Getting to Know You

Four sure-fire steps to learn an airplane's idiosyncrasies

March 1, 2005

It was the pilot's first flight in the 1977 Mooney 201, which he had just acquired with a partner. Conducting the checkout was an instructor who had more than 100 hours of Mooney experience — in a 1981 model.

Prior to his first landing, the new owner-pilot so exuberantly selected gear down that he snapped the shaft off the landing-gear control switch. He had failed to pull the switch out slightly before selecting gear down, as the mechanism required. The shaft broke off flush with the instrument panel and left the gear switch still in the Up position. There was no way to extend the landing gear using the normal system. However, for just such circumstances, all retractable-gear aircraft have a backup system to extend the landing gear.

The instructor thought he had the situation well in hand until he looked between the seats for the familiar "rope start" alternate gear-extension system used on most modern Mooneys. It wasn't there. Mooney didn't start using that arrangement until the 1978 model year.

To prepare for the Monday night checkout flight, the new owner-pilot had taken the airplane's pilot's operating handbook (POH) home over the weekend. Unfortunately, he never opened it. Instead, he attended a pro football game. To make matters worse, he left the POH at home and went on the checkout flight without it.

After the gear-switch debacle, the owner-pilot and the instructor spent the next hour on the radio with the control tower in an unsuccessful effort to establish an after-hours phone patch to a mechanic or pilot familiar with how to manually extend the landing gear on a 1977 Mooney 201. They even attempted to unscrew the instrument panel to get at the gear-switch mechanism from behind.

Eventually, the aviators found the landing-gear extension crank hidden behind the left leg of the pilot. Since they didn't have the POH in the aircraft and evidently didn't see the cockpit placard detailing the manual extension procedure, they promptly blew the landing-gear-motor circuit breaker when they started turning the manual extension crank handle. Pulling the landing-gear-motor circuit breaker is one step in manually extending the landing gear on a Mooney with electric landing gear.

In the end, they were able to get the gear down and landed without further complication, but the owner-pilot could not continue his checkout for more than a week because of the landing-gear system maintenance required. His partner refused to pay half the cost.

This misadventure could have been avoided had the instructor conducted — for himself and his student — what should be the first step of every new- airplane checkout, a cockpit familiarization. This vital training reduces the likelihood of anxious moments in the cockpit in those precarious first few hours in a new-to-you airplane. And it can be accomplished without burning an ounce of fuel or putting one minute on the Hobbs meter.

1. Start with the doors

Nearly every general aviation airplane has some type of strange idiosyncrasy related to opening or closing an entry or baggage door or window. And not surprisingly, each year GA aircraft are involved in incidents and accidents related to a door or window opening inadvertently. Start your cockpit checkout by learning to correctly operate all doors and windows and checking if the POH prescribes a method for closing the doors and windows in flight should they come open. See if there is a procedure for flying and landing with a door or window open.

Next investigate how to get out of the airplane should you not be able to use the primary entry door. In many single-door GA airplanes, the emergency egress options are pretty limited. Some aircraft have baggage doors that can be opened from the inside. A great feature of the Beechcraft Baron and Bonanza family of aircraft are the fully opening emergency exit windows in the rear seat area.

Now get comfortable in the seat. Adjust the seat belt and shoulder harness and make sure you can reach all vital cockpit functions. Fully exercise the control wheel and look for anything that can interfere with it such as wires leading from portable yoke-mounted devices used so frequently in airplanes these days. Ensure that you know how any flight-control locking system works and how to set and release the parking brake.

Finally, check out the flap and trim systems. Learn where the flap control is located, how the position is indicated in the cockpit, and what the operating speed limits are. Most trim systems are simple and intuitive, but as anyone who has flown an older Piper can tell you, some trim mechanisms are definitely not intuitive. Older Pipers use a crank handle mounted on the cabin ceiling to operate the pitch trim system.

2. Engine and landing gear

The engine controls should be next in line for examination. Get a feel for the location and operation of the throttle, prop control, and mixture. Learn to operate the friction locks.

Next find the carburetor heat control for carbureted airplanes or the alternate air control for fuel-injected engines. On some fuel-injected airplanes you won't find an alternate air control because the alternate air door functions automatically.

Finally, locate all instruments that monitor engine operation — manifold pressure, tachometer, oil and fuel pressure or fuel flow, and cylinder head, exhaust gas, and oil temperatures — and note their limits. If an engine analyzer is installed, become familiar with its basic operation.

Now determine how fuel gets to the engine. From your preflight inspection, you should already be familiar with the number and location of fuel tanks. Locate the fuel selector, actuate it between tanks, and note the tactile feedback when a tank is properly selected.

Look for any fuel selector pitfalls, such as the selector moving through the Off position when going from one tank selection to another. More than one airplane has landed off airport with plenty of fuel in the tanks after the fuel selector was inadvertently placed in the Off position. If you're getting checked out in a twin, know how to set up a fuel crossfeed.

Next comes the system that caused so much trouble for the aviators mentioned earlier — the landing gear. If your airplane has fixed gear, there's not much to check except how to steer the nose or tailwheel. For pilots checking out in a retractable-gear airplane, there are several areas that need attention.

First locate the landing-gear control switch and the gear position indicators. Most landing-gear switches have some type of over-center mechanism that requires the switch to be pulled out slightly and then actuated up or down as appropriate. This prevents inadvertent switch operation through an accidental bump. Some gear switches use a guard to prevent inadvertent operation. Learn the speeds at which it is acceptable to extend or retract the landing gear.

Then look at the landing-gear position indicators. Some airplanes have the familiar three green lights; others may have only one light and a mechanical position indicator as a backup.

Determine if the gear lights automatically dim when the navigation lights are turned on. After departing with the navigation lights turned on in pre-dawn darkness, some pilots have reached their destination in midmorning and couldn't figure out why they were not getting three green lights. The lights were illuminated, but with the now-forgotten nav lights still on — and the gear lights dimmed as a result — the pilots couldn't see them in the sun-filled cockpit.

The last landing-gear component to check is the alternate or emergency extension system. Most systems involve manual cranking, pulling, or pumping, but some are elegant in their simplicity. You're just going to have to find out what your airplane's manufacturer came up with. If you have to use the backup landing-gear extension system, do not attempt to use the normal system afterward unless the POH expressly permits it. Have a maintenance professional reset your gear and determine why it didn't operate normally.

When checking out the alternate landing-gear extension system, at the very least, find the placard in the cockpit that details the procedure for manually extending the landing gear.

3. Flight instruments and electrical equipment

Begin your familiarization with the flight instruments by determining the primary power source for the attitude- and direction-indicating instruments. In some airplanes, vacuum powers both the attitude indicator and directional gyros. In others, the power sources are split between vacuum and electric. Some new aircraft have all-electric gyro-driven instruments.

Determine how, or if, a loss of power to the attitude- or direction-indicating instruments is annunciated to the pilot. If a backup source of power to the attitude and directional instruments is installed, learn how it operates and what its limitations are.

The pitot-static instruments — airspeed, altimeter, and vertical speed — are about as stone simple as instruments come, but their importance to safe flight, especially IFR flight, cannot be overstated. Check to see if an alternate static source is provided and how to open it.

Start the electrical system checkout by locating the battery and alternator or generator switches. Find out how to monitor the health of the system by checking out the type of ammeter installed and determine if there is a voltmeter.

Next locate the switches for nonavionics electrical equipment — exterior lighting, cockpit lighting, taxi and landing lights, and deice for pitot or prop.

All aircraft electrical equipment is protected from short circuits or gross electrical malfunction by circuit breakers or fuses. Look over the circuit- breaker or fuse panel and see what equipment each protects. Some electrical equipment switches double as circuit breakers for that equipment.

4. Avionics and environmental systems

These days, the cost of the avionics installed in many airplanes rivals the cost of the airframe. Begin the familiarization by finding out if an avionics master switch is installed and determine how it can be bypassed in case it fails. Before jumping into the operation of the communication and navigation radios, learn how to use the audio selector panel and the intercom system if one is installed.

In this era of evermore complex "suite" avionics that incorporate a GPS moving map with a communication radio and VOR and ILS receivers, it is imperative that you spend enough time to learn the particular model installed in your airplane. Become familiar with its principal functions — learn how to tune and activate VHF com and nav frequencies and be able to call up and navigate direct to GPS waypoints. Find out what moving-map capabilities are available and how to switch between functions.

Transponders used to be the easiest avionics box to operate, but recently designed transponders have been equipped with some not-so-intuitive code-setting conventions, and some indicate remotely on multifunction displays or GPS/nav/coms. Make sure you can set a code quickly and efficiently.

Now check out the autoflight options. Determine how many axes of control the autopilot provides and learn how to employ its basic modes (see " On Autopilot: Special Coverage," February Pilot).

Most modern airplanes have some sort of annunciator panel that alerts the pilot to abnormal airplane system conditions. These devices will alert pilots to conditions such as low fuel tank quantity, abnormal voltage, or instrument air pressure. Learn what yours monitors and what triggers the alerts.

While you're learning about the annunciator panel, check out what aural warning horns or tones are used on your airplane to alert the pilot to abnormal conditions. Be sure you can tell the difference between the stall warning and gear-not-down warning.

Now investigate how to heat and ventilate the cockpit. Locate and operate cabin air-vent systems. Learn how the cabin heat and windshield defrost system operates.

Finally, make a final review of the POH to ensure you can expeditiously locate emergency procedures in that manual. For emergencies that require immediate action, such as engine fires during start or engine failure on takeoff, practice from your cockpit station the POH-recommended actions so they'll be reflexive should those emergencies occur.

Taking the time to get familiar with the cockpit before leaving the chocks on the first flight of a new airplane gives you a feeling of confidence that you'll not encounter any system surprises during your checkout and allows you to concentrate on flying.

Bill Kight, AOPA 658477, of Goshen, Kentucky, is a commercial airline pilot.