COMANCHES IN THE 21st CENTURY
A NO-HOLDS-BARRED NEXT GENERATION
by Todd La Neve
"The airframe, paint and engines are perfect. It seems a shame to let the
interior and panel be the Achilles heel."
My brother, Steve, and I had made this comment enough times to one another that we were finally beginning to realize the inevitable -- there was a project in our future.
Steve got his private ticket over twenty years ago. Given our age difference, a love of flying was one of the few things we had in common back then. I was a wide-eyed kid as he did stalls, wingovers, and other seemingly daring feats in the Cessna Aerobat from the local airport where he worked selling planes. I relished the times he turned the yoke over to me and let me take command. Eventually, as he went off to college and the rest of our family moved to West Virginia, my contact with aviation faded.
Fast forward to 2000. Steve returned from five years in Japan and decided it was time to again pursue his passion for flying. Operating from northern New Jersey, he frequently flew to my home in West Virginia and we always spent an hour or so in the air. Not only had his passion returned (instrument, multi-engine instrument, commercial), but mine had also sprouted again, netting me my private, multi and instrument ratings over the next sixteen months. Of course, from day one, we started talking about how cool it would be to own a plane together.
But what plane? Single, multi, new, used, complex, simple? We initially
thought about a time-builder to rack up the hours for insurance purposes but
eventually came to the conclusion to forget time building and just buy what
we really wanted. A twin. Two engines. A busy throttle quadrant. The cool
mystique of taxiing up to an FBO and climbing out of your own multi! I was
enamored of the Piper Apache after earning my multi rating in one. Steve
felt the same about the Twin Comanche in which he got his ticket. In the new
market, we both loved the Seneca V and Baron but ultimately decided the
costs just weren't worth it. There were very few twins we didn't look at,
new or used. However, the deal was sealed when I earned my instrument ticket
in a PA-30. What a machine! I needed no more convincing and it seemed we had finally managed to get off the fence. The Twin Comanche is a perfect mix of
all things good in a light twin.
It's amazing how focused a search becomes once you select the type of
plane; sifting through myriad websites, talking to countless owners, what
the AD situation is, and on and on. We finally set our sights on a 1966 PA-30B
for its combination of low airframe time, new paint and freshly
remanufactured engines. Steve and a flight instructor friend flew from Idaho to my home base at Clarksburg, West Virginia (KCKB). The former owner had dismantled and restored much of the plane, had it painted in the 2000 Seneca V scheme a couple of years earlier, and the paint job is still in great shape. He stopped short on the interior and panel since he planned to sell. As it was, the plane averaged true airspeeds around 170 knots at 75% power. Being speed junkies, we were determined to squeeze out every knot that we could. We immediately added gap seals and gear well fairings from Knots2U and had our maintenance shop put the plane on jacks and true up the gear doors and other rigging. These improvements pushed cruise speeds to 175 KTAS.
Although we had dismissed the Seneca V, we still admired its panel. We already had the paint scheme we wanted and we decided to design a comparably equipped panel. With only a single working radio, it was time to take the next
plunge. We sealed the deal with Hagerstown Aircraft Services (HAS) in
Hagerstown, Maryland (KHGR). Their experience and skills are top notch and
since they are a full-service maintenance shop, they could do all the work,
including a new interior.
We ultimately settled on a full Garmin stack (GMA 340 audio panel, GNS
530/430 and GTX 327 transponder) for the core of the panel. We didn't stop
there, however, as we wanted a heavily glassed, up-to-date cockpit. To
complement this setup, we added a Goodrich i-linc MFD, S-Tec 55X
autopilot/flight director, Sandel electronic HSI, WX-500 Stormscope and
Goodrich Skywatch system. Our plans also included replacing all of the pilot's flight instruments and adding three co-pilot instruments. In order to get the co-pilot's share of flight instruments we needed to get rid of the existing engine instruments. Enter the Vision Microsystems VM1000 which combines every engine gauge into one five inch by five inch LCD display. The only thing HAS couldn't replace according to the FSDO representative was the original fuel quantity gauges. However, by installing two VM 1000s right over the throttle quadrant, we were able to give the co-pilot a Goodrich electric attitude indicator, standard DG and an altimeter. This is all housed in a new aluminum panel designed by HAS and cut with water jets at a local fabrication shop. The new Dennis Ashby lighted glareshield was covered in black naugahyde for a finished look.
Recognizing that we planned to do a lot of cross-country travel, having weather information in the cockpit was a must. WSI's In Flight AV200 was picked, based on the company's experience in all things weather. While the AV200 isn't yet FAA certified (it's reportedly in the last phases at this time), the plane has
been completely wired and the antenna has been installed so all that's left
is to have the box connected once it's available. Near real-time weather
will be displayed on the i-linc along with the WX-500's real-time lightning
In keeping with the modernization of the panel, we added new yokes from
Cygnet Aerospace, both with clock/timer. The pilot's yoke houses push-to-talk, electric trim, control wheel steering, autopilot disconnect, remote comm radio flip-flop and remote ident switches. We also replaced or added a number of other components such as low vacuum warning systems, all the interior lighting and all knobs, switches and wiring. As if this wasn't enough, we also looked to the airframe. In an effort to reach a 180 kt TAS in cruise--a magic number for us--we went for more speed mods, adding a rudder gap seal, flap track covers, and new nose bowls from LoPresti.
Besides the speed benefits, these modifications should also improve safety margins at low speeds and during single engine operations while modernizing the appearance. Johnston Aircraft Services wingtips replaced the originals so we could get the tip lights out of the slipstream and continue to update the appearance. We also had the gear system totally rebuilt. The gear wells have been painted white for aesthetics and to make it easier to spot any developing maintenance issues. The gear struts have been repainted since the entire landing gear system was disassembled, stripped, magnafluxed, and rebuilt.
They'll also be painting the new wingtips and the nose bowls, and the underside of the wings after removing exhaust staining which had dulled the paint. The belly and the top of the fuselage will get new paint to cover the work that's been done, i.e., new antennas, old holes patched, etc. As well, we're getting a new era N number painted in a shadow effect similar to what New Piper now does.
The plane got all new 1/4 inch tinted glass, and we changed to a one piece windshield. The seats were sent to Oregon Aero to be redone using heat sensitive Confor foam. Headliner, carpet, and side panels were stripped out and the entire cabin was filled with sound reducing insulation. The whole interior is being redone in leather upholstery and all the plastic trim is being replaced, along with the headliner and carpeting.
Our mandate was really quite simple: replace or refurbish everything so we
have a new plane. While it may appear to some that this was an overblown
project, our motivation was pretty straightforward. We are going to be
flying this plane a lot and we are going to be taking our families up in it.
Our guiding principle is that cutting corners is unacceptable when it comes
to maintenance and safety. When the project is complete, we'll have a
technologically advanced plane that appears new in nearly every respect and
has had every major system and component replaced or refurbished, and we
will have done so for much less than the cost of any new production twin. The
finished product will be worth the effort and we look forward to years of
Todd La Neve, 36, resides in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He and his brother, Steve, 43, jointly own N599R, a 1966 Twin Comanche which is based at KCKB. Todd started flying in May 2000 and currently holds a private pilot license with ASEL, AMEL, and instrument ratings. When not practicing law, he is either flying, thinking about flying, bumming around the airport watching flying, or spending time with his family trying to get them hooked on flying. So far, his three-year old daughter, Lindsey, pictured here, is his biggest convert. He's an optimist though and believes there is hope for the others.
[Editor: Next month, the refurbishment should be complete, and Todd will be giving us a report and more pictures of his next generation Twin Comanche.]