Twin Comanche Best of Class Flagship Award
by Robert Thomason
My PA39, N701BT won the Best of Class award at the Annual Convention in Orlando in September. I thought I would share with our membership a little more about my airplane.
First, let me tell why I own a Twin Comanche. My previous airplane was a Mooney 201. This was one fine machine. Since most of my flying is by myself on business, I really appreciated its efficiency. Roy Lopresti had made the already fast airplane even faster with his ingenious aerodynamic improvements. I also owned part interest in a Bellanca Decathalon in which I flew aerobatics for fun. Then my first child was born. I decided it was time to stop flying upside down and take the two airplane engines I owned and put them on one airframe. I now had twin fever.
If Mooney made a twin, I would have bought one. Then it dawned on me---the Twin Comanche is what a Mooney twin would look like if there were one. Sleek and efficient. In fact, the Twin Comanche was one of my dream aiplanes as a child in the 1960's. But they had been out of production since 1972. Would it be possible to get one and put it in almost new condition---a 1992 Twin Comanche? To find out, I joined the ICS and attended the Annual Convention in San Antonio. I looked at the airplanes and talked to the owners extensively. I concluded that, yes a Twin Comanche could be made "new" at a reasonable price. I began my search for the right airplane.
Finding the One
From past airplane experience, I have learned that it is best to buy an airplane as close to the condition you want it in terms of engine condition and avionics. Cosmetics (paint and interior) are the cheapest items and the ones that are most individualized anyway. So I began a search for a PA39 or C model, with less than 2500TT and low to mid time engines. I did not want Turbos. To me the advantages don't outway the reduced engine life and increased maintenance costs.
Another lesson I've learned in buying airplanes is that patience pays off. My search took over a year. I sent out letters to every registered C model and 39 owner in the coutry. What I was looking for was somebody's 'pet' airplane. The kind you see in the Flagship competition. As I talked to some of the owners of these airplanes, I realized that people rarely part with them. However many of them were owned by people in their 60's and 70's and they would have to quit flying sometime so I was prepared to wait. I looked at a lot of airplanes in the interim but none measured up.
Then I got a phone call from a gentleman in Michigan. He had gotten my letter earlier in the year. He thought he might be losing his medical soon and he might be willing to sell his airplane. He described it to me and I knew it was the one I wanted. A 1970 PA39 with 2200TT and 500 hrs. on the engines since major by Firewall Forward. The panel had been updated with King Silver Crown, NorthStar Loran and Argus Moving Map. Complete logs and no damage history. Yup, this was the one.
I flew to Chicago and took the train to Jackson, MI. When I arrived at 11PM, Bill Maher met me. He was wearing his World War II leather flying jacket. We went to his favorite local hangout and had a beer and hotdog. He proceeded to tell me his fascinating background. He flew the hump during the war for China National Airways, I believe it was. When he returned he became a corporate pilot for an oil drilling equipment supply firm. When the company went bankrupt, he offered to buy it from the bank. He said, "You should have seen their faces when the company pilot offered to buy the company." So he bought it and had been in the business ever since, becoming quite successful.
We went to see the airplane the next day at the Jackson airport. He had a huge hanger with all his toys in it----the Twin Comanche and numerous old cars. I proceeded with all the due diligence: inspection, Log Book review, test flight but I knew before I had even seen it that it was the airplane I had been looking for. Bill knew it too, and I wound up paying him his asking price, which was still a bargain in my eyes. I had the money wired to his account and was on my way home with my new Twin Comanche.
The first task was to learn to fly it. I had recently recieved my Multi rating but the insurance company required 10 hours of dual before I could solo. My plan was to get the 10 hours with an instructor friend who flies for Northwest Airlines and then fly out to Arkansas to take Larry Larkin's course. My instructor friend and I quickly learned that the Twin Comanche's reputation as difficult to land is well deserved. The scene was almost comical as we banged it in time after time. My friend tried every trick he knew without success. When I tooked Larry's course I learned the airplane is nose heavy and that 100 lbs. of ballast in the baggage compartment does wonders for landing characteristics.
Needless to say, Larry's course was superb and I continue to fly with him once a year. The initial course was like getting a type rating in a Twin Comanche. I gained temendous confidence because of his class. Every ICS member should fly with Larry before he retires.
Upgrading the TwinCo
Having learned how to fly it, now it was time to upgrade it to 1992 condition. Fortunately it already had a long list of upgrades including new 1/4" tinted glass all around, Miller heavy duty brakes, polished aluminum props and spinners, new avionics including the Argus 5000 moving map. It needed new paint (although having been hangered the original was in excellent condition), new interior, and a new Stormscope (a requirement of mine). But the very first thing I did was install shoulder harnesses. They are the most important safety device in any airplane and in my opinion every airplane should have them.
In keeping with this safety first theme, the next item I added was a WX1000+ Stormscope. I do a lot of IFR flying. Some sort of weather avoidance equipment was critical. The only speed mod I added was the Johnson High Performance wing tips and I did this primarily for cosmetic reasons. They looked like the Mooney wingtips that Lopresti designed---they had to be good. The only performance change I noted from these was improved roll control during landing flare. I have avoided any other speed mods. I have talked to people who have installed them and very few unequivocally state that they improved their speed. That's just not good enough for me besides the airplane is fast enough as is.
Next, I added the Gulf Coast exhaust extensions to protect my underwing from further exhaust heat damage. They work like a charm. Finally it was time for the paint and interior.
The first task was selecting a paint scheme. In my search for a Twin Comanche, I had collected over a hundred pictures of different paint schemes. I am not artistic at all so designing a new scheme was not an option. The design I finally decided on was a combination of the better designs I had seen. I have always wanted a blue and white aiplane, so those were the colors.
After shopping all the regional paint and interior shops, I chose Mena Aircraft Interiors and Goodner Brothers Painting both in Mena, AR. They had good reputations, reasonable prices and promised minimal down time--about 3 weeks. They also had an avioncs shop who could install the wingtip strobes and intercom I wanted.
I can't say enough about Mena Aircraft Interiors. Their customer service was superb. Pam, the office manager, went out of her way on numerous occasions to make sure my needs were met. Most importantly, whenever there was a question, she called me. She drove me over an hour to the Ft. Smith airport to catch a flight home and later to pick me up upon my return. She was great. The quality of workmanship on the interior was very good. They were able to replace the headrests by building up the seat backs 3 inches. Since I wanted a 'new' airplane, I had them replace many interior parts and refinish the existing ones to look new. Soundproofing was installed. The plastic molding was repaired. Obviously I can give a high recommendation to this shop. If you're in the market, give them a call at 800-354-7717. The bill for my interior was $5,056. A basic interior would cost less.
With a paint shop, I believe you get what you pay for. Goodner Brothers was in the upper middle part of the range, and that's the quality paint job I got. Very good, but not perfect. My only real complaint was that they painted the landing gear after I asked them not to. Dupont JetGlo was used and its held up quite well. I can recommend this shop as well, just be specific about what you want and followup while its being painted. Goodner's number is 501-394-4709. Cost for the paint job was $5,250. I had an extra color and a custom paint scheme so this is higher than their standard price.
When I picked the airplane up, I knew I finally had the airplane I wanted and had dreamed about for years. It's been a joy to fly and really draws a crowd on the ramp.
Thank you ICS for honoring me with the Best of Class award in Orlando.
-by Robert Thomason