Business & Commercial Aviation, Oct. 2010, p. 40

Piaggio P180 Avanti II

Roomy, fast, quiet and fuel efficient, but not without shortcomings

By Fred George Fred.george@aviationweek.com

There are more than 100 Piaggio P180 Avanti II aircraft in service and they’ve logged more than 200,000 flight hours by some estimates, as of late August 2010. That’s an impressive number for less than five years of production, considering that only 105 of the original P180 aircraft were built between 1990 and 2005.

Perhaps that popularity is a result of Piaggio Aero Industries delivering on the promises it made for the Avanti II in late 2004, according to operators contacted for this report. The distinctive twin pusher turboprop has a 400 KTAS top cruise speed, Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics, considerably improved tanks-full payload and upgraded passenger amenities.

Piaggio predicted that the Avanti II would be 12-kt. faster in high cruise altitudes than the original P180, an aircraft that already held bragging rights as the “World’s Fastest Production Civil Turboprop.” Flight tests, though, revealed that the Avanti II was up to 20 kt. faster, primarily due to better-than-promised power output from its Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-66B engines. Maxed out at 400 KTAS, the Avanti II is almost 3% faster than the first-generation aircraft while fuel flows are about half that increase. The second-generation aircraft also is slightly more fuel efficient than the original model because it can climb to higher cruise altitudes.

The Avanti II has given up nothing regarding cabin roominess and low sound levels. The 9.0 pressurization system assures that cabin altitude never exceeds 6,600 ft., even at FL 410. The aircraft’s new interior design features LED interior lighting, a choice of three seating layouts and a roomier full-width aft lavatory.

Even more so than the original P180, the $7.195 million Avanti II blurs the distinction between turboprop and turbofan business aircraft. It can fly a 600-nm trip in 1 hr., 44 min. That block time splits the difference between the 600-nm flight times of most popular turboprop and typical midsize jets. The Avanti II’s midsize cabin cross-section is essentially the same size as a midsize jet’s and the cabin is much larger than that of any production business turboprop. The interior is far quieter than that of any other turboprop, and almost as quiet as some light and medium-size jets.

Its 70.3 lb./sq. ft. wing loading, 50 to 100% higher than conventional turboprops, actually approaches that of many midsize jets. This provides a jet-like ride in turbulence. In addition, the Avanti II can cruise in the mid-thirties, or higher, flight levels at which the air typically is smoother than at the lower altitudes used by most turboprops.

The Avanti II truly is a talented performer that delivers exceptional speed, fuel efficiency and comfort, according to operators.

But some also say it is somewhat of a prima donna, a star that requires more care and maintenance than conventional models in return. Viewpoints vary widely, as we discovered when we interviewed several operators.

Operator Profiles

On average, Avanti II operators fly their aircraft 254 hours per year, according to John Bingham, president and CEO of Piaggio America. Half of all Avanti II aircraft are based in the United States, most of which are flown by Avantair, a fractional ownership and charter operator based in Clearwater, Fla. Avantair flies its 55 first- and second-generation Avantis 125 hr. per month, thus, it is logging six times the annual utilization of smaller operators contacted for this report. The other U.S. operators only fly one Avanti II, either as their only aircraft or as part of fleets that include other aircraft types.

There are three Avanti II aircraft registered in Canada and two in Mexico. In Europe, most of the fleet is based in Italy, including seven operated by the Italian government. There also are six in France, four in Switzerland and three in Germany operated by Airgo Flugservice GmbH, plus a pair in the Netherlands and one flown by an air ambulance operator in Poland. Two aircraft are registered in Indonesia to Susi Air, a large Cessna CE-208B Grand Caravan operator, and three are based in India. Aircraft outside the United States, other than the Italian government aircraft, typically fly 100 to 200 hours per year. Most operators said they traded up from more conventional turboprops or first-generation Avanti aircraft. Curt Schuermann at Simmons Foods, for instance, said his firm previously operated a Cessna 441 Conquest II. Jeff Pomeroy at Yellow Rose said his company’s last airplane was a PC-12. And Brian Guerin, chief pilot at International Game Technology, said his firm traded up from a first-generation P180.

Avanti II operators report average mission lengths of 1 hr., 30 min. with average stage lengths just over 500 nm. Avantair averages close to 1.9-hr. mission lengths, according to COO Kevin Beitzel.

Operators flight plan for the low thirties on shorter missions, expecting 390 KTAS cruise speeds. Avantair frequently flies at FL 350 to FL 370 for many of its bread-and-butter missions. For longer missions, they climb up into the high thirties and plan on 370 KTAS block speeds. As a rule of thumb, they plan to burn 800 lb. the first hour of flight , 700 lb. the second hour and 600 lb. for each additional hour. The aircraft can fly four passengers 1,400+ nm at 310 to 320 KTAS and land with NBAA IFR reserves, according to our May 2010 Purchase Planning Handbook. However, most operators say they’re accustomed to flying 1,200 nm maximum stage lengths while cruising at 360 to 370 KTAS. Avantair’s Beitzel said that his pilots are comfortable flying 1,400 to 1,450 nm, while cruising at 330 to 340 KTAS, assuming clear skies and no arrival delays are forecast.

The Avanti II incorporates a Service Bulletin that increases MTOW to 12,100 lb., a modification that increases advertised full-tanks payload to 1,348 lb., assuming an 8,000-lb. single-pilot BOW. But current production aircraft actually have on average an 8,375-lb. BOW, according to Bingham, thus the tanks-full payload is reduced to 973 lb. Operators say their average passenger load is three to four people, thus the 973-lb. limit isn’t a problem. Avantair, however, reports average passenger loads of four to five people.

The tradeoff for each additional 200-lb. passenger is about 100 nm to 120 nm in range, depending upon cruise speed. Maximum zero fuel weight is 9,800 lb., so Avantair aircraft with average two-crew BOWs of 8,550 lb. still can carry six passengers. Average long-range cruise speed is 318 KTAS, which is still considerably faster than any other purpose-built business aviation turboprop. At that speed, fuel flow drops to 408 pph at FL 410, clearly marking the Avanti II as the world’s most fuel efficient, pressurized, twin-turbine aircraft. This is one of the most eco-friendly “green machines” in the business aircraft fleet.

Baggage capacity is adequate, but not generous, according to operators. The 44-cu.-ft. capacity aft baggage compartment has approximately the same volume as the forward and aft bays of the Cessna Citation CJ1 or Encore+. Avantair’s Beitzel said that his pilots have stuffed four golf club bags, plus some small pieces of luggage, into the aft compartment.

What Works, What Needs Improvement

Operators’ favorite Avanti II features include its ramp presence, cabin volume and quiet, speed and fuel efficiency. They also said that the second-generation P180 incorporates reliability enhancements, such as nosewheel steering, along with mods to the door and radome seals, and fuel quantity indicator. As a result, the aircraft seldom needs maintenance outside of scheduled inspection intervals.

Pilots remarked that the airplane has pleasant handling characteristics, although it has relatively high pitch force feel because of the comparatively short distance between the center of gravity and the elevators atop the T-tail. They like the advanced features of the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics system, including its three, 8-by-10-in. flat-panel displays, full-featured FMS 3000 and optional file server that supports JeppView electronic charts, enhanced map graphics and XM radio weather, among other functions.

“It’s really a pilot’s airplane. It’s fun to fly and I love the passenger acceptance,” said Fred Whitten, who formerly flew serial number 1182. Many operators also mentioned the aircraft’s high wing loading that provides a more comfortable ride in rough air than conventional turboprops with considerably lower wing loadings.

Low direct operating cost, mainly a function of low fuel burn, is another favorite feature with Avanti II operators. They can budget $1,200 per hour for fuel, engine and prop reserves and incidental expenses. At block speeds of 360 to 370 KTAS, the Avanti II costs about $3.30 per nm to operate.

Operators’ gripes about the aircraft were consistent. Topping the list of many was the need for more stopping power. Takeoff and landing speeds are jet-like. At its 12,100-lb. MTOW, rotation speed is 120 KIAS and takeoff safety speed is 126 KIAS. At max landing weight, approach speed with full flaps is 125 KIAS and 132 KIAS with flaps at the takeoff/approach mid position. The aircraft has robust power-boosted, carbon disc brakes, but it needs an anti-skid system that would help shorten stopping distances.

At MTOW, accelerate-go distance is 5,250 ft. and accelerate-stop is 5,750 ft. At max landing weight, landing distance over a 50-ft. obstacle is 3,250 ft. As a result, several operators said they won’t routinely operate from runways shorter than 5,000 ft., assuming standard-day conditions.

Nosewheel steering also is challenging. Similar to first-generation Learjets, the Avanti II has a dual-mode, hydraulically powered, rudder-pedal controlled nosewheel steering system. It can be used up to 60 KIAS on takeoff, but the AFM prohibits its use on landing. Minimum control speed on the ground is 100 KIAS and the demonstrated crosswind component is 25 kt., thus the nosewheel steering system leaves a gap in the directional control available through the rudder pedals. Pilots say that maintaining directional control on contaminated runways, especially with crosswinds, demands fine-tuned use of rudder, asymmetric thrust or prop reverse and differential wheel braking. They said the aircraft would benefit from a full-time, speed-proportionate nosewheel steering system.

Avantair’s Beitzel countered that comprehensive pilot training can overcome both the lack of anti-skid and nosewheel steering limitations. He also said that Avantair’s fleet gets 700 to 900 landings per set of wheel brakes because of generous use of beta and prop reverse.

Some operators complained that the durability of the Avanti II’s interior, supplied by Nordam, has fallen short of their expectations. Cabin furnishings require refurbishment or replacement after a few hundred hours of service life. Avantair recently developed an upgraded interior refurbishment kit that now is undergoing an extensive in-service evaluation program.

Checking engine oil level after shutdown is a routine task on most aircraft. Not so on the Avanti II. The task requires removal and replacement of several fasteners on a section of the engine nacelle to gain access to the dipstick. To reduce the frequency that this task must be performed, Piaggio equipped the aircraft with electronic dipsticks and placed the oil level indicator on a panel in the baggage compartment. However, operators still must verify engine oil level by hand periodically to cross-check the readings of the electronic level indicators.

They say that Piaggio ought to modify the engine nacelles with dipstick access doors, similar to an STC developed by Avantair and an outside vendor. The oil access door mod has been incorporated on virtually all of Avantair’s first- and second-generation P180s.

And finally, operators said that the 150-hr. scheduled A-check maintenance intervals are too short and that the aircraft typically is grounded for five to seven working days in the shop to accomplish the inspection. They also said that Piaggio America’s parts inventories are sparse, and thus the availability of spares is a major concern. No operator, though, said that he was grounded by a lack of a critical spare part.

In response, Bingham said that Piaggio Aero “always is looking to provide continual improvement” of the aircraft. The Ferrari and di Mase families, along with Dubai’s Mubadulah Development Co. and India’s Tata Group, now own Piaggio Aero and, collectively, Bingham said, they “provide worldwide business expertise of huge depth, plus a great deal of support and guidance.”

While he declined to predict when product improvements, such as anti-skid brakes, full-time nosewheel steering, line servicing enhancements or extended maintenance schedules, plus more durable interior components, might be available, he did say that Piaggio America has undergone a “total revamp” on its spares inventory and now stocks $6.5 million to $6.7 million in components. He also said that spares sales are up 70% in 2010 compared to 2009, thereby motivating suppliers to produce larger volumes of spares. “We now have the ability to get parts from outside vendors quickly,” he said.

In addition, demand for spares from Avantair, flying its fleet in excess of 82,000 hr. per year, has helped drive their production. The firm orders spare parts months in advance of scheduled inspections, based upon sophisticated maintenance forecasting programs. Avantair also has developed relationships with MRO facilities and component vendors, assuring it of overhaul services and components as those needs arise.

On Balance . . .

The Avanti II is developing a reputation as a robust and reliable business aircraft, one that offers an unprecedented combination of speed, fuel efficiency and cabin comfort. In return for such exceptional performance, it demands more frequent and longer attention, as shown by its 150-hr. inspection intervals and relatively lengthy maintenance task completion times. Some business aircraft competitors have 300- to 600-hr. A-check intervals. Piaggio Aero appears to be evaluating several product improvements, but operators would like to see a firm development plan and implementation schedule.

The Avanti II ’s strengths, however, far outweigh its shortcomings, operators said. Perhaps its greatest asset is being the world’s most eco-friendly, twin-turbine business aircraft.

In a business world growing more conscious of mitigating environmental impact, this green machine could become a rising star in corporate aviation with few peers. If Piaggio Aero were to build an Avanti III, that embraced new systems technologies and MSG-3 maintenance protocols, such stardom would be virtually guaranteed. B&CA

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