My turbine-crazed friends and I did a test flight in a King Air 200 today. David is a magnet for miserable weather and every time we fly together the clouds are spread over the airport with winds gusting to 30 knots (fairness compels me to note that he accuses ME of being the bad weather magnet). Today was no exception: clouds, cold, wind gusting over 30 knots, snow showers, wind shear advisories.
If you’re going to fly in miserable weather, the King Air isn’t a bad choice. The plane is famously immune to icing, rough runways, pilot incompetence, and mechanical woes. The plane has two big jet engines turning 4-blade props that spin at 1500-1900 rpm. Cabin size is slightly smaller than a Pilatus PC-12 and the King Air lacks the huge door that enables bulky cargo (and obese passengers?) to be forklifted into the plane. If you do have a lot of fat friends, it is comforting to know that the plane, designated C-12F, is regularly operated by the U.S. military at 15,000 lbs; the civilian model has a gross weight of 12,500 lbs., coincidentally the maximum weight aircraft that may be legally flown without a type rating. Cruise speed, range, and payload are similar to the PC-12. Construction quality is superb, as is the cabin fit and finish, at least on a par with the Pilatus. The pilot seat is more adjustable and comfortable than the seat in the PC-12. Once seated, you’re surrounded by Collins Pro Line 21 avionics, the same glass panels that are in mid-sized business jets and very similar to what is in Boeing airliners. The Pilatus, by contrast, comes with the same radios as the Diamond Katana two-seat plastic trainer. I immediately fell in love with the user interface, presentation, and capabilities of the Collins system, which were vastly better than anything that I’ve ever flown before. [God help you after the five-year warranty runs out and you have to replace one of those puppies at airliner prices.]
Taxiing the King Air is simple, much easier for a beginner than the Twin Commander. Takeoff is straightforward except that the pilot is 100 percent responsible for watching engine torques and temperatures. You rotate at 100 knots, enter the clouds, and if you’ve pushed the power levers too far forward a couple of small gauges off to the right will start flashing. The consequences of overtorquing a free turbine such as on the King Air are much smaller than the direct-drive engines on the Twin Commander, which is presumably why Beech didn’t bother with automated systems to limit power automatically.
The King Air is extremely stable and it was easy to hold the plane in a reasonable attitude despite moderate turbulence. I felt no urge to engage the autopilot and was able to keep the plane on heading and altitude more easily than the similar weight Twin Commander that I’ve been flying (on the downside, the King Air felt less nimble). Interior noise is as low as 78 dBA in some parts of the airplane during some phases of flight and as high as 88 dBA. Generally speaking, interior noise was 81-85 dBA, similar to the Twin Commander, but inferior to the turbojets that people have been buying instead of the King Air. Sitting in the back while others flew, my stomach did not enjoy the side-to-side yaw from all of the bumps.
Our friend David, with 600 hours and no multi-engine rating, was given a simulated engine failure. The King Air has an autofeather system; if an engine quits, the prop automatically feathers to a low-drag angle. He handled the resultant yaw with ease, keeping the airplane straight with rudder. An engine failure in a twin turbine airplane is much easier to manage than in a twin-engine piston.
Landing wasn’t all that easy with a gusty 30 knot wind at a significant angle to the runway, but it wasn’t all that difficult either; 120 knots down the glideslope slowing to 100-110 over the numbers. Despite the supposed power lag with a free turbine, I found the airplane to be approximately as responsive to power changes as the Twin Commander, which is a similar weight. The switch and systems complexity didn’t seem substantially greater than in the Pilatus or TBM-700. A lower time but serious pilot could be trained to operate this plane safely and the insurance companies seem to agree, having quoted similar rates and training requirements for my 600-hour friend in the Pilatus and King Air.
Operating cost on a King Air is higher than on the Pilatus due to spinning two engines. The fuel burn is 100 gallons per hour instead of 70-75. Is the difference worth it? If you’re over the North Atlantic and one of those engines suffers a loss of oil pressure, very likely!
What does the Pilatus do better? Short runways. The Pilatus flies and lands so slowly that pilots experienced with both seem to be comfortable with 30 percent less runway. Unless the approaches were completely flat, you probably wouldn’t take a King Air 200 into an airport shorter than 3000′.
[Second opinions: Our Boeing 767 pilot friend thought the plane was vastly superior to the Pilatus. The 600-hour pilot thought it was harder to control than the Pilatus (I reserve judgement on this one because we flew the planes under such different weather conditions).]