Most of us of make certain assumptions about aircraft size, which usually come down to bigger (a widebody or even a B737) is better than smaller (a regional or commuter aircraft). It just seems reasonable to assume that a widebody is more resistant to being pushed around by weather, and that it has a deeper, more complicated suite of avionics—making it safer, especially in bad weather.
When it comes to the two aircraft in the Tradewind Aviation fleet—the Citation CJ3 (6-7 passengers) and the Pilatus PC12 (6-8 passengers)—however, it just ain't so.
"There's nothing less safe about a smaller plane," says Adam Schaefer, Tradewind's Director of Operations and himself a pilot. (He flies both the Citation and Pilatus.)
This is primarily due to the avionics systems, the information displays, auto-pilot, and other automated cockpit elements that maximize pilot performance and safety.
For starters, both Tradewind models adhere to what's known as "the dark cockpit philosophy." That means that the instrument panel is designed to draw the pilot's attention only when needed. "There are no distracting lights," says Tradewind President Eric Zipkin, "unless something goes wrong." That frees the pilot from having to scan the instrument panel continually. "If there's a flashing light, it's something you have to pay attention to," says Schaefer. Such a design allows for what pilots call "more eyes-up time at the controls."
Paired with the dark cockpit is the built-in redundancy. On the CJ3, each pilot has their own flight display, which flank a center display with other information. If one of the pilot displays fails, that information can be moved to the central display without losing the information already there. Both planes also have collision-avoidance systems that meet international standards, meaning it doesn't just signal the dangerous proximity of another aircraft, but orders the pilot to climb or descend to avoid colliding with it.
The Tradewind avionics systems are also about minimizing the effect of weather, especially turbulence—perhaps people's key anxiety about flying in smaller aircraft.
"Turbulence for a pilot is like driving on a gravel road," says Schaefer, meaning bumpy but no big deal. However, he acknowledges that passengers aren't nearly as blasé, so the first move a Tradewind pilot makes is to slow down to lessen the impact. But the avionics in the PC-12 and CJ3 also allow the pilot to anticipate and avoid turbulence.
"The big thing to understand regarding weather is that we have the same capabilities as big airliners," says Schaefer. That includes satellite weather reception that allows PC-12 and CJ3 pilots to avoid strong winds (aka turbulence) and make plans to fly around storms farther along the route. There's also an on-board system that shows weather dead ahead to allow immediate course alternation—"for us to go 25 miles out of our way in the CJ3," says Schaefer, "adds only 4 minutes to the flying time"—or at least warn passengers that choppy air is coming up and to reassure them by revealing the expected duration.
Schaefer also points out that both planes, but especially the CJ3 with its maximum altitude of 46,000 feet, usually cruise above the weather. "We often see the line of thunderstorms way below us," he says. The Pilatus PC-12 has a ceiling of 30,000 feet, which means it can also fly over bad weather, but consider, too, that the plane was designed to fly in extreme environments (Arctic Canada, southern Africa) and weather that no Tradewind Aviation flight is going to experience. (Both planes also climb quickly, so on takeoff they pierce the bad-weather layer in a matter of minutes.)
Of course, weather comes back into play upon landing, and here both the PC-12 and CJ3 have big-plane avionics. Schaefer cites the situation Tradewind pilots often encounter in summer when landing on Nantucket: Nothing but blue skies all the way from New York, though the island covered in a blanket of fog. But this doesn’t necessarily mean a trip back to New York. The advanced avionics will safely guide the plane down below the fog and in for landing.
It’s all part of the advanced avionics capability making Tradewind’s flights just as safe as your typical experience on commercial airliners.