While many private pilots dream about someday flying a light jet, the reality for most of us goes no further than a "high-performance" retractable single or light twin. To move up into the world of turbine airplanes, you need a commercial multi-engine license and type rating, right? Not necessarily!
There's a class of airplanes that offer performance well beyond any piston twin, but can be legally flown by any pilot with a private license, complex and high-performance endorsements, a high-altitude/pressurized endorsement and instrument rating: cabin-class turboprop singles, including the Epic LT, Pilatus PC-12, Piper PA-46-500TP Meridian and Socata TBM-700/850 series. A multi-engine license isn't required with one engine, and a type rating isn't required because these airplanes have a maximum gross weight below 12, 500 pounds and have a prop.
Moreover, while all of these airplanes are legal for single-pilot IFR, most are equipped with dual flight instruments suitable for a crew of two—which is key to getting experience in the flight levels without winning the lottery. All you have to do is find a pilot who flies an airplane like this on FAR Part 91 operations, and ask if he or she would like some company on their next flight (if the flying is done under Part 135 or 121, then a fully qualified co-pilot may be required).
I don't recommend doing this without an instrument rating: Turboprops spend most of their time in the flight levels (class A airspace) above 18, 000 feet. If you don't have an instrument rating, you won't be able to log the time. And, filing and flying IFR gives you experience dealing with air traffic control. That's a necessity when flying in the flight levels, and means you can offer your perspective. Captain the ability to do some of the radio work, which will make bringing you along attractive on long legs.
If the pilot says yes, ask if you can borrow a copy of the pilot owner's handbook (POH)/airplane flight manual (AFM). That will show that you're serious about learning to fly an advanced airplane. You'll need to set aside some serious study time—the POH/AFM for a turboprop will likely be several times the size of any POH you've seen up to now. If the pilot offers you books from a simulator training course, they'll be better organized and easier to read than the POH/AFM, but it will take just as long to understand.
The books are big because airplanes in this class have significantly more complex systems than piston singles and light twins. As with any airplane, you've got a power plant, flight controls, fuel system and airframe. But for cabin-class turboprops, you can also expect to deal with pressurization, complex hydraulics and pneumatics, a more complex electrical system with multiple buses and weather equipment, including heated prop and windshield, de-ice boots and probably weather radar. You'll also find some unfamiliar instrumentation in the panel.
Don't panic—as the pilot who first invited me to fly right-seat in a turboprop single pointed out: "It's just an airplane."
In the space available for this article, I can't possibly cover everything that's different about flying a turboprop, but here are some issues common to turboprop operations that stand out as very different from what I was used to from my years flying piston singles.
If you're planning to own a turboprop, it's always a good idea to get professional instruction. Training will likely be insurance mandated and will include initial and recurrent simulator training, as well as type-specific in-aircraft training along with mentor time.
In flight training, and as we move from one piston airplane to another, we memorize certain airspeeds (or, at least, learn how to find them on the airspeed indicator): stall (clean and with flaps), best glide, never exceed, etc. In all airplanes, V-speeds are weight and temperature dependent, but in bigger airplanes such as turboprops, the variation in weight is enough to matter so that values are often computed before each flight. The one exception to this is Vne, which we'll get to later.
With GPS pretty much standard in these airplanes, the route can sometimes be direct from the departure airport (or a nearby navigational aid) to the first fix on an arrival procedure. Altitude is usually selected by comparing winds at several altitudes above FL 200. Any lower, and the turboprop isn't very efficient. Turboprops typically go as high as possible for the best economy. With climb rates of nearly 1, 000 fpm at FL 270, most turboprop singles will have no trouble "popping up" to an altitude above FL 200 on all but the shortest flights.