It doesnt take new pilots very long to realize the airplanes theyve trained in lack the payload, speed, and range to make serious trips, and they decide they need something bigger and faster.
The unfortunate result is that pilots new to complex, high performance aircraft have a lot of accidents. They may be able to handle things as long as nothing goes wrong, but throw in bad weather, gusty crosswinds at a short strip or a systems malfunction, and they are in over their heads. Some dont fully appreciate the tradeoffs in an airplane with six seats, oodles of baggage space, and six hours fuel capacity. Others find themselves in somebodys airspace before they know its there.
Checking out in a complex, high performance airplane requires an instructor, of course. But learn ahead of time about the capabilities and limitations of both airplane and pilot, what a proper training program should be and how to identify a properly qualified instructor.
There are three areas to be addressed in your checkout program. The first is obvious – learning the airplane, including its systems and their operation, and becoming proficient in the basic piloting skills for that plane. Most pilots and instructors understand this. What is usually missed are the other two areas. One is preparing to operate a long way from the home – strange airports, unfamiliar terrain, and unaccustomed weather conditions. The other is the increased workload in aircraft with more systems, and in which everything happens twice as fast.
Getting to Know You
These airplanes usually have more gizmos, especially avionics. Rarely will an instructor, even one familiar with the aircraft type, know all the additional gear, so youre likely to be on your own to learn it. You should identify any equipment not addressed in the POH/AFM, and locate the handbook/manual for that equipment. Most add-on systems like LORAN, GPS, autopilots, and engine monitors have their own manual. Over time, these get separated from the aircraft. If theres any gear for which you dont have documentation, find a copy.
Another area often missed in checkouts is the capabilities and limitations of your plane. Can you name any light aircraft will carry one adult in each seat, one bag for each adult, and full fuel and not be over gross or out of c.g.? Do some weight and balance problems with your typical loads, and see how much fuel you can carry. Then do some max performance loads – full seats and baggage (how much fuel can you carry?) and full fuel (how many people can you haul?). If you have a plane with more flexible loading, such as forward and aft baggage areas, see what happens to your c.g. when you move bags from one area to the other. While youre at it, audit the airplanes weight and balance records – check the equipment list against the log books and whats actually in the plane. Double-check the math on all weight and balance changes – youd be astonished how many errors you may find. Errors require an A&P to correct and recertify the empty weight and c.g. information. You can also have the airplane weighed and start over.
Because light airplanes can get into airports too short to get out of, run some takeoff performance numbers. Get real – try the elevations of airports you use and the temperature there in July, and check the takeoff run and 50-foot obstacle distances. Since those numbers are for a brand new airplane, a brand new engine, a brand new prop, a smooth level hard-surfaced runway, and a factory test pilot, add 50% to all the distances youve computed for a more realistic prediction of what you and your airplane can do.
Make yourself at home in the cockpit with a blindfold cockpit check before you fly. Close your eyes, name a control, touch it, and then see if you got it right. When you know youve got the right control even before you open your eyes, youre ready to fly.
Nifty New Stuff
Two features that wont be found in most primary aircraft are constant-speed props and fuel injection. Each has quirks that take getting used to. Make sure your checkout instructor familiarizes you with both. For the prop, learn the allowable range of manifold pressure/RPM combinations, and get in the habit of pulling first on the throttle, and pushing first on the prop. Fuel injection primarily affects starting procedures. Learn them well, especially hot starts.
The last new moving parts are landing gear and cowl flaps. We all know people forget to move the gear handle from up to down, but theres a less obvious pitfall – selecting the wrong handle when retracting the flaps after landing. There are many techniques for making sure you lower the wheels, such as picking a point in your approach procedure to lower the gear, and never retract it after that unless necessary. Recheck gear down visually when turning final or at breakout on instrument approaches.
The flap/gear mistake is usually less damaging than a gear-up landing, and the squat switch may even save you. But why bet your $8000 prop on a $5 microswitch? When you touch the gear or flap handles, position your hand so its parallel to the control handle shape – palm up/down for the flaps, and palm perpendicular for the gear. If you feel the edges of the control, let go. Make it a rule not to touch either control on the ground unless you are completely stopped and you visually confirm which switch youve got.
Finally, learn your landing gear system – how it works, how it can fail, and what to do when it fails. This includes being able to tell a ground observer unfamiliar with your plane how to tell if the gear is down and locked during a fly-by. Most importantly, landing gear malfunctions are no big deal while youre in the air, but they can overwhelm your thinking. Two famous accidents involve airline crews forgetting their priorities while resolving a gear problem. Landing with the gear up is generally not fatal, but descending into the terrain at cruise usually is. Keep your priorities in order.
The other new tool in your kit is cowl flaps. Theyre pretty simple – open on the ground through takeoff/climb, closed during cruise, descent, and landing, then open again after landing. (For that last one, refer to the above discussion on flap retraction – leave em alone until you clear the runway.) The problem is remembering to do this, which is why checklists are the backbone of safe and proper operation of complex aircraft. To your before takeoff CIGAR-TIP and before landing GUMPF, add level-off and after landing checks. Without debating how to use checklists, use whatever works for you, be it printed lists, mnemonics such as GUMPF, or flow checks. The important thing is to do these checks when they should be done.
Off We Go…
For these aircraft, the FAA requires specialized training and endorsements in your logbook – one each for complex and high performance. But theres no Practical Test Standards – its up to the checkout instructor. If youre renting, the FBO will have some minimum total time, time in type, etc. If its your plane, the insurance company will demand the same. Either way, expect a minimum of 10 hours of training time.
You may know how to find a good instructor, but now you need one who also knows your plane. A great place to start is your owners association. Most have lists of instructors who know the type, a type-specific training syllabus, and collections of operating and maintenance hints and tips. Also try dealers in the type and other owners. Avoid instructors unfamiliar with the type but who claim they can learn it well enough from the book to check you out.
Going New Places
Once your checkout is complete; youre ready to spread your bigger, faster wings on trips far from home. This means very different conditions than you learned to fly in. Pilots from the Northeast discover the massive thunderboomers of the Southeast. Flatlanders find out about mountain flying. Southern aviators learn what lake effect means. We cant cover all these situations here, but be aware that terrain and weather get real different real quick as you get away from home. Youll have to expand your knowledge base of weather phenomena and flying in unfamiliar terrain. This may involve a mountain flying course, or a seminar on weather flying, or just a session with an instructor familiar with the area into which you are going. Any way you do it, make sure you get information on new situations you are likely to encounter.
The other side of weather encounters is that while your new plane can fly higher, faster, and farther, with a larger load and more comfort, it probably doesnt have any better capability to handle the most serious threats to light aircraft – convective weather and icing.
While convective weather is quite lethal, its pretty easy to spot and avoid. Thunderstorms are usually localized phenomena, avoided by deviations or setting down for an hour. But they are very different in different parts of the country. The storms you see popping up in the Southeast are very different from the ones that roll across the Midwestern plains. Fortunately, thunderstorm detection equipment is widely available for light aircraft in the form of sferics devices (Stormscope and Strikefinder) and even radar for the heavier singles. But thunderstorm detection equipment is not something you install and then go out and use. There are traps, pitfalls, and gotchas associated with every type of equipment, and some are very specific to different models and variations. There are courses and reading material on the subject – take advantage of them, and learn the gear youre using.
The second major weather threat is icing. Your new speedbird is no more capable of handling ice than the Archer youve been flying. If it doesnt have known-icing certified equipment, you are not legal to fly into known icing conditions (defined as you know icing conditions exist rather than you know youre icing up). Also, your airplane probably cant handle more than a trace of ice for more than a few minutes without assuming the flight characteristics of a brick. Even if it has the gear, there are icing conditions that are beyond the capability of any anti-/de-ice system. Severe icing (including freezing rain) is effectively defined as conditions which cause ice to accrete faster than anti-/de-ice systems can remove it. Your ability to handle icing in the new plane is almost certainly no better than your previous steed, but your expanded range will increase your likelihood of an encounter. Get some training or review on the subject, and dont press it.
These problems most often eat pilots when the pilot feels committed to a trip. Usually strongest on the return leg (get-home-itis), it also occurs on the outbound leg of a planned trip – youve reserved the cabin, the spouse and kids are packed and ready, and youve dont want to tell them youre driving for sixteen hours instead of flying for four. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions. The cabin and the lake will still be there tomorrow, but if you go now, you might not be. Its also a problem for business travelers, who have to be at a meeting at 8:00 am tomorrow. If its that important to be there, leave early and drive, or take an airliner or charter flight that has the proper gear and a professional crew. Always have a non-flying-yourself contingency plan for any must-go (or even wanna-go) trip in case of problems with weather, pilot fitness, maintenance, or equipment.
Since youre not a full-time pilot, you arent as well-trained, experienced, and proficient as the pro whos flying multimillion-dollar airplanes 500 hours a year and gets recurrent training and checkrides every six months. Single-pilot IFR becomes the name of the game. Whats new is that youve got a lot more things to do and to think about, and its happening twice as fast. The keys to making it work are equipment, pacing, and preparation.
Equipment means first that youve got a proper stack of avionics, which to me is dual nav/comm (at least one ILS) with digital flip-flops, ADF, transponder with Mode C, DME, marker beacon, and an audio panel. Moving map IFR-certified GPS is almost standard equipment in this class these days. An autopilot is a go/no-go item for many at this level, but thats an individual decision. Youll want at least a single-axis (roll) autopilot with heading bug and nav tracking, but once youve flown with a two-axis (pitch/roll) autopilot with altitude hold, youll never be happy with anything less.
Whatever avionics youve got, become thoroughly familiar with it. They all seem just a bit different in switchology and operation, and two hundred feet above the runway entering the clag is NOT the time to be searching for the right switch to change from tower to departure. A headset/boom mike with a push-to-talk switch on the yoke is now virtually standard equipment. What else? A simple kneeboard with a plain yellow mini-legal pad on which to write down clearances, weather, frequencies and the like is helpful. Youll soon develop your own standard method of putting it all down so you can find what youre looking for at a glance. Ive seen all sorts of super-nifty kneeboards over the years, but outside of a battery-powered light for the pad, Ive never seen any features I felt helped. And the big lap-boards always seem to get in the way.
Pacing is a subtle skill. This means doing what has to be done, in order, and in enough time that youve finished each task before it must be completed and the next task started. Just figure if youre not doing something, you should be planning the next thing. This includes reverse flying the route – planning the route from touchdown back to cruise. That means the vertical as well as horizontal profile of the flight. Be aware you have to start down early enough that when you arrive at the IAF or entry to the VFR pattern, you are low enough and slow enough to proceed. Remember, it will take a lot longer to slow down without a sharp power reduction. Lets say you expect a VFR arrival at a non-tower airport. You know that you want to enter the pattern at 100 knots and 1000 AGL. Your plane will require a couple of minutes to slow from descent speed to 100 knots, so you know that five out youll have to slowed to pattern speed and 500 above the pattern.
Getting down in these planes isnt as easy as in a 172. Since you dont want to exceed 500 fpm out of respect for your passengers, and you dont want to do a chop and drop, descent planning becomes a significant task. First, to avoid chilling the engine, dont pull the power back more than 2 inches of manifold pressure at a time, with a couple of minutes between reductions. Second, the airplane is going to pick up speed rather quickly when you push the nose over. Given a bit of a tailwind, you could be coming downhill at well over three miles a minute. You could be covering over 50 miles descending from 8,000 feet. Since things happen fast once you start down, youd best have already studied the approach, so you have to start thinking descent/approach nearly 100 miles out.
Preparation is huge. It starts when you plan the flight. Lay out a flight log so you know your fuel/time plan. Pick alternative courses of action so you dont have to guess where a good divert field is halfway down the route. Fill out a complete flight log, including estimated times for each leg (leg time, elapsed time, and time remaining), fuel (estimated used and estimated remaining), and time/heading/distance and air/ground speeds. This makes the howgozit part of cockpit management a lot easier, and frees up more time for systems management. Take a quick look at the approaches for your destination and alternate so you at least know whats available and whether they have any strange elements.
The last item is staying up to speed. The number of ways things can go wrong in more complex aircraft goes up exponentially with the number of systems – add three new systems, and youve got eight new combinations of problems. Further, bigger airplanes cost more to operate, so theres is a natural aversion to going out just to practice. Thats why you have to make a commitment to recurrent training. Get back with your checkout CFI for a couple of hours of intense flying every six months. This review should include emergency procedures, slow flight, stalls, maximum performance maneuvers, and serious instrument work – with and without the autopilot, and including partial panel.
The move up to a complex, high performance aircraft is a big jump, especially if taken in one step. If youre going straight to the big time, be prepared for a checkout process of up to 25 hours. Include a couple of cross-countries with at least two-hour legs so you can get a feel for pacing. When its all over, youll be in a much better position to be in command of a complex, high performance aircraft, and to make good decisions about how, where, and when to fly it.
-by Ron Levy
Ron Levy is an ATP and CFI with over 5000 hours. He is an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at American Eagle Aeronautical Academy and an adjunct faculty member in Aviation at Wilmington College. He is the Safety Director of the American Yankee Association, as well as an AYA Pilot Familiarization Program instructor.