Slow Down and Take It Easy

Moving down can be just as daunting as moving up

May 1, 2004

Much is made of the transition from a training airplane to a "bigger" airplane. For the pilot who has trained in a Cessna 152, the step up to a 172 or a Piper Cherokee 180 can be pretty daunting. The airplane is bigger, sits higher, is louder, and flies faster. Take the feeling you might get when you step from your little two-door sedan to a big U-Haul truck and multiply it tenfold to get an idea how it feels to move up the airplane ladder. Whether you are talking about the move from singles to bigger singles or from singles to twins, expect some anxiety and confusion.

And then there is the step down.

Ask any flight instructor what it is like to do a checkout with an airline captain, and you'll likely get a smile. Moving from the cockpit of an airliner to the cockpit of a Cessna can be just as daunting for a pilot as moving in the other direction. This is especially true if the pilot in question does not have a general aviation background or has not flown a general aviation airplane for a number of years. Why would such a move be so difficult for an experienced pilot?

For starters, a Cessna 172 has a key. An airliner doesn't. They all start with buttons. Not that it matters, but the point is that much is different. A Cessna flies at speeds well under 100 knots without a problem. A jet or turboprop pilot only sees those speeds during the takeoff or landing roll, so asking him to fly at, say, 60 knots indicated can lead to some seat shifting and sweaty hands. He expects a stall or a spin even though, intellectually, he knows it won't happen.

Basic procedures vary drastically. Turbine engines do not require any kind of runup, and often need very little in the way of a pretakeoff check other than a smooth start. I once had an airline guy try to taxi right onto the runway without doing a runup. When I mentioned the magneto check, his response was to look at me and say, "What the hell is a magneto?" It happens.

Airliners also sit a lot higher off the ground. A normal taxi speed in a jet has a certain "look" to it from the cockpit. It isn't unusual for a Boeing 767 pilot to try to replicate that look in a 172, only to taxi slower or faster than intended. This is aggravated by the fact that a 767 does not stop on a dime. It takes some room to apply the brakes and then wait for the heavy Boeing to come to a halt without making the passengers look like a bunch of woodpeckers. A light Cessna or a Piper stops pretty much immediately after the brakes are pressed. The result? The 767 pilot I trained was always 50 to 60 feet behind the plane in front of us.

Speaking of leading, have you ever watched an airliner take the runway for takeoff? It always leads the turn onto a taxiway or a runway by deliberately overshooting the intended centerline. What happens is that the nose is then turned to compensate for the length of the airplane. The result is that when the turn is complete, the plane is lined up right on the centerline. The problem when transitioning down to general aviation planes is twofold. First, the nosewheel of a Boeing 757 is behind the crew, so when the turn is made, the crew is well past the centerline. Furthermore, an airliner, unlike a piston airplane, has a nice, wide cockpit, so getting the centerline centered means putting the yellow stripe between the two pilots. At first, it just doesn't look right. Try the above techniques in a Cessna like a guy did when flying with me, and it not only looks wrong, it is wrong. When this guy finally finished turning, we were well past the centerline. He smiled, took the mistake in stride, and didn't do it again, but he commented that it just didn't look right. I laughed then, but I don't now, because I've done the same thing.

What I have avoided is the "broken airplane" takeoff. A pilot who has all jet time and little or no propeller time will push the throttle forward and make no effort to counter it with right rudder. The airplane will proceed to turn left, just like it should. The pilot will close the throttle, step on the brakes, and declare the airplane broken when, in fact, it works perfectly.

One of the advantages of flying airplanes that are part of a large fleet is commonality. When the airline guy goes to work, he knows that every plane in his fleet type is going to be the same, and that the only adjustment he'll need to make will be in the position of the seat and rudder pedals. Bring a pilot from a major airline in for the second flight in his general aviation checkout (it never happens in just one), and he might be flying a different plane — with a drastically different panel. The radios might be from a different manufacturer, the transponder may not be in the same place, the light switches may be wired differently, and the rudder trim that was in the first plane may not be in the second. Again, it doesn't change the way the airplane flies, but it's different. It's sort of like driving two different-model cars several years apart. It can be frustrating.

When it comes to flying a less sophisticated airplane, the key to remember is that the physics of flying don't change, just the relative speed and the view out the window. And the details. While the jet engine turboprop may not have carburetor heat, a Cessna 152 or an older 172 will. A jet doesn't have a white arc for flap speeds, but a 172 does. High-wing airplanes don't usually have fuel boost pumps.

But flying itself doesn't change. Whether the airplane is a Piper Cub, a 172, or an ultralight, it doesn't take long to get the picture of level flight. Whether flying straight or turning, most pilots can use the horizon to determine their attitude. Strip airline or military pilots of all the gizmos and gadgets, and they can still fly on the basic six instruments that adorn most panels. Put them in a Cub, and while they may need some practice using a wet compass, they can at least hold altitude.

Landings are always the most exciting part of transitioning from a bigger airplane to a smaller one. If you start your landing flare at 50 feet in a Cessna, you'll stall. If you carry power in a Cessna until you are down to 50 feet, you will float — for a long time. We had a fellow at our flight school who was trying to go from a 757 to a 172, and for several hours of lessons he wanted to flare at 50 feet. Finally, someone videotaped an approach. He would turn final, extend flaps, and be just as pretty as can be during the approach. At 50 feet, the power would come off, the nose would go up, and the airplane would just balloon back up. He would slow down, wait, then push the nose over when he heard the stall horn. The instructor would then recover the airplane. The pilot would then say, "But I was so close!" He said this until he saw the video of one of his approaches followed by a normal Cessna approach. He nailed his first landing the next day.

The other funny thing about "fast" airplane pilots is their response to turning final. They might see an airplane a mile in front of them and start briefing the missed approach. They don't realize that a mile at 50 or 60 knots will take at least a minute, and that the plane in front of them will have plenty of time to clear the runway or do a touch and go. Again, it doesn't matter if they grew up in Cessnas or not. The illusion of overtaking a plane can get them just the same.

Making the move to smaller airplanes is not always such a difficult challenge. But you need to keep in mind that the plane may be older, and the pilot's operating handbook may not be as detailed. The checklist may be totally different, so you need to take the time to follow it. There may not even be a checklist. There may be less to look at on the panel (unless the airplane has one of the new glass cockpits), which is good, since you need to be looking outside. In an ultralight, you may be passed by birds, instead of the other way around! Just keep in mind that planes all fly using the same laws of physics.

What's the lesson here? Take advantage of going slow and enjoy the view. Learn not to be in such a hurry. That's why so many pilots like to step out of the airliner and into a Cessna. It takes them longer to get where they are going, and they just want to enjoy the journey. That's the lesson that I learned.

Charles "Chip" Wright, AOPA 1086994, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a CRJ captain for Comair. He has accumulated 5,700 hours in 13 years of flying and is currently building a Van's Aircraft RV-8.