Photography by James Lawrence
A practical and honest examination of the pros and cons of flying and owning a twin-engine Piper.
Few single-engine pilots have not looked longingly at a sexy twin from time to time. To pilots who are used to only one fan in front, the twin seems cool and exotic. As someone with thousands of hours flying a twin, I will let everyone on a little secret: They are cool!
Of course, cool does not equal practical. And while some are fortunate enough not to worry about practicalities, most people considering upgrading their ride are the practical type. I will sort through the myths, pitfalls and rationales for upgrading to a twin-engine aircraft.
These days, a pilot curious about purchasing a twin usually starts on the internet, often asking questions on one or more of the popular forums. Usually someone will chime in with the blanket statement that twins are twice or three times as expensive to operate as a single.
Someone else is bound to chime in that insurance is impossible for someone without significant twin time. Another will quote Richard Collins’ contention that twins have a fatality rate per accident that is four times greater than that of a single-engine aircraft.
Collins is correct on the statistic, but it’s misused as an anti-twin argument. Collins’ statistic appears to compare all single-engine crashes with all twin-engine crashes. This is misleading in two respects. The first is that twins have a higher stalling speed on average than twins. Thus they crash at a faster speed. A set of statistics that does not differentiate a Piper Cub from a Cessna 421 is, in my opinion, flawed.
The statistic is also flawed in that it does not account for the number of engine failures in a twin that do not result in a crash and end in a safe landing at an airport. Those incidents are not tracked and are usually not reported.
Having said that, a twin-engine aircraft is costly and might be overkill for some pilots’ needs. If one’s main use for an airplane is to look at scenery and for the odd hundred-dollar hamburger, then the cool factor is all you are really getting for your airplane-owning dollars—and you’re definitely paying extra for it.
Certain missions do argue for a twin-engine airplane, however. Pilots that make frequent flights over water or remote areas—especially at night—are probably safer in a twin if they keep their skills current. For frequent operations in low IFR conditions, twins offer redundancy and capability that most singles do not offer.
Business-related travel, or the need to get back home for business purposes, are the kinds of flights where a capable airplane is more critical. Local flying or traveling with no particular deadlines to be anywhere, such as retirees often enjoy, diminishes the need for weather capability and redundancy.
Twins can usually carry a bigger load than can the average single, unless the single is turbine-powered. But turbine singles are a whole other level of cost and complexity; beyond the scope of this discussion.
The advantages of redundancy
Much of the potential safety advantages of a twin-engine aircraft come down to redundancy of propulsion and systems. This is of benefit to anyone using an aircraft for travel when timeliness of completing a flight is important.
Electrical system – Electrical system redundancy is of greatest importance when flying in IMC conditions. This is particularly true when low IFR eliminates the option to hold a compass heading and descend through the clouds to VFR underneath.
Anyone who has shot an ILS to minimums when the nearest VMC is a couple of states away knows how desperate the situation would be without electric power for key navigation equipment. Even in decent weather at night, electrical power is more than a convenience. Many are the stories of pilots flying home with a flashlight held in their mouth.
More and more, modern high performance singles are offering backup alternators that will provide a second source of power. These backup systems vary in capability. If the alternator fails on a single, even if you have a backup alternator you will only be able to run some critical equipment. Twins have the built-in redundancy of dual alternators and can usually run most or all of the equipment on the output of just one alternator.
Engine redundancy – While modern high performance singles offer much-improved systems redundancy, albeit often at a much higher cost than an older twin, even the most tricked-out Cirrus SR22 offers no propulsion redundancy.
Most all twins will fly on one engine, giving the pilot many more options when it comes to selecting a location and manner of landing after the failure of one engine.
While an aircraft parachute such as those installed in a modern high performance single can save lives, in open water or extremely rugged terrain, the parachute mostly just alters the angle and speed of impact after losing an engine.
For pilots based on an island or who need to regularly cross large bodies of water, the second engine can literally be a lifesaver. One common example in this country are the pilots who need to cross Lake Michigan on a regular basis.
In addition, night flying over much of the United States does not offer appealing options for a dead-stick landing. Many flight instructors sardonically explain the hazards of night dead-stick landings by advising their students, in mock seriousness, that as they are gliding down in the dark that they should turn on the landing light when getting close to the ground. Then they tell the student that if they don’t like what they see, they should turn off the landing light.
Out in much of the west and most of Alaska, even daylight is not much help when it comes to trying to find a place to make a survivable crash landing. Over dark, inhospitable terrain, a second engine is a great comfort and should provide a higher level of safety.
Weather capability – Twins have traditionally been a better choice for reasonably all-weather operations. For decades, if you wanted the equipment for weather penetration, a twin was your only option. De-icing equipment was only available on twins. The same was true for weather radar.
Improvements in technology have made high-end, high performance single-engine aircraft much more weather-capable. TKS anti-icing systems, pneumatic de-icing boots, lightning detectors and the ability to obtain Nexrad have all helped improve the all-weather ability of some high performance singles—but at substantial cost, as these aircraft are usually fairly new.
Still, twins are best suited for onboard radar, also the old-fashioned pneumatic de-icing system does not rely on a limited store of fluid, which can be difficult to obtain when away from base unless one is only flying into the major reliever airports that are geared to accommodate the business flyer.
Larger loads – Horsepower is what picks up big loads. With few exceptions (and without getting into the turbine market), singles are limited to slightly over 300 hp.
Piston twins can double the horsepower which can translate into more speed, more useful load, or a combination of both. Even if you can fill the tanks on your single and punch out into weather with three passengers, your passengers are not likely to be too comfortable doing so.
A twin pilot’s responsibilities
In addition to the added financial commitment that a twin requires, obtaining the safety benefits requires a greater dedication on the part of the pilot/owner.
Training – Many singles can be flown by the proverbial seat-of-the-pants. Twins, with their higher wing loading and the ever-present possibility of being put into an asymmetrical thrust situation, must be flown by the numbers.
Twins require more thought on every flight, as the pilot has choices to make if an engine fails. For this reason, an instrument rating and regular recurrent training are nearly mandatory. This is particularly true for the novice twin driver. This is an area where insurance companies have some say.
Insurance – Contrary to some of the wisdom dispensed on the internet, the newbie twin driver can get insurance. It will come with strings attached and a hefty price tag for at least the first year. A VFR-only private pilot will have the fewest options and pay the most for insurance.
Many insurers believe that an instrument rating should be the minimum level of licensing for a new twin engine pilot/owner—and I believe that, too.
A requirement of 25 hours of dual instruction is a common requirement, which if the rating is to be gotten in the just-acquired twin, is probably a minimum anyway. After the first year, the insurance premiums will come down drastically. That high first year premium just needs to be considered as a startup cost.
Insurance companies used to give lower rates for twins as the common assumption was that twins are safer. But the reality is that they require greater proficiency and if there is a runway excursion, landing gear problem, etc., there are two engines to tear down and two props to have repaired or replaced.
Piloting differences – While everyone focuses on the engine-failure-after-takeoff scenario, it is likely that other aspects of twin engine operation cause more grief. Depending on what a new twin driver has been flying in the past, the twin may offer significantly higher approach and landing speeds.
The higher wing loading and the additional drag caused by an extra windmilling prop has caught more than one pilot unaware on landing and resulted in some shop time. Needless to say, the jump from a single-engine Comanche to a Twin Comanche is much smaller than the jump from a Cherokee 140 to an Aztec.
Costs – Corresponding to the increase in complexity that a new twin owner will experience, there is a concomitant increase in expense.
The rules of thumb spouted on the internet or around the coffeepot at the local pea patch are of less value than runway behind you or sky above you. The increase in cost going from a Cherokee 140 to an Aztec will be in whole-number multiples. The increase in cost from a Comanche 260 to a Twin Comanche is maybe a third more at most.
Real-world fuel expenses are not hard to obtain. Unplanned maintenance expenses—in other words, fixing what breaks—are much more of a guess. Annual inspection, engine reserves, a larger hangar if needed, higher insurance, additional training and recurrency costs can all be figured fairly closely.
If the additional costs and commitments are not deal-breakers, and if one’s typical mission will benefit from the redundancy and capability that twins can offer, then upgrading to a twin can be an eminently reasonable decision.
Kristin Winter has been an airport rat for almost four decades. She holds an ATP-SE/ME rating and is a CFIAIM, AGI, IGI. In addition, Winter is an A&P/IA. She has over 8,000 hours, of which about 1,000 are in the Twin Comanche and another 1,000 in the Navajo series. She owns and operates a 1969 C model Twinkie affectionately known as Maggie. She is a recognized authority on Piper Comanche aircraft. Currently she is serving as Director of Operations for a commuter airline in Southeastern Alaska. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.