Waypoints: Ready for the Eclipse 500?

June 1, 2008

When not flipping about in an L-39, Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines flies an A36 Bonanza.

Nudging the sidestick a little to the left, I wondered whether this 18 DME arc for the VOR B approach to Roswell, New Mexico, was good enough to get me a ticket to the Eclipse 500 type-rating program. Doubt danced on my shoulder, joyously proclaiming I would fail as the DME clicked toward 18.5 nautical miles. But with a bit more left stick, the numbers started back down again. I took a deep breath as the lead-in radial showed up right on time and I turned inbound toward the VOR. Maybe I wouldn’t blow this thing after all.

After the published missed approach, it was vectors to the Localizer Back Course to Runway 3. Flipping the HSI around to point to the front course, I realized I was more nervous than I was for any checkride in my life—and this was just for fun. The trepidation and doubt I felt are probably the same emotions that many new very light jet (VLJ) owners face as they prepare for what has become increasingly challenging training to fly this new generation of airplanes.

Cessna and Eclipse, the only two manufacturers so far delivering VLJs, seem adamant that customers new to turbine airplanes come into their training programs well prepared and leave with a high level of skills and a respect for high-speed, flight-level flying. As Senior Editor Al Marsh wrote last year in a story called “ Raising the Bar,” getting a single-pilot type rating in the Cessna Mustang is a multi-part process for pilots with minimal turbine time. Cessna’s training partner, FlightSafety International, provides a number of screening tools in advance to help pilots understand what they need to do before coming to the type-rating course.

Eclipse Aviation, which manages its own training program through staff and contractor Higher Power Aviation, uses a flight skills assessment as one way to determine whether pilots are skilled enough to begin its rigorous and fast-paced type-rating program. To see whether I had the “right stuff,” I recently submitted myself to the Eclipse staff for review.

Like many Eclipse customers moving up from piston-powered aircraft, I don’t have a lot of turbine time and no other type rating. A type rating is required in order to fly any turbojet airplane and all type-rating checkrides are conducted to airline transport pilot standards—even for a private pilot like me.

In preparation for my assessment at Eclipse’s mammoth new training center at Albuquerque’s Double Eagle II airport, I flew a practice DME arc and full procedure approach in my Bonanza under the hood en route to Sun ’n Fun while editors Tom Horne and Ian Twombly sat either mesmerized by my precision or snickering off line while I focused on the task at hand. I’m not sure which.

A few days later I was in the flight training device at the training center flying the DME arc to Roswell, glad that I had practiced; it’s been years since I’ve flown a raw-data arc. I sure missed the magenta line on the moving map in my airplane.

Next stop, FL350

To cut to the chase, I passed the flight screening assessment and instructor Doug Hawley deemed me qualified to take the type-rating course, which involves about 11 days of training including 16 hours of simulator experience. Technically, I “met the standard.” Eclipse instructors use a complex and detailed scoring system to assess each student in the flight screening program—scoring dozens of parameters during the 1.5-hour session in the FTD. Students either meet the standard, meaning they’re welcomed into the type-rating course; they meet the standard with difficulty, meaning they can come to the training but they should be prepared to work extra hard and the instructors know they may need extra help; or the students don’t meet the standard. Those in the third category must receive additional proficiency training before they can come to the type-rating course. At this point, it’s mostly up to the customer to find that training, although Eclipse is working to set up a structured proficiency course for those customers.

However, the flight screening assessment is only step one in a customer’s path to the type-rating course. Other requirements include participation in the Eclipse Emergency Situation Training program. That course, also conducted at the training center, consists of upset recovery and hypoxia training.

The two-day EST course includes a comprehensive ground school that examines the causes of in-flight upsets. Eclipse is particularly concerned that its customers understand upset recovery techniques because the 500 is truly a very light jet—its maximum takeoff weight is just 5,995 pounds, about the same as a Beechcraft Baron. And yet it will be sharing airspace on final and in the flight levels with airliners weighing a hundred times more. The wake turbulence from such large aircraft could play havoc with an Eclipse. Besides wake turbulence, the course explores three other causes of upsets: environmental factors, such as mountain waves, microbursts, and wind shear; system anomalies, such as autopilot problems and trim runaways; and pilot induced, caused by inattention or spatial disorientation.

My course was taught by Randy Brooks and George Sewell. Brooks is a former professional aerobatic pilot and Sewell is a former fighter pilot. Both know plenty about what to do when you find yourself upside down. Eclipse uses a rollover-training device and an L-39 jet trainer. The rollover device is an aircraft seat with shoulder harnesses and a seatbelt on a raised platform. Using a crank, the instructor can flip the strapped-in student upside down or at any extreme rolling attitude, asking the student which way he would turn to go back right-side up.

The fun really begins in the L-39. The course includes two brief but highly structured flights, with every maneuver briefed in advance; each scenario is designed to show the student how to emerge from a situation discussed in the ground school. This isn’t a just joy ride in a cool tandem-seat jet. The L-39 fairly replicates the roll rate and response of the Eclipse 500, which is the reason it is used rather than a less-expensive but sportier airplane such as a Pitts or Extra.

Meanwhile, back at the training center, instructor Mike Kendall walked me through the hypoxia course. The training discusses the physiology of hypoxia and its symptoms and relates to the Eclipse pressurization and oxygen systems. After ground school, students practice putting on and properly stowing the sophisticated quick-don oxygen mask found in the Eclipse 500. Finally, the course concludes with a, well, breath-taking demonstration of the effects of hypoxia through a reduced oxygen breathing device (ROBD). With the ROBD mask on I operated a flight simulator while Kendall gradually reduced the concentration of oxygen in the air I was breathing. After a few minutes I could feel the effects. With the flip of a switch, pure O2 was flowing again and my head cleared. The ROBD is a risk-free way to recognize the onset of hypoxia—safer even than an altitude chamber, which is the usual way pilots can experience hypoxia.

How’d I do throughout the EST program? Check out my Reporting Points blog to see a video of the L-39 flights and ROBD experience. It’s clear that Eclipse is serious about assuring that its customers get the most comprehensive training possible before launching in their new VLJs.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.