Times of transition

September 1, 1997

In the best of all worlds pilots would get all the training they needed to prepare for stepping up to their next aircraft. In the realm of corporate and air carrier aviation, an entire industry is built on transition training. Companies like FlightSafety International, SimuFlite, SimCom, Attitudes International, and many others spend anywhere from a few days to a month getting pilots ready for the next step. But in the world of general aviation things are not so Utopian. There are qualified instructors and not-so-qualified instructors, and courses with curriculum and syllabi built only on books and videos. Sometimes the content is sketched on the back of an envelope or resides only in the mind of the instructor. There is good reason to take this seriously because the safety statistics clearly show that the first 100 hours in type are the most dangerous. What's a new pilot to do?

There doesn't seem to be a quick, inexpensive fix to learning how to fly high-performance aircraft with real competence. It takes time and more than a quick formal checkout, particularly if the pilot is relatively inexperienced. The airlines spend millions of dollars annually to prepare new pilots who are then paired up with veterans in a learning phase. In the airline world new pilots usually have at least 1,000 or more hours and don't become pilot in command for some time, so there is plenty of time for on-the-job training. Aircraft systems are ordinarily learned in sophisticated simulators so that pilots have the "switchology" of the airplane pretty well mastered. Both the instructor and the pilots are professionals. They get paid to eat, sleep, and breathe flying. The rest of us need to work first, so we can think about it a lot and occasionally go out and do it. As with many things, therefore, it comes down to time and money.

And yet, flying is a performance act, like public speaking or a music recital, where we put ourselves at risk — literally or figuratively. Aviation has to be done well regardless of your personal or financial circumstances. That is one of the things that make it attractive.

But enough philosophy — how do we not fall into the transition trap of thinking that a quick checkout really does prepare one to fly the bigger iron?

I took a recent flight with a 500-hour private pilot with a rather new instrument ticket. He had accumulated his time over 20 years and so was typical of many GA pilots acquiring Cessna Skyhawk and Piper Cherokee hours here and there. A few months ago he made the big step and checked out in a Beech Bonanza with a local instructor who is known to be thorough. He had flown it about 20 hours, almost all of it in good VFR weather.

Wesley, as we'll call him, had little actual weather experience, which was precisely why we were launching into some marginal VFR conditions. Early morning haze with little or no temperature/dewpoint spread and airmets for IFR conditions with mountain obscuration were just what the doctor ordered. To spice things up, there was a convective sigmet warning of thunderstorms in lines and clusters just west of our planned route. Scattered rainshowers and patches of mist rounded out the mixture.

Wes complained of not having slept well, and he had considered canceling but realized that the weather was perfect for what he needed. Fatigue and a poor night's rest is as realistic as it gets, and I commended him for recognizing that he was not, perhaps, in top form. As safety pilot I was there to help out if called upon. He filed an IFR flight plan to Martinsburg, West Virginia, 30 miles down the airway, but somehow ATC got it into their system that we were going to Morgantown, West Virginia, some 120 miles away instead.

After explaining to clearance delivery that MRB, and not MGW, was where we really wanted to go, Wes ran his checklist smoothly but appeared to be stressed, as evidenced by some trembling in his hands. There was just one thing he overlooked.

Shortly after takeoff we were in the mist and haze, able to see down but not forward. The GPS mode switch on the glareshield innocuously announced that the horizontal situation indicator was displaying the way to MRB via GPS, while our clearance was to Westminster via VOR in the opposite direction. The switch needed to be reset to the VOR mode. This subtle little gotcha on programming modes has nailed a number of professional flight crews. This new technology is now being introduced to GA cockpits, and single pilots have to be doubly careful. I'm sure that Wes had been briefed on this in his checkout, but in the heat of the moment he missed it.

Baltimore Approach picked us up on radar, and while Wes was busy taking care of all the things that come with an IFR departure, we slipped through the assigned altitude and continued upward another 200 feet. At 300 feet the FAA usually gets involved, so we prudently decided that it was time to return to 3,000 feet and await further clearance. It's not unusual for newly transitioned pilots to bust altitudes on climbout because they are not used to the faster climb rates and are more distracted with the airplane. But vertical transgressions, both up and down, by new and experienced pilots alike, are regular fare in NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. It is more common in faster airplanes because things happen, well, faster.

So rule number one is to increase vertical awareness. If you don't have an altitude alerter, a handy device that beeps at you when approaching the assigned altitude, try this. When I'm within 1,000 feet of my altitude, I put my finger on the panel near the altimeter as a very tangible reminder that a level-off will be needed soon. If anybody else has another technique, let me hear about it.

ATC cleared the flight to 8,000 feet with an off-route vector for climb, so obviously they were still thinking Morgantown. We got that sorted out and settled in to fly the short leg over to Martinsburg for a VOR approach. Wes was thinking ahead, had the chart out, and was picturing the approach in his mind.

On the Stormscope were some interesting dots that were not far west of the airport; I pointed them out and attempted to show him some very basic weather radar procedures. There was light shower activity but nothing really organized — perfect training weather. However, it was obvious that weather interpretation would have to take a back seat to flying the aircraft. He was mentally maxed out.

Baltimore handed us off to Dulles Approach; when we asked for an approach to Martinsburg, they wanted to know if we were still planning on going to Morgantown. At this point I was about ready to throw in the towel and go to Morgantown because it was our destiny, if not our destination. It was a valuable lesson for Wes, showing that once something gets fouled up in the system, it can take considerable energy and perhaps four controllers to untangle.

He settled down to the hard work of IFR approaches although the weather was well above minimums. The VOR approach at Martinsburg requires a one-minute holding pattern for the procedure turn, and we had to go down and slow down simultaneously. Fast singles don't do that as well as slower airplanes, but we got the inbound course nailed and crossed the final approach fix inbound at the right altitude. The tower frequency wasn't preset — a minor distraction — and because of the focus on ILSs in IFR training, Wes began a glideslope-like descent of about 500 feet per minute. At 120 knots, with the VOR six miles from the end of the runway and with 2,000 feet to lose, that works out to 666 fpm. Our gentle descent meant that we'd hit the minimum descent altitude somewhere at the far end of the airport, well past the missed approach point. It's a common mistake when flying approaches 30 to 40 knots faster than what you're accustomed to.

When I checked out in faster airplanes, the instructor told me the same things. Stuff happens faster, and you need to be thinking ahead — whatever that means. Don't bother me now with the headwork — I'm busy flying. Here is where the airline crews have the advantage. The captain, having made the same mistake a time or two before, will diplomatically or directly explain the math to the first officer and will explain it as often as needed until the approach is flown correctly.

There is a partial solution to this problem, particularly in the approach phase of the flight, and that is to slow the airplane to just a bit faster than Cherokee speeds — say 10 knots faster. Do this early in the descent, because by the time you get to the final approach, the airplane may well be two counties ahead of you. The fact that it can go 40 knots faster doesn't mean you have to fly it that way until your mental processes catch up.

Avionics and equipment is a topic unto itself on high-performance aircraft, and the transitioning pilot probably should spend almost as much time learning these goodies as that spent on basic aircraft control. GPSs — and particularly IFR-approach-approved GPSs — are all different, and most are not intuitive. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation currently offers a hands-on IFR GPS course to familiarize pilots. It takes time to learn and to practice.

Autopilots, lightning-detection gear, weather radar, and horizontal situation indicators are all complicating factors that make high-performance aircraft more useful. They also offer myriad distractions and the potential for major problems if the transitioning pilot isn't schooled well in this equipment. A one- or two-time explanation by a CFI isn't likely to do the job. Years ago when I checked out in a Cessna T210 at the factory, we spent about six hours in the transition, and much of it was devoted to the electronics. Go slow and take time to learn in VFR in a low-density traffic area. A light single will show you its ways in a few hours but not a true high-performer.

The return to Frederick, Maryland, was relatively uneventful, and Wes performed the way all new pilots do — very busily. The transition process continues long after the instructor wishes you well and signs your log. If you are a relatively new pilot, invite an experienced hand along for some friendly guidance. It takes more than a few hours, and you will become more confident and professional in the transition. Wes and I will fly again soon in some weather to continue his transition process — and this time, I'm seriously considering Morgantown. I know ATC won't mind.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.