Still sprightly at fifty-years-old, the Twin Comanche can give younger pretenders a run for their money | Words Bob Davy | Photos Keith Wilson

The name of this great light twin rather gives the game away. The Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche design started with the single-engined PA-24 Comanche, a laminar-winged rocket which itself was a breakaway from the sturdy but slow aircraft that Piper was famous for at the time?such as the Cub, the Cherokee and the Apache.

Beech had taken the GA world by storm with the Bonanza and Piper genuinely had to raise its game. To keep up, along came the PA-24 in 1958. When the Bonanza begat the twin-engined Travel Air and subsequently the Baron, Piper was inspired to give the PA-24 to Ed Swearingen to re-engineer it as a twin.

The result was an aircraft which could fly faster than the much later Piper Seminole on less horsepower and yet lift more. And despite losing some effective wingspan due to its twin engine installation, the ‘Twin Com’ has only 9.5 inches more span than the single.

Piper’s Twin Com prototype first flew in 1962. It was and is a fantastic little aircraft, able to fly at 160kt below 10,000ft, burning just nine US gallons a side on a combined total of 320hp. Turbo Twin Comanches are particularly fast at altitude, typically cruising at 195 knots at 20,000ft. With speed mods to the wings, fillets and engine nacelles, this figure climbs and 200 knot-plus speeds are readily achievable.

Despite its success, Piper was out of its comfort zone with the Comanche line, and when a flood destroyed its Lock Haven factory in 1972 the company appears to have used that as an excuse to stop Twin Com production after only just over 2,000 had been built, and its counter-rotating PA-39 development was just getting started, not even a couple of hundred having left the production line.

Certainly when after the big recession in the 1980s and ’90s Piper looked at its existing stable of twin designs with an eye to restarting production it was reckoned that the labour-intensive construction of the Twin Com would result in a price of at least one million dollars per aircraft, dictated by build cost alone. For this reason the much cheaper but less capable Seminole was brought back into production instead.

Today, PA-30s?and especially the small handful of PA-39s remaining?are cherished aircraft with a keen following and strong owner groups, who make a point of using the type’s long legs to arrange fly-ins all over the world.

Laminar wing

My first experience of the Twin Com was when I did my twin rating on the type in 1985. At the time both the aircraft (G-AVVI and G-AXRO) that I hired were in commercial use as charter aircraft at Southend airport. I remember finding the performance a big leap from the Pipers singles that I had flown.

I listened intently to the stories I was told of the infamous laminar wing: how the aircraft could “fall from the sky” if you flew it too slowly by the seat of your pants without paying attention to the ASI. In aerodynamic terms, up until then Piper had been very much a one-trick pony, using the old Cub aerofoil across its model range.

This kind of wing converts airspeed to lift much more readily than does a laminar aerofoil. (If you wondered why a laminar-winged aircraft cuts through the gusts while the average Piper will have your head impacting the roof, now you know.)

The one big disadvantage with a laminar wing is that its stall is usually much more dramatic than with a traditional aerofoil, such as the Clark Y. I found this out flying into Le Touquet not long after getting my twin rating. I was coming in to land on the now disused south-west runway and had reduced my speed to minimum approach of around eighty?i.e. well below the single engine safety speed of 105mph?because I had already committed to land and the runway was short.

As I flared I encountered wind shear and the Twin Com really did fall out of the sky. I managed to firewall the throttles to cushion the impact but the landing was hard enough that once I had taxied clear I stopped and got out of the aircraft to examine the main undercarriage to make sure there wasn’t any obvious damage before continuing. I got away with it but the incident left me shaken.

With this experience still lodged in my data bank after all these years I was intrigued to reacquaint myself with the Twin Com. I’m in my fifties now so not as sharp as I was, but I’m experienced on swept-wing jets and various laminar-winged high performance aircraft?so I wasn’t expecting any surprises. Then again you never know, do you?

Owner Mark Hadley is showing me around his immaculate 1967 Twin Com ‘Turbo B’ at North Weald, complete with its beautiful and original blue-and-white paint scheme. (You can tell this one is a ‘B’ because of the extra side windows and the facility for an extra row of seats.)

The first thing that strikes me is its size: so much smaller than the beefy Apache and Aztec, and smaller still than the Seminole trainer, which came later. A Twin Com has forty fewer horsepower and 200lb less MTOW than a Seminole but can propel a similar load considerably faster. No surprise then that it is at least twenty per cent better in every way than the old Apache that it replaced.

Bigger on the inside

Climbing inside a Twin Com is the aviation equivalent of entering Doctor Who’s Tardis. This toy-like aeroplane reveals itself to have a quite large cabin. It’s a serious machine in every way. Controls, levers and dials are in abundance, sprouting from a deep instrument panel.

The windscreen almost seems like an afterthought and the effect is akin to looking out of a letter box, until you get the seat position just right so that your eye height is half way between bottom and top of the screen.

The next thing I notice are the engines projecting out much farther forward than with many other light twins so that you sit well behind the props. I’d imagine a de Havilland Mosquito must feel a tiny bit like this.