“Wow!” That’s what I said after just over an hour in the left seat of N290ND, a 1998 PA-44-180 Seminole. While I already had 10 hours of multi-engine dual (mainly from the right seat) in several PA-34 Senecas a few years earlier, this was my first opportunity to practice flying a twin on one prop.
What I learned is that the Seminole is a great teacher—as Piper’s designers intended it to be.
I was a little nervous when I got to the airport, but any butterflies in my stomach wore off quickly when I got in the airplane and started the preflight inspection. The walkaround isn’t much different than it is for an Arrow (in which I have a couple hundred hours), other than checking oil levels twice. However, starting up a Seminole is very different.
An Arrow It Ain’t
The cabin doors of twins are locked because no key is required to start the engines. Turn on the “battery” side of the master switch, prime either engine, and press the “Left” or “Right” side of the starter switch (as appropriate). When the first engine is running, exactly the same steps will start the other one.
By this point, the additional complexity of the Seminole is pretty apparent. There are six levers on the quadrant: two each for throttle, prop and mixture control. There are four magneto switches, and between the seats is a fuel panel with separate on, off, and crossfeed controls for each engine. As a student you should keep an eye out for an instructor reaching down for those, I discovered.
In general, I found the Seminole handles like a heavier and considerably more complicated Arrow IV, but with both engines running it offers really impressive performance. (Single-engine ops are a completely different story. Read on for details).
Just like a T-tail Arrow, you have to explicitly pull the nose off at rotation speed; it doesn’t just fly itself off like a conventional-tail airplane. But once it breaks ground, it climbs like the proverbial homesick angel and accelerates to blue line very quickly.
No flaps are needed for either a normal or a short-field takeoff: the only step required to clean up the airplane is to raise the landing gear when you run out of runway. Cowl flaps are closed a bit later, and even with power reduced to 75 percent for cruise climb at 105 knots, I easily got a 1,000 fpm rate of climb (on a cool day at about 1,000 MSL). It all happens so fast that you’re apt to overshoot pattern altitude when doing touch-and-goes.
My instructor Larry and I turned west into our usual practice area, and we got there noticeably faster than in the single-engine Cherokees and Arrow I’ve owned and flown over the past dozen years. I did a few gentle turns, and found the Seminole to be a nicely harmonized airplane. Some of the view out and down is blocked by the engine nacelles, though.
In the practice area I did steep turns—absolutely no problem at normal cruise power settings—then a power-off stall. There’s a distinct buffet, and a definite break. Recovery is no problem: just push the throttles in and raise the landing gear (we lowered it because of the obnoxious warning horn that cuts in at low Manifold Absolute Pressure (MAP) with the gear up).
By this time we’d climbed to 4,500 MSL and turned back to orbit over Modesto Airport (KMOD) for a little single-engine work—and that’s when all similarity to my old Arrow, or any other single-engine airplane I’ve flown, ended.
Larry used the fuel switch to shut down the left engine, and I found myself with the right rudder pedal stomped almost to the floor to keep us from turning. Since “a dead foot equals a dead engine,” I knew which one was out, and confirmed that by pulling the left throttle back.
We talked through the steps to check while holding altitude with the right engine firewalled. Then I pulled the left prop control all the way back to feather the left prop. It takes a few seconds (partly because 0ND has an unfeathering accumulator installed, which stores hydraulic pressure as the prop spins down and makes restarts easier) and as the blades straightened out parallel to the engine, I found much less rudder was required.
At full power we had about 150 fpm rate of climb at 88 knots, and I was able to reduce power to about 75 percent and hold altitude just above blue line.
The whole setup at that point feels weird for a single-engine pilot: you wind up flying in a sort of forward slip with about half a ball showing on the turn coordinator and couple degrees’ bank to compensate for all the power coming on one side, but it works.
I did a few standard rate turns in that configuration and the aircraft was completely controllable. I have no doubt I’d be able to land like that, but I wouldn’t want to think about a go-around with such a poor rate of climb.
Engine Techniques and Synchronization
To turn the airplane back into a twin, Larry had me turn the fuel back on to the left engine, engage the fuel pump, run the mixture full rich, advance throttle about 1/4 inch and then push the prop control all the way up.
The prop blades slowly moved from feather to a slight angle, flipped over a couple of times and the engine started. We let it run at a low power setting for a few minutes to warm up, and then it was back to full twin operation.
I forgot to mention engine synchronization: when we leveled out in cruise and got things set at 75 percent power, there was a distinct thrum-thrum-thrum sound. That’s a result of the two engines being just a bit out of sync: if the left engine is operating at 2,400 RPM and the right at 2,410 RPM, then the engines will be exactly in sync 10 times per minute (or every six seconds).
To fix this, you pick one engine as “master” and leave it alone, then adjust the prop control on the other engine until the RPMs match, at which point the thrumming stops.
I had exactly the same experience flying Seneca Vs in Texas a few years ago. Like most bigger twins, they had an automatic sync control that was supposed to do that for you, but it didn’t work very well (if at all). I found it pretty easy to sync the engines manually in N290ND, though it results in the two prop controls not quite lined up.
Which brings me to another point that makes flying a twin different from a single: the throttles never wind up in exactly the same place. On takeoff in the Seminole you shove all six levers full forward, and in N290ND that gives you full power, but when you pull the throttles back for 75 percent power in cruise-climb, one of the levers winds up being ahead of the other.
Descent and Landing
After less than an hour, it was time to come home. We called the tower to report ourselves about 10 miles east of the airport, and were told to make a right base. Descent is just like any other normally-aspirated airplane: pull the throttles back (fiddling to keep the MAPs equal) and you start coming down.
Since we were up at 4,500 feet for the single-engine work and only 10 miles from a sea-level airport, it took some effort to get down. I wound up doing a 360 before base entry. Approach speed is about 90 knots with the gear down at 13-15 inches MAP and 2,400 RPM. That set us up a bit high, so Larry had me reduce power and add flaps.
We made a pretty good touchdown (neither a greaser nor a bone-jarring arrival), then pushed in the throttles and pulled off flaps in stages for a touch-and-go. Gear up when no useful runway was left, and I made a left crosswind to enter left traffic for 28L.
At this point, I have to admit I got a little behind the airplane—it flies so fast and covers so much ground that I rolled out abeam the approach end at 1,500 feet (accidentally perfect), then gibbered into the microphone. Larry reminded me to shut up and fly the airplane, and I managed to get the gear down, approach power set and turned base before flying into the next county.
A little power kept us over the trees and we made another decent, if not perfect, landing—a little fast and a bit past the numbers. Pulling throttles to idle and letting it roll with minimal braking took us to the end of the runway. I added a little power to the right engine to help swing us off at the end.
We stopped just past the stop line for the after-landing check, then taxied to a tiedown and shut down after one of the most exciting hours I’ve spent in an airplane. It no longer belongs to the University of North Dakota, but N290ND is still a great teacher, and I was damned impressed by my first lesson!
John D. Ruley is an instrument-rated pilot and freelance writer. He holds a master’s degree from the University of North Dakota Space Studies program (space.edu). Until recently he was a volunteer pilot with ligainternational.org and angelflight.org, two charities which operate medical missions in northwest Mexico and provide medical patient transport, respectively. He hopes to fly with both organizations later this year. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.