Recently, Hinson Airways, a small regional airline on the East Coast, flew its last flight in the venerable Bombardier Dash 8. The Dash, as it was commonly called, was once a popular turboprop, a 30-seat puddle jumper that connected small cities to airline hubs, often by making stops in other small cities on the way. Such flying now represents a largely bygone age.
While Horizon Air still operates the Dash 8 Q400, a larger version of the airplane, the company is the only regional still flying turboprops for its major airline partners. Everyone else has committed to some form of the regional jet.
This is not an insignificant development for pilots who want to fly for the airlines. Back in the day, turboprops were the backbone of regional flying, with Saabs, Brasilias, ATRs, Jetstreams, and Beech 1900s—the airplane everyone loved to hate—providing a large chunk of the lift from Smallville, USA, to the hubs to connect to jets (or, God forbid, another turboprop).
These airplanes were often a major stepping stone for pilots who had not yet been exposed to flying a turbine aircraft. The training could be challenging, especially since a lot of it took place in the airplane itself, usually in the middle of the night. In time, more sophisticated simulators came into play (the simulator for the EMB-120 Brasilia was said to have cost more than the airplane, but the gain in safety more than offset the financial cost).
Nowadays, pilots from the piston world have even fewer opportunities to get entry-level jobs flying turboprops for Part 135 operations or smaller commuter airlines, as they were called. That means the big leap is no longer from a piston twin such as a Piper Seneca or Aztec to a Beech 1900. It’s from a Piper Seminole to a jet. The transition is eased by the fact that so much of general aviation is using avionics that equal or exceed what RJs have. However, it’s a large leap from a piston twin that might fly 140 to 160 knots to a jet that can have a true airspeed of more than 400 knots.
Speed is probably the biggest challenge associated with moving into jets. Everything happens much faster, except for slowing down, which takes forever. As a result, speed and energy management are real challenges, and training and practice are critical. Unfortunately, the sterile environment of the simulator does only so much to prepare a pilot for all the various curve balls that the real world can throw your way. Tight turns to final, weather deviations, high speed aborted takeoffs, and even ATC mistakes will all be in a day’s work.
It’s both a shame and a blessing that turboprops are gone. They provided great experience, a great stepping stone, and in the airplanes with no autopilot, they made for phenomenal instrument pilots with well-developed decision-making skills. The work was exhausting (six to eight legs a day in airplanes with minimal air conditioning, followed by short nights), often in the worst of the weather, and words of thanks were relatively rare, but quality of the pilot produced was first rate. The blessing, of course, is that jets are much faster, more comfortable and, with the proper training, safer.—Chip Wright