by Jeffrey Brausch, Owner-Pilot
In June 1999, I purchased a 1981 Piper Cheyenne IIXL (N200XL) with freshly overhauled engines, new paint and interior, no damage history and 3,610 hours total time. Not having any turbine experience, my previous aircraft was a Piper Malibu, I headed off to SIMCOM for initial training and simulator work while my Cheyenne went in for a major avionics upgrade. The aging King Gold Crown units were removed and replaced with the latest avionics, including a two-tube EFIS system, dual Garmin 430s, an MFD, Stormscope, Skywatch, upgraded radar, enhanced ground proximity, backup power supplies and more. With N200XL now ready to go, I finished my in-flight training, the insurance company said “good to go,” and I began my 21-year and 3,000-plus hour, single-pilot relationship with N200XL.
Load – Range – Comfort
I came to fully appreciate the aircraft’s capabilities and nuances as the range of flights expanded from domestic destinations generally under 800 miles to more ambitious trips to Northern Canada and the Arctic Circle, Greenland, Iceland, Central America and the Caribbean.
Cheyenne IIXL aircraft are known for their load-carrying ability. The basic empty weight of N200XL when purchased was 5,850 lbs, which provided a useful load of 3,690 lbs at the maximum ramp weight of 9,540 lbs. With full fuel of 2,506 lbs, the payload available for people and baggage was 1,184 lbs. Assuming six 170-pound adults on board and full fuel, 164 lbs remain available for baggage. The forward baggage compartment holds 300 lbs and the rear 200 lbs. Using Piper’s weight and balance visual plotter typically shows a center of gravity near the middle of the envelope. The average number of passengers in my history of flights is not five but two or three. Using my real-world scenario, I can always fill the tanks without having to leave baggage behind and still be well under the maximum takeoff weight of 9,474 lbs.
The Cheyenne IIXL is not your aircraft if you regularly require nonstop flights of 1,000 nm or more. Yes, I have flown trips of 1,100 miles at FL270 with 35-knot tailwinds, good weather at the destination, and landed with over an hour of reserve fuel. But that isn’t my usual flight profile. In fact, it’s a rarity. On the other hand, I can always count on completing 800 nm flights with 35-knot or less headwinds and good destination weather. When the destination forecast is for poor weather, and there is a reasonable likelihood of going to an alternate, the conservative flight planning range is often reduced to about 600 nm.
Comfort, of course, is highly subjective, but based on many passengers comments and my time in N200XL, this is one comfortable ride. A spacious, quiet, vibration-free interior, with ample headroom, exceptionally large windows, well-designed seats, and a roomy, well-organized flight deck all contribute to a pleasurable experience. The aircraft’s air cycle environmental system is an improvement over earlier Cheyenne I and II models. Even on the ground with engines at idle power, the cabin is cool in hot weather and warm in cold. With a 5.5 pressurization differential, the cabin altitude is 3,800 feet and 8,000 feet at FL180 and FL250, respectively. A high wing loading of 41 lbs/sq. ft. smooths the ride in turbulence.
Power & Performance
The Cheyenne IIXL aircraft is powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT6A-135 750 shaft horsepower engines flat rated at 620 horsepower with a TBO of 3,600 hours. Power management is definitely old school in that the pilot is responsible for managing the start, operation and shutdown of the engines – there are no modern “push-to-start,” “set-to-detent,” or “exceedance avoidance” automation systems in this genre of turboprops.
During takeoff, I set torque at 1,600 lbs and watch it increase toward the 1,714-pound limit as airspeed builds and drives ram air into the engine intakes. The takeoff, climb, and cruise performance of the Cheyenne IIXL is very respectable with a power loading of 7.6 lbs/shp. At MTOW, the takeoff roll and distance to clear a 50-foot obstacle are 2,100 feet and 3,100 feet, respectively – assuming sea level, no wind and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The multi-engine climb rate is 1,700 fpm. In the event of a failed engine, the climb rate is 460 fpm (640 fpm at midweight). Of course, at lighter weights, all of the performance figures improve significantly. I prefer a minimum runway length of 4,000 feet but 3,500 works fine, although obviously with less safety margins.
I typically operate N200XL between cruising altitudes of FL180 and FL250 as that seems to be the sweet spot. Using FL200, true airspeed averages 264 KTS at maximum cruise power, maximum weight, and ISA+10°C. Hourly fuel consumption is 544 pph (81 gallons). Reduce the power to maximum range and the numbers are 200 KTS and 356 pph (53 gallons). At midweight, I often see 270 KTS between FL180 and FL200. The single-engine drift down altitudes at maximum and midweight are usually between 15,000 feet and 18,000 feet, respectively. Good comfort in mountainous terrain or staying above icing conditions below.
This is also a subjective area, but in my opinion, the flying qualities of the Cheyenne IIXL are truly superb. From stick and rudder hand flying to flight director commanded autopilot control, the aircraft flies beautifully. The flight controls are responsive and neither too light nor heavy for this class of aircraft. Pitch control is rock solid and without oscillation or noticeable lightening of forces anywhere within the weight and balance envelope.
With its additional two feet of length ahead of the wing spar, the Cheyenne IIXL has none of the pitch issues of the earlier, short-bodied Cheyenne models that require a stability augmentation system. Turns are easily coordinated, and steep turns are a joy. Hand flying tight patterns into uncontrolled, smaller airports (including turf and gravel surfaces) can be accomplished safely and is fun. Based in northern Ohio, N200XL has seen its share of Great Lakes icing conditions and strong winter winds. Neither of these adverse conditions has been a problem. The anti- and deicing systems are very capable and, simply put, this is a great airplane in high and gusty winds.
SOPs & Instrument Approaches
It is well recognized that risks are reduced and the safety of flight is enhanced when standard operating procedures are followed. Nowhere is this more important than during instrument approaches. I have found the following SOPs work well in the Cheyenne IIXL.
Transitioning from en route cruise to the approach environment, a power setting between 500 and 700 lbs of torque yields a descent rate between 1,000 and 1,500 fpm. This keeps the airspeed well below maximum operating speed, provides a shallow deck angle for passenger comfort, and acknowledges the possibility of turbulence below. All very comfortable.
For most instrument approaches, I’ll target 140 KTS with flaps 15 degrees a couple of miles outside the FAF. If air traffic control needs more speed, it’s easy to comply given the Cheyenne’s 15-degree maximum flap speed of 181 KTS. The gear goes down (153 KTS max) upon glideslope interception and props to 1900 rpm. At controlled fields, I’ll fly a stabilized approach at 140 KTS until going visual and then extend full flaps and slow to 105 KTS over the threshold. For shorter runways, I’ll normally fly the final approach at 130 KTS. Smooth and small power changes keep the approach stabilized and avoids induced pitch porpoising on short final.
A note of caution: With only the front seats occupied, the C.G. is near the forward limit. I think it is good practice to flare with firm elevator control rather than setting extreme aft trim. This prevents an out-of-trim condition and resulting sharp pitch up should a go-around or missed approach be required. At midweight, the landing ground roll is less than 1,200 feet with reverse thrust and heavy braking. Without reverse thrust and using only normal braking, it’s about 1,700 feet.
Maintenance & Refurbishment
Because of the complexity of turboprops and the sophistication of their structures, powerplants and systems, it makes sense to have these aircraft cared for by maintenance facilities with extensive experience and deep knowledge in specific aircraft. This is particularly true for the Cheyenne series of aircraft given their age and years out of production. They are well-engineered, capable, strong, generally free of corrosion, and have many years of useful life if cared for by maintainers familiar with this series of turboprops. One such facility, Friend AirCare (formerly Cheyenne Air Service) located on Washington County Airport, PA (KAFJ), has maintained N200XL since my purchase of the aircraft 21 years ago. Their knowledge and experience base, quality of work, schedule adherence, parts inventory, on-going support, and commitment to professionalism have been truly outstanding.
Like many other older but well-regarded twin-engine turboprops manufactured by Beech, Cessna, Piper, Aero Commander, and others, the Cheyenne IIXL can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of a new or late model turboprop, twin or single. In effect, this substantial cost savings provides a generous budget for the extensive refurbishing of a well-maintained aircraft with mid-time airframe and engines. Available STC upgrades for the Cheyenne IIXL include the latest glass panel/avionics, more efficient ram air engine cowlings, four-bladed propellers, new engine instrumentation, the latest PT6-135-A engines, LED lighting systems and more. Complete the process with super soundproofing, custom-designed new paint and interior, and you have an excellent aircraft with even better than new capabilities and safety margins. And, still, a lot of savings left over to buy Jet-A and cover other operating costs for years to come. Worth a look.
To my way of thinking, the Cheyenne IIXL is well suited as an entry-level turboprop capable of satisfying a wide range of missions. By entry-level, I mean an aircraft without undesirable characteristics that raise the risk level for a new turbine pilot. This has little to do with the usual way we measure aircraft, such as speed, range and payload – to all of which the Cheyenne IIXL measures up strongly. Simply stated, this aircraft does not have any bad habits that will catch the well-trained transition pilot by surprise. Indeed, as pilot and airplane build time together, so will confidence, respect and learning. As new challenges and encounters present themselves, the depth of character of the Cheyenne IIXL will be revealed. That’s the nature of experience. Eventually, a true harmony between airplane and pilot will develop and grow. It’s at this level when flight becomes most comfortable and rewarding – and safest. The Cheyenne IIXL offers that opportunity.