. Apparently, these lights had mechanical dimmers of a type I’d never seen before. I am told they are military style dimmers that close jaws as you rotate the outer ring to the right and open for full brightness rotating to the left. I watched the jaws open and close with fascination.
I sat there smiling as I realized what I’d done. On this flight it had occurred to me to tighten those lights as I was flying along. In so doing, I had inadvertently closed the dimmer switch fully and blanked out (dimmed) the light entirely. When I replaced the amber light, I repeated the same process by making sure the second light was tight (dimmer jaws fully closed) when I put it in. Duh! No emergency at all – I just didn’t know about this style of dimmer. Lucky I kept my head and didn’t get gear-up distracted because of a light.
WARPED AILERON EXPERIENCE: I had the airplane painted at Lancaster Aero at Smoketown Airport just a few years ago. They had done an amazing job on my first airplane, and I wanted them to do this one as well.
Part of the prep work this time required the re-skinning of the top of my left aileron, which was completed by a local A&P. The results of that work looked great when I arrived to bring the airplane home. After almost two months of down time, I was excited to be getting the airplane back home, and did a climbing left turn direct to Georgetown.
Pushing the nose over above pattern altitude, I began to pick up speed readily. Suddenly, I became aware that I was holding significant right rudder and aileron just to keep the airplane from rolling over. What the heck is this?! Had I lost the LEFT ENGINE at just that instant, the airplane would have rolled over and the NTSB and everyone else would have concluded I blew an engine- out recovery. My last few seconds would have been with a handful of airplane and no way to control it.
Instinctively, I reduced power and went back to the last stable state I knew produced controlled flight – slow airspeed. Slowing down relieved most of the control pressure, so I maneuvered a bit to confirm I had solid control in the low speed range. I proceeded to do additional testing by increasing speed slowly to gauge the extent of the problem. Eventually, I put the gear down and executed a very nice no-flap landing into one of the shorter fields I’ve used in a light twin. I didn’t really know what I had at this point, so I kept the flaps up for the landing. Taxied back in to the hangar I’d just left, I called Beverly to tell her there was an issue and I’d be needing a ride home.
Fixing this required four additional trips up to Smoketown, with multiple test flights performed at each visit. Ultimately, it was determined that the left aileron had been slightly warped in the re- skinning process. You can get away with that kind of error on a Warrior, but the laminar flow wing on this airplane wouldn’t tolerate it. WEBCO tipped us off to what it might be, and we were able to prove it by borrowing a single comanche aileron (WEBCO’s suggestion) to test fly. I flew the new aileron over it’s entire speed range, including a dive, and it was rock steady. The test flight was flawless, so I ended it with a safe high speed/low pass over the field to demonstrate full control. We ordered an entirely rebuilt aileron from WEBCO to replace the bad one, and the issue was resolved. All parties involved, including me, committed real money and man-hours to resolve the issue. I’m happy with the outcome and appreciate all the talent and support that came my way.
USING THE PA-30 TO GET TO THE NEXT LEVEL: By 2014 I had flown my airplane around 800 hours, and accomplished what I’d set out to do. I was comfortable flying light twins through the entire flight regime now, and ready for something else. I established a tradition of flying away for a week in the winter to do some sort of specialized training. Seaplanes were first in Florida, and in 2014 I opted to do some simulator based King Air training.
Within hours of completing the King Air work, I got a call about a part time job flying the C-90 King Air. I was told it would fit well into my work schedule (12 weeks of vacation I could schedule at will), and it sounded perfect. I started flying King Airs about a month or so later. Friends had heard what I was looking for, and threw my name around to develop that opportunity for me – networking! People are awesome.
The King-Air job didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, since the notice for flights was shorter than I needed. I just couldn’t do short notice flights, even though I really wanted to fly this thing with a passion. Bitten hard by the lure of turbine flying at this point, I started looking for ways to work less and fly more. That opportunity came when US Air offered me a job flying Dash-8’s and wanted me right now. I was stunned by that revelation, and retired in June of that same year to pursue a new career.
I flew for USAir for about 18 months and found it to be an intense and exhilarating experience. It was a complete change of pace and environment. An incredible opportunity that I was blessed to
be able to take advantage of. The pilots and flight attendants are awesome, and the weather flying is best I’ve ever seen. Flying a turbo-prop with thirty to fifty people behind you was the thrill of a lifetime for me, and I enjoyed the experience until it was time for me to return home. I left in January of 2016 to spend more time with my wife and begin writing a book about the aviation journey that I’ve been blessed to enjoy.
TRAVELING MACHINE: N833DF has been to Oshkosh a number of times, allowing Beverly and I to break away from responsibilities and enjoy vintage aircraft camping awhile. While Bev couldn’t make our 2016 Oshkosh trip this year, she encouraged me to take one of our 14 grandchildren along. Jacob, a capable 12 yr old scout, managed our camping site while I made sure he got to experience aviation first hand. Jake and I even won an award for Best Contemporary Twin Comanche during the show this year!
I have never been one to join clubs, but the ICS contacts I’ve spoken to really stepped up to help resolve any issues I’ve encountered. I will continue to pay that forward by sharing my expertise with others as I am able. I am blessed to own this Twin Comanche and to have enjoyed the experiences I’ve had so far.
Now that I’m not flying regionals everyday, I’m back to doing an IPC every year for insurance, and because it isn’t a bad idea. I’ll be doing a few days of training to get that done next week, along with some night flying to get winter ready as well. Beverly and I plan to start flying to visit family in Louisiana over the next year as well, and I look forward to playing some golf down there in the winter months.
The sophistication speed, performance, and instrument capabilities of the Twin Comanche has paved the way to building proficiency in advanced equipment, and has brought me opportunities not otherwise possible. What I learned in this machine was enough for me to sail through King Air training, US Air’s Dash-8 training, and more recently to earn an SIC rating in the B25 Mitchell bomber with the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation (DAMF).
Now I need to learn more about taking care of airplanes, and I hope to do more of that working with the DAMF in the coming year.
If you like this article, more of the same can be found on my blog at www.airdorrin.com.