“They have to make their own decisions, but I just hope I compete with them. I get to work while they get to stand in line at the airport. ”
Piper Cheyenne III & IIIA
Piper Aircraft designed the twin turboprop PA-42 Cheyenne III to go head-to-head with Beechcraft's ubiquitous King Air. And on paper, it looked like a winner: cheaper and faster than the Beechcraft, the Cheyenne was also easier to maintain.
Compared with the now 40-year-old King Air, though, the Cheyenne was short-lived. Frequent ownership changes and bankruptcy at Piper led to erratic production, marketing and product support and the model never gained real traction. By the time Piper was back on track, the bottom had fallen out of the new twin turboprop market. The company delivered only 149 of the IIIs and IIIAs, the higher-altitude and slightly faster variant, and only from 1980 to 1993. The most popular King Air model, the B200, is still going strong, with more than 2,100 delivered to date.
The Cheyenne's relative lack of popularity means it can be had at bargain prices: from under $1 million to $1.2 to $1.5 million for airplanes with updated instrument panels, fresh paint and interiors and the most popular modifications. And even though Cheyennes are getting a little long in the tooth, most airframes out there are relatively low-time, according to Craig Stephan, who has worked on the aircraft for 30 years and is vice president of the Cheyenne Air Center in Washington, Pa., the largest Cheyenne repair and modification center on the East Coast.
Stephan said the highest time Cheyenne III he knows of has 8,100 hours on it but that most have 3,600 to 6,000 hours and are typically flown only 200 to 300 hours per year, if that.
With a single pilot and four passengers, the aircraft has a range of 1,300 nautical miles (with 230-mile reserve). With seats full and 300 pounds of baggage, the airplane can still take on almost 300 gallons of fuel, giving it a range of 600 to 700 nautical miles with reserves. It is certified for single-pilot operation and almost all owners fly it this way. FlightSafety International offers simulator training at its Lakeland, Fla. campus.
The Cheyenne's twin Pratt & Whitney PT-6A engines generate 720 shaft horsepower per side. At 29,000 feet, that translates into a miserly 77 gallons per hour and 270 knots. Down at 22,000 feet, speed can increase to 290 knots but hourly fuel burn jumps to 109 gallons. (Total usable fuel capacity is 578 gallons.) The Cheyenne IIIA, with its slightly modified Dash 61 engines, can cruise up to 35,840 feet and achieve slightly higher cruise speeds (see chart on next page). But any increase in efficiency is negated by the IIIA's higher maintenance costs-up to $200 an hour more than you'd pay with the Dash 41s on a straight Cheyenne III.
The engines are derated from 850 horsepower per side and that means there is lots of reserve power. The Cheyenne III is certified to a maximum takeoff weight of 11,200 pounds, but that number represents a reduction from the originally designed 13,500 pounds. As a result, the airplane is lighter and faster than its designers envisioned. "It flies like a hotrod," said one Florida-based pilot. "We never take off with full power."
From the tip tanks, elongated nose and monstrous tail, there are hints that the Cheyenne III is an evolutionary aircraft, but it is also one that flies surprisingly well. "It is easy to fly," said one Cheyenne III pilot with hundreds of hours in the airplane. He regularly makes the run from Palm Beach to Cape Cod in four hours. Unlike its shorter, older siblings, the Cheyenne I, II and IIXL, the III-which is five feet longer than the II-is light on the controls and has a better-balanced feel. But that long, narrow fuselage makes balanced loading critical. Fortunately, baggage weight can easily be distributed. That big nose can swallow up to 300 pounds and so can the aft baggage hold. The wing lockers behind the engines can take an additonal 100 pounds each.
The genius of the Cheyenne was also its downfall, at least aesthetically and perhaps ergonomically. It uses the same basic fuselage cross section, albeit at different lengths, that Piper has employed on all its cabin-class twins and pressurized singles, pistons and turbines, since the mid-1960s: Navajos, Chieftains, Malibus and Mirages. It is the same cross section that Piper intends to use on the single-engine PiperJet it announced last year. Perhaps only Boeing has gotten more mileage out of a single fuselage, when the 707 airliner begot the 727 trijet and later the 737 twinjet.
The Piper fuselage is narrower than the King Air's. Getting into a Cheyenne isn't quite like doing a limbo dance, but with a full load the quarters can get a little tight. Of course, most operators don't fly the airplane anywhere near full seats on a regular basis. And the passenger seats track laterally into the aisle, yielding more shoulder room. But this is not the ride of choice for a claustrophobe. There is seating for seven passengers (if you count the belted potty) and two pilots.
The Cheyenne relies on engine bleed air for cabin heating and cooling. That means at least one engine must be turning for a while before the HVAC kicks in. (By contrast, the King Air has Freon air conditioning.) Depending on where you are, a Cheyenne cabin can be either too hot or too cold until aircraft taxi is well under way. One plus: the props are hung so far forward that the cabin escapes a lot of the "prop beat" noise typically associated with a turboprop.
Cheyennes are relatively safe. Over the last five years, they have had a lower overall accident rate than either of two competitive turboprops-the Cessna Conquests or the King Air 90s-according to the aviation accident reporting firm of Robert E. Breiling & Associates.
The aircraft's chief weakness seems to be product support, according to operators interviewed for this article. Typical comments: "the average maintenance shop will have problems getting parts," "sometimes it takes days to have calls returned [from Piper]" and "we've waited four to five weeks for parts."
One reason for these problems may be that a pair of hurricanes smacked Piper's Vero Beach, Fla. plant in 2004 and destroyed or severely damaged 300,000 square feet of it. Some of the original Cheyenne tooling was lost and this limits Piper's ability to fabricate replacement parts. But Piper's product support is getting better. Between 2005 and 2006, it improved 25 percent, according to surveys in our sister publication, Aviation International News. That said, it still ranks dead last in the older-turboprops category.
While the average maintenance shop may have problems getting parts, several well-known Cheyenne maintenance centers-including the aforementioned Cheyenne Air Center; the Des Moines Flying Service; Columbia Air Service in Groton, Conn.; and Air Alpha in Denmark-do stock a large assortment. They also can arrange for the manufacture of certain parts, such as sheet-metal surfaces.
As always, the key to avoiding problems is a thorough pre-buy inspection. The Cheyenne Air Center will do one for $5,400 and that includes a flight test. Typical older aircraft "gotchas" on the pre-buy, according to Cheyenne Air Center's Stephan, include pressurization leaks, leaky fuel tanks and cracked, delaminated or leaking windshields and side windows.
Popular upgrades and modifications for the aircraft include flight instruments and radios ($110,000 to $200,000); engine exhaust stacks ($10,000); upgraded wheels and brakes ($6,200); exterior paint ($20,000); and interior refurbishment ($30,000 to $60,000). Owners can also install four-bladed propellers ($55,000 to $60,000), which result in better climb and takeoff performance and increased ground clearance but no increase in speed.
Stephan said a Cheyenne III will cost $50 to $100 less per hour to maintain than a King Air and that is the real key to its value. "It is a lot of bang for the buck when you consider the operating maintenance," he added.