Plane & Pilot
Sunday, February 1, 2004

An Unusual Seneca II

Piper’s trusty twin was just a starting point for this revitalized PA-34 modification

piperKim Bass is an unusual pilot with an unusual airplane. Bass is a Hollywood screenwriter who manages to survive in one of the world’s most cutthroat businesses. Bass has been writing TV and motion-picture screenplays for 13 years, taking scripts from concept to treatment to pilot and sometimes all the way to production. Amazingly, he has yet to file bankruptcy even once.
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Naturally, the panel includes the latest dual Garmin 430 GPS/VHF/NAV/COM wonders plus an S-TEC 55 autopilot, Sandel EHSI, Shadin fuel computer, Bose X headsets all around, an Alpine CD changer, a Sharp microwave oven, a built-in 2.4 GHz desktop Compaq computer, a complete library of the works of Ernest Gann, Richard Bach and...forget the last three, you get the idea. There’s not much a Gulfstream GV can do that Bass’s airplane can’t, except perhaps climb three times as fast and fly twice as high and fast with more passengers in greater comfort over longer range.

Still, Bass’s Seneca is among the most capable of its type. Despite all the options, empty weight on Bass’s twin remains a respectable 3,116 pounds against a 4,750-pound gross. Top the 123-gallon tanks and the airplane is left with almost 900 paying pounds, enough for five folks plus baggage. “I have a friend, actor Lorenzo Lamas, who owns a new Seneca V,” says Bass, “and his airplane has under 600 pounds of payload.” Despite bragging rights, payload isn’t a major concern for Bass. “I usually fly the airplane on weekends as a getaway machine for breakfast or lunch flights, so load doesn’t normally mean much. If I have to, I can always leave the fuel load down 50 gallons and carry a full six people.”

However many passengers fly with Bass, they all travel in reasonable comfort. The Seneca II’s cockpit is 49 inches across up front, enough to enclose even two fairly wide people. Access to the rear is better than in the forward seats by reason of the double side door. People enter/exit through the forward cargo door and baggage goes aboard after lifting the rear portal. Like most Senecas after 1975, Bass’s airplane is fitted with conference seating—the second and third row of seats face each other.

It looks a classy way to travel, but looks can be deceiving. In the Seneca application, there’s a definite lack of leg and foot room for facing passengers. The only way to sit directly across from another passenger is with legs overlapping, not such a bad arrangement if your opposite is a significant other, but not too desirable otherwise. Another minor inconvenience is that the center row of aft-facing seats won’t recline, because their backs are flush with the front seat backs.

Picky, picky, picky. Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for Senecas, regardless of their niggles. For me, flying Bass’s Seneca II was a little like old home week. I operated a similar company airplane for two years and 600 hours in the late ‘70s, flying and writing for a Midwest publishing firm, though I remained based in California.

The company wasn’t always happy with the maintenance bills on that 1975 Seneca II, but I gained a great deal of reverence for Piper’s first 200-hp turbocharged twin. I flew their totally stock Seneca II regularly in and out of a 2,000-foot grass strip in central Wisconsin. The airplane never knew the difference. On a good day, I could touch down and stop in less than half the strip.

I traveled to all four corners of the U.S. and Canada in that airplane, and at one time in 1979, Piper told me it was the highest-time Seneca II they knew of. I hope N103JH still lives happily in someone’s carpeted, air-conditioned hangar. It deserves to live out its years in comfort. It certainly worked hard for me.

Bass reports he’s had a similar experience with his super-Seneca. His airplane doesn’t work nearly as hard and is far better equipped than mine, but the screenwriter says the combination of mods makes the airplane something special, especially during takeoff. The Robertson kit cuts the ground roll to a mere fraction of normal. If there’s a need, Bass can scamper off a paved, dry runway in considerably less than 1,000 feet.

Labels: Piston Twins

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