For the past 20 years, I have owned the same airplane: a 1979 RTSOL RAM VII Cessna 340A. From time to time, there is a maintenance event, artful advertising from a manufacturer or colorful photos in one of the aircraft sales magazines that makes me wonder, “Maybe I should change to a different airplane.” This thinking then spins off a series of questions and calculations regarding the potential prospect. So, I pick up the latest Controller at the FBO and leave it in a handy place around the house to peruse – feeling somewhat guilty while doing so, given a certain sense of loyalty to the faithful C340.
Certain events tend to trigger this thinking more than others. For example, my C340 recently went through its annual inspection and in addition to the usual relatively minor problems, there was a problem noted by another pilot who flies it: The cabin would not maintain rated pressure up to the airplane’s ceiling of 25,000 feet. This precipitated a week-long period of very expensive leak chasing, which (among other things) revealed the plugs for the drain holes in the bottom of the fuselage were 40 years old and lost their flexibility.
Once those were fixed, it was discovered there was a leak in one of the boots that goes around the gear retraction mechanism as it exits the fuselage. The boot was 40 years old, made of some rubber cloth material, and upon examining it, I was amazed it had lasted that long. Even though only one was leaking, the mechanics decided they should replace them on both sides. This made sense to me, but it was a nasty job that took hours and hours of the mechanics’ $150/hour time. After everything was fixed, I was asked to test fly the airplane.
Once airborne, the pressurization system worked well, maintaining a sea-level cabin until passing about 8,000 feet. A loud roar then began somewhere in the nose section, and the cabin started climbing with the airplane. To complicate things further, the rate control knob on the pressure controller refused to vary cabin rate change at all. So, back to the maintenance hangar and more head scratching. A rate controller from another aircraft was borrowed and another test flight was made – with the same outcome. Back again to the maintenance hangar with a committee of mechanics gathering around to speculate the diagnosis.
After some collective thought, it was decided that one of the hoses in the nose section related to the heater must have developed a leak. Unfortunately, this was located under the instrument panel, almost impossible to see or access. One of the junior mechanics was assigned the nasty job of crawling under the panel and disassembling a stack of things that were in the way. After about four hours it was apparent that a tear had occurred in the flexible hose just before it attached to the heater portion. The hose itself looked like it was installed at the factory 40 years ago and all dried out. It was decided the hose became cracked only after the other leaks had been repaired, which resulted in the cabin pressure climbing to a point the old hose couldn’t handle.
All hoses related to the system were then replaced, and I was again asked to test fly the airplane. I was cautioned that if the cabin failed to pressurize normally, the next thing would be to replace the controller itself, which would be very expensive. With some trepidation, I climbed the airplane through the previous 8,000-foot altitude and was relieved to see the cabin was still at sea level and the roaring leak noise was no longer present. I continued climbing until reaching the cabin’s maximal pressurization differential – also normal, indicating that the leaks were fixed.
Now, this kind of problem really does lead to questions about how long you should own a 40-year-old airplane versus trading it in for a newer one…say something in the $1 million range.
Since I am already typed in the CJ, the jet was the first one to come to mind, with an Eclipse being a close second. But the problem is that these airplanes are really designed to fly long distances in the high flight levels. Just banging around down the west coast of Washington to California at 2,000 feet on a sunny day would not make sense, and that kind of flying is something I like to do recreationally. Another problem with a jet is, if you fly it 120 hours per year at 400 knots, that is nearly 50,000 nautical miles. That is a lot of distance without any specific mission. Then there is the matter of the annual model-specific recurrent training in jets, which is expensive and also time consuming if just flying the aircraft for personal use. Insurance for single-pilot operations is also becoming a real problem for most light jets, in many cases resulting in just absurd costs for relatively poor coverage.
The next thought was, “How about a turboprop?” Prior to the C340, I owned a PT6-powered Cessna 425, so I have some experience with owning a twin-turboprop aircraft. But, I am not sure the notion of having twin engines in PT6-powered aircraft makes much sense anymore given the proven reliability of the engines. That logic leads me to think about a TBM or a Piper Meridian. The Piper Meridian does about 270 knots in the lower flight levels, but as it is derived from a piston-powered airplane, it is a little slow and short on fuel.
A TBM, on the other hand, was designed for turbine power from the start. The C-model carries a decent amount of weight and does about 300 knots on less than 50 gph in the flight levels. The cabin size is about the same as the 340, and if you do the math, the miles per gallon is very close to the same (with the jet fuel being a bit cheaper). Further, there is no required annual training (something I am not opposed to but prefer to do on my schedule, not the FAA’s).
Now that I think a change from the C340 to a single-engine turbine such as the TBM might be a good idea, further questions come up. One is the loss of flexibility when considering landing at nonpaved airports, something the RSTOL 340 with piston engines handles with ease. Next is the business of “capital cost.” I own the 340 outright and long ago depreciated the aircraft given its business use. My capital cost for that airplane is almost negligible.
However, if I spend $1 million to buy a TBM (even if using my own money), that much cash should generate 8 to 10 percent annually in any reasonable investment, which is $80,000 to $100,000 per year I would be in theory losing. That thought leads to yet another calculation (which you are frankly best off not even doing if really intent on buying the airplane). With a capital cost of $100,000 per year and 100 hours flown, the capital cost alone is $1,000 per hour plus around $600 to $800 in operational cost per hour. Now, do I really want to spend that kind of money just to fly a bit faster in an airplane with newer engineering for just recreational purposes? Difficult question…best not thought about for too long.
After going through all of this contemplation, I go to the hangar and look over the C340. Yes, I just spent $25,000 to have the annual done and the pressurization problem fixed. Undoubtedly, there are other age-related problems lurking in the fuselage or under the cowling somewhere. But hey, that $25,000 was less than a quarter of the yearly capital cost if I traded up to a TBM…I am saving money here.
I then preflight and fly the airplane just for the fun of it. I land at a 2,500-foot grass runway and get turned off about 1,800 feet down, not in the least worried about a turbine intake sucking in a bunch of the recently mowed grass with occasional clods of dirt. Departing from there, I climb up to 17,500 feet, circle Mount Baker a couple of times with an 8,000-foot cabin while burning all of 36 gph and doing over 200 knots.
The airplane, perhaps knowing I am contemplating a “formal separation,” behaves exceptionally well. And with the ANR headset on and the props well balanced, the noise and vibration level is way down there with the turboprops. The Garmin avionics work just as well in the C340 as they would in a turbine, so there is not much to be gained in that respect by changing airplanes.
I fly back to my home airport and taxi to the FBO’s hangar where a couple of young non-pilot airplane enthusiasts are hanging out. The first thing they say as I exit the airplane is, “Is that a new airplane? It sure looks fast.” With that feedback in hand I drive home where, reluctant to leave the matter alone, I consult with a higher authority. My wife cannot imagine why I would switch to a different airplane. She says, “Why would you do that? We have flown that one all over the place and I like it.” Decision made, case closed.
For the time being, the 40-year-old C340 will stay where it is and Controller will get thrown away next time I go by the living room coffee table.