Still slighty ahead of its time
Story and Photography: Robert Goyer
For the past couple of years I've had the pleasure of flying a 1986 Aerospatiale Trinidad TB20 on a fairly regular basis. During that time I've put around a hundred hours on the airplane, and have flown it on a couple of long trips, too. So I was excited to get the chance to check out a brand new Socata Trinidad (It's a name change only; Socata is a subsidiary of Aerospatiale), but frankly I wondered what the French company would find to improve on what regard as an already solid and capable airplane.
While it's hardly a household word, the Trinidad has been around longer than you might think. A retractable-gear, 250-horse-power Lycoming IO-540-powered airplane, the Trinidad first appeared in North America in 1985. It shares the same basic fuselage and wing design with a previous Aerospatiale fixed-gear single, but it also incorporates some significant changes.
From a distance the Trinidad looks fairly conventional, like low-wing airplanes from other manufactures, and one might assume from outward appearances that Aerospatiale took a follow-the-leader approach to the airplane's design. Once you look closely, though, it becomes clear that the Trinidad's designers were consciously working to do things differently.
Different it is. When it came ashore in 1985, many American pilots regarded the Trinidad, with its car-like interior, as a kind of oddity. At a time when some other manufactures were bolting four chairs to the floor and calling it an interior, the Trinidad had a cockpit that would look at home in one of today's luxury performance coupes. That's not so unusual anymore. Today, new airplane makers, Cirrus, Lancair and others, are putting automotive-style interiors in their airplanes, but at the time the Trinidad's look was something really new.
The major cockpit difference in the Trinidad is the big central console. On it are located the flap switch, fuel selector switch (a good change of location - it used to be on the lower panel directly underneath the yoke tube) and rudder and elevator trim (an electric elevator trim button is also on the yoke now). Even the knobs and buttons are styled differently then we Yanks are used to, and back in 1985, we poked fun at the international-style iconograph symbols printed next to the landing gear selector and the light dimmers; today, such features are common in cars and seem to just make good sense.
We also wondered about the wisdom of putting a "sports car" interior in a transportation airplane, where room to move generally improves an airplane's utility and makes long trips more pleasant. To be sure, there are ups and downs to the Trinidad's sportiness. Its cabin is an impressive 50 inches in width (only linebackers will rub shoulders in this airplane), but the console, raised panel and high back bucket seats use up much of that room. So it takes some doing to grab a chart case from the back seat, to help your front-seat passenger make sure the door is secured, or to turn or stretch much in flight. Tall pilots could feel the squeeze, especially in terms of finding lateral legroom. The rear bench normally seats two, though an optional fifth seat can be added by forgoing the center rear-seat console and adding another seat belt.
The upside - and this I Know from personal experience - is that despite its Grand Prix-style interior, the airplane is surprisingly comfortable (even more so with a leather interior, now standard on the airplane). This comfort is most evident on long trips (my longest single leg was in excess of six hours), proof that many of the airplane's ergonomic innovations were carefully thought out and well executed.
The Trinidad has many design differences that emanate from the inside and are not immediately visible. To start with, the airplane has a single piece milled aluminum spar, a component that inspires confidence. There are also redundant push-rods to the flight controls, trailing link landing gear for smoother touchdowns, and high-G seating (the airplane was certified under the more demanding FAR Part 23 that applies to all new designs). The demanding spin matrix required for Part 23 certification also helped create the unusual tail arrangement, with the vertical fin placed forward on the fuselage well ahead of the horizontal. The idea was to prevent blanking of the rudder by the stabilizer. The ventral fin "strakes" on the bottom of the fuselage ahead of the tail also contribute to directional stability and spin recover.
The Trinidad wing, too, is not the norm for its category. Relatively short at just over 32 feet in span, the constant chord wing gives the good low-speed flying qualities of a fatter airfoil while providing the benefits of higher wing loading, including better handling in bumpy air and good cruise speeds.
What's most notable in the new Trinidad is the instrument panel (not the design of it, but what's in it). The airplane comes standard with Bendix / King Silver Crown avionics, including the KFC 150 autopilot / flight director, dual digital navcoms, the KLN 90B IFR-approved GPS-moving map receiver, and altitude and vertical speed preselect for the autopilot. In addition there are several new options available on the TB20. The airplane I flew was outfitted with the Avidyne FSD multifunction cockpit computer and BFGoodrich WX-500 Stormscope system (which plays through the Avidyne display), as well as the PS Engineering PMA 7000 stereo audio panel and intercom. Even with the standard avionics package, the new Trinidad is very well equipped for instrument flight. The instrument panel is laid out in three sections, with primary flight instruments to the left, a radio stack in the center, and other instruments in a right-hand panel section, angled toward the pilot for easier scanning. Both the right and the left sections tilt forward for easy servicing of the instruments.
Entry into the airplane for both front and rear-seat passengers is through one of two gull-wing doors.
The doors are big and functional, but they're also light, so you need to be careful on windy days that they don't get caught and sprung by a gust. And there's lots of glass in them for better lateral visibility. While it's not hard for front-seaters to get into the airplane, those sitting in back need to tilt the front seat forward and then squeeze through the gap. You can put more than 140 pounds of stuff into the Trinidad's rear luggage compartment, even though the opening to it, because of structural considerations, is rather small and oddly shaped, a sort of rounded-off right triangle. Most luggage will fit through the baggage door, but big or bulky stuff can be loaded through the cabin and placed in the baggage compartment behind the back seats.
Once you are seated in the airplane and ready to roll, the ergonomics of the cockpit become apparent. You get the feeling that you're in your own little airline, with the power controls located on the quadrant where your right hand naturally falls. Likewise, the flaps, landing gear selector, trims and a number of circuit breakers are located in easy reach and in clear sight. A row of annunciator lights on the panel helps alert the pilot to any problems with the airplane's systems.
On takeoff the Trinidad accelerates quickly, through once it's ready to fly, according to the POH at around 70 knots, it takes some effort to rotate. To compensate for torque and P-factor on takeoff, the handbook calls for a substantial amount of rudder trim (again, located right on the console). You need to remember to retrim as you level off.
Another strong suit of the airplane is its climb performance. Maximum rate of climb is listed at 1,200 feet per minute at maximum takeoff weight, so it doesn't take long to get up to cruising altitude.
Although it doesn't have blazing speed, the Trinidad is pretty fast, about 160 knots true at maximum cruise, which consumes about 16 gallons an hour. If you want to fly faster, the turbocharged version of the airplane, the TB21, trues out at 186 knots at 25,000 feet.
You can fly for a long time in a Trinidad, almost eight hours to dry tanks at best economy, though few pilots opt to stretch endurance that far. In a more likely scenario, you're looking at more than five hours' endurance at best power, which in no-wind conditions at 8,000 feet will take you 900 nautical miles, with reserves. With the full 86.2 gallons of usable fuel onboard, the airplane isn't a true four-seater, but if you leave out a passenger's-worth of fuel, you're still left with enough for three hours of high-speed cruise with reserves.
The Trinidad makes a solid and stable instrument platform. In addition to its complete standard-equipment IFR instrumentation, you also get TKS prop anti-icing as standard. A TKS leading-edge anti-icing system for the wings and tail is a $26,000 option, but at this point the airplane is not certified for flight in known icing even with TKS installed. Socata says it's working on that certification.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Trinidad's slow-speed handling is excellent. In slow flight, the ailerons stay effective, allowing you to make smooth turns up to and even into the stall.
Like most high-performance singles, the Trinidad takes some advanced planning to descend without rapidly cooling the engine. Speedbrakes, which are not available, would help, but they're not really necessary. At 129 knots you can put down the gear and deploy the first notch of flaps, so getting the airplane slowed down really means getting it slowed to 129 knots, after which point speed management is easy.
The Trinidad is a good landing airplane, thanks to the trailing link landing gear and huge flaps that take up roughly two-thirds of the wing's trailing edge. Deploying the first notch (10 degrees) will slow things down a bit; the second (40 degrees) is like throwing out the anchor - the sense of deceleration is profound, though it's not accompanied by a big pitch change. So unless you're trying to kill time, it's advisable to wait until well down the final approach course to throw in the last notch of flaps.
Since I generally fly the airplane light, I keep 70 knots as a reference for short final. A touch of power keeps the airplane from developing a sinking spell on final. Speed control is the key. Get too slow, the airplane will start to sink; get too fast, and it won't want to land. One nice point: with its huge rudder, the Trinidad has a demonstrated crosswind component of 25 knots. In my book this is a utility feature, since it lets you land under conditions that, were you to face them in some other airplanes, would send you looking for an airport with a crosswind runway.
So how much has the Trinidad changed since it was introduced? Not much, but intelligently. Small changes, like a repositioned fuel selector, low-fuel warning lights, standard TKS prop ice protection and available leading edge ice protection, coupled with a terrific IFR avionics package, make the airplane a serious contender for pilots looking for a four-place, high performance transportation airplane.
Socata says it has made a renewed commitment to supplying more reasonably priced spare parts in a more timely fashion. To accomplish this, it keeps more than $2 million in parts at is North American Headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. It can often deliver overnight French-made parts, even landing gear or wind skins, it says. In years past the manufacturer had a reputation for not offering buyers many choices when it came to order an airplane. Socata says its working to remedy that, too, evidenced by the optional Avidyne FSD and TKS anti-icing system, and the company says it can work with customers who want to make other changes to the panel before they take delivery.
What does the future hold for the Trinidad? Good thinks, no doubt. With a renewed effort at showing the American audience its products, Socata will likely be able to continue to attract customers to its stylish and, yes, sporty-looking TB20 Trinidad. And with Socata's development of a 250-horsepower supercharged diesel powerplant already being test-flown in a TB20, expect to read more about this airplane in the years to come.