Tecnam designed the twin-engined P2012 Traveller as a drop-in replacement for the legacy twins that have served the charter and short-haul RPT industries well for decades. Steve Hitchen found out that the Traveller is up to the job and then some.
There was no way we were going to get in: too high, too fast and too close to the runway. I thought this was a go-around for sure.
Charles Gunter had other ideas. He pushed the prop levers forward to full fine, ran out the flaps and closed the throttle. With the big twin shuddering under the sudden increase in drag, he pitched the aircraft to about 20 degrees nose down. The altimeter went into reverse and the VSI flirted with the bottom stop.
I watched the ASI all the way, but it hardly twitched, registering minimal increase in air speed as we plunged towards the ground.
When Gunter was happier with the picture out the windscreen, he hauled back on the stick, bled off the excess speed and deftly kissed the runway with the wheels. It would have been an impressive landing in an energetic little aerobat, but he had pulled it off in an 11-seat piston twin.
A Traveller cometh
Since the early 1960s, our charter heroes have been Piper's workhorse PA-31 Chieftains and Navajos, and Cessna's sleek and speedy 400 series. Big piston twins all, they have earned their keep on relentless charter and short-haul RPT operations for decades.
As they aged, they should have been replaced, and most likely would have if a viable alternative had ever been put on the table.
Now that alternative is here in the form of Tecnam's P2012 Traveller, an aircraft specifically designed to allow operators to retire their legacy twins.
The demonstrator, VH-VNV, arrived in the country in early July 2022 after a marathon 79-hour ferry flight from Tecnam's home at Capua near Naples in Italy.
"The P2012 is the first clean-sheet design, high-wing twin to be certified in recent times," said Michael Loccisano, head of local agent Hallmarc Aviation. "Tecnam has specifically designed this aircraft with a customer of [Massachusetts airline] Cape Air in mind. Cape Air searched the world looking for a manufacturer that was prepared to design a brand new aeroplane from the ground up to replace the ageing twins like Chieftains, Navajos, Cessna 400 series aircraft, and when others said it was too hard and too expensive, Tecnam said 'of course we can.'"
Despite Loccisano's assurance that the Traveller is clean-sheet, as I walk out to VH-VNV at Essendon Airport, I can't help but feel that I've seen it before. It bears a spooky resemblance to the Partenavia P68C, unsurprising given that both came from the imaginative mind of the late Professore Luigi Pascale, the man who founded Tecnam.
This is an 11-seat, high-wing twin of largely metal construction with a fixed undercarriage, powered by two Lycoming TEO-540 piston engine putting out 375 hp per side and swinging four-bladed wood composite MT propellers. The blades are only 2.1 m in diameter, which leaves plenty of ground clearance.
The secret you can't see looking at the engine is that they have full-authority digital engine control (FADEC). FADEC is a computer system that controls the ignition and engine performance, relieving the pilot of those tasks. FADEC is almost mandatory now on new engines designed for constant-speed props, and delivers efficiency and performance exactness that pilot inputs don't often match.
For a twin designed to lift 3680 kg and get along above 170 KTAS, I found it curious that Tecnam elected to leave the wheels in the slipstream. On a twin, the wheels do hideous things to the climb performance on one engine, but you have to trust Pascale's nous given the P68C was also a fixed-gear twin.
"Having a fixed undercarriage, there is so much less that can go wrong from a maintenance perspective as well as out in the field," Loccisano pointed out. "It has been designed to land on all sorts of runways including unprepared strips.
"Having a retractable undercarriage has issues from a maintenance perspective; this aircraft has none of that. Performance with the fixed undercart is still very good, and on descent from altitude you hardly have to adjust the power settings, you just point the nose down and leave the power up all the way to the ground."
The main door is a clamshell with air stair and a vertical split that folds back towards the tail. At full yawn, the door is 1.3 m wide, leaving plenty of room for loading passengers, luggage, cargo, stretchers and most other things charter operators are called on to haul. Crew are needed to operate the door safely because it is a bit tricky, but as they have their own access doors for the cockpit, they can close-up the back from the outside before getting seated themselves.
Walking around the rear of VNV, I noted with further curiosity a departure from Tecnam's standard design heritage. Whereas the P92, P2006T, P2010 and even the P68C have stabilators, the Traveller is fitted with an elevator. I kept in mind that this is the largest aeroplane ever to carry the Tecnam label, and different engineering is often needed to counter forces in flight.
I flipped open the left crew door and was greeted with a small interconnected step that folded out from the lower door sill. I stepped up into the command seat without any ingress awkwardness and surveyed the panel before me.
VH-VNV was fitted with three Garmin G1000 NXi screens, MD302 back-up flight instruments and a GFC-700 autopilot. The power quadrant was where it should be between the seats, housing the power and prop pitch levers with the two-position electric flap switch stationed just forward of that. An overhead panel contained the master and battery switches, lights, fuel pumps, start switches, two very beefy fuel selectors and a paddock of circuit breakers.
There was, however, one set of levers missing from the quadrant: red fuel mixtures. The FADEC eliminates the need for mixture controls and takes over that duty to make sure the ratios remain optimal. Although many FADECs, such as that fitted to the P2010 TDi, are single-lever operation, Tecnam left the pilot with the ability to set the CSUs on the Traveller. The benefit of this would become apparent in flight.
The cabin that stretched out behind my back contained nine seats and a luggage compartment at the rear. It was one of several configurations the P2012 can be ordered in: airline (as VNV was), combi passenger and freight, medevac, full cargo and custom special mission. The cabin cross-section is 1.47 m wide by 1.27 m high, which is smaller than a PC-12, but larger than both a Cessna 402 and a Piper Chieftain.
The single aisle in the Traveller is 0.28 m across, which I personally felt was narrower than I'd like it, but that was compensated for very spacious seats and foot room. In cargo configuration there's enough volume for four 250-kg pallets, and in medevac mode can hold two stretchers plus seating.
Part One of my Traveller experience was a leg from Essendon to Wangaratta on the brink of Victoria's high country. I wanted to observe the P2012 doing what it was conceived to do: short-haul relocation of people. Loccisano took the command seat, and demonstration pilot Charles Gunter and flying instructor Murray Gerraty had the spacious cabin all to themselves. Murray came along to supply what I couldn't: experience flying big piston twins.
Loccisano chose A090 for the leg, leaving the throttles open and bringing the RPMs back to 2100, which is a good setting for 65% power. With the centre screen set-up as the engine monitor, we could see the FADEC had selected 38 MAP for both motors. With a fuel flow of 75 lph per side, VNV was getting along at 158 KTAS. You would expect a Chieftain to give you around 165 at those settings, so the Traveller was proving it belonged in the same ballpark.
Lifting the power to 75% would use another 13 LPH per side, but add only a few knots to the airspeed. At full power, the P2012 is rated at 194 KTAS at 10,000 feet, but the fuel consumption will scare you.
One hour's cruise was giving me good observation time, but was also ramping up my excitement for getting into the command set for the test flight. On arrival at WGT, I had to cool my heels on the ground for a bit longer as the plane was swamped by the curious who came from all corners of the aerodrome to see what we had.
You can imagine I was itching to get going by the time demo pilot Charles Gunter cleared me into the cockpit.
The P2012 is a modern airliner fitted with most of the functionality that operators demand from new-build aircraft today, and although not everything needed attention, a lot did. We rattled through the checklist together, with Gunter occasionally re-directing my eyes to the crew alerting system (CAS) for expected, or unexpected, warnings.
Gunter is rightly proud about how these Lycomings start compared to the cussedness of many large six-cylinder avgas engines. The engine start buttons are located on the forward section of the overhead panel. When all else is done, the process is to check clear then push one of the buttons, releasing in a second or so after the engine kicks in. Easy as that: no constant cranking, re-priming, sweating or swearing courtesy of the FADEC managing the start on the pilot's behalf. Repeat for the other engine.
Off the blocks
I had some preconceived ideas about taxying the Traveller that I had to shelve within seconds of rolling. Being a large twin, I expected to use a bit of power overcome the rolling resistance, and some inertia that would resist directions from the nosewheel.
Neither of those two things happened. We were relatively light with just the two of us and about 600 litres onboard, so VNV rolled under idle power as soon as I released the brakes.
"There is not an immediate increase in thrust when you advance the throttle on the ground, there's a bit of hysteresis in it, which I think is a function of the FADEC," Gunter told me as we trundled down to the 36 threshold. "You get used it, and then you don't think about it.
"There is some inertia on the ground, but it isn't really a factor," Gunter explained. "Once the four-blade props are set they're delivering a fixed amount of thrust. It's not something you really have to take into account."
One of the beauties of FADEC is that it does most of the run-up work for you. All that is required of the pilot is to push one button per engine on the Electronic Engine Control System (EECS) and it will take 90 seconds to run through a series of checks before giving the all clear. What the P2012 FADEC won't do is cycle the props; that is still up to the pilot.
Before we lined up for take-off, I queried Gunter about what I could expect when I unleashed all 750 turbo-charged horses in one go. His response reminded me of an assumption I had made. I presumed the props were contra-rotating.
"Tecnam made the decision to go with right-turning propellers, both of them," he said, "Contra-rotating props have great advantages when you're flying a twin because they eliminate P-factor.
"You need to remember that with both props turning to the right, there will be a tendency for the aeroplane to want to turn left. You're putting on 750 hp, which not a paltry amount; it's 50 hp more than a Chieftain and that will have significant P-factor."
And it happened exactly that way. As I moved the throttle levers to full power, the Traveller surged down the runway, with the MAP showing a full 58 inches. Around 80 KIAS I lifted the nose and danced on the rudders until I got the pressures right enough to keep the nose straight.
At 300 feet I reduced the RPM from 2575 to 2300, which brought the power back to 90%, and retracted the flap. Another surprise: I expected a more significant nose-down pitch rather than the almost imperceptible dip that we got. I was starting to like flying this aeroplane and we'd only just left the ground.
In the playground
We climbed at 120 KIAS southbound, scoring 750 fpm on the VSI, and leveled out at 3500 feet. I reduced the power to 65% by bringing the pitch back to 2000 RPM. Once settled I reached for the trim wheel to find absolutely nothing. The trim is electric only, with trim command swapped between the control yokes via a switch on the instrument panel. I had encountered this system on other Tecnam models, and noted mentally the need not to forget when handing over the controls.
As I swung VNV into the first medium-bank turn, I was caught off guard by the weight on the controls. It was substantially heavier than anything I'd ever flown, even a Cessna Caravan.
"The control weight is slightly heavier than other aircraft in the category in roll," Gunter admitted. "Pitch and yaw are normal, which comes back to its natural stability, which is better than average. If you've got great stability you need more control force to move it away from that.
"It's what you want from a commuter aeroplane. It's there to do nice turns or fly straight-and-level. You don't want super-sensitivity with passengers on board."
The controls redeemed themselves by needing little movement to get good response. The stability Gunter talked about was obvious in turns in any direction, but aggressive aileron reversals needed some wrestling. I didn't red-cross that; these sorts of manoeuvres are generally performed only in test flights anyway and shouldn't be required in the normal ops the Traveller was designed for.
In steep turns, the P2012 is one very stable machine that needs very little back pressure to maintain the nose attitude. No sooner had I applied back pressure than I had to relax it to stop the nose rising. From then on the nose painted itself around the horizon and Gunter and I went along for the ride. Rolling out required a bit of muscle, but by that stage I was used to the control loads.
It is credit to the design that the P2012 is the most benign staller since the GA8 Airvan. For this exercise we swung away from the sun, climbed to 4000 feet and set about the stall.
The most startling thing happened immediately I closed the throttles: the four-bladed props acted like a speed brake and VNV shuddered as the ASI registered the massive drag that comes with props at idle thrust. I banked that bit of information as I knew it would come in handy on landing: don't cut the engines before the threshold.
It seemed Gunter thought I could do with a bit of reassurance pre-stall.
"It's not the sort of aeroplane that's going to go into an incipient spin off a stall," he said. "Everything is benign about the handling characteristics ... you can trust in the design of this aeroplane."
Clean, VNV stalled with the needle passing 70 KIAS. At Gunter's prompting, I held the stick back to find the aircraft just mushed downward with the wings level. I held it that way until we'd sacrificed 1000 feet, then recovered. With no flaps, the Traveller had shown no tendency toward a wing drop.
After a clearing turn, we climbed back to 4000 and selected take-off flap. This time VNV issued an expression of interest in dropping the right wing, which prompted me to leap on opposite rudder. All that did was convert a gentle right-wing drop into a moderate left-wing drop. Eventually I found an even keel with my feet, but not before the wings had done a bit of see-sawing.
The lesson to be learnt is that the Traveller responds well to rudder input and doesn't need to be bullied into wings level.
It was at this point that Gunter took the controls from me and demonstrated the steep approach to Wangaratta described at the start of this article. The object was to show how the Traveller would handle getting into runways guarded by mountains at the threshold end.
"Typically that kind of approach is to get over a mountain range and get yourself back onto a three-degree profile and a normal power setting for the touch down," Gunter said later. "It's possible, but the challenges are enormous.
"Normal descent is cruise power, you just go about 15 knots faster. We were descending with an airspeed of about 150 KIAS, which is still well below the normal operating limit of 176 KIAS. You can reduce power to maintain the cruise speed in the descent, which is a more economical way of doing it."
After his greaser landing from the dive-bomb approach, Gunter handed VNV back to me and we blasted off for a circuit. I resigned myself to knowing his effort was going to be a hard act to follow! But, I did surprisingly well for a pilot who'd never landed a twin bigger than a Travel Air before.
We zipped along downwind, which prompted me to ask Gunter about some settings.
"On downwind, bring the props back to 2000 RPM, but you will need to reduce the power a bit as well," he replied. "You've still got about 60% power on downwind, which will give you 145 knots. That's more than you need, so reduce the power a bit."
With Gunter providing the necessary tutelage, I turned base for 36 and selected approach flap. Interestingly, there was almost no pitch change with the flap and no tendency to balloon. I left the power alone and checked the threshold position before swinging onto final.
Once straight with the centreline, I ran out the last stage of flap and advanced the prop levers to 2300 RPM. We didn't use full fine because the accompanying drag would have been too much of a penalty.
Target speed 85 knots, gear is fixed, leave the props, flap is full; here come the piano keys.
After a short hold-off , the main gear contacted the runway with a thunk that was a lot louder than I was hoping for. Still, we were down and literally no damage was done.
"Was it a great landing?", Gunter quipped. "No. Was it an OK landing? Absolutely! It was what you would expect from somebody landing this aeroplane for the first time. Completely understandable."
I'll take OK, but I think the performance can be attributed more to the characteristics of the aeroplane more than any skill from my fingers and feet.
I completed the return flight to Essendon from the passenger cabin, happy staring out the windows as Murray took the command seat for VNV. I wanted him to have plenty of time to assess the aeroplane against his experiences with larger twins, particularly the Piper Chieftain.
"There is not much to criticise in the handling of this aeroplane," he said later. "This is a good package for 1-2 hour legs and you can give it to a low-time pilot and be confident they won't damage the engines. I just love the FADEC! Really short check-lists too.
"Initially I had some concerns with the ground handling when I was in the cabin, but they evaporated once I got into the cockpit.
"We will need to retrain pilots on how to use four-bladed props. They have a large disc footprint, and a very low spinning mass!
"It's a bit slower than a Chieftain, but I like having the high wing because it keeps the props out of the stones on unsealed runways."
But after the flying was done, there was still one question that I needed to settle. The charter industry in Australia has started to accept SETPs as the future. Was there still room for a twin piston that burned avgas?
"The P2012 will be a bit late to market for some operators who were forced to migrate to twin turbo-props or SETPs," Loccisano conceded, "but anyone who’s still flying a Chieftain or a 400 series Cessna is very much on our radar.
"They will need to do something, and it’s been proven over the decades that those who invest in new equipment and adopt that earlier rather than later are the ones that will flourish down the track.
"There’s no perfect aeroplane; they’ll all do a job well for what they’re designed to do. They won’t do everything, and neither will the P2012. We don’t pretend that it will do what a King Air can do, but we certainly believe it can do what a Chieftain or a Cessna 400 series can do."
For charter operators that have been lamenting for years the lack of a twin piston replacement, here is your aeroplane.