Turboprop aircraft, both large and small, play a major role in most segments of the aviation industry and have done so since the early 1950s .
Despite pessimistic forecasts in some quarters that their days are numbered, their future remains bright.
There is an old saying “Every dark cloud has a silver lining” and this is particular apt in the aviation industry which is reeling under the influence of the constantly fluctuating fuel prices. The silver lining comes in the form of the turboprop power plant-in simple terms, a turbine or jet engine driving a propeller. One of the world’s largest manufacturers of turboprop airliners, the Franco-Italian Avions Transport Regional, better known as ATR, has carried out in-depth research which proves that the turboprop engine is by far more economical than a comparable performing jet engine.
ATR has found that an airline operating turboprop aircraft could save 547000 gallons of fuel (more than two-million litres) each year by replacing a regional jet with an ATR turboprop. In addition, ATR claims that airlines could save $ 35-million a year by replacing two regional jets with an equal number of turboprop airliners.
The company bases its claim on a commuter airliners average stage length of 250 nautical miles and 2500 flights per aircraft per year and at a fuel cost of around US$ 126 per barrel –each barrel containing 159 litres. And it has proven these figures to its own satisfaction-let alone that of its aircrafts operators-with its sales figures which have jumped considerably over the past decade.
It is not only in fuel costs that benefits can be found in the turboprop versus fan jet equation. There are at least six other areas where turboprops come out tops, namely: lower engine maintenance reduced airframe maintenance ,better reliability ,easier accessibility ,lower acquisition cost and increasing appeal for airlines and their passengers.
Small wonder then that there are a growing number of turboprop –powered airlines and freighters,as well as a wide variety of general aviation aircraft currently operating .For example ,from Russia comes the Antonov family of 16 AN-models ranging from AN-12 to the AN-37.Granted none of these is known still to be in production ,but there are still some 370 of all marques ,particularly the An-42-300 which still has 124 operating. ATR has well over 800 (approaching 900) of its various marques still in service with some 200-plus of its latest ATR72-600 aircraft on order.
Canadian manufacturer ,Bombardier, has arrange of seven turboprop airliners still in service totaling 798,according to the latest available figures,ranging from the DHC-8-100 through to the latest DHC-8-Q400 with an estimated 380 flying and around 50 on order. The older de Havilland Canada (DHC) models ranging from the DHC-2T and -3T to the DHC-8-300 Com bi,including the four-engined DHC-7-102 ,-103 and -110 ,none of which are now on order, still total around 320 remaining in operational service around the world. Of these, the evergreen three model DHC-6 Twin Otters total just over 60.
Its replacement, the Viking DHC-6-400, which recently entered service, already has around ten in service with a growing order book. Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer, now exclusively a jet-engined aircraft builder, has around 210 of its earlier turboprops still in service, with the EMB120 being the most prolific with 147 still in active service.
The now defunct Fokker manufacturer was once the leading turboprop airliner builder with six versions of its popular F-27 Friendship and later its Fokker-50 still has a total of around 150 operational. Czech builder of the Let L-410MU ,l-410uvp AND l-410UVP-E-20 series of twin-engine turboprop mini-airliners can justifiably be proud of this aircrafts success in the commuter airliner segment with over 130 examples-the most popular being the Let L-410UVP- in service.
Many of these aircraft are being refurbished and re-engined giving them a totally new lease on life. Sweden’s SAAB production of the SAAB 200,340 and 340 twin-engined airliners was comparatively short-lived, but the company can boast that some 150 examples are still in service. It is now actively taking those 340 models which have been withdrawn from civilian operations and fitting them out for maritime reconnaissance and other military duties.
Although not generally accepted as a passenger-carrying airliner, but more as a hardworking every green freighter is the four-engined Lockheed ,now the Lockheed Martin ,Hercules C-130 and C-130J ,most of which are in military transport service in all areas of the world.
They are often referred to as the only true replacement of the Douglas Dakota and some have been in operations since they were originally built in the early 1950s. Talking of the Dakota, C-47, Gooney Bird or whatever you may want to call it, the DC-3s conversion to a turboprop has been reasonably successful in both civilian and military roles.However, its passenger-carrying days are numbered thanks to EU red tape and the last fair-paying passengers were carried recently.
Other manufacturers –past and present-of turboprop aircraft categorized as airliners in the normally accepted sense of the word, and which still have their aircraft in service, include the Italian Av anti company, British Aerospace (BAE) ,Convair,Fair child,,Harbin,Ilyushin and Xian. Worldwide, turboprop airlines total 4567 according to the latest figure available, with another 250-plus on order. Turboprop airliners have become the mostly used in commuter airlines in Africa particularly in Kenya,Uganda,Tanzania,Somalia,South Sudan,DR Congo,Rwanda,Burundi,Sudan among many other countries.
The turboprop aircraft are used for scheduled and non-scheduled flights for domestic and regional flights. The turboprop aircraft are used by most airlines for scheduled cargo and passenger flights to major cities and for tourist’s flights to national parks, game reserves and private sanctuaries in East Africa.
We have freighter turboprop aircraft flying in South Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, DR Congo, and Sudan and in war torn areas for humanitarian aid and relief flights. Turboprop is reliable and economical for commuter airlines as they can land and takeoff on rough, unpaved and tidy runways in most Eastern and Central Africa. Anthony A Juma is the Editor and Director Commercial and Flights Operations at Wings Over Africa Aviation Limited.