So, here's a recent adventure I'd like to share. It was a trip I will never forget and it also marks a new chapter in my life; as an aircraft owner.
Just before christmas last year, an old 1953 Aero Commander 520 twin popped up on Ebay. I've always loved Commanders and vowed to one day own one, but I hadn't planned on it as my first aircraft as I thought that her age and other things were perhaps a little too much for a new owner. Anyway, the price was low, but there was a reserve; I thought I'd give myself $500 to bid with above the start price, just to see where the reserve was. Found out that I was immediately the high bidder and the reserve was met! Not what I had planned. Anyway, there was another week to go on the auction and I was sure someone else would come along and bid over me. As I drove home to Sweden from England over christmas, it became more and more apparent that no one was going to come along. I was the sole bidder. This terrified me to no end at first, but I'm glad that, in a way, she found me rather than the other way around.
But first some history. The Aero Commander 520 was the first in a long line of future business aircraft from famous designer Ted Smith (Piper Aerostar, A-26 etc). When they came, they were the Learjets of their time. Very expensive and high end. The 520's were made from 1951 to 1954, when they got replaced by the slightly more powerful 560. They had the rather unusual geared Lycoming GO-435 that also powered Helio Couriers and many early helicopters. All the geared Lycomings have a bit of a bad rep, but unfounded according to those who own them. They just need to be flown right. The 520 is the only Commander with a straight tail, all the subsequent ones had swept tails. That basic design continued for another 30 years in various forms up until the last Rockwell Twin turbine commanders were made in the mid 80's. You might recall that famous ace Bob Hoover did aerobatics with his Shrike (500U) in the 60's, 70's and 80's.
As I came back from the holidays I flew directly to a cold Detroit to have her pre-buy inspected by the Twin commander eminence gris and Commander-genius, Morris Kernick. I'd flown him out from California earlier and as I landed we met at a diner to get the verdict. Turns out that there were tons of smaller squawks and things that needed attention (as one would expect), but that she was in pretty good shape. Certainly one of the better 520's he'd seen - not that there are many left around. In annual and all AD's complied with, her paperwork in order and flown regularly. That's all I could ask for really, considering her age. This is how she looked first time I laid my eyes on her at KPHN:
Testament to Ted Smith's wonderful lines is that she hasn't aged much. Except for the nacelles and the tail, she could be a new twin.
You can clearly see the tail resemblance of the Douglas A-26 Invader and the 520.
Big and roomy, certified for 5 people in the Normal Category.
After all the boring title transfer works and clearing any liens, the task came to get her home to California and to Morris Kernick's shop in Stockton in the Bay-area for some necessary TLC. I'm only halfway though my twin rating, so I needed some help in this department. Fortunately, captain JimBob, owner of the Commander Mailing List, A&P/IA, professional ferry pilot and also an owner of an Aero Commander 680E was available to help me out. But there was a storm approaching from both ends of the coasts, so to be able to make an almost 1800nm journey safe in VFR conditions, everything had to be right. It looked like there was a small window last week where the whole trip could be done, albeit with a horrendous headwind (more about that later) and the risk of the Bay area getting hit by a rain storm. Said and done - we jumped on planes to Detroit and drove up, had her preflighted and loaded all the papers, spare seats and spare parts into her hold (she swallows insane amounts of luggage - you could easily get skis in there) and went to bed for a super early departure.
Here she gets fueled up the night before our departure.
Crack of dawn we wake and a last check of the weather - it's clear skies, but the winds aloft are terrifying and low level windshear is forecast across the continent. We decide to go anyway. We warm the GO-435's up (and this is also the first time I hear her run) in the cold morning light and then taxi out to Rwy 22 and take off. We do a low pass for the former owner (who I later find out was in tears as she went by for the last time) and off we go.
We stay low for the first three hours, averaging 150kts, skirting around Chicago Bravo airspace. The minute we try to go high, the headwind nails us and the GS drops dramatically. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa are flat as pancakes, so here we can really lick the earth and get good GS.
It won't last.
We do the first fuel stop at Grinnell, IA - terrible crosswind gusting to 27kts on final, and fuel her up with 88gals after 3.1hrs of flying (which is about 29gals/hr). Not too bad for staying so low. However, the right engine needs 3 quarts after 3hrs - this is less good. Her oil pressure is within the green, but slightly on the low side at low altitudes, and better up high (as we'll later find out). She produces good power, but this is something that's being looked at now as we speak. Can be many things - worn vacuum pump, worn valve seats etc, oil leaks etc. Doesn't necessarily have to be a bad top, but I'm nevertheless preparing myself mentally and financially for that.
First fuel stop in Iowa. 88gals.
Take off again and head for Nebraska. Pretty much all uncontrolled airspace flying and we rarely talk to anyone. We see even less aircraft and people as the giant American tapestry expands. We keep staying low and over unpopulated areas we literally skim the earth. It's a magic ride and very exciting speeding over vast beautiful landscapes. I'm flying most of it and it's got me hooked. Next stop is Ogalalla, NE. A rather sleepy little airport. We finally manage to rustle up a mechanic and buy some more oil for the right engine. The left one hasn't used a drop. We put another 90gals in and 4 quarts of oil.
Capt JimBob flying low over a frozen Nebraska.
As we continue west, the GS start dropping even lower. We're seeing around 120-130kts now, so that's 20-30kts on the nose. As we get closer into Colorado the terrain slowly creeps up on you, and although we're still flying really low close to the ground, the altimeter is now showing almost 4000ft.
It's a premonition of what lays ahead: The Rocky Mountains.
Finally we see them. Like a huge majestic line of snow capped mountains - you can't fly around them unless you have some serious time to spare, and we don't. The Bay area rain storm is already in effect and is forecast to get worse, so we're in a race against time to get to California. So we leave the confines of ground effect and pull back - many of the Rockies are at 12500ft. Immediately we get hit by the headwinds and the GS plummets. As we get into the Rockies, the ride gets very bumpy. Mountain waves and huge sinks and climbs after each peak. It's pretty intimidating. At least the skies are clear and we still have daylight (that won't last much longer).
The descent into Salt Lake city area after the Rockies. We still have the Sierra Nevadas to contend with ahead of us. At nighttime...
Many of the peaks are above us and it becomes an exercise in finding the best way through the mountain and not stay above 12500ft for too long. We carry no oxygen. It's a beautiful ride, but a bit scary. After awhile it starts to taper off and we get through a pass and into Utah. Our destination is Spanish Fork airport just at the bottom of the valley. It's now pretty late in the afternoon and the sun is starting to set. I do my first (rather hard) landing here, but she doesn't seem to mind. It's hard to slow her down, due to how you have to fly with the geared Lycomings (never let the air move the propellers), so it's a powered approach and you only cut it just before flare. The huge flaps and the landing gear helps her get there. She lands at around 70kts and is in essence, just a big Cessna. Very docile.
Refueling at Spanish Fork, UT. A beautiful and very busy GA airport at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The old girl draws a crowd wherever she goes and people love to to have a chat.
We are up against it now. Sun is setting and the weather is worsening in the Bay area. We have to motor. Take off over the Salt Lake flats as the sun gives up its ghost. It's staggeringly beautiful and it hits you how wonderfully pretty America can be. GS is now in the 100kts range, which means we have 50-60kts on the nose! Unreal. We almost screw up really bad when we realize that the new Bendix/King AV80R GPS that JimBob has brought isn't showing the Restricted areas. The old G300XL in my aircraft did show it, but we hadn't looked at it much. I'm glad we did. We almost bust one of the biggest US military R-zones and had to do a detour that probably ate 30 mins out of our precious time.
Night is now setting in and ahead of the might Sierra Nevadas are towering. I'm getting rather uneasy at the prospect of flying over 14500 peaks at night, but JimBob doesn't bat an eyelid. Thankfully it's a moonlit night, so visibility is good. However as we proceed, it's clear that the headwind has become even worse - we see GS of 80kts now. We won't make it to SF Bay on the fuel we have, or if we did, it'd be a close call. JimBob decides we need a last fuel stop and we call up Eureka, NV airfield on the Unicom and ask them if they're still open. They are (makes a difference from the UK, right?), thankfully. We land with a 28kts headwind and taxi up to a mom and pop FBO and get her topped up. Me and JimBob are ravished, not having had any time for food all day, so we devour some peanut butter cookies and fuel up on Coke. I make a half hearted attempt at trying to convince him to stop there for the night and try in the morning, as I'm really fearful of having to climb up to 12500ft again in the dark with mountains all around us. JimBob won't have it - we'd be socked in for a week, he says (and he was right). So we power up and fly out. It's an anxious climb. Altough the visibility is good, you can only really make out the snow capped tops, the darker bits kind of blend into each other. In my paranoid mind it becomes a question of: yeah, I know the highest peaks have the most snow, but what if one peak somehow didn't get any snow and is higher than the rest...? We'd probably not see it. It's a terrible mindf**k.
Under us there is nothing. Not even a single light. Our GS is now 70kts. JimBob has in 16.000hrs and 30 years of flying never had such headwinds, he says. He's furious and exhausted at the pace we're making. We've been in the air for more than 13hrs now. She barely climbs without going backwards and we often see GS drops to 50kts in climbs to clear peaks. The dangerous temptation is to ever so slightly push the nose over just to gain some speeds, but with 14000ft peaks all around you, that's not such a good idea. It's also a rough ride with all the windshear. I think the wings will come off at times and I'm very nervous during this part of the flight.
Then the left engine shudders.
I first think it's just some more turbulence, but its not. A moment later it happens again, but this time worse. "That's the left engine trying to quit on us", JimBob says matter of factly as he checks the magnetos. I'm almost having a heart attack by this point. We're at 12500ft and there is nothing but peaks below us. At night. Nowhere to go. And she won't fly on one engine much higher than 6000ft... But we motor on and the engine doesn't give us any more scares. I'm on edge, checking oil pressure and vitals constantly for the rest of the flight.
As we get closer to California area we see that the Bay are is socked in. We are forced to fly south, extending our stay over the Sierra Nevada peaks, doing my nerves no good. We're still at 12500ft and the ceilings in the Bay area are at 6-7000ft OVC according to Oakland FSS. We have to find a hole, or else we face having to cross back over the Sierras into Nevada and go to Lake Tahoe. I dread having to cross those mountains again with an engine that's given me a scare. Finally we see a faint light between the layer of clouds at the foot of the mountain. It turns out to be Pine Mountain Lake airport (E45) and its beacon (thank god for light beacons!). We just manage to squeeze it in between the mountain and the OVC. The ride down is pretty scary, extremely bumpy and we skim the OVC to stay clear of the ridges, so momentarily lose all visual references.
"I think we've made it" JimBob says as we see the lights from the San Francisco area spread out before us. It's a comforting sight after 15hrs of flying, let me tell you. As a final insult, we get 30kts tailwinds for the last 10 minutes of our ride. Thanks a lot.
JimBob PTT lights the runway up at Stockton and we land uneventfully. We taxi up to Morris hangar where he's been patiently waiting. I'm too tired to put the gust locks on and just leave her for the night. We go to a night open diner to get a meal and unwind and debrief. Morris is already giving multiple possible reasons why the right engine drinks too much oil and why the left one nearly quit on us (unpressurised magneto, fuel valve, etc). He's confident there are easy fixes for both. I'm blessed that I'm accompanied by such knowledgeable and expert people - the Commander community is very strong in the US.
It has been one of the most scary and exhilarating days of my life. I will never forget it. I will however try to forget the $1600 fuel bill...
She likes this.
All considering, she behaved flawlessly except for the scare with the left engine. She's a real gentle plane (we did a power on stall early and it was no worse than any single I've flown) and has great harmony. Not too fast and not too slow - cruises at 150-155kts, but can with a flap gap seal STC go 10kts faster. Built tough and can land on any surface (they're still used extensively in south America and Africa on grass strips) with those big mains. She has a really interesting, and for the time, advanced Autolean feature so you never have to lean her. She's also got the simplest fuel system in the world - there isn't even a fuel tank selector. All four tanks gravity feeds into a center tank. Up high she consumed about 20-23gals/hr, which isn't bad for her age. That huge tail and elevator can also help you keep her straight in almost any crosswind.
She will require some fixes, like steering needs to repaired and her brakes are very worn. Wrong bolts on ailerons and over-tightened, manifold pressure gauge left engine sticks, hydraulic hoses in engine bay are old and needs replacing etc, etc. Plenty of minor squawks. Her radios also need a polish - as it was now we xmitted on one and received on the other. But all in all, a pretty good apple. Well, time will tell anyway.
Next time I pick her up (after some local circuit instruction), I'll be flying her myself back to LA. Wish a new vintage Commander owner luck, will ya?
Here are some videos of our start up and take off at KPHN earlier that day taken by a friend. As you can tell, the GO-435's exhausts go straight into what's called augmentor tubes, so she's pretty loud on the ground. In the air she's not bad at all - they have a wonderful purr and you could easily have a conversation in there with headsets off (albeit in a loud voice).