Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Point One of Turboprop Time: A Whole New Kind of Swagger

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

You can always tell them as they walk across the airport...turbine pilots headed out to pre-flight their G5 or Lancair Propjet or PC-12 or F-18. They seem to have a little different walk than the piston drivers. Call it confidence, call it the walk of a high timer, but the pilots who bleed Jet-A just have a different way of crossing a ramp.

My guess is that this "swagger" comes from the sheer joy one gets from spinning up a really expensive engine made of precious metals to seriously high RPMs, injecting large amounts of jet fuel into the thing and then holding on while it all catches fire and spews a controlled explosion of thrust out the back end, or somehow twists that flame 180 degrees so it spins a huge prop on the front end.

And the next time you see me walking over to Katy, our [gasoline-powered] Cherokee 235, don't be surprised if I have that same swagger as the jet guys, because a few years ago, I became one of them...sort of.

Yes, my flying friends, I am a turbine driver now...or at least I was for .1 flight hours while on a trip to North Carolina in 2008. Sure, .1 in the logbook isn't going to get me an interview at an airline, but any way you slice it, .1 turbine time is .1...no way to dispute it. Here is what led up to being able to scribble a very cool entry into my logbook:
We had flown into Charlotte, N.C. for a full-day photo shoot held at the Statesville Airport. As we worked through the day, I learned that the row of mega-hangars across the runway from the ramp was home base for many of the biggest racing teams in NASCAR. So the almost endless stream of high dollar business jets belonged to (so I'm told) names such as Earnhardt and Gordon and Gibbs. But since I was squarely at the epicenter of the U.S. stock car racing universe – where even the guy who changes the right front tire reportedly drags down two hundred and fifty large a year in pay – it is a pretty safe bet that the Falcon 50s and top shelf Gulfstreams were departing, um, pedal to the metal, as they say down here.
With such expensive hardware taking off and departing, it was like listening to a symphony all day as we shot endless scenes involving the Pilatus PC-12s managed by our client. Everything came off without a hitch, including some awesome "after the storm" reflection shots on a ramp soaked by the daily thunderstorm that rolls through the area. The day ended with some nice takeoff and landings shots of a beautiful PC-12, and when the pilot, Steve Setzer, turned off runway 28, I thought my day was done. Oh how wrong I was:
As I walked back to the subject -12, I was asked if I would like a quick ride around the patch, and of course the answer was YES. I adore the PC-12 and have always wanted to just ride in one. I climbed into the right seat – strapped in by the coolest seat belt system I have every seen – and was giddy as we taxied to the hold short line. I was still in awe of the gorgeous panel of the Pilatus when Steve, a CFI, confirmed that I was a current single engine land pilot. When I answered in the affirmative, I was floored when he asked if I wanted to take off!
After shaking off a few jitters, I soon tuned into what was happening...I was about to take control of a flying machine that cost someone north of USD$4 million, so I had better at least find the airspeed and attitude indicators. Steve nudged the power forward and in a moment we were parked on the numbers ready for departure:
"It's your airplane, I'll handle the power," Steve said, and in a heartbeat we were rolling. With a gargantuan four-blade propeller spun by a Pratt and Whitney PT-6 ripping the air to shreds, I started gently applying right rudder to keep the PC-12 aimed roughly westbound. When the airspeed came alive, I was amazed at how much I had to work the rudders to keep the plane straight...it was not hard but did require some serious concentration. I tried not to think about the fact that my mind was numb from a 12-hour day of commercial photography and pulled back on the yoke to rotate at 80 KIAS, but the plane felt a touch reluctant to blast off. So I tugged a bit harder – too hard I was told later – and the Pilatus jumped skyward as if to prove a point that I was in fact manhandling the yoke. But what the hell, it might not have been POH pretty, but I WAS FLYING A PILATUS!!!
After failing to keep it anywhere near pattern altitude on left crosswind and downwind – and with my tank running low on energy and focus – I declined Steve's offer to land the PC-12. So he verbally confirmed three in the green and dropped the Swiss mini-airliner back into Statesville with the finesse that comes from landing the same airframe for 10 years. To call this landing a "no chirper" would have been appropriate...it was as if they greased the runway with Crisco and the big Pilatus slid onto the touchdown zone.

So now I can say I have flown a Pilatus PC-12...if only for .1 on the Hobbs. Someday I will do the same thing when I'm fresh in the morning, and go somewhere and land. Now that will be something. And I absolutely know I can land it too, because even for the few moments I was the sole manipulator of the controls, I could tell this was a pilot's machine that does what you want it to do, as if it just KNOWS what you want. And if I want it to land, it will...maybe not as sweet as the arrival I enjoyed with Steve, but it will be gentle enough to keep from breaking any seriously expensive Swiss airplane parts.

So if you see me walking up to Katy with a little bit of spring in my step, it's because of that .1 in the logbook.