No other Twin Commander operator in the world can match this statistic posted by Australia’s GAMair: 23 Twin Commanders in the fleet. It’s been that way for years at GAMair, based at Essendon Airport in Melbourne, Victoria.
The GAMair Commander fleet is comprised of two 690 Turbo Commanders, two 680 Grand Commanders, and nineteen 500 Shrikes.
In years past GAMair—it used to be known as General Aviation Maintenance—used its Commanders for hauling freight and for sightseeing trips to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The airplanes’ performance made for quick flights to and from the reef, while the high wing gave passengers maximum visibility.
GAMair still uses the Commanders for special marine operations including tuna spotting and whale watching, but the sightseeing mission has given way to 90-percent utilization for cargo. GAMair has a fixed contract with Toll Aviation, Australia’s largest aviation freight hauler. “We’re an extension to Toll,” explains Carl Jepsen, CEO of the GAMair parent company GAM Group. “We move freight from the major cities to the countryside. We do the small destinations that Toll’s larger airplanes can’t get into.”
In 1983 aviation maintenance technician Steve Knott opened a small facility in what is now an historic hangar at Essendon, and named the business General Aviation Maintenance. Four years later he bought his first Shrike Commander, and quickly added more. Over the years a few that were deemed uneconomical to repair or had spar issues were retired, but the original Commander fleet amassed by Knott is mostly intact.
“They like to fly a lot,” Jepsen says. The highest-time Shrike has more than 39,000 hours on the airframe, while “our youngest is over 8,000 hours. We use them as much as we can. If they are not in the air they are in maintenance, and if they are not in maintenance they are in the air.”
The maintenance schedule calls for an inspection, or check, every 100 flight hours, or about once a month. After three successive checks the Commander has been thoroughly inspected, and the cycle begins again. All inspection and maintenance is done in house. GAMair also maintains several customer Commanders, and is an authorized Twin Commander Service Center for piston and turboprop models, and also offers sales and Dash 10T conversions.
All the Shrike Commanders fly about the same number of hours, according to Jepsen, with the 680s logging more because of the longer legs. Each aircraft’s mission for the day involves several legs, and the aircraft fly mostly during the day and sometimes evenings; there are no late-night flights.
Three of the Commanders have been outfitted with camera holes. The conversion was engineered and performed in house.
The Commanders are flown single-pilot except for those times when charter customers specify two pilots up front. GAMair has 21 full-time Commander pilots on staff, spread among offices in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sidney, Bankstown, and Adeline.
In recent years GAMair has added oil and gas and mining company transportation to its business, which has led to adding several larger aircraft including Dornier 228s and 328s. If the Commander fleet expands, it likely will be with turbine-powered models as oil and gas companies prefer turbine engines, Jepsen says.
There is no thought of paring back on Commanders, however. “We’ve looked at the market to see if there are other aircraft that would do the mission, but there’s nothing,” Jepsen says. “They are fantastic machines.”