Every evening as we load our planes a sleek low- wing airplane lands and taxis to an adjacent area of Elmira's airport. It is so small yet so fast that often we hear it before we see it, and we can't help but shake our heads in a quiet, if limited, envy. We really like our Cessna Caravans, but like a couple of rubes in a dusty pickup truck, we can't help but wonder about life in the fast lane.
The plane arrives from Reading PA and then departs for Syracuse about the time that we do. One night I took off directly behind him, and by the time I was at the halfway point, he was just about to land. Just as I landed, he was ready to take off for Rochester. This plane makes quite a journey every night, continuing from Rochester to Niagara Falls, then Pittsburgh, Pottstown and back to Reading.
The plane, a Socata TBM 700, boasts a turboprop engine that is rated at 700 horsepower from sea- level all the way up to 25,000 feet. It is lighter, smaller and much sleeker than our planes which can hold their 600 HP rating only to 10,000 feet or so. The hot rod climbs at 1800 feet per minute, more than twice our rate, and cruises at 345 MPH, more than twice our speed.
I am happy when I am flying, and the slower I go, the less time I spend on the ground. I don't have the blind compulsion for speed that some people do, but still I look at the hot rod and wonder; who wouldn't like to buzz through the sky in the state of the art, if only once? Our Caravans are well appointed with dials and gadgets, but compared to the hot rod, our instrument panel looks like something from a locomotive. The current generation of flight instrumentation is all on computer- driven flat panel displays.
On the flight to Syracuse, I have about fifteen minutes of free time. After I level off, fill out the paperwork, and set up the radios for the arrival, but before I start downhill for the approach, I can sit and gawk at the scenery. The poor fellow in the hot rod has no time to himself, because he never stops twisting knobs and pulling levers. Things happen quickly on an 80 mile flight at 300 MPH.
Every plane has its niche though. The caravan was built as a dependable short- range freight hauler, and has been marvelously successful. It can haul more weight and more volume than most medium twin- engine planes, yet has only one engine, a non- retracting landing gear and the structural simplicity of strut- braced wings. It was designed to get a load off of the ground in one place and back on the ground an hour later, 150 miles away.
The hot rod does well with its assignment also. It flies throughout a wide area collecting medical specimens for next- day analysis at a central laboratory. There is not much weight or bulk to the cargo, but there is a need to stop at many different places within a short time.
There are no absolutes in aviation. Long fat wings give lots of lift but are "in the way" at cruise. Short wings allow a higher cruise but don't climb as well. Retractable landing gear provides a higher cruise speed, but adds weight and extra maintenance to the airplane. More or less, it would take two TBMs to cover one of our caravan trips to Syracuse, but it would take two caravans to cover the nightly flight of the hot rod.