Flying a Fleet

Pilots who fly a variety of airplanes need some tricks to keep em straight


For the average owner/pilot, its not hard to stay knowledgeable about the systems and procedures of the airplane youre flying. You fly not only the same make, model, and year, but the very same airplane every time you fly.

If youre lucky, you have a panel equipped the way you want it, with the avionics you chose, laid out in the pattern you found most convenient. Switches fall easily to hand and, after you learn them once, you know exactly how to operate each piece of equipment. You know how it works, how to make it do what you want, what it can do and what it cant.

Airline pilots are in much the same situation. Even though they dont fly the same airplane, there is much consistency among the airplanes of a particular type at a specific airline. Corporate and charter pilots have it a bit tougher, as many of them fly two or three types.

FBO and flight school instructors are probably next on the difficulty scale, since they may fly four or more types, and the avionics installations (especially at the smaller schools that dont have standardized fleets) vary greatly. Ferry pilots and renters? Dont even think about it.

In my case, I own and regularly fly a Grumman GA-7 Cougar light twin. I also instruct and perform owner checkouts in the entire Grumman line from AA-1 to GA-7. That encompasses six aerodynamically different airplanes. Models from 1969-77 have the airspeeds marked in mph, while the later ones are marked in knots. I also give stage checks to university students in Cessna 152s, PA-28s and Cessna 172RGs.

I routinely fly half a dozen different cockpits built by three different manufacturers in airplanes ranging from simple 2-seaters to a complex twin. This creates a serious safety problem – being prepared to fly each one despite differences in procedures, V-speeds, switchology and systems. Clearly the potential is there for a serious safety problem.

The foundation for safely flying multiple airplanes is laid with good fundamentals – checklist use, flying standard patterns and procedures, and demanding precision of yourself at all times.

The biggest problem with checklists does not come from pilots trying to run checklists from memory and missing items. Instead, it happens because they dont run the checklist at all.

This typically shows up in gear-up landings where, for example, the pilot elects to hold the gear because he is being extended on downwind, or some similar situation.

Sure, it will cost you a little fuel to put the gear down at the regular time and live with the extra drag out on extended downwind, but that will keep you in the standard approach procedure mode of certain items being accomplished at certain points in the flight, every time, no matter what youre flying.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to always stick to the checklist discipline that applies to the most complex type you fly. For example, in my airplane I typically use checklists for Before Takeoff, Runway Line-up, After Takeoff, Climb, Level-Off, Descent, Approach, Pattern, Short Final, and After Landing. I stick to this routine even if Im flying a Cessna 152, for which most of these are pretty much nonexistent.

Youll notice that most of these involve a specific transitional point in the flight. The fact that there is a transition means that your mind is already in an active mode, rather than a passive monitoring state. Because this is a routine part of my flying, Im thinking about it every flight. That means Im less likely to forget to run a checklist.

Once I call for the checklist, its easy enough to pull up the right page, or in some cases run it from memory using a mnemonic like GUMP. The key is remembering to do the checks.

Consider the steps involved in making a VFR arrival. Slow the airplane to pattern entry speed and do an initial GUMP check five miles from the airport, enter the traffic pattern in cruise configuration and dirty up at midfield on the downwind.

It doesnt matter whether the airplane is a Cessna 152 or the Cougar, Ill still call approach checks five miles from the airport and pattern checks on downwind.

Its true that in a 152 the difference between cruise and downwind speeds isnt very large. You can arrive on downwind at cruise speed and still can fly a good pattern. But you cant do that in something like the Cougar.

In order to establish and maintain habit patterns that work for every airplane you typically fly, try to fly them all as much the same as possible. That way, you dont have to think as much about which airplane youre flying. The only things different are the specific speeds to fly or systems to activate at each checkpoint in the flight.

Preflight Prep
The first step in getting your mindset into the airplane youre about to fly is to take a few minutes to review the airplane. Build a cheat sheet card with the important numbers on each type you fly – rotation, liftoff, Vx/Vy (including one-engine inoperative for twins), normal climb, maneuvering (also on placards), approach and final.

Also include some standard power settings, such as climb, cruise, and traffic pattern. Review that card before you strap in. Dont make the cheat sheet too complicated, or it loses its benefit.

There are a lot of other speeds to remember, but stall speeds, max structural cruise (Vb) and flap limits are on the airspeed indicator, and gear and flap limits are placarded. You can review or refer to them once youre in the airplane. For twins, remember that Vmc (red line) and Vyse (blue line) are on the airspeed indicator.

You can avoid making excessive use of your limited memory by using the arcs on the airspeed indicator. On a single, you can rotate and lift off based on the clean stall speed shown by the bottom of the green arc. On light twins, Vmc (red line) plus five is often a good rotation speed. The top of the white arc (max flap speed) is a good start for approach or pattern entry.

Its only the speeds not posted in plain sight (like maneuvering speed, Vx, and Vy) that require memorization. Even final approach speed can be approximated based on the bottom of the white arc (stall speed in landing configuration).

When you get out to the airplane, take a couple of minutes before starting to refamiliarize yourself with the cockpit layout, controls and avionics. The easiest way to do this is to simply run through a couple of critical checklists, such as the before takeoff, approach, and before and after landing checks. Put your hand on each switch/control as you come to it in the checklist.

This is also a good time to review critical emergency procedures, such as engine failure on takeoff in a twin. That can also get your mind right if you fly airplanes in which controls are reversed between types, like the gear and flaps on a Cougar versus an Aztec, or the throttles and props in older versus newer Barons. The law of recency (we remember that which we learned most recently) may help you avoid a blown engine or an embarrassingly short landing roll.

Checklists, the Reprise
In case you missed it earlier, use checklists, especially for pretakeoff checks. There are too many small variations in pretakeoff procedures between types.

Having said that, theres nothing wrong with using a flow check rather than a printed checklist for critical points, such as just before takeoff or after landing. A flow check involves a scan pattern that takes you through the entire cockpit, checking every single switch, instrument and gauge as you go.

Mine starts at the bottom of the pedestal, goes up to the throttle quadrant, then across the lower panel (mostly instrument and engine switches), up the left side and right across the flight instruments to the radio stack, then farther right across the right side of the panel, and down to come back left across the lower right panel. Each item you pass over serves as a reminder to check it.

If you have doubts as to the proper setting you can refer to the printed checklist, but by flowing all the way around you dont miss anything. I find this particularly useful for my pre-start and post-landing/shutdown checks, and especially when getting ready for a takeoff immediately following a landing.

Some checklists, however, should not be trusted to memory. Have a printed emergency procedures checklist handy – thumbing through the POH in an emergency is tough. Many different vendors sell prepared checklists, printed on plastic cards, bound in books or on laminated paper. You can also make your own if your airplane is a less common type or is equipped in some unusual fashion.

Your checklist should not include all of the full expanded procedures with explanations, but rather just a simple list of actions. You can also boldface or otherwise highlight immediate action steps to make them stand out from the things that arent quite so time-critical.

In a twin, for example, the steps for engine failure on takeoff up through feathering the bad engine have to be done expeditiously, and these should be highlighted as requiring completion from memory. However, the remaining steps, like turning off alternators or fuel can be delayed until the airplane is under control and you have time to get out the printed checklist and do each thing by the list. That allows you to take the time to be sure the control/switch you are moving is really the control/switch you want.

As a side light, this points out the importance of what a very senior naval aviation taught me years ago as the clock-winding rule. In short, the rule says the first step in dealing with an emergency is to wind the clock, and only then pull out the checklist and get to work. What it means, of course, is that you need to take the time to identify the problem, verify your conclusion, then identify and verify the solution to the problem.

A natural reaction many people have to an emergency is to do something now, even if its wrong.

Consider what nearly happened when an airline almost lost a 707 full of passengers to an engine fire on takeoff at London Heathrow when the crew performed the fastest engine fire/shutdown drill ever seen. Too bad they did it on the wrong engine, which then could not be restarted.

If youre jumping from plane to plane, haste may very well make waste. The right thing to do in the airplane you flew yesterday may not be the right thing in the airplane youre flying today.

Anyone experienced enough to be flying multiple types routinely ought to be able to keep the airplane flying (basic control) while staying cool enough to do the rest of the stuff with appropriate deliberation. This applies especially to non-emergency procedures, where too fast a hand can cause embarrassing results or even serious damage to the plane. Flap retraction after landing is a good example. There have been many cases in which the pilot raised the gear on the runway, intending to raise the flaps. In these cases, there is rarely any justification for such speedy-but-careless action.

Slaying the Dragon
To make the adjustment among numerous airplanes as streamlined as possible, try to find similar procedures you can use in all the different types you fly. One example is the power setting used for approach.

As noted above, I run an approach checklist at the IAF for IFR approaches and five miles from the field for VFR approaches. At that time, I start slowing the plane by setting approach power (including mixture) and getting the fuel system ready for landing.

Ive found that 17 inches and 2,500 rpm works well for approach in most complex airplanes, including both types I fly routinely. This gives me enough low-end throttle play to be able to get a 500 fpm descent going while staying at a speed that lets the airplane fly from IAF to FAF without blasting out the 10-mile limit on approaches with course reversals.

With this power set, dropping the gear and one-third flaps at the FAF and cutting manifold pressure by two to three inches usually results in a good final approach speed with a comfortable rate of descent. The actual speed will vary from airplane to airplane, but the procedure works without worrying about the precise power setting for each airplane.

Of course, the biggest problem for many pilots may be avionics. Renters particularly may find themselves flying a familiar airframe but have to switch around among a dizzying array of equipment combinations. Its hard enough learning the complex interactions of advanced avionics and autopilots, but when you jump from King to Garmin to UPSAT, or Century/Mitchell to S-Tec, you can get really crossed up in a hurry.

If the airplanes panel isnt dirt-simple – such as a pair of KX-155s, a DME and an ADF – plan to sit down in the cockpit before start and review the quick-check card that is available with nearly all autopilots, GPS and MFDs. Also, examine the whole panel and cockpit to make sure you know where everything is and what each switch/control does.

This is especially true for instructors giving checkouts to someone whos just bought an airplane. When in doubt, it may be best to leave some of the avionics off, lest it distract and confuse you. When teaching basic maneuvers or practicing landings, the GPS isnt essential and the autopilot is probably best left off anyway.

In any case, however, remember that a critical safety item is to know every way there is to kill the autopilot and electric trim and be able to do it quickly.

Flight Planning
Flight planning is another kettle of fish completely. The differences in capability, performance, speed, and range across the group of different planes you fly may be large enough that something easily accomplished in one is unthinkable in another.

If you fly one plane all the time, you have a very good idea of what loads will be acceptable for weight and balance. You know the airplanes endurance at cruise speed, how actual cruise speed compares to book value, and takeoff and landing distances. Not so for the multi-plane pilot.

Its important to apply a corollary of the clock-winding principle here – if you have the time to look up something, do it.

You can put a certain amount of canned information on the data card for each airplane, but the quantity of relevant data increases by the square of the number of airports you use, particularly if they vary in elevation and temperature.

While you may be able to keep track of which of your local airports are safe to get in and out of in each airplane you fly, operating beyond your local area may require you to sharpen your stubby pencil and oil up your whiz wheel. Since there is normally plenty of time to work out takeoff, climb, cruise and landing performance, as well as weight and balance data, just do it.

In twins especially, the results may have a very significant effect on the choices you have if something goes wrong after brake release. If you compute in advance whether you can or cannot make it if you lose one just before or after rotation, you can make a calm decision that will save a lot of sweat should that very critical situation arise.

The last issue is attitude. Some folks think its a sign of weakness that they have to open the POH/AFM in public to review systems operation or emergency procedures. They think they have rookie written on their forehead if they compute performance or W&B data. After all, nobody but a student pilot does all that every flight, right? Not quite. Maybe nobody but a student pilot or a military fighter jock or a major air carrier captain is more like it.

Nonprofessional general aviation pilots as a group probably do the least preflight planning and study of anyone out there, and maybe thats part of the reason the general aviation accident rate is so much higher than military, corporate or air carrier operations.

Dont let ego or machismo or whatever you want to call it stop you from cracking open the book or running all the numbers on paper before flying an airplane you dont fly all the time. Heck, even just sitting in the cockpit touching switches has value.

It might be enlightening to do a survey of non-pilot passengers (out of range of the pilot, of course) to find out what they really think of a pilot who does those things. You might discover that your image is enhanced, not reduced, in your passengers eyes when you conduct your flights more like an airline operation.

And on the subject of copying airline operations, take as a final tip something I learned from an ex-Allegheny pilot who had some trouble making the transition. Indianapolis Center, Allegheny 121, level 190 Calling Indy Center, izzat USAIR 121 at 190?

And the reply was Doh! 15 years before Homer Simpson made that word famous. Put your call sign in big bold letters on a post-it and stick it to the middle of the instrument panel.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Grumman GA-7 Cougar.”
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”

-by Ron Levy

Ron Levy is director of the Aviation Sciences Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.


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