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The year was 1979, and airplanes were flying off the runways as fast as they could be built. In just that year, you could easily get a piston twin plane – in fact, over three thousand people did exactly that. Today, there are only a handful of new models on the market, and most of those are special-order jobs coming right from the manufacturer.
The simple truth is there’s not a lot of choices when it comes to buying a piston twin plane – nowhere near as much as practically any other model on the market. Let’s take a look at exactly why this is, what you should look for if you’re intent on buying one, and what types of planes are currently on the market.
What Happened To The Piston Twin?
Piston twins started to sell in earnest around 1952 when new models hit the market and were soon followed by a series of new models over the next few decades. In many cases, this was encouraged by the way pilots back then tended to get a multi-engine rating – for most, this was the last rating they’d get before becoming an instructor, and thus it was a natural stopping point.
Training was widely available at the time, too. Models tended to vary by airport, but it was common to see extra planes from World War II used as training planes alongside more commercial models like the Cessna T-50. It didn’t hurt that many instructors were former World War II pilots and, quite frankly, preferred multi-engine craft.
A common trend at the time was aiming for better, faster craft as funds and experience permitted. Pilots were almost expected to move up to a twin, then eventually to turboprops and jets if they were serious about power and performance. The advancement wasn’t limited to power, either – the piston twin plane was also seen as safer than a single-engine because hey, you had a backup if one burned out.
Unfortunately, the myth of safety was exactly that – a myth. Imagine that you’re heading down for your final approach, but just before you land, one of the engines cuts out. You’re not getting your remaining thrust in the middle of your plane, you’re getting it to the side. This is hideously difficult to suddenly adapt to unless you’ve had a lot of practice – and most people, quite frankly, haven’t.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s, companies weren’t quite as focused on safety as they should have been. The conclusion – when someone finally took a serious look at safety and performance – was that the piston twin plane was significantly less safe than its single-engine counterparts. A significant portion of fatal accidents involved one engine failing to produce power – a far smaller issue on the single-engine planes.
That said, the study revealed one other point of interest. A piston twin plane will usually allow you to land safely if one engine goes out… provided you know how to handle it. No pilots are amateurs, but the added skill needed to land a plane in that situation is more than most pilots actually had.
What’s The Difference Between Single And Twin Engines?
Honestly? Not as much as you might think. We’re used to believing that more is better, but this isn’t always true with airplane engines. Once your plane has enough power to get up to flying speed, anything else is overkill. The plane won’t necessarily fly faster or perform better, and running extra engines will consume more fuel and shorten your plane’s range instead of extending it.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has an excellent in-depth discussion on this topic right here. We strongly recommend reading this article in full before even looking at a piston twin plane.
One of their key points is that twins lose about 80% of their power (not 50%) when one engine quits – and that’s a big difference. It’s easier to push something straight ahead than it is to drag it beside you, and thinking one engine is half the power is one of the most common misconceptions.
In most cases, it is not safe to continue flying a piston twin plane after an engine cuts out. Instead, you should look for the safest spot to make a controlled emergency landing. Do not try to get back to an airport unless you are already extremely close.
What Should I Look For If I Still Want To Buy One?
If your heart is set on a piston twin plane, the first thing to do is find a simulator that can adequately convey what it’s like to suddenly and randomly lose an engine piston. Practice with this simulator until you’ve achieved expert proficiency – 50 or 100 simulated landings when the plane goes out of control is entirely reasonable. This is your life we’re talking about, and there’s no such thing as too much practice.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to consider the big question of all pilots: How are you going to get your plane? The most common options are buying new, buying used, or renting it from someone else. If you want to own, we strongly recommend buying new. A brand new, factory-built piston twin is likely to be safer than any older models, especially if they have emergency escape systems.
Beyond that, you’ll need to get a multi-engine rating. For those of you not familiar with pilot’s licenses, a “rating” is a type of additional certification that allows you to fly different types of machines in the same basic class. For a twin-engine plane, you need the multi-engine rating.
Many pilots also like to get an instrument rating – so they can fly only by their instruments – and some go for a seaplane or helicopter rating as well. Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings are two of the “big four” that AOPA recommends for increasing your aviation options.
Piston Twin Planes Currently On The Market
Here are some aircraft that are relatively easy to find.
The new Diamond DA62 is a 7-seater with excellent fuel efficiency and high performance from its twin AE330 engines. The manufacturer describes it as a plane to fill the gap between single-piston and turboprop planes. In car terms, it’s basically the SUV of planes.
At maximum endurance, the Diamond DA62 can fly for about 9.5 hours (at 45% of its power). More likely, you’ll run at 60% to 80% of its power, which is still enough to cross most or all of the country in reasonably favorable conditions. Extended range ranks are not standard, but they are available.
This piston plane stands apart from the competition thanks to a heavy emphasis on safety and performance. The AE330 engine is a refined version of the slightly-older AE300, which has well over 600,000 hours of airtime providing data to the manufacturer.
Access to the interior happens through the forward gullwing doors and a larger door in the rear, with baggage in the cabin and nose areas. (Don’t dismiss the value of this – loading flexibility is always good.)
This is not a beginner’s plane – it’s a luxury vehicle, pure and simple, but it’s quite impressive for what it does. At the normal price – just upwards of $1,000,000, and more if you add optional parts – you may want to pay it off over time and make money with it instead of using it purely for pleasure.
One of the main competitors of the DA62, the Piper Seneca offers a wide-cabin and plenty of pilot-friendly features at a considerably more reasonable price. Helpful features start with the wide cabin doors, offering easy entry for people and luggage alike. The plane sits six, with two of the seats facing the back in a helicopter-like setup. The extra legroom certainly helps.
Range depends heavily on the amount of weight it’s carrying. At maximum load, the Seneca can fly for about 90 minutes, making it best for short charter trips or, more rarely, as a business commuter vehicle. With a single pilot, it has a much better range. You should seriously consider options that expand the range if you plan to buy a Seneca.
Safety-wise, this vehicle features an extremely high number of options, starting with electronic monitors that help to ensure the plane remains in a flight-stable condition. It also works to minimize the potential for problems like stalling and spins, and the system is supported by a robust data display that includes everything from traffic and weather to flight plans and engine data.
The current model – the Seneca V – has been in production for quite a long time thanks to its generally high performance and sophisticated sensor suite. It’s also the only twin piston plane that can carry more than three passengers for less than a million dollars – so, frankly, this may be your only choice. Fortunately, the low price doesn’t mean low quality. This is a good plane, and worth flying if you can.