When in Samoa, Fly with Talofa and Its Commanders

In Texas they say “Howdy!” In Italy, “Ciao.” And when you arrive in Apia, Samoa, you’ll hear “Talofa!” It’s a friendly, welcoming greeting given to visitors to this small, volcanic Polynesian country. It’s also the name of the newest air service in Samoa, one that will use a pair of Twin Commanders to shuttle residents and tourists between the islands.

Jeffrey Hunter is the man behind Talofa Airways. A native Samoan and former pilot for various air carriers in the South Pacific, Hunter saw a need for a small, independent operator that specializes in direct flights between Samoa and American Samoa as well as to and from other islands in this beautiful Polynesian region of the South Pacific.

Independent Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoa, is mainly comprised of the islands of Savai’i and ‘Upolu, which are just a few miles apart. To the east, separated by about 40 miles of ocean, is American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States comprised of five islands and two atolls. The main passenger travel is between Apia, the capital of independent Samoa, and Pago Pago, the territorial capital of American Samoa, as well as to other more far-flung Polynesian islands including Tonga hundreds of miles to the south.

The motivation for Hunter and his investors is to offer a more convenient alternative to the hub and spoke-style air transportation system that prevails in that part of the world. “Right now you have to fly more than 1,000 miles to go 400,” Hunter says.

Short Hop to American Samoa

In addition to the short hop between Samoa and American Samoa, Talofa Airways plans non-stop flights to islands some 300 to 400 miles distant. “I need an airplane to do it comfortably. Some airports don’t have fuel, so we must make the round trip without refueling,” Hunter explains.

Hunter researched aircraft that could safely and efficiently fly regular direct-to-the-islands routes over water. Along with non-stop range, the basic requirement was for a turboprop, for reliability reasons. The short list of candidate aircraft included the King Air 200 and the Twin Commander.

However, the King Air had a built-in problem. The regulations that govern commercial aviation in Samoa, which are based on New Zealand’s aviation regulations, are restrictive and thus costly for aircraft with 10 or more passenger seats. The King Air is certified for 11 passengers. Hunter’s research revealed that, although very rare, a Commander 690B can be configured for nine passenger seats. “I saw a sales brochure with that configuration,” Hunter says.

Thus began a three-year effort that started with a call to Twin Commander Aircraft’s Geoffrey Pence, Technical Services Manager, who has 43 years-experience with the Commander lineup. Pence confirmed Hunter’s early research.

The high-density seating configuration—a three-person bench seat in the rear of the passenger cabin, two rows of single seats, a single seat opposite the cabin entry door, and the two cockpit seats—is noted on the 690B Type Certificate Data Sheet, as quoted by Twin Commander historian Barry Collman: “Maximum no. of seats 10 (pilot + 9 passengers; pilot, co-pilot + 8 passengers).” Collman adds that, “Interestingly, for the 690A, it shows 11 seats—pilot plus ten passengers or pilot, co-pilot, and nine passengers.”

Once the nine-passenger seating configuration was confirmed possible. Hunger began looking for candidate aircraft. The search eventually led to a pair of 690Bs that Hunter found with the help of Naples Jet Center’s Bruce Byerly. The conversion of the two standard-configuration 690Bs to high-density seating was led by Terry Wagner at Naples Jet Center.

The conversion involved the modification of seat tracks and overhead air vents and oxygen masks in the passenger cabin to accommodate the additional seats and locations, moving the forward air conditioner evaporator, and extension of the baggage compartment, among other changes. One of Wagner’s toughest issues was finding passenger seats, including the rear couch that would fit existing seat attachments and be light enough to meet Hunter’s very strict weight limitations. (Empty weight of each of Hunter’s 690Bs is 6,350 pounds.) He eventually found suitable seats at an aftermarket supplier.

Eagle Creek also modified the panel in each airplane with Garmin GTN750 and 650 flight management systems, and standardized the autopilots with S-TEC 2100s.

Planning the Ferry Flight

Hunter made several trips to the U.S. to work with Eagle Creek and Naples Jet, and to monitor progress of the work. He also spent considerable time planning the 7,700-nmi flights to ferry each of the Twin Commanders back to Samoa.

The first 690B was finished in February of this year. Hunter departed Naples for Merced, California, where Gateway Air Center’s Tom Lopes installed a 500-gallon fuselage bladder tank. The ferry tank essentially doubled the Commander’s fuel capacity, which gave Hunter enough fuel plus reserves for the eight-hour leg to Hawaii. He had to wait in California for a week for 60-80-knot Pacific headwinds to die down to about 20 knots. Hunter and Lopes departed Merced on a Sunday and reached Hawaii without a problem.

Once there, Lopes replaced the bladder tank with a smaller aluminum tank for the remainder of the ferry flight. After signing Hunter off for the remainder of the flight to Samoa with the ferry tanks, Lopes returned to California with the bladder tank, and Hunter launched on a four-hour leg to Christmas Island. He was there only briefly to refuel, and after using the new HF in the Commander to pick up a clearance from San Francisco, he took off for Samoa.

The final three hours of the five-hour flight were spent at 28,000 feet in the clouds, with turbulence and occasional moderate icing, all associated with the outer bands of a cyclone far south of Samoa. Aircraft separation was provided first by San Francisco, then Auckland, New Zealand controllers, based on Hunter’s position reports using HF voice communications. “There isn’t much traffic out there, especially below 30,000 feet,” Hunter says.

After arriving Samoa, Hunter began the process of having the Commander—the first-ever to be based on Samoa—inspected by local aviation officials for airworthiness certification. He also had to get an air operators certificate, which involved proving runs to his planned destinations. One last hurdle was obtaining an FAA Air Carrier certificate because he would be offering scheduled service into and out of American Samoa. The extensive logbook and maintenance records that Eagle Creek organized for Hunter helped speed the process, and the necessary approvals were issued.

The second ferry went much like the first. Hunter again waited in Merced for just over a week for Pacific headwinds to calm down, and when they did, “it was still howling but all crosswind,” he says. With no fuel available in Christmas this time, he kept the big fuel bladder tank installed and continued to Samoa the next day with slight tailwinds—an eight-hour-plus flight.

At press time the second 690B Commander was undergoing Samoan registration and airworthiness certification. Hunter had been awarded the local Aircraft Operators Certificate, which paves the way for FAA foreign operation specifications. Both airplanes are to be painted in Talofa Airways livery before scheduled service will begin.

Next time you’re looking for an exotic island vacation destination, think Polynesia and, in particular, Samoa and American Samoa. You’ll know how to get from one to the other.


A Commander Owner Makes His Way to Cannes

Soon after acquiring his 690A Twin Commander at the beginning of 2016, Patrick Kenney began planning an ambitious trip for any pilot—a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe. He plans to base the airplane at Oxford, England, but the immediate destination was the Côte d’Azur. Here is his account of the journey.

Recently, I flew my still new(ish)—to me—Turbo Commander 690A from Southern California across the Atlantic to the South of France. As required by my insurance, my spouse, and common sense, I had in the right seat Tom Lopes, an experienced professional ferry pilot who also happens to be an IA/A&P and owner/operator of a couple of Turbo Commanders.

Our routing:
Camarillo, CA (KCMA)
Merced, CA (KMCE)
Sioux Falls, SD (KFSD)
Rome, NY (KRME)
Goose Bay, Canada (CYYR)
Narsarsauq, Greenland (BGBW)
Reykjavik, Iceland (BIRK)
Manchester, GB (EGCC)
Cannes, France (LFMD)

We had some hiccups along the way but, aside from the inconvenience of a long delay at the most remote stop of the routing, it was a great trip.

Day 1
We set off at the end of the day from Camarillo to Merced. Flying up the Central Valley towards Merced we had a spectacular sunset, then descended through a thick layer of smoke from a big fire over 100 miles away that burned nearly 75,000 acres near Monterey.

Day 2
We had some delays due to some random issues with planning and the Jeppesen databases for the trip. My wasting time on avionics database problems due to either hardware issues, my mistakes, or issues with the Jeppesen databases and getting them loaded in the Garmins, was a bit of recurring theme during this trip, unfortunately. Some of this was my learning curve on the new avionics, but a decent portion of the delays were Jeppesen and Garmin issues.

With our flying against the time zones and getting a late start in the day, we ended up setting off for Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the afternoon with that being the only flight for the day. This was putting us about one day behind our planned itinerary.

The flight east over the Rockies was uneventful. We were making good time and decided to press ahead to Sioux Falls, SD. We had some very interesting storms north and south of our route near the Wyoming/Colorado border, and ended up finding a gap to navigate through at FL250. It made for some good learning on satellite weather and strategic use of the radar, as the lag between what we were seeing out of the windows and on the onboard radar was meaningful. I’d mostly been flying benign weather around the Southwestern U.S. and doing more training in the plane than using it as traveling machine, so this was a good learning experience. Of course, in Europe I’m not going to have XM weather coverage, so good to learn the radar.

Day 3
We were set to launch in the direction of Goose Bay, Canada, which was to be our departure point for the Atlantic crossing, but unfortunately we learned that there were no hotel rooms available in Goose. So, we adjusted our plan and for Gander to be our jumping-off point for the Atlantic crossing. It’s a bit longer than from Goose, but the plane has plenty of legs for this with just the built-in tanks and, barring unforeseen diversions or having to turn around, the Atlantic legs of the trip were not particularly long relative to the range in the 690A.

Even with an early start we weren’t going to make Gander by nightfall, and we wanted to set off as early as possible on the first day of the Atlantic crossing, so we were resigned to a single long flight for the day.

We departed Sioux Falls for Rome, NY. The flight involved the first “international” flight I completed in the plane but it almost doesn’t really count—for a brief period we were speaking with Canadian ATC over Lake Erie.

Day 4
We learned in the morning that hotel rooms had opened up in Goose Bay, so we adjusted our plan and filed for Goose rather than Gander. The flight was beautiful, up the St. Lawrence Seaway, along the coast of Canada, and into the vast green expanse of northern Canada.

Day 4
The day started with a quick aircraft refueling, update of the weather, and our briefing pack from the organizer. Everything was all set for us to head off for the first intimidating leg of the journey. We were non-HF and non-sat phone, so we ended up getting specific routing, with ICAO position-reporting requirements, and FL250 cruise altitude.

We set off bright and early from Goose Bay with a plan to fly to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, to refuel and then make Reykjavik by the end of the day. We departed heading east and began our climb at those lovely rates the Turbo Commander achieves—2,500-plus fpm. We then settled into a pleasant cruise climb where we were indicating 170 knots and covering a good deal of ground. Everything was humming along as we were sorting out the GPS waypoint we had to enter as our next reporting point. We were assigned a regular waypoint on the way out of Goose Bay—HOIST—and then 5900N/05000W. I was gearing up mentally for that first bit of truly inhospitable overflight, where I knew the engines were going to start making funny noises the same way they did during my first English Channel crossing in my single-engine Diamond DA40, with something approaching 100% of the funny noises being generated from my listening and pretty much 0% coming from the engines.

Upon reaching FL250, we leveled off and BANG! We completely lost pressurization. We popped on oxygen masks, descended, turned back towards Goose Bay, and declared an emergency. When we got to an acceptable altitude for the return to Goose Bay we canceled the emergency and flew along with me wondering WTF was that about.

Thankfully, I was flying with a pilot who also knew more than a little bit about wrenching airplanes. With my highly intuitive investigative techniques (opening the door on the compartment with the environmental systems and noticing that a hose right in front of my nose was no longer connected), we were able to very quickly turn the plane around and depart after a few seconds of work with my Leatherman, and a longer wait for refueling.

We took off on our second attempt at flying Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq (which I found myself completely unable to pronounce, despite many attempts). It was a long couple of hours over the freezing-cold Atlantic, occasionally in and out of IMC, but not terribly eventful. Time moved more slowly than usual.

We were handed over to the local ATC, who kept us for a bit and then handed us over to the local Flight Information Service, who were a bit too laid back. It was IMC on the approach, which is outside of controlled airspace, and they were thoughtful enough to let us know another aircraft was also inbound with a similar ETA. The FISO is clearly in the information business, not in the assistance business, and pretty clearly in the “not my problem” business.

The approach descends you between the mountains east of the runway after overflying it, then takes you out west of the runway and descends you again between mountains, then over a ridge that probably seems closer than it is, and you fly over a fjord that obviously is chilly given the icebergs in it, and onto the runway. We were mostly below the clouds by halfway through the procedure, and it was a spectacular experience.

We probably would have had ample fuel to skip Greenland and continue to Reykjavik, but out of prudence and wanting to check the developing situation with the weather, we landed. We got great, quick fueling service and our info pack, with weather. We were going to be ahead of a front that didn’t look very good.

I let Tom take over the start as we were in a rush to get ahead of the weather and I’m still reading the checklist as a do list. And—what the heck—nothing happens on the right engine start. Within an hour we know that the right starter-generator has given up the ghost and requires replacement. Unfortunately, we are in the middle of nowhere, with something like three flights per week from Reykjavik and Copenhagen, and only a bunch of helicopter flights to other local spots.

So we had five days of unplanned, unwanted, frustrating, but strangely interesting days in Greenland waiting for the replacement starter-generator.

Day 9
Within 30 minutes of having it in our hands we had the starter-generator installed on the right engine. We were fueled up so we filed, got our bags onboard, and set off for Reykjavik. Our takeoff was on Runway 24, allowing us a scenic cruise up the fjord and up and over the beautiful and empty glacier that permanently covers the country. The fjords and visible mountains quickly gave way to the icy, barren expanses of the snow- covered glacier as we climbed en route.

We had some low-level clouds and needed to do the instrument approach into Reykjavik. I don’t have a ton of flying experience, but it seems like in the U.S., at a reasonably-sized airport there is a low likelihood of shooting the full published approach. But, at these airports, with limited or no radar and mountainous terrain, you are much more likely to actually do what is published. And the approach is going to be a good bit more complicated than just intercepting an ILS on a vector.

We got in pretty late and had to walk about 30 feet from the FBO to the airport hotel, where we had a nice dinner and felt like we had returned to civilization after five days in Greenland.

Day 10
We set off early in the morning with a plan to fly to Manchester for a quick refueling stop, and then down to Cannes Mandelieu. Due to the local mountains and primarily visual approaches, the airport closes at sunset. If you are late you need to divert, possibly over to Nice, which is quite expensive for overnight parking if they even have the space.

We flew from Reykjavik over the water to Scotland, which looks a bit less interesting from FL250 than it probably does from low-level flying or on the ground, then over Glasgow, and ended up getting slotted into a fairly busy Manchester. On the ground at Manchester we suddenly seemed to be famous as we were surrounded by paparazzi. The truth is we had arrived in the land of plane spotters, and it wasn’t long before the first pictures of my plane in Manchester showed up on the Internet.

When I contacted clearance delivery we learned we had just missed our slot and our flight plan had expired, despite a pretty quick turnaround by the FBO. We had to contact the agent we were using to arrange fuel, a new flight plan, and a weather briefing. In a few minutes our revised flight plan was in the system.

We took off from Manchester into some of that interesting weather you get in the afternoons in the summer in southern France, with some storms and clouds with vertical development. Our IFR routing was incredibly long with a SID, multiple airways, and multiple waypoints—a long cry from what you get in less-crowded parts of U.S. airspace, where the assigned routing seems to be little more than “Direct,” which makes me feel like I’m cheating a little.

We took off and flew the assigned SID and then were pretty quickly given a vector to the UK/France border, where we resumed our assigned routing. On the way south we flew west of London across the countryside were I first learned to fly and did my first solo cross countries. We flew over the little 2,700-foot-long runway at Fairoaks where I completed my UK PPL, at an altitude a good deal higher than I’d ever flown through that area before.

Arriving in Cannes we experienced what sometimes happens at the end of the day, when the onshore breeze begins to shift direction. After initially being assigned the localizer, followed by the instrument approach with visual waypoints, for Runway 17, our clearance was revised to a straight-in to Runway 35. All went well and we happily parked and unloaded all my junk from the plane—computers, a bike, a stand-up paddle…the sort of stuff you carry with you when you fly your own plane and aren’t on British Airways.

The line crew was pretty impressed with just how much luggage (junk) I had. The customs and border guys weren’t accustomed to international turbine arrivals wearing jeans and t-shirts, so were given a bit more of a hard time than the normal just-being-waived-through, which they do for pilots with epaulets. Maybe I need to get some bars on my shoulders?



Aussies Tour Their Country in a Twin Commander

Australia may be the world’s smallest continent, but it’s the world’s sixth largest country and the largest island country. How best to get around that big island? According to John Ives and his customers, the preferred method of travel is a model 685 Twin Commander.

Ives owns and operates Heron Airlines, which specializes in long-haul tourist flights throughout Australia. The average Heron Airlines air safari tour lasts a week and includes 25 flight hours.

That’s just the average. During a recent month Heron conducted a five-day, 12-flight-hours trip that originated in Sydney—Heron’s home base—and included stops in William Creek, Birdsville, Bedourie, Windorah, Charleville, Cunamulla, and Lightning Ridge before returning to Sydney. That relatively short journey followed an 18-day, 30-flight-hours marathon from Sydney to Cunamulla, Longreach, Cairns, Horn Island, Kakadu National Park, Darwin, Cooinda, Alice Springs, Ayres Rock, Coober Pedy, Broken Hill, and back to Sydney.

Those names may not mean much to non-Aussies, so Ives tries to put it in context. “I guess you’ll have to get out an atlas to see the extent of the flying,” he says, “but to put it into perspective using the USA, we are flying from, say, New York to Florida and across to Arizona and then back to New York, and then flying from New York across to LA and back, with various stops in between.”

All of Heron’s tours are inclusive—they include the flight, accommodations, meals, transfers, etc. “In Europe they do bus tours,” Ives says. “This is the same thing except that instead of using ground transport we are using an airplane to get from A to B. There is not much to see in the interior of the country, so we cover ground efficiently. At the destination we use a local tour operator.”

In fact, he was planning to introduce the same tour concept—take a small group of tourists to many interesting destinations using a multiengine airplane—in the United States, flying from Seattle up to Alaska and back. But before he could implement the plan the exchange rate changed, devaluing the Australian dollar in comparison to U.S. currency, and he shelved the idea.

Heron Airlines got its name because Ives used four-engine de Havilland Heron aircraft, one of which was an original Gipsy Queen-powered version (six-cylinder 250 hp engines) when he founded the company in 1991. “They were great aeroplanes,” Ives says. “Passengers loved the four engines. Little did they know that it needed all four to stay in the air, at least the Gipsy-powered one.” Pressurized by regulators who were not fans of older commercial aircraft, Heron switched to Piper Chieftains.

Since founding the company Ives has sold it and bought it back four times.

Why a 685 Commander? After Ives sold Heron Airlines for the third time, he and a partner formed an aeromedical transport company specializing in infant transport, and began operating with a Piper Mojave. However, they found that the Mojave’s range didn’t suit the company’s long-haul nonstop mission. “Sydney to Adelaide was a 650-nmi flight,” Ives explains, “and with the Mojave we had to stop to refuel. It made life difficult.” So he replaced the Mojave with the 685. “It’s pressurized, fast, reasonably cheap to operate with piston engines, and has good range. The 685 could do Sydney to Adelaide nonstop in reasonable time.”

The aeromedical transport venture eventually “did not work out,” Ives says. Meanwhile, the owners of Heron Airlines were struggling, so Ives saw an opportunity. He bought Heron back and began touring in the 685.

“I rather like the aeroplane,” Ives says. “It has its moments, and problems, but I’m solving them.” Passengers “absolutely love it,” he adds. “Most are in their seventies and eighties. When we were operating Chieftains they had to climb stairs to get in the aircraft. The 685 makes it nice and easy. And it’s unbelievably quiet. It’s very much a plus for passengers.

“And it’s a high wing. We don’t operate it pressurized because most passengers expect to look at the ground. We are on an air tour, after all, so we fly at 7,000 to 8,000 feet. If we’re doing a long haul we have to get it to altitude, but it takes a lot of fuel.”

Heron’s pilots, most of whom are retired from airline cockpits and who fly the 685 single pilot, use a 55-percent power setting on trips. “They operate on a very strict set of guidelines to get the max out of the engines,” Ives says. “It’s much better to operate at low power settings because we end up with full TBO on the engines. We haven’t had a single cylinder problem in 600 hours on the aircraft. Compressions are as good as day it was built. It comes down to how you operate the airplane, and we operate it strictly by the book—as former airline pilots they are used to that. It’s definitely not an airplane you would employ a young kid on.”

A pilot, Ives concentrates on operating the company rather than flying the tours. “I can’t do both,” he says. “I occasionally donate an Angel Flight, and I do the flying if it’s a decent day.”

In the past Heron flew international trips and air tours to nearby Pacific islands along with the Australian tours, and Ives would like to do that again. His goal is to acquire a 690 model Twin Commander to handle the international flights and Pacific tours, and add a 500U to help with the Australian tours.

The company is successful with the 685, Ives says. The airplane logs about 500 hours a year, according to Ives, which probably makes Heron Airlines the premier 685 operator in the world. Certainly a 30-flight-hours tour is a distinguishing achievement. “It’s probably a record for a 685 these days,” Ives says with some understatement.

Commander Helps Parallel Lives Converge


Brad Van Liew has led parallel lives—one on the water, one in the air.

The split existence started at a young age. He grew up in aviation—his father owned and flew a Cessna 185 and a Beech Baron, and his grandfather was a barnstormer, an airmail pilot, a captain at the fledgling United Air Lines, a World War II aviator, and in Van Liew’s words, “a huge influence on my father and our involvement in aviation.”

Van Liew studied real estate at the University of Southern California, but after graduating he succumbed to his “infatuation” with the notion of becoming a professional pilot. “The family rule was, if you don’t fly to professional standards, don’t fly,” Van Liew says. Rules being rules, Van Liew embarked on an accelerated ab initio professional pilot training program that led to flight instructing, including tailwheel transitions and aerobatics, and eventually his ATP certificate.

Van Liew settled in Santa Monica, where he founded and operated an aircraft charter and management company. After about five years, however, his other passion—long-distance sailboat racing—moved from back-of-the-mind interest to top-of-mind obsession.

As a young boy he had learned the basics by racing dinghies in summer camp in Washington State. At 13 he began crewing on big ocean-racing sailboats off New England. As a young teenager he competed in a Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda race, and throughout high school and college spent summers running race boats out of Newport.

One summer in Newport Van Liew witnessed the finish of a very special kind of sailboat race—a solo around-the-world competition. “I couldn’t believe that these super-radical boats could be sailed around the world by one guy,” he says.

That fascination stuck with Van Liew, and in 1998, after five years of the pro pilot’s life, he took a sabbatical from aviation and entered the “Around Alone” race in a 50-foot-long boat named Balance Bar in deference to his sponsor. Van Liew, one of three Americans to compete in the race (16 boats were entered) told the Los Angeles Times that, “I’m not doing it to sail around the world. If I wanted to sail around the world, I’d get on a beautiful 40-footer with my wife and I’d stay in the mid-latitudes and [take] two years. This is something I decided to try to do to push my own personal limits.”

That it did. During the race Balance Bar turtled (rolled over), and lost its mast, among other life-threatening catastrophes, yet Van Liew—a rookie, the youngest competitor, and sailing an older, rebuilt boat—finished third. He was officially hooked. “I transitioned from professional pilot to professional ocean racer,” he says.

He won the 2002-2003 Around Alone race, and the 2010/2011 Velux 5 Oceans Race, becoming the only American to complete three solo around-the-world sailboat races and the first person ever to sweep every leg of two of those races.

It was a spectacular resume, but one that came at a price. Solo ocean racing is an extremely demanding sport, both mentally and physically. During the races Van Liew spent months alone on the boat, lost several friends to accidents, and had post-race PTSD-like symptoms. He also required back surgery after each event.

During his 15-year professional racing career he continued to fly, using a Cirrus for personal transportation, and also did some instructing for the Cirrus factory. “I always figured I would return to flying professionally when my body gave up on professional solo ocean racing,” he says. After the third back surgery, he did just that.

Living in Charleston, South Carolina, he flew charters and met Wayne Gregory, who owned a number of car dealerships in the Southeast. The car dealer owned and flew a Bonanza and had previously owned a King Air 200 and a Citation, but was drawn to Twin Commanders. The partnership culminated in the search for a Twin Commander that ended with a TPE331-10T-powered 690A Grand Renaissance that had been updated with a Garmin G600 panel.

The Grand Renaissance rebuild had been done under the supervision of RJ Gomez at Downtown Airpark in Oklahoma City. Gomez now owns and operates Legacy Aviation Services in Yukon, west of Oklahoma City. So Gregory chose Legacy do the pre-buy inspection and, after the purchase, install an air conditioner and do some cosmetic work, among other items.

Van Liew’s first experience flying a Commander was in the simulator during pilot-initial training at SimCom Training Centers in Dallas. From there he teamed up with Hugh Davis, a Commander instructor and mentor pilot. “Because I didn’t know so much about Commanders, I wanted to work with someone who did,” Van Liew explains. Flying with Davis put Van Liew on the fast track to proficiency, and also was good preparation for what Van Liew plans to accomplish. “The owner eventually will be flying his airplane, so I want to function as a mentor to him,” Davis says.

The Commander is flown frequently—six months after acquiring it the airplane was back at Legacy for a 150-hour inspection. The primary missions are to visit the owner’s dealerships, and for family trips including Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the owner’s mother has a home.

Six months into flying and managing the Commander, Van Liew gives it two thumbs up for reliability, performance, efficiency, and the intangibles that separate the good from the great. “I’ve been really impressed with the airplane,” he says. “I never knew what to expect before I flew it—I’d never flown a 331-powered airplane. By the time I had 50 hours in it and was starting to feel proficient, I said, ‘You know what, this is a pilot’s airplane.’ I love flying it. It’s a sweet airplane.”

Another intangible that Van Liew appreciates is the sense of community among Commander owners and operators, and at Legacy. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know RJ,” he says, “and the group of owners feels like family.”

Given that the owner is in the business of offering the public a variety of vehicles to suit every need, it’s not surprising that he and Van Liew already have roving eyes when it comes to airplanes. “We’re talking about upgrading to a Commander 1000 for the range, the higher pressurization differential, the longer wing, and RVSM capability” Van Liew says.

Those attributes would serve the owner and his family well. They also would help make possible a goal that unquestionably has its origins in Van Liew’s past parallel life. That goal is to fly a solo pole-to-pole around-the-world trip. “We think the Commander 1000 is one of the few airplanes that could handle the extra fuel the trip would require,” Van Liew explains. “We’re excited about the possibilities!”

Desert Air Twin Commanders Tour Namibia

Desert Air is appropriately named. The company is based in Namibia in southwest coastal Africa, a country known for its deserts and grasslands. Those colourful deserts, and the diverse wildlife that range the grasslands, attract tens of thousands of tourists each year, many of whom travel and tour by aircraft. That’s where Desert Air comes in.

Desert Air was founded in March 1996 when Thys Rall received approval from the Namibian Directorate of Civil Aviation to operate a tourism and air-taxi company. Rall founded Desert Air with another pilot, a general worker, and a charter co-ordinator.

The company had humble beginnings, starting with one Cessna 210 used for charter and flying safaris. A couple of months later the fleet doubled with the addition of a Cessna 310. The company grew steadily, adding more Cessna 210s. The workhorse piston single formed the backbone of aviation in Namibia, especially for operators like Desert Air that were focused on the tourism market.

Anticipating a change in customers’ preferences toward larger, higher-performance aircraft, Desert Air took what it calls “a bold step” and in 2001 acquired its first 690B Twin Commander. Bought in Jacksonville, Texas, the Twin Commander was ferried to Namibia via Bangor, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Prestwick, Scotland; Paris; Malaga, Spain; Tamanrasset, Algeria; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; the equatorial African island of Soa Tome; finally landing in Windhoek, Namibia, on June 15, 2001.

In 2004 Desert Air bought its first Cessna Caravan 208B, also from an owner in the United States. Four years later the company bought its second Twin Commander, a Model 840 690C, from Naples Jet Center. It is the last 690C to come off the production line.

A third Twin Commander was added to the Desert Air fleet in September 2012 when the company acquired a 695B Model 1000 from a California owner. Legacy Aviation refurbished the interior before Desert Air pilots undertook the flight back to Namibia, this time via St Johns, the Azores, Canaries, and Accra in Ghana to Namibia.

Desert Air continued to grow. In 2011 the company opened its own maintenance facility to conduct scheduled and line maintenance on all of its aircraft. The facility includes a fully operational sheet metal workshop.

In 2014 a Desert Air client bought a 690B Twin Commander that had not flown for about five years. After a Damaged Engine Review Board inspection, Desert Air literally rebuilt the aircraft.

Desert Air currently operates four Twin Commanders; two Cessna Caravans, one of which has had the Supervan conversion installed; a Beechcraft Baron 58; seven Cessna 210s; and a Cessna 206.

Another Desert Air client is acquiring a German-based Dash 5-powered 840 Twin Commander that will be brought to Namibia. Desert Air also is seeking authorization to establish a flight school to conduct primary training, and upgrade and proficiency training for company pilots. The company currently employs 14 pilots including two instructors, six maintenance technicians, and various administrative and other staff.

“The Commanders are ideal for our operation as many of the charter flights are to gravel runways,” Rall says. A typical flight is between 280 to 500 nm one way, and returning the same day, he explains.

“We get super support from Legacy Aviation in Yukon, Oklahoma, who not only supplies all of our Twin Commander spares, but also assists with technical advice and other aircraft spares,” Rall says.