AC ExpressIt’s not easy to make a profitable go of it in aircraft charter, especially in these recessionary times. Along with competitive pricing, efficient management, and strict cost controls, you have to have the right aircraft for the job. Robert “Jake” Wilburn figures he has just that in a pair of hard-working Twin Commanders.

Wilburn owns and operates AC Express Inc., an aircraft charter and management company based in Fairmont, West Virginia. The company owns a 690A and leases a 690B, and manages a Citation CJ2+, Westwind I, and King Air C90B. The charter fleet is comprised of the two Twin Commanders.

Wilburn has been flying for 44 years and managing airplanes “before it became popular.” He founded AC Express in 1988 in Morgantown with an early serial number Citation 500 and a Piper Mojave. The fleet changed and grew with the times. In 2003 one of his management customers decided to set up its own flight department and bought all of Wilburn’s aircraft, but not the charter certificate.

“If I had any sense I would have taken the money, bought a little house in Florida, and retired,” Wilburn chuckles. Instead, he took over the small FBO at little 4G7, Fairmont Municipal Airport-Frankman Field, situated between Morgantown and Clarksburg in the northern part of the state. He founded a flight school, bought a Cessna 414, and started all over again with AC Express.


AC ExpressAs northern West Virginia and neighboring southwestern Pennsylvania transitioned from a traditional industrial-based economy to one incorporating high technology, Wilburn’s charter business grew and with it the need for more capability. “The client base demanded more performance,” he says. “The leg segments were getting longer, and folks wanted to be able to serve their customer base. We needed to go higher, farther, and faster.”

Wilburn had experience with Twin Commanders. In 1971 he flew the first 681T delivered by the factory. Later, he filled in for a pilot flying a 690B for the owner. In 2004, when he sought to upgrade the AC Express fleet with something more capable than the 414, he concluded that a Twin Commander would best serve those needs “because it does all of that quite well.” His search for a candidate led him to the same 690B he had flown years earlier. The airplane was still in the hands of the original owner and had just over 1000 hours total time since new. Wilburn leased it from the owner and put it on the charter certificate.

Three years later, with business on the increase, he went looking for a second Twin Commander for the charter role and found a 690A undergoing an inspection at Winner Aviation, a factory authorized Twin Commander Service Center located in Vienna, Ohio. Wilburn bought the airplane.

“Twin Commander was the logical choice for us,” Wilburn says. “It has the same cabin volume as a King Air 90 but goes faster on about same fuel. In fact, it has about the same cruise speed as the King Air 200 but on about 35 percent less fuel.

“It’s an excellent airplane,” he continues. “An absolute rocket ship. We fly to a lot of small communities with short strips, basically your 3,500-foot-long by 75-foot-wide runway. With about 1500 pounds of fuel on board it will operate out of just about any airport here in the Appalachians and actually make the numbers. We get a tremendous amount of flexibility out of the airplane.”


Most of the charters are for business purposes, Wilburn says. “These are not golf outings. We’re carrying guys to mines, wells—whatever. They are working flights with relatively short stage lengths and long waiting times for the pilots at these small-town destinations. The pilots may have to sleep in a rental car, but we’re going to get these guys where they want to go.”

AC ExpressAC Express is authorized to fly the Commanders single-pilot on Part 135 flights, but Wilburn prefers two in the cockpit. “My philosophy is that the cheapest insurance policy you can buy is another pilot up there. We do a lot of northeast operations—Philadelphia, Teterboro, Washington-Dulles—and it gets busy. It helps to have another set of eyes. Same for flying into and out of short strips in the mountains.”

Winner Aviation serves as the Director of Maintenance for the AC Express Commanders. The September 2009 issue of Professional Pilot included a report on maintenance and repair operations (MRO) used by business aviation, and AC Express pilot Robert Waldron was complimentary of Winner’s work.

Winner is the “service base of choice” for most of the AC Express fleet, Waldron wrote in a letter that was published as part of the Pro Pilot MRO report. “They are a well-established facility that provides expert diagnostic ability and repairs for our engines…as well as service for our airframes and avionics. They’re outstanding at performing complex installations and they understand how critical it is to get the service done on time. Winner Aviation is superb. I salute the entire staff from those in the front office to the hard workers on the shop floor.”

At their peak the two AC Express Twin Commanders were averaging 35 to 40 hours a month combined flying time, according to Wilburn. As his customers reacted to the downturn in the economy by cutting back on travel, Wilburn’s business suffered. At the beginning of 2009 flying time had plummeted 54 percent compared to a year earlier, but Wilburn has since seen most of his customers return to the air.

“It looks like we’re back up to the flight time and number of trips we did in 2008,” he says. Credit Wilburn’s competitive pricing, efficient management, and sharp pencil, plus a pair of capable, hard-working airplanes.

Stan & Bob Perkins

Stan Perkins pays what may be the highest possible compliment to his father, Bob. “We’re best friends,” Stan says. One of their common interests is flying—both are pilots, and both have been Twin Commander owners. They often fly together, including to the last three Twin Commander Universities, where they could be seen listening attentively at each seminar presentation.

During the 1970’s, 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, (with his dad as his instructor) it was in his dad’s 680E. In fact, he passed his private pilot check ride in it on his 17th birthday. “All my early experience was in my dad’s 680E,” he explains. “I was so comfortable in that airplane that it made sense.”

Soon thereafter 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, he hung onto it for more than eleven 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.

TargetNot 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 primary flight instructor, and flew in the reserves after the war. “He got to fly nearly all the service aircraft,” Stan says, including the now rare 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 Aeronautical Company as a mechanical engineer. He and a friend later founded their own fiberglass and thermoplastic fabrication company, based in Torrance, California. He owned a Cessna 310 at that time, but was looking to upgrade. “Someone recommended the Commander to him because it was more capable and spacious as compared to the 310 and other light twins,” Stan says.

TargetBob bought a 680E to use in his business, and later sold it for another, better-equipped 680E. (His first 680E 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 680W in 1979. Stan sold his 172 in 1985 and 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 living nearby 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 for several 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 24 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 almost 4,000 hours, of which about 2,600 are in multiengine airplanes including 2,200 in Twin Commanders. At age 91 Bob still has a current FAA medical certificate, and, with a big smile on his face, 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.

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.”