Transitioning To A Turboprop

MidWay between Piston Singles and Jets

For many private pilots, the dream of flying a light jet remains just that—a dream. Most of us find ourselves in high-performance retractable singles or light twins. But here’s the good news: to step up into the world of turbine airplanes, you don’t necessarily need a commercial multi-engine license and type rating.

Enter the cabin-class turboprop singles, like the Epic LT, Pilatus PC-12, Piper PA-46-500TP Meridian, and Socata TBM-700/850 series. These aircraft offer performance well beyond any piston twin, and they can be flown legally by pilots with a private license, complex and high-performance endorsements, a high-altitude/pressurized endorsement, and an instrument rating. You don’t need a multi-engine license, nor is a type rating required, as these aircraft typically have a maximum gross weight below 12,500 pounds and feature a single propeller.

Furthermore, many of these turboprop singles are equipped for single-pilot IFR but come with dual flight instruments suitable for a two-person crew. This duality is crucial for gaining experience in the flight levels, making these aircraft more accessible without the need to win a lottery. Just find a pilot operating one of these airplanes under FAR Part 91 and ask if you can accompany them on their next flight. Note that if the flying falls under Part 135 or 121, a fully qualified co-pilot may be required.

However, a word of caution: it’s advisable not to attempt this without an instrument rating. Turboprops spend most of their time in the flight levels, above 18,000 feet, and an instrument rating is necessary for logging the time. Additionally, filing and flying IFR provide valuable experience in dealing with air traffic control, a vital skill when operating in the flight levels. Offering to handle some of the radio work can make you an attractive companion on long journeys.

If a pilot agrees to take you along, request to borrow a copy of the pilot owner’s handbook (POH) or airplane flight manual (AFM). This demonstrates your commitment to learning how to fly an advanced aircraft. Be prepared to allocate ample time for studying, as the POH/AFM for a turboprop is likely several times the size of any you’ve encountered before. These aircraft feature considerably more complex systems than piston singles and light twins. In addition to the usual power plant, flight controls, fuel system, and airframe, you’ll need to grasp concepts related to pressurization, intricate hydraulics and pneumatics, complex electrical systems with multiple buses, weather equipment (including heated propellers and windshields, de-ice boots, and possibly weather radar), and unfamiliar instrumentation in the panel.

But don’t be discouraged—remember, it’s still an airplane.


Key Differences and Important Considerations

In the limited scope of this article, it’s impossible to cover everything that distinguishes flying a turboprop from other aircraft. However, some key factors to bear in mind when operating turboprops include:


  1. Professional Instruction: If you’re contemplating owning a turboprop, investing in professional instruction is essential. Training is usually mandated by insurance companies and includes initial and recurrent simulator training, as well as type-specific in-aircraft training, with mentorship when possible.

  2. V-Speed Variability: Unlike piston aircraft, V-speeds in turboprops often depend on both weight and temperature. In larger turboprops, variations in weight are significant enough to warrant computing values before each flight, with the exception of Vne.

  3. Advanced Navigation: Turboprops typically come equipped with GPS systems, allowing for direct routing from the departure airport to the first fix on an arrival procedure. Altitude selection often involves comparing winds at various altitudes above FL 200, with the aircraft striving to reach the most efficient cruising altitude.

  4. Two-Pilot Crew: Operating with a two-pilot crew can be a significant adjustment. You’ll likely begin by observing the pilot, assisting with radio communication and charts. If you demonstrate diligence, read the AFM, ask relevant questions, participate in preflight and flight planning, and handle radio tasks effectively, you may be invited to take the controls. Understanding “crew resource management” principles is also beneficial.

  5. Engine Start Procedure: Turboprop pilots use a combination of a memorized sequence of steps (referred to as “flow”) and a shorter checklist to start the engine efficiently. Turboprop engines consume fuel even at idle, so efficiency on the ground is essential.

  6. Oxygen Use: Knowing how to use the quick-donning oxygen mask is crucial, as oxygen is needed at high altitudes to maintain “useful consciousness.” Understanding when to don the mask is vital in case of pressurization failure.

  7. Reverse Thrust: While taxiing, you’ll have the opportunity to experience reverse thrust, a unique feature of turboprop aircraft. It’s used on the ground to save wear on brakes and shorten the ground run.

  8. Flight Director: The flight director, an extension of the autopilot, provides guidance through command bars on the altitude and direction indicator (ADI) or the primary flight display (PFD). Following the flight director’s guidance enables smooth and precise aircraft control, particularly when hand-flying.

  9. Altitude Management: Setting the target altitude for the cabin is crucial, ensuring passengers’ comfort. Understanding cabin pressurization is essential for a smooth flight, though it varies by aircraft.

  10. V-Speed Awareness: V-speeds differ in turboprops, adjusting with changes in weight and temperature. There’s a need to be aware of these variations during different phases of flight.

  11. Descending from Altitude: Descending from high altitudes takes time, with some modern turboprops having GPS navigators to assist in determining the descent rate. Turboprops typically aim for maximum efficiency by flying as high as possible, where climb rates can exceed 1,000 feet per minute.

  12. Cabin Altitude: Turboprops maintain a cabin altitude considerably lower than the aircraft’s cruising altitude. This reduces passenger discomfort and limits the need for oxygen.

If you’ve been diligent and responsible, you may have the opportunity to handle the controls during the final approach and landing. Be prepared for heavier stick forces, but don’t worry; these aircraft are equipped with features like angle-of-attack indication and trailing link landing gear, making landings smoother. After touching down and retracting the flaps, engaging reverse thrust will help slow the aircraft and make for a quicker exit from the runway.

While this article provides a glimpse into transitioning to turboprops, there’s much more to explore, such as ground handling, external power, fuel calculations, caution and warning systems, and advanced weather avoidance gear. One thing is certain: flying turboprops is challenging yet immensely enjoyable. As with any significant transition, seeking professional instruction and mentoring is highly advisable.