310 Pilot: Modern-Day “Sky King”

310 Pilot: Modern-Day “Sky King”

310 Pilot: Modern-Day “Sky King”

Not since the legendary Sky King’s Songbird II brought the grace and beauty of Cessna’s 310 onto TV sets across the county has the venerable twin enjoyed such a steadfast following as the fans of Kevin and Jaime Thornton’s YouTube adventures in 771BC. 

Kevin Thornton and his wife, Jaime.

If you’re like a lot of us Baby Boomers, you couldn’t wait to park yourself in front of the old RCA on Saturday morning and hear the announcer say, “From out of the clear blue of the western sky comes Sky King…”

Yep, the Sky King TV series is one of the big reasons I got into flying. Every week, Sky, Penny, Clipper – I bet you forgot Clipper – and the Songbird came “out of the clear blue western sky” to take us on all kinds of thrilling adventures. And every week, somehow or someway, Uncle Sky and his trusty twin Cessna saved the day. Who wouldn’t grow up wanting to be a pilot?

Having about 200 hours in 310s, I was thrilled when I came across Kevin and Jaime Thornton’s YouTube channel, 310 Pilot. Pretty much every Friday afternoon, they take me, and over 125,000 other subscribers, along on some of their family adventures. 

310 Pilot: Episode One

It’s easy to see where Thornton’s love of aviation comes from. His grandfather was a pilot, his father flew helicopters in the Army, one uncle flew F-15’s in the Air Force, and another was the Chief Pilot for the Coca Cola Company. Not a bad lineage. 

“Back then my dad owned a 172 based at Falcon Field (FFC) just outside of Atlanta,” he said. “After my first lesson I was hooked. I transferred schools from the University of Georgia to West Georgia so I could fly the Skyhawk as often as my savings allowed.”

“By the time I turned 19, I was a CFI/MEI,” Thornton said. “I instructed for a short time, then got hired on as an aerial mapping pilot flying a Turbo Lance and a Cessna 401. That’s where I fell in love with the twin Cessnas.”

Like so many of his generation, Thornton had his career sights set in the left seat of a major carrier. Unfortunately, 9/11 put a stop to that. Plan B was to join the Air Force and become an air traffic controller.

“After my tour of duty, I worked for a short time at a contract control tower at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, but was quickly hired by the FAA as a tower controller at O’Hare International,” he said.

Thornton explained that one of the highlights of his time at O’Hare was the opportunity to spend three summers working as a controller during EAA’s Oshkosh AirVenture. After several years at ORD, he decided to switch things up and transferred to the Chicago TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) where he and his wife Jaime are
both controllers.

Four Kids and a Twin

“Early on we would rent a nice Turbo Saratoga. It had enough seats, but when we actually filled them we weren’t able to put enough fuel in the tanks to go anywhere,” he said. “Plus, we wanted to take longer flights at night, in IMC, and over water. And we really wanted the redundancy and speed of a twin.”

While he had considered both a Baron and 310, the Cessna had a lot in its favor. Thornton already had about 500 hours in twin Cessnas and he really loved the sleek twin’s looks. 

“The 310 would be the first airplane I ever owned – go big or go home, right? I knew I wanted a Q model because it had the larger cabin, but shorter nose so it would fit into our hangar,” he said. “I also wanted the Continental IO-470 engines. I had learned that they typically have longer/healthier lives than the -520’s and would be a bonus to our budget.”

“The only downside was the owner hadn’t flown much,” he added. “Fortunately, the thorough pre-buy came back real clean and not long after 771BC was ours.”

The 310’s “hangar queen” status meant there was a list of items that needed attention in short order. Among them were overhauling both propellers, rebuilding two of the three landing gear struts, rebuilding two of the four engine exhaust stacks, doing 500-hour overhauls of two of the four magnetos, overhauling a fuel divider (spider) and replacing an alternator.

A thorough researcher, Thornton made accommodations for these projects and their costs in his final offer, so it wasn’t as financially “painful” as you might think. Light twins require you to stay well ahead of their needs, even when they’re in the maintenance shop. With that said, the work is never really done.

A Top-Shelf Panel Upgrade

“Right after acquiring her, I decided to take advantage of the new digital PFDs on the market to increase safety and redundancy. While large glass displays would be nice, I didn’t like any of the options that were available then,” Thornton explained. “So, I started with a pair of Garmin G5 displays.”

A recent upgrade to Avidyne displays.

Next, came the replacement of the legacy Cessna 400 autopilot. Thornton researched every available option and decided on the new-generation Genesys Aerosystems S-TEC 3100. 

“In my opinion, with features like altitude pre-select, envelop protection, GPS steering, auto-trim, and straight-and-level recovery, the 3100 digital autopilot is of the best upgrades an owner can make for flying single-pilot, instrument conditions,” he explained. “I’ve flown a lot with it and I still can’t stop smiling every time I use the 3100. Jaime calls it my happy face.”

Most recently, the Thornton’s upgraded their 20-year old Garmin 530w/430 GPS navigators with an all-Avidyne stack. Starting at the top, 771BC’s full Avidyne upgrade includes an AMX240 audio panel, IFD550 and IFD540 touchscreen FMS/GPS navigators, FlightMax EX500 MFD, APX322 ADS-B Out remote transponder, and the SkyTrax 605A ADS-B capable Active Traffic Advisory System. They also added an Insight Digital Engine Monitor and integrated the 310’s active weather radar with the Avidyne displays. 

All Dressed Up

“When we bought it, 771BC had a nice ‘100-foot paint job.’ It was a cheap spray over, and since it wasn’t stripped down properly, it was flaking off at a pretty rapid rate,” he said. “So, it really needed to be done right.”

After doing a lot of research and getting the opinions of other twin Cessna owners, the Thornton’s contracted Hawk Aircraft Services in Zephyrhills, Florida.

After stripping it to bare metal, the airframe was inspected and some minor airframe work was repaired as necessary. At the same time, the flight controls were removed and rebalanced. When it was all done, pretty much everything was brought up to better-than-factory condition by Hawk Aircraft’s craftsmen.

“The entire airframe was fully alodined to prevent corrosion,” Thornton added. “Jaime and I had sketched out the Georgia Bulldog (Go Dawgs!) inspired red, black and silver color scheme. Hawk really knocked it out of the park. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Along with the new paint job, Thornton also took advantage of the downtime to have Hawk’s technicians install BLR Vortex Generators.

“They lower the stalling speed and VMC and will be a huge improvement in the airplane’s safety and handling,” he said. “Plus, the VGs add another 75 pounds to the max gross weight, which is great when you have a growing family.”

With regard to fuel burn, Thornton said with all his experience in twin Cessnas, he’s not a fan of the speed loss running LOP with the normally aspirated engines, so he stays on the rich side. 

“I generally plan for 12.5 gallons-per-hour at around 60-percent power. That gives me between 175 and 182 knots true airspeed. With 163 gallons usable, she will stay in the air a lot longer than we prefer,” he said. “On long trips we typically stop at 1,000 miles or five and a half hours, whichever comes first.”

Flying with 125,000 Friends

As for starting and maintaining his popular YouTube channel 310 Pilot, Thornton explained that it all began as nothing more than the desire to share their family’s love of general aviation. 

“It started when Jaime gave me a gift card for Rosen Sun Visors. But, at the time, I didn’t see the STC for our airplane, so I bought a GoPro camera instead and started filming our flights. Since then, we’ve added more cameras to give viewers added views,” he said. “The flight planning and flying parts are easy, but the editing has been a constant work in progress.”

While Jaime is not a licensed pilot, as an experienced controller, she’s the ideal radio-handling right seater, making her voice and 771 Bravo Charlie instantly recognizable. 

“Jaime and I are still getting used to being recognized by controllers and other pilots,” Thornton said. “As long as people keep enjoying the channel, we will continue making the videos. The close-knit general aviation community is an amazing group of people and we are very happy to be able to share our part of it.” 

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