TWIN COMMANDER OPERATOR PROFILES
STAN AND BOB PERKINS SHARE A LOVE OF COMMANDER FLYING
Back in the day Bob Perkins owned three different Twin Commanders—two 680Es, followed by a 680W Turbo II, the second turboprop-powered model in the Commander historical lineup. When Stan started his flight training, it was in his dad’s 680E. In fact, he took his private pilot check ride in it on his 17th birthday. “All my early experience was in a 680E,” he explains. “I was so comfortable in that airplane that it made sense.”
Soon after he bought a Cessna 172 to train in for single-engine and instrument ratings and a Commercial certificate. He planned to sell it after his training was finished, but instead hung onto it for 11 years while attending undergraduate school at the University of California-San Diego, followed by medical school at Harvard, and finally his residency at Stanford University. “I used to put all my laundry in the back seat when I flew home for visits,” he recalls.
Not surprisingly, years later when Stan decided to buy a twin he went for a Twin Commander, a 681 Hawk, the model that bridged the 680W and the 690.
Bob Perkins was a World War II Navy pilot and instructor, and flew in the reserves after the war. “He got to fly all the service aircraft,” Stan says, including the OS2U Kingfisher, an unusual catapult-launched observation aircraft with a single, large, belly-mounted pontoon and two outrigger stabilizing floats.
Following his military service Bob worked in San Diego for Ryan Aircraft as a mechanical engineer. He and a friend later founded their own fiberglass and thermoplastic fabrication company, based in Long Beach, California. He owned a Cessna 310, but was looking to upgrade. “Someone recommended the Commander because it was spacious compared to the 310 and other light twins,” Stan says.
He bought a 680E to use in his business, and later sold it for another, better-equipped 680E. (That airplane now belongs to Jim Metzger, founder and director of the Twin Commander Flight Group.) When the business added a division in Texas and Bob’s travel needs expanded, he sold the second 680E and bought the 680W.
Bob Perkins sold his business in the early 1980s, and with it the 680W. After selling his 172 in the mid-1980s, Stan spent the next two decades concentrating on building his anesthesia practice, and flying friends’ airplanes. In time he started thinking about buying an airplane the two of them could fly in and enjoy. “Dad and I always used to talk about having a family airplane,” he says.
The brand choice was easy. “Dad said the best overall airplane he ever owned was a Turbo Commander. I decided that as long as he is still around and able to fly and participate, I would get one.”
His budget at the time dictated that it would have to be an older model, and the 681 seemed perfect. “Dad had a 680W, and the 681 is the ultimate expression of the 680W,” Stan explains.
Despite not having flown Twin Commanders in years, Stan quickly transitioned into the 681. “I always admired the Commander design,” he says. “I had so much multiengine experience that I was used to that level of performance, and I understood the systems. I wasn’t uncomfortable at all moving into the Commander. Flying the 681, even after 23 years of not flying a Commander, was like putting on an old shoe. Everything was right where I thought it would be, and it flew just as I expected.”
To date Stan has logged some 4,000 hours of which about 2,600 are in multiengine airplanes including 2500 in Twin Commanders. At age 91 Bob still has a current FAA medical certificate, and still takes the controls of the 681 on occasion.
“I like to take Dad on trips with me,” says Stan. When he bought the 681 in Dayton, Ohio, he and Bob flew it back to California together. “We’re always doing something with it,” Bob says. “There’s always some great plan,” Stan adds.
NOAA COMMANDERS SUITED TO LOW AND SLOW SNOW SURVEY
Twin Commanders are at their best when flying high and fast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has long known that they also do a pretty fair job of flying low and slow.
NOAA has been operating two 500S Shrike Commanders for about 30 years, and in 2005 replaced a 690A with a 695A Model 1000 JetProp. The primary mission for the Twin Commanders is airborne snow surveying, which involves flying low and slow to electronically measure snow water equivalent (the depth of water that would cover the ground if the snow cover was in a liquid state). The data is used to predict potential flooding when the snow melts in the spring. NOAA has been doing snow surveys since 1978.
NOAA conducts annual snow surveys in all areas of the United States subject to significant snowfall, including remote mountainous regions where the Commander’s attributes really shine. A typical mission in the Rocky Mountain region or Alaska may start out in a high valley anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 feet MSL and proceed down slope to either the snow line or to a predetermined end point. The airplane is flown at about 500 feet AGL and from 100 to 130 knots ground speed. Lower and even slower would be better for the electronic instrumentation that “reads” the snow pack, but safety dictates a more conservative flight profile.
GOOD FLIGHT CHARACTERISTICS
“The high wing is one reason we’ve had Commanders from the start,” explains David Demers, a NOAA pilot and chief of the agency’s snow survey program. In addition to great visibility, the Commanders have “really good slow flight characteristics,” Demers adds. “We get up in a lot of valleys, and we never know if we might have to turn around.” The ability to maneuver the Commanders at slow speeds gives pilots the confidence they need to do the job.
Loss of power when operating close to the ground at slow indicated airspeeds and often with flaps partially extended is an obvious concern for NOAA pilots, but it is less of a concern in the Commander. “The 695 with Dash 10 engines certainly doesn’t lack for power,” Demers says. “Even on one engine it is no problem. If something were to go wrong, just put the power in and get away from the ground.”
The water equivalent of snow pack is measured using gamma detectors composed of sodium iodide crystals. Five crystals, each weighing 50 pounds, are carried aboard the Commander in each detector pack. “Four of the crystals look down and one looks up,” Demers explains. “Natural terrestrial radiation given off by earth comes up and hits the sodium iodide crystals.” The crystals convert the radiation to an electric signal. The result is a Geiger counter-like measurement of radiation.
By comparing radiation measurements from snow-covered terrain with benchmark measurements of the terrain with no snow cover, scientists can determine the extent of the water in the snow pack. That information is used to predict areas potentially subject to flooding.
The gamma detectors can measure up to about 39 inches of water equivalent in snow pack. “That’s a lot of snow!” Demers says.
Demers cites one more reason why the Commanders are ideally suited to the snow survey mission. “Just try to get 450 pounds of gear up a flight of stairs,” he says. “The Commanders make sense on a lot of levels.”
ONE MORE REASON TO LIKE A COMMANDER: IT’S DOG-FRIENDLY
That last attribute means something, because a Golden Retriever has been Johnson’s constant passenger and sometimes copilot.
He had his first Golden Retriever when he had his first airplane, an A36 Bonanza. “He loved flying. He would be up on the wing of the airplane before me, waiting to get in the cabin,” Johnson says.
“The Bonanza was a great airplane, but coming in and out of Aspen and the type of flying we were doing, I decided I needed a twin,” Johnson says. He looked at piston twins and quickly concluded that, except for the Aerostar (like the Twin Commander, a Ted Smith design), single-engine climb performance in a piston twin departing 7,820-foot-high Aspen in the summer is a contradiction in terms.
FLYING ON ONE
He shifted his gaze to turboprops, and eventually narrowed his search to Twin Commanders. A demonstration flight in a Dash 5-powered 690A sold him. “It was the end of August,” Johnson remembers. “I had never flown a turboprop, and it felt great. But after one takeoff I remarked to the demo pilot that we were only climbing at about 950 fpm. Before that we were getting about 2,500 fpm in the climb. What’s wrong? He said that while I was looking around the panel, he pulled the power back on one engine and trimmed out the yaw. ‘You’re flying on one engine,’ he told me. That’s when I decided on the Commander.”
Early in 2000 he bought an 840 with Dash 10T engines and had it renovated from nosecone to tailcone “with just about everything new, the best avionics package you could put together,” plus Hartzell wide-chord props. “It’s an awesome airplane,” he says. “Very fast. I can always count on cruising at over 300 knots— 305 to 312. Other 840 owners have flown it and remarked how fast it is. And it sips fuel compared to other aircraft”
Johnson flew with several experienced Commander pilots to get comfortable in the 840, and on one trip to California they landed on a friend’s 1,900-foot-long strip. “We touched down on the end of the runway, hit the brakes, and went to full reverse. I could not believe how quickly we stopped. We still had most of the runway to taxi down to get to parking.”
Once he began flying the 840 solo, Johnson’s constant flying companion was his second Golden Retriever, Target, who had enjoyed notoriety as the cover model on boxes of Ken-L-Ration dog food. To protect Target’s hearing, Johnson had a special Snoopy-style cloth flying helmet modified to hold a Bose noise-canceling headset in place.
“Target was enthusiastic about flying,” Johnson says, “but he didn’t much like the helmet I made him wear. I think he was afraid another dog would see him in it.”
SHE’S THE ONE
A few years ago Johnson met and began dating Debbie Norden, and the Commander played a role in their eventual marriage. “We had arranged to meet in New Orleans, spend a few days there, then fly home in the Commander,” Johnson says. “Coming home—her first time in the plane with me—we took off and were climbing through about 19,000 feet when I heard an air noise. I thought the nose gear had partially extended, and sure enough I saw that I was losing hydraulic pressure. I told Debbie we had a hydraulic failure, needed to do an emergency procedure to put the gear down, and may or may not have brakes and flaps. We could either land at Baton Rouge or go back to New Orleans. She looked at me calmly and without hesitating said, ‘I really liked that restaurant we went to in New Orleans last night. How about eating there again tonight?’ That was when I knew she was the woman for me.”
They married in December 2006, and the three of them—Bill, Debbie, and Target—began flying together in the 840. Johnson fabricated a harness that kept Target secured to restraining belts, yet allowed him to lie down in the aisle just behind the crew seats.
Johnson says he deliberately changed his lifestyle from that of a workaday corporate executive—he was Chairman and CEO of Scientific Atlanta, a Fortune 500 company and before that ran his own consulting firm specializing in corporate turnarounds—to living in Aspen and enjoying the natural world. Both he and his wife love outdoor sports—skiing, snow shoeing, hiking—and many of their Commander trips are in pursuit of that love as well as for a variety of business and non-profit activities, including occasional help to managements dealing with challenging situations.
He has the 840 maintained both at Legacy Aviation Services near Oklahoma City and by Executive Aircraft Maintenance in Scottsdale, which is near a second home in Sedona. He’s also used Western Jet Aviation in Los Angeles. Having lost engines twice in T-34s many years ago, he is admittedly demanding on maintenance, and says of the service centers he done business with, “They’ve all given me terrific support.”
Tragically, Target was involved in a freak accident earlier this year and lost his life. It was a traumatic event for Johnson, his wife, and Johnson’s young granddaughter, Sydney, who often travels with them. They created a photo collage “celebrating Target’s life, and life with Target,” and sent it to friends.
“Target was 13 and in great health when he died,” Johnson says. “We were getting ready to go snow shoeing when it happened. He had a great life.”
The breeder who provided Johnson with Target gave them another Retriever for a few months to help ease the loss. “He loved looking out the windows of the Commander,” Johnson says. That dog has since gone back to its owner, and Johnson looks forward to bringing another Golden Retriever into the family, this time as a permanent member of the clan, and crew.