Aerospatiale-Socata TB 20 Trinidad flight report
(From AOPA Pilot, June 2002.)

Since the early 1980s, Socata has been steadily carving out market share in the piston-single arena. The French-based company (now under the umbrella of EADS — the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, makers of Airbus airliners, Eurocopter rotorcraft, Ariane rocketry, and military aviation hardware) got its first real toehold in the United States after the product liability crisis raised its head, big time, in 1986. That's when Cessna stopped building piston singles, and Beech and Piper cut their piston-airplane manufacturing way, way back. Suddenly, Socata's singles — the TB 9 Tampico, TB 10 Tobago, TB 20 Trinidad, and TB 21 Trinidad TC (a turbocharged version of the TB 20) — were the only new singles being produced in volume. Suddenly, there were more Socata airplanes on American ramps, and they no longer seemed so strange or exotic. They'd become accepted.

Of all the airplanes in the TB series (the TB stands for Tarbes, the French city where Socata has its manufacturing site), the Trinidad has proven the most popular. Its mating of a normally aspirated Textron Lycoming 250-horsepower engine with a roomy four-seat cabin, 86-gallon fuel tanks, and the airplane's 1,200-pound useful load makes it a nice cruising machine with true airspeeds just 10 or so knots below those of a normally aspirated Raytheon Beechcraft Bonanza.

Then there are the stylistic aspects of the TB series' design. The gull-wing doors are the first to catch your eye, and they let you and your passengers enter and exit the cockpit with ease. They're sort of the aviation equivalent of the famous Mercedes-Benz 300SL's gull-wing doors, with the way they're hinged at the top and swing open wide. Their huge window areas also give you great visibility. Caveats: Don't let a gust of wind yank the doors from your grip during ground operations, and be prepared for the greenhouse effect in hot, sunny weather.

The seats are excellent. Designed by Recaro, a firm that provides high-quality seats for upscale automobiles, they are firm, ergonomically correct, and come with side bolsters and really commendable lumbar support. All general aviation seats should be this well designed.

Since 2000, new Trinidads have the GT suffix added to their names. This stands for Generation Two, meaning that the airframe can be endowed with a number of noteworthy improvements. These include:

  • Larger windows, made possible by elimination of the external, vertical aluminium window pillars on the gull-wing doors and aft windows. The windows are now tinted Plexiglas inserts, which blend more naturally into the airplane's lines at the same time they provide greater visibility.

  • Retractable footsteps. Retract the gear and the steps retract too, reducing drag.

  • Propeller anti-ice. This is an optional TKS system that uses a glycol fluid reservoir (accessible through a dedicated access door in the cowl) and routes fluid to the propeller via small tubes. Cockpit instrumentation for the system includes a rocker switch for the two-speed fluid pump and a low-fluid indicator light.

  • An optional three-blade Hartzell propeller, which is necessary if the TKS propeller anti-ice is ordered.

  • More headroom, thanks to expanded cabin dimensions and a redesigned headliner.

  • A faired-in vertical stabilizer and upswept wing tips. Earlier models had squared-off wing tips and a vertical stabilizer that jutted up from the fuselage at a clumsy angle.

  • A larger luggage door than prior models.

The ultimate Trinidad GT

Now that we've established the Trinidad GT as one unique, capable airplane, it's time to take the concept several steps beyond.

As part of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Online Auction effort, Socata, ASF, and a number of corporate participants have come together to create the supreme GT, one that's packed with safety equipment, just about every option on the price sheet, and one remarkable paint job. This prize airplane even has a name: The Spirit of Liberty.

The name sets the theme of the paint job, though calling it a "paint job" is a misuse of the term. Maaco does paint jobs; this is a work of art.

The art is a creation of Oxford Aviation, of Oxford, Maine. Long renowned for the quality of their work, The Spirit of Liberty proves that Oxford's president, Jim Horowitz, and his crew of experts are fully capable of rising to any challenge.

The scheme symbolizes Franco-American patriotic unity. The inspiration, of course, was a response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. From the right wing flows the French tricolour. From the left, the Stars and Stripes. They intertwine mid-fuselage — best viewed from above, as you can in the cover photograph. Oxford designer Margaret Larlee came up with the flag layout's look and dimensions, and the extensive airbrushing was the work of Thomas Williams.

The exterior alone is enough to make this airplane noteworthy. The avionics package, which includes practically every option available on the TB 20, is the icing on the cake.

The panel's pièce de résistance is its Honeywell Bendix/King IHAS 5000 avionics suite. The IHAS (Integrated Hazard Avoidance System) consists of a moving map — of course — plus traffic-, terrain-, and weather-avoidance information, all displayed on a 6.2-inch-wide, 4-inch-high display unit that Honeywell Bendix/King calls the KMD 550.

Traffic and terrain advisories are provided via the KMH 880 sensing unit, which incorporates an enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS), complete with aural advisories. Also included in The Spirit of Liberty is a Honeywell Bendix/King KLN 94 GPS receiver, KFC 150 autopilot and flight control system, KY 297 altitude pre-select unit, KDR 510 digital datalink receiver, and Goodrich Avionics WX-500 Stormscope. The KMD 550, with its large color liquid-crystal display, is the panel's centrepiece. By pushing dedicated function and line select keys around the display's periphery, you can make the 550 show:

  • A moving map, based on GPS inputs, which shows terrain features, airports, and an alphanumeric readout of your present position described in latitude/longitude or range and bearing from the nearest airports or VORs. Track and groundspeed information is also presented.

  • Traffic information from the KMH 880's traffic advisory system sensors.

  • Aural terrain advisories from the 880's EGPWS ("pull up, pull up") functionality, plus height-above-ground callouts.

  • Stormscope lightning plots from the WX-500.

  • Uplinked textual weather (such as METARs, TAFs, area forecasts, and pireps) and ground-based Nexrad colour weather radar imagery, beamed up from Honeywell's network of terrestrial stations and sent through the ship's datalink receiver. This system uses Flight Information Systems-Broadcast (FIS-B) technology, meaning that the information is broadcast continuously.

All of these features make this TB 20 one of the most well-equipped piston singles in the world. With everything but airborne weather radar (which is not yet available in the TB series), the pilot of this airplane will have unparalleled situational and weather awareness. And don't let the lack of airborne weather radar make you think this airplane's been short-changed. The uplinked Nexrad imagery can give a truer picture of any storm cells than any airborne radar. That's because powerful ground-based radars like these use monstrous antennas that produce powerful, narrow beams that are attenuation-free. Their radar signals can penetrate deep into storm cells, unlike airborne radars that can bounce their energy back prematurely and give false returns when heavy precipitation is near.

East Coast cruising

To get a good sense of any airplane, it's important to live with it and fly it on different types of missions. It was my good fortune to fly N708TB — The Spirit of Liberty — from the Oxford County Regional Airport in Oxford, Maine (Oxford Aviation's home base), all the way to Lakeland, Florida's Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The purpose of the trip was to deliver the airplane to the Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-In, where it would grace the Socata static display area. I made the trip in three legs — from Oxford to AOPA's home field at Maryland's Frederick Municipal Airport; from Frederick to Georgia's Savannah International Airport; and from Savannah to Lakeland. Total flight time was nine hours, 15 minutes. In one day.

The departure from Oxford was humorous. Delivery flights are always tinged with chaos and last-minute scurrying, and this was no exception. The Oxford crew was still buffing the airplane's paint as I got in the cockpit. It was as if they didn't want to let it go: The plane was gassed up, Horowitz brought two boxes of goodies for cleaning the paint properly and some touch-up paint, all of Oxford's shop workers were out on the ramp taking pictures, and it was, "OK, let's do one with the doors open; OK, now let me get a ladder for a high shot; OK…hey, what's that streak on the windshield? Let's rub that wax off; OK, now you stand in front of the plane…now you…and you…." You get the idea.

After I finished the runup and began entering the flight plan into 708TB's KLN 94, I noticed several people coming toward the airplane, waving and pointing to a riveter in one man's hand. They motioned for me to open the door. Seems they forgot to install the data plate and Oxford Aviation's decal on the aft fuselage. Probably distracted by the picture taking.

Anyway, the first leg of the trip was fairly uneventful. For takeoff you dial in some right rudder trim (there's a takeoff setting on the rudder trim scale, just to your right on the centre pedestal), put the flaps to the takeoff setting, line up on the runway, floor it, rotate at 68 knots, and climb away at 75, then 95 to 100 kt. I levelled off at 6,000 feet, then set power at 22 inches manifold pressure and 2,500 rpm, then leaned the mixture to about 100 degrees rich of peak EGT. The result was a 75-percent power setting and a 16-gph fuel burn. The airplane had but 12 hours on it, so it was important to run it hard to help seat the piston rings and otherwise break in the shiny new Lycoming.

There was some light icing in the clouds from Massachusetts to central Connecticut, so I turned on the TKS propeller anti-ice. I used the low-speed pump setting — the anti-ice position, and one that would use glycol at one-fourth gph. At this rate the half-gallon tank of glycol would last for two hours, 10 minutes, according to the pilot's operating handbook. At the high-flow setting, the glycol would last for one hour, 35 minutes.

True airspeed on this leg worked out to 157 kt, which was very close to book predictions. Periodically I checked the airplane's Shadin fuel totalizer — another option — to see my fuel status. By the time I reached Delaware I was in and out of snow showers, mesmerized by the way snow seems to speed by in masses of unbroken streaks. After three hours, 15 minutes and 500 nm of flying, I was in the pattern at Frederick. It was bumpy, windy, and gusty for the arrival, and I landed in a 25-kt crosswind that the Trinidad handled without the slightest bit of drift or other complaint. Believe me, it wasn't my technique. This is the airplane's maximum demonstrated crosswind component, so once again the book seems not to have lied.

The leg to Savannah was distinguished by steady, light turbulence and tailwinds that pushed groundspeeds to the 182-kt mark. The leg to Lakeland was the same at first, but when night fell the turbulence disappeared. Flying in and out of clouds between Jacksonville and Ocala, I could look down and see miles-long traffic backups on Florida's highways, long ribbons of red taillights. How lucky to be zooming by at 200-plus mph. Cabin lighting is excellent, by the way, with overhead and yoke-mounted map lights, internal instrument lighting, and glare-shield flood lighting. It reminds me of Bonanza lighting setups.

I really should mention that the seats were vital to this mission's success. You see, owing to an unfortunate encounter involving sonic rodent-repellent equipment and a disrespect for proper lifting techniques, I royally screwed up my back before the trip began. But the Trinidad's seat design let me fly in comfort the whole day long.

It's always gratifying to finish a long trip, and especially satisfying to make a delivery flight on schedule. So it was at Lakeland. I'd flown nearly the entire length of the eastern seaboard in style and comfort, IFR and VFR, unburdened by hubs and spokes, invasive security checks, or long waits. I'm looking forward to more flights in 708TB.