Bill Johnson


Bill Johnson bought his 690C model 840 for reasons that any Twin Commander owner will recognize. The first is performance, and because he lives in Aspen, single-engine performance is as important to him as the impressive numbers for two-engine climb and cruise. Then there’s the ability to get in and out of short fields; confidence-inspiring handling; and great visibility for pilot, passengers, and canines, too.

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.

target“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.

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.”

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.

Will M.


willmFor most of us, flying the Atlantic in our own airplane is a dream trip, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For Will M.. (he prefers to remain anonymous), who lives in the United Kingdom and flies an 840 Twin Commander, ocean crossings are no big deal. His first was eastbound—from the U.S. to the U.K.–in 2002 when he bought his first Twin Commander, a 690A, in the United States. The second was in 2005, also eastbound, when he bought his second Twin Commander, an 840 JetProp, also in the U.S. Now he’s done it a third time—a round-trip—because he wanted to have the 840 painted and serviced at Byerly Aviation in Peoria, Illinois.

Why fly more than 7,000 nmi back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean just to get some work done on your airplane?

The “work” included repainting the aircraft, taking care of some outstanding service bulletins, replacing the deice boots, and completing a 150-hour inspection. That project list couldn’t have been completed in the U.K. at just one shop, according to Will, which meant he would have had to use several facilities resulting in extended downtime.

willmThe solution: Make the trans-Atlantic trip to an authorized Twin Commander service center in the U.S. capable of doing it all. He chose Byerly, a full-capability Twin Commander service center with a reputation for excellent paint and interior work. “A one-stop shop,” Will says.

The flight from his home field, North Weald Airport just north of London, to Peoria was, in fact, an incentive for Will to use a U.S.-based service center. “I quite enjoy flying,” he said from his home in England. “Flying a turboprop makes the Atlantic crossing easy. I know it sounds like a long flight, but I made it over there in a day and a half. I told Byerly we would be there by 8, and we landed at 7:30.”

The westbound flight to deliver the aircraft to Byerly was conducted in early March in strong headwinds, and took about 16 hours. The longest leg, about 1150 nmi from Frobisher Bay to Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada, took 4 hours 52 minutes.

Will uses his 840 in his residential construction business and to travel with family to skiing and beach holidays throughout Europe. “I can be somewhere at 8 a.m. and be back home in the afternoon,” he says. “I use it for 30-minute flights as well, because traffic here is horrendous. That 30-minute flight would take four hours to drive.”

His first airplane was a Socata TB-20 Trinidad piston single. Next came a turbocharged, pressurized Baron 58P, which he flew for six years. Turbine performance and reliability and Commander ruggedness led him to the 690A.

“Commanders are made to airline standards,” he says. “You can get 150 hours between checks. With the Baron it was 50 hours before I’d get a snag. Turbines can be expensive if they go wrong, but they rarely go wrong.”

He moved up from the Dash 10T-powered 690A to the 840 because “it’s a newer aircraft, with newer systems and a wet wing. It’s been very economical to own and run.” He logs about 175 hours annually in the 840, and says the airplane has a 100-percent dispatch rate.

Will returned to Byerly in late May to retrieve the finished 840. “I must say how very pleased I am with the aircraft’s painting and maintenance,” he told Byerly. “The painting and detail on the finishing is the best I have seen. Please pass on a big thank you to Gerry and the guys and Kerry in maintenance. Your service was very professional and efficient.”

The trip back to England took just over 13 hours and three stops, including the final landing at North Weald.

Reached at his home in England, Will says that taking the airplane to Byerly was the right choice. “Honestly, it’s the best thing I’ve done,” he declares. “Byerly does what they say.”



Some say that flying is all about the takeoffs and landings. What happens in between those events is the easy part. Eldo Todesco would agree.

Todesco flies a TPE331-10T-powered 690A Twin Commander for Aero Lipez, a Bolivian-based commercial operator that provides air transportation services for mining companies. Aero Lipez’s milk run—Todesco and copilot Luis Osorio make the trip almost daily—is from the company’s base in La Paz to a mine in the Potosi district in extreme southwestern Bolivia.

It’s just a 1-hour 5-minute flight, but the interesting part is the takeoff. The elevation at La Paz’s El Alto International Airport is 4,061 meters or 13,325 feet MSL, making it one of the highest commercial airports in the world. (Qamdo Bangda in Tibet is the highest at 4,334 meters/14,219 ft.)

Departing El Alto’s 13,123-foot-long runway is just the first flight planning challenge for Todesco. Next up is the landing. The destination airport is a gravel strip located at a large lead, zinc, and silver mine in San Cristobal, just south of the largest salt lake in the world. The mining strip measures 2,600 meters by 20 meters/8,530 feet by 20 meters/65 feet and sits at an elevation of 3,754 meters/12,316 feet MSL.

Operating out of extremely high-elevation airports, one of which is unimproved, is a prime reason Aero Lipez has operated a Twin Commander since 2004, according to Todesco, who also serves as operations manager for the company. “The Dash 10T-powered Commander is the airplane that can do the job at that altitude,” he says.

Todesco uses special charts supplied by Twin Commander that provide takeoff performance up to 14,000 feet. “The great advantage is the charts were designed for Dash-5 powered airplanes, and the Dash 10T engines deliver more power producing better performance,” he says.

Given the altitudes and latitudes of La Paz and the mining strip, Todesco and the three other pilots who fly the Twin Commander for Aero Lipez have to deal with ambient temperatures ranging from –8 degrees C in winter to 21 degrees C in summer. Weather ranges from windy and cold in the winter to summer thunderstorms.

Even on the hottest summer day, maximum takeoff distance at the two airports is about 1900 meters/6,234 feet, or 700 meters/2,300 feet less than the runway length at the gravel strip. Normally the Aero Lipez Twin Commander has five passengers and two pilots aboard, but on hot days takeoffs are limited to four passengers and 2 hours 15 minutes fuel. “We follow the charts and IFR rules and there are no problems,” Todesco says. “We never get to those limits.”

The Twin Commander is the only airplane authorized to operate out of the mining strip at night in the event of an emergency. The mining company also takes advantage of the Twin Commander’s ground visibility from the passenger cabin to fly geologists who scout the landscape for mineral deposits and potential new mine sites.

Aero Lipez also operates between La Paz and airports in Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

The company has in-house maintenance capability, but also has a long-standing relationship with Legacy Aviation Services in Yukon, Oklahoma. Legacy technicians have flown to La Paz to do specialized maintenance on the Aero Lipez Twin Commander, including converting it to Woodward Fuel Control Units. Late in 2008 Todesco and another pilot, plus a company mechanic, made the five-leg, 15-hour flight from La Paz to Legacy to have several major service bulletins, airworthiness directives, and inspections performed on the airframe, hot section inspections on the engines, and avionics upgrades in the cockpit. Legacy also installed the new Fuel Quantity indicating system, painted the airplane, and installed a complete new interior.

“We have full confidence that Legacy is delivering,” Todesco said after test-flying the finished airplane before returning to La Paz. “We’ve been here twice to check on the airplane. It is on schedule—no delays. The airplane is working well.”

Why Legacy? “They are always available,” Todesco says. “We can reach them whenever we want—Saturdays, Sundays, holidays. They have very well trained, very good technicians, and they always have good solutions. We have not had one problem. They have great support.”

Todesco appreciates the fact that Legacy doesn’t automatically replace a problem part with a new one. With cost in mind, “They suggest options,” he said. When a new part is warranted, he likes that Twin Commander Aircraft provides it through Legacy. “When you buy parts for an airplane, you want to know where the part comes from,” he explains. “Having guaranteed parts is very important. The most important thing for this company is safety. Safety, security, and then cost.”

When the president of the mining company’s parent firm is in Bolivia to inspect the mine, the Twin Commander “is the airplane he uses,” Todesco says. “The high-level executives fly on it. They trust that Commander.”


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 stream flow and potential flooding when the snow melts in the spring. NOAA has been doing airborne snow surveys since 1978.

“The high wing is one reason we’ve had Commanders from start,” explains LCDR David Demers, chief of the agency’s airborne snow survey program and one of several NOAA pilots who fly the missions. In addition to great visibility, the Commanders have “really good slow-flight characteristics,” Demers says. “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.

noaaFrom November through May each year NOAA conducts airborne snow surveys in 31 states and seven Canadian provinces subject to significant snowfall, including remote mountainous regions where the Commander’s attributes really shine. A typical mission in the Rocky Mountains 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. (Pilots have to disable the Terrain Awareness and Warning System when flying snow survey missions.) Even lower and slower would be better for the electronic instrumentation that “reads” the snow pack, but safety dictates a more conservative flight profile.

NOAA pilots follow some 2,000 designated “flight lines” on their snow surveys, with each flight line typically 10 miles long and 1,000 feet wide.

Loss of power when operating close to the ground at low 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 695A 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 depth of snow pack can be measured easily enough, but snow can be heavy and wet or light and fluffy so depth is not a good indicator of how much water will be released when the snow melts. Knowing the water equivalent of snow pack is important, especially out west where snowmelt accounts for 80 percent of the water supply. It’s also critical information for anticipating flood areas.

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 detector packs. “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 the attenuated radiation measurements from snow-covered terrain with benchmark measurements of the terrain with no snow cover (gathered in September and October each year), scientists can determine the extent of the water in the snow pack with accuracy of about one centimeter. That information is used by the National Weather Service to predict stream flow and potential 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.

NOAA’s snow survey program is based at the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Chanhassen, Minnesota, near Minneapolis-St. Paul. The 695A and one of the Shrikes is based at Flying Cloud Airport in St. Paul. The second Shrike is based at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

The Tampa-based Shrike had been assigned to photogrammetry work in support of FAA aeronautical charting activities, but today it is used for marine mammal surveys and as a backup for airborne snow survey work.

Eagle Creek Aviation in Indianapolis refurbished the 695A for NOAA when the agency acquired it from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and Eagle Creek continues to maintain it for NOAA.

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.”

Rob Barnett

One feature in particular makes the Twin Commander a superb platform for aerial observation missions—visibility. A high wing and engines and propellers that are positioned well aft of the cockpit and, on all but 695 models, sweeping panoramic windows on each side of the passenger cabin afford unparalleled views below and around the airplane. Visibility is the Twin Commander’s trump card when it comes to observation duty. But if the job calls for the use of belly-mounted cameras and sensors, all airplanes would seem to be created equal. If that’s the case, why does Rob Barnett chose to fly Twin Commanders for data-gathering missions?

Barnett1 “The Commander makes a great airplane for survey work, no doubt about it,” says Barnett, co-owner of Centerline Aerospace. Centerline operates a 690A and a 500 piston twin, and is buying a straight 690. All are dedicated exclusively to collecting data using a variety of electronic sensors and conventional cameras.

“We’ve looked at others—the Piper Chieftain and Cheyenne, and Beech King Air, for example—but the Commander’s power-to-weight ratio, payload, speed, stability, and efficiency are the best. It’s a fantastic airplane, really. In heavy turbulence the ride is much better than in a low-wing airplane. It doesn’t yaw as much, or oscillate. It’s great for hauling equipment, too—you don’t have to walk around the wing all the time to load and unload, you just go under it. The wing makes for a good umbrella in the rain, too. When you live in an airplane you’re kinda particular which one it is.”

Centerline is contracted by various companies, governments, and agencies around the world, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for a wide variety of survey missions. They range from mapping the sea floor and adjacent beach grade, and measuring the moisture content of soil, to photographing all of downtown London to identify potential cell phone tower sites.

The specific equipment used for a mission depends on the data being gathered. For example, to map the sea floor and adjacent beach, the 690A carried a blue-green laser that penetrates the surface of the sea, and also a more conventional invisible infrared laser to scan the beach area.

barnett2 The mapping was done at an altitude of 1200 to 1400 feet above the surface, cruising at 155 knots groundspeed. Those low, often-turbulent altitudes are where the Twin Commander really shows its ride and visibility advantages, according to Barnett. “When you are down low and maneuvering a lot, you really need a good view,” he says.

Barnett, who is both a pilot and mechanic, typically operates with an observer, although on occasion a third and even fourth person will be aboard for training or observation. The observer establishes a grid pattern for the pilot to follow. The 690A is flown with the autopilot engaged, although it is not slaved to the GPS grid pattern. As the airplane rolls into a turn, the expensive gyro-stabilized sensors also roll to maintain a level perspective.

The sensors are controlled by a highly sophisticated inertial reference system that is capable of maintaining vertical accuracy of 2 cm, according to Barnett.

The 500 does not have an autopilot, so missions are hand-flown. On data-gathering runs turns are made with minimum roll by skidding. “Once you get used to it you don’t have to skid much because you’re already using a wind-correction angle,” Barnett explains.

The 500 is equipped with a passive microwave radiometer that can “see” 30 feet below the surface to map soil moisture. The device is used to, among other things, look for leaks in pipelines and levies.

The airplane also has a Midas Pictometer system that uses five cameras—one pointing down and the other four pointing out into quadrants. The effect is to reduce the “leaning” look to outlying buildings that results from the use of conventional cameras that only look straight down.

Centerline’s Commanders are flying in excess of 400 hours a year, and that is expected to go to 700 hours or more when the 690 is brought on line. One of the airplanes will be assigned primarily to NOAA and the Corps of Engineers, according to Barnett. Other jobs will take them to Australia, Southeast Asia, France, Spain, and Portugal.

It’s a nomadic existence, but Barnett, who lives in England, flies for two weeks and then has four weeks of ground-based duties and time off. A second pilot flies for four weeks, followed by two weeks off.

Given Centerline’s far-ranging destinations and intensive schedule, maintenance is a key issue. Barnett uses Legacy Aviation west of Oklahoma City for parts and for inspections and maintenance on the 690A. “The mechanics do a good job, and they give us fair deal on parts,” he says. “We can call them day or night for parts and know they’ll be shipped out. There’s a lot of trust there. They get a gold star.”