Twin Commander 1000

Decades after its introduction, it remains rugged, capable…and cool.

When I was 10 my dad bought a Cessna 182. When you’re that age, any airplane is cool, but the Cessna was pretty much a Buick with wings. While I enjoyed the flights we took in it and hanging out at the airport, the aircraft picture that ended up on my bedroom wall was of an Aerostar. This futuristic-looking mid-wing piston twin oozed cool factor. It had been designed by aerospace engineering legend Ted Smith, who made a name for himself beginning in the late 1940s by creating the Commander line of high-wing twins. You can see the beginning of the Aerostar’s lines in these airplanes.

And you can do things with Commanders you wouldn’t dare try with comparable models. Legendary test pilot Bob Hoover—who, among other things, flew the chase airplane when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier—performed aerobatics in a twin Commander for decades. He did things with it the good Lord simply did not intend a business aircraft to do, demonstrating at air shows its inherent strengths as well as its aerodynamic slipperiness. He always ended his act by shutting down both engines long before landing and then taxiing precisely to show center. And the man never missed. In the 1980s, Commanders—known for their excellent short-field, rough-field, payload, and range capabilities—were the airplane of choice for Colombian cocaine smuggling cartels as well as the DEA agents chasing them down.

There are several flavors of turbine Commanders, which first came on the scene in the 1960s when Rockwell owned the company. All feature various models of the direct-drive Honeywell TPE331 engines, which deliver excellent fuel economy and have long overhaul intervals—5,400 hours on Commanders.

Approximately 700 turbo Commanders remain in service, and most of those are the 690 models, which are powered by a pair of 717 horsepower TPE331-5 engines (known for their signature high-pitched whine). However, it wasn’t until Gulfstream bought the Commander line in 1981 that the brand really hit its stride with two models—the 900 and the 1000, also known as the 690D and 695A/B—according to most of the aficionados I spoke with for this article.
About 40 of the 900s and approximately 110 of the 1000s were made. You can easily differentiate the two: the 900s have large mid-cabin picture windows, which offer great views but make for a noisy ride. The 1000s deliver 15 knots better maximum cruise speed—up to 290 knots—and have up to 500 pounds, more takeoff weight than the 900s.

You can configure the big Commanders to carry as many as 10 passengers but most are outfitted for five (plus the two pilot positions). All Commanders can be flown single pilot. The aft cabin can be fitted with a belted electric flushing lavatory (making it a legal passenger seat) and a semi-rigid privacy door. The “squared oval” cabin provides generous shoulder and headroom for an airplane in this class. The baggage section can hold 600 pounds. With pilot, three passengers, full bags, and full fuel, Commander 1000s can fly 2,000 nautical miles—that’s eight hours of cruising.

Gulfstream’s Commander stewardship lasted only from 1981 to 1985, but Commanders produced during this period are highly valued. Today, Twin Commander Aircraft of Creedmoor, North Carolina, holds the type certificate and supports the airplane with spare parts it makes from more than 58,000 pieces of original production tooling.

Matt Isley, the company’s president, notes that “95 percent of our parts requests are out the door the same day. We stock a lot of inventory. When you compare the support we provide with the support of an in-production aircraft, we’re on par with some of the best OEMs to make sure our owners have mission-capable aircraft. Guys are comfortable flying this airplane in revenue-producing roles because the product support is there.”    

Twin Commander keeps the parts flow active with its Grand Renaissance program, a virtual rebuild of the aircraft structure that effectively zero-times the airframe. But even without such investment, Commanders tend to be robust. Still, “when you’re dealing with an aircraft that has been flying for 30-plus years, you’re going to have some corrosion things and structural issues,” Isley notes.

“When a new airplane rolls out of the factory today, they start working on a service-life extension program,” he adds. “We are very proactive through our 17 service centers that report back to us any difficulties they see, and we address those with service letters and bulletins.
“Gulfstream really learned from the earlier models and eliminated a lot of problems with the changes they made on the 900 and 1000,” Isley continues. “There have been two large service bulletins on the [Commander] line in the last six years, but those have not applied to the 900 and 1000 models, so they are fairly clean from an SB [service bulletin] or AD [airworthiness directive] standpoint.”

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Ted Smith’s aerodynamic genius is written all over this airplane. You won’t see little aerodynamic “cheats” or afterthoughts on it like vortex generators, those little things on the wings that resemble razor blades and that are put there after the fact to induce more lift. About the only real performance option available for this airplane is installation of Hartzell Q-tip three-blade propellers. They reduce noise a bit and add maybe five knots to cruising speed at a price of about $80,000 for the pair.

That’s not to say that you can’t spend serious money modernizing your Commander. A good paint job and interior rerag can together cost up to $150,000, and then there is the not-so-small ­matter of avionics. For the princely sum of $450,000 to $550,000, you can give your Commander glass-screen-jet capabilities with the Garmin G950, which is comparable to a Garmin G1000 system on a factory-fresh aircraft. The installation takes 10 to 12 weeks but at the end of the process you get a fully integrated flight deck with all the latest safety features. That can make this turboprop worth more than a light jet on the resale market, according to Twin Commander broker Bruce Byerly.

There are a few other trinkets to consider: a new environmental-control system to replace the anemic factory model; acoustic-sound-damping blankets to quiet the cabin; and LED lighting, both inside and out.

By the time your refurb ride is over, the damages could easily approach $700,000, with your total investment nearing $2 million. That’s a lot to put into a 30-year-old airplane but, then, few models do what a Commander can do. As Byerly notes, “a no-compromise airplane is rare.” This is one of them. 

Understanding the Commander Lexicon
It pays to work with a broker who knows the ins and outs of the type because Commander 1000s were not all created equal. Within the breed, you’ll find the models 695A and 695B, certified for maximum takeoff weights of 11,250 and 11,750 pounds, respectively. Commander 1000s have Dash 10 engines, but some Commander 900s, known as model 690Ds, have had their less-powerful Dash 5s replaced with Dash 10s, rendering their performance virtually identical to that of Commander 1000s. Further muddying the waters, some 900s have been converted to 1000s, some 695A 1000s have been converted to high-gross 695B 1000s, and some 840s have been converted to 980s, so production and database numbers vary.

Also note the following: under Gulfstream the Commander 840 and 980 “picture window” airplanes have the same 52-foot wing as the 900/1000, but have 10,375 pounds ramp weight and optional 474 gallons of useable fuel; 121 of the 690C Model 840s were produced with Dash 5 engines, but most were converted to Dash 10, making them effectively identical to the 980s; and 85 of the 695 Model 980s were built with Dash 10 power. The remainder of 1973–1979 production are 690/690A/690B variants which have the picture window and cabin configuration of the 840/980 models, but accommodate 384 gallons of useable fuel. —M.H.

Industry veteran Mark Huber has reviewed aircraft for BJT since 2005.