Nearly 35 years since it was last produced, Piper's Turbo Aztec continues to prove that it's a true heavyweight among light twins.
Once upon a time, piston engine aircraft manufacturers actually tried to one-up each other. When Cessna would come out with a new model, the other two members of GA's Big Three would develop a model that would carry more, go faster, go farther or whatever.
Case in point: when Cessna upgraded its 310, Piper countered by adding a fifth seat and bigger engines to its Apache, thus creating the PA-23-250 Aztec. The airframes were virtually identical, and it could be hard to tell an Apache from an early Aztec.
The first really big change came about in 1962, when Piper introduced the Aztec B. With its longer nose and bigger cabin—now with room for a sixth seat—the B model ushered in the big, brawny, beefy Aztec look that everyone is familiar with today.
Two years later, Piper again enhanced the model's appearance and performance and brought out the Aztec C. Produced between 1964 and 1968 and featuring streamlined engine nacelles, it was by far the most popular of the Aztecs. Standard equipment on Aztec C airplanes included fiberglass gear doors, fuel injection, dual alternators and more.
The Aztec D offered pilots a standardized instrument panel and changes to the controls in 1969. Factory-option turbos gave the aircraft a top speed of 250 mph at 24,000 feet. (Turbos were first introduced by the factory in 1965. —Ed.)
In 1970, the company introduced the Aztec E model with its stretched, more pointed nose. While the new nose looked cool, reports are that the cosmetic refinement actually came with a 100-pound reduction in the useful load.
The F model, which would turn out to be the last of the Aztec lineage, was produced from 1975 through 1981.
In total almost 5,000 Aztecs were built over its 21-year production run. While the Aztec, like its competition, was continually "improved" over the years, it never really changed much.
Then as now, it's an honest airplane that gives you the ability to pretty much fill the seats, fill the tanks and take off. And those very attributes are why Mark Matheson has made the Piper Aztec his airplane of choice for business and personal flying.
Real use of an airplane
When you think about it, buying an airplane is a lot like creating a great ad campaign: there are a lot of solutions, but only one that's really right for the situation. As the owner of a successful strategic marketing company, that's just the targeted thinking Mark Matheson used when he began the search that ultimately lead him to N964MM.
"I earned my private [certificate] in 1991 and followed it immediately with an instrument rating. I currently have just over 2,000 hours," Matheson said. "Flying here in the Northwest (he lives in Snohomish, Wash.), an instrument rating is mandatory if you're going to get any real use out of an airplane."
And use it he does.
Along with local flights, he has been a longtime user of small aircraft for business and pleasure. When he first got his ticket, he joined a flying club and rented 172s and 182s. "Like most pilots who fly for business, I needed more speed, range and altitude than the flying club's 172s and 182s could deliver, so I purchased a turbo 210," he said. "It was a really great airplane and I flew it for 12 years."
And while the Centurion fit the bill, he found himself traveling more frequently with his family, friends and clients, and he became less comfortable with relying on one engine. After all, although breathtakingly beautiful, the mountains and weather found in the Western United States can be pretty unforgiving.
"My 210 was not really all-weather equipped. It had the performance to fly high and fast enough to get into weather trouble (turbulence and icing), but it didn't have the performance to get me back out—in particular, it had no de-icing capabilities," Matheson said.
"As my experience grew, I knew [that] to be able to safely operate in all weather, I needed [radar and de-icing] and wanted the added safety of that second engine."
"A" is for Aztec
It's not like Matheson started searching airplanes alphabetically, but really, when you are looking for an affordable, all-weather light-twin that can carry a good load and won't eat you out of house and home, it's a pretty short list. So you might as well start at the top.
"I researched for about a year and quickly reaffirmed my belief that in aviation everything—speed, range, load carrying, fuel efficiency, icing characteristics, maintenance, reliability—is about compromise," he explained.
"When I put all the possible aircraft and their various levels of compromise out on a spreadsheet, the answer—at least, for me—was a Piper Turbo Aztec F."
Here are a few of the Turbo Aztec's features that really sold Matheson:
• A steel tubular airframe that's incredibly strong and resistant to the corrosion issues plaguing other aircraft of that era.
• Its Lycoming TIO-540s are derated to 250 hp, and lower output means a 2,000-hour TBO. (Most other turbocharged engines have TBOs from 1,400 to 1,800 hours.)
• It's a true six-passenger aircraft that still allows for plenty of fuel, or it can carry four passengers with baggage and full fuel.
• An Aztec F has terrific range: long-range tanks (177 gallons) will give five-plus hours in the air. Matheson can fly from Seattle to Las Vegas or Southern California.
• The airplane's Vmc is quite low; it has a large rudder with full authority, making for a great safety margin.
• Single-engine performance is exceptional. It'll climb at full gross weight—and the single-engine service ceiling is above the minimum en route altitude for mountain flying.
• There's plenty of speed: an Aztec flies at 200-plus ktas if you want to burn fuel, but pull the throttles back to 170 and it will burn 32 gph total.
• The plane has de-icing boots on its leading edges, de-icing for the props and a heated windshield.
• It also comes with six-place factory oxygen and has a big panel that offers enough room for advanced avionics.
• Insurance premiums for an Aztec are favorable, and it has reasonable maintenance requirements and costs.
Of course, wanting and finding are two different things. While there were a good variety of Turbo Aztec Fs on the market, most were well beyond their prime and the cost to bring them up to Matheson's standards was beyond his budget.
Yet, he didn't want to compromise. The Turbo Aztec was the airplane for him; he just had to be patient. "I was leafing through a copy of Controller one day and came across this low-time 1978 Aztec in Canada. It had only 3,000 hours on the airframe. It looked perfect!" he said.
"The owner at the time had spent a fortune on new avionics for the airplane. It was really nice. He owned a plastics manufacturing company in Calgary, Alberta and bought the Aztec to service a customer in Portland, Ore. He flew between the cities monthly and needed a good, all-weather airplane. This Aztec fit his needs."
"Unfortunately, his business fell victim to the economy and he was forced to sell the airplane," Matheson said.
Being that the airplane was now registered in Canada, he decided to hire some experts to ease the aircraft's transition through customs and getting its N-number registered. "I found a company that specialized in the process of bringing foreign-registered aircraft into the United States," he said. "It cost me some money, but I would not want to try to do it on my own. It would have taken up all my time."
Matheson explained that while the process is rather straightforward, it does require a very thorough annual inspection—in addition to the in-depth pre-buy he wanted before signing the check. Except for a glitch in the paperwork that quarantined the airplane for a few days, the whole process was pretty painless.
"One thing I've learned in all my years working with my FBO and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) clients is the value of having an aircraft worked on by someone who really knows the nuances of the model. Just because they can do an inspection on a 172 or Archer doesn't mean they can do the best job on a sophisticated airplane like an Aztec," he said.
"That's why I had all the pre-buy and airworthiness inspection work done by Diamond Aire in Kalispell, Mont. John Talmage runs the shop and nobody knows more about the PA-23 line than he does. They specialize in the airplane and have a variety of conversions and STC'd upgrades for the -23s."
"I didn't want any surprises a year or so down the road," Matheson explained. "It was at the Diamond Aire shop for almost four months to get all the work done the way I wanted it."
While the pre-buy and annual showed him how well this airplane had been cared for over the years, there was one area Matheson wanted to address up front. "The Lycoming engines had been under an AD for crank issues, so both engines had been sent to the factory for work. In effect, they had both received new bottoms.
"The owner also went ahead and had both tops done, so they were basically recently factory overhauled," he said. "But when we scoped the cylinders on the left engine, they just didn't look healthy. There was some scoring and other issues in there. It was odd since the engines didn't have 300 hours on them."
"My options were to leave them alone, re-bore and re-sleeve the cylinders, or replace them," Matheson said. "I decided to replace them with factory cylinders. I wanted the peace of mind and wanted to be able to start with a known quantity, just in case we had issues down the road."
Matheson also had all new exhaust and engine baffling installed. "Proper cooling is critical to these engines," he said.
Of course if you've got the budget, you might as well put in a new interior while the airplane is basically disassembled, so that's what the team at Diamond Aire did. Matheson said that the interior got the royal treatment with new upholstery, headliner, sidewalls, complete soundproofing and more.
He also recently returned to Diamond Aire to have all the Aztec's original windows replaced with ¼-inch plexiglass and the windscreen was replaced with the Diamond Aire's STC'd Speed-Slope windshield.
"It's a lot quieter now," Matheson said. "The new windshield really cuts down on the wind noise and it really enhances the look of the airplane a lot. It may not be much faster, but it sure looks like it."
As mentioned earlier, the Aztec came with high-end avionics including a Garmin suite with GNS 480 and weather radar, plus an S-TEC autopilot, Avidyne traffic, JPI electronic engine analyzer and fuel scanner, XM Satellite weather, JeppView e-charts and more.
"[The former owner] spent a bucket of money on the avionics and the only thing I've added was the Aspen Evolution 1000 Pro PFD when my mechanical HSI gave out. I also upgraded the original radar to the Garmin GWX 68," he said.
"The shop that did all the avionics work did a masterful job. Everyone that looks behind that panel comments on how nicely the wiring harnesses were done. It was all done by Kevin Hoogeveen at Northern Avionics in Calgary, Alberta—they did a super job."
So happy together...
Matheson proudly states that after four years and 400-plus hours of flying that his decision to buy the Turbo Aztec is reaffirmed every time he takes to the sky.
"It's just a great airplane. It's a real airplane," he said. "I just love flying it anywhere in any weather. It's solid as a rock. I heard Hal Shevers, the founder of Sporty's, say that if you put modern avionics in it, for the money you can't beat an Aztec. I couldn't agree with him more."
"A turbocharged Aztec, pound-for-pound, is more bang for your buck than anything in the light-twin world," Matheson said. "If you stay on top of the maintenance and you fly it right... I don't know what you can get that would beat it."
Matheson stressed the need for regular maintenance and is fastidious about his 25-hour oil changes and oil analysis, and keeps close tabs on how the engines are operating. "My practice has always been to start with as much of a known baseline as possible so you can watch trends as they progress," he explained.
"I've been watching the wear on my spark plugs, so I knew at the last annual that they were gapping and would need to be changed. I don't even like small surprises when it comes to my airplane."
He said that having an airplane he and his passengers can trust is paramount. "I rely on the Aztec to carry my family, friends and clients, and my responsibility is to make sure there are no worries."
Matheson also makes it a goal to fly 10 hours a month, which, considering his need to frequently visit his aviation clients, is not a hard number to achieve.
"I'm flying down to see clients next week. That's very important in the advertising/marketing business. Being in front of the client instead of on the phone is the way I like to do business," he said. "I have one client that's only 60 miles away, but with traffic and such it's a three-hour drive. I can leave my office and be at their building in an hour with the Aztec."
While the convenience, and, let's face it—pure fun—of flying his Aztec to visit clients is plenty of reason to do it, Matheson stressed the inherent added value of being an aircraft owner/operator.
"Flying in my own airplane and routinely using FBOs and MROs helps build credibility with my aviation clients," he said. "It's one thing to be able to talk about what matters to an aircraft owner/operator, and it's a whole other thing to live the experience and share those insights with my clients."
"They've told me it's a differentiator," Matheson said. "Besides that, I just love to fly."
A plane that does what he wants
While Matheson's Turbo Aztec is one of the top examples of the type, he does have plans to make a great airplane greater. Ever the creative, he's planning on a new paint job that will really complement the Aztec's design.
"Along with the new paint, I would like to add a Garmin G600 with GTN 750 touch screen on the left side and move the Aspen to the right side," Matheson said. "I also want to put in the GAMIjectors. Not because I want to fly lean of peak—I'm not an LOP kind of guy—but they are really good injectors. And I believe they will enhance the efficiency of the engines."
The only problem with completing his next series of upgrades is having to put the Aztec down for the work.
"It is a truly fantastic airplane and I think it's closer to a true cabin-class piston twin in its capabilities and comfort than most people realize," he said. "It will do what I want. It's never let me down and is ready to fly when I need it. It's a very confidence-inspiring airplane to fly—heavy and stable with fantastic short-field capabilities and slow flight characteristics."
Matheson said after years of ownership he just doesn't understand why more pilots who need an honest light-twin don't choose the Aztec.
"Too many people buy an airplane they can barely afford to fly, let alone maintain. So there is no shortage of Aztecs on the market," he said. "And perhaps [these planes] haven't had the maintenance and care they deserve. Hence, they can be cheap to buy—and probably have maintenance issues.
"That's probably the foundation of a lot of rumors and misunderstandings about the type," Matheson said. "The truth is it's truly an airplane that will treat you right. It's a fantastic airplane in my opinion, and truly deserves more respect in the market."
Dale Smith has been an aviation
journalist for 30 years. When he's not writing aviation articles, Smith does commission aircraft illustrations specializing in seaplanes and flying boats. Smith has been a licensed pilot since 1974 and has flown 35 different types of General Aviation, business and World War II
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