Safety Pilot: Student again

November 2, 2009

As Will Rogers said about people, I really haven’t met an airplane I didn’t like. Some were more likeable than others, but they’ve all had socially and aerodynamically redeeming qualities. This reflection was brought on by something I haven’t done in a while—taking a checkout in a new type.

For the last decade a well-used and well-loved 1984 Beech Bonanza A36 was my long-time traveling companion. She went to a new home, so one relationship ends and another begins. It seems silly perhaps to become attached to a machine, but pilots understand. We entrust our lives, and those of our passengers, to an aircraft hoping the engineers, builders, and technicians who designed, assembled, and maintained our chariot knew what the heck they were doing.

Landing after dark, instrument approach behind me and rain gently falling on the ramp, there was a definite kinship with this aluminum cocoon that had done my bidding to allow a safe return. The A36 was used in myriad experiments, photo shoots, staff transportation, and VIP demonstrations of the latest technology such as GPS, ADS-B, and weather datalink. The avionics upgrades over the years were both exciting and frustrating.

As IFR GPS navigation came of age, somewhat dated equipment was replaced with the newest. Dig into the books and software to learn how this set of programmers and designers were going to make it easier, faster, and better than before. Usually they did, but sometimes there were some nonsequiturs and always a learning curve.

The new aircraft is a Diamond DA40 XLS. Since the A36 and DA40 are quite different in terms of speed, engine, and weight, comparing the two is more a study in contrast than comparison. The first walkaround was a great reminder of what it’s like to be a student again. Nothing is done quite the same way and yet it’s done well. The DA40’s glider heritage is evident in the really long wings and T-tail. A full canopy versus a door leads to a seating posture more reminiscent of a sports car than a Beech armchair, but both are comfortable.

The rudder is powerful with a demonstrated crosswind component of 20 knots. It will be a little while before I approach that limit, although I’m looking for a moderate crosswind now to start working toward it. Those long wings also actually require the use of rudder to coordinate turns—shades of tailwheel machines. 

Flying a stick left handed is initially odd. I’ve flown lots of sticks but always with the right hand, and my left paw on the throttle. A side stick position, as used on Cirrus or Cessna Corvalis aircraft, more closely approximates a yoke but after 10 hours in the left seat, it will become as natural as all the others have. I flew with a clipboard, a holdover from an earlier era when charts were occasionally used, although the board’s been employed much more for copying clearances in the past five years. That security blanket won’t fit in my lap with the DA40’s control stick so it’s a new kneeboard for any writing exercises.

Once airborne the view is spectacular, but I’m hunting for things that used to fall to hand easily. The Garmin glass cockpit is inviting, mesmerizing, and complex. Have to remember that all that window glass is there to look outside. The first traffic pattern was an embarrassment, flown wide and far just to let the thought processes catch up to the aircraft. Just like a neophyte—I won’t let that happen again! The landing was acceptable but with a touch of side drift because the cowling is not there to act as reference. A different sight picture is part of the deal.

The airlines require captains new to a particular type, even though they have thousands of flight hours in their old ride, to raise IFR minimums—typically by 100 feet and one-half mile on visibility. So a Category I ILS goes from 200 feet and one-half mile to 300 and one in the new ship until a few grooves are worn.

The third transition lesson was solid instrument conditions with weather just enough above minimums to not have to worry about getting back into the airport. A typical IFR flight often has 10 minutes or more between major activities and that isn’t so tough. It’s quite different when multiple approaches, misses in moderately busy airspace, and other stuff are coming along quickly. I’m thinking in Beechcraft and Garmin 480 rather than speaking native Diamond and G1000. It’s definitely learning a new language.

It’s humbling to practice what we preach about mastering the glass. Holding patterns, switching nav modes, getting frequencies and information to and from all the right places—sometimes it’s daunting. All the while, remembering the basics of IFR flight don’t change: shiny side up, altitude per segment is critical, the autopilot is an obedient slave that will put the aircraft someplace you hadn’t intended—even though it was just following your misguided instruction.

So despite the enforced humility, which is difficult for many a pilot, it’s great to make new aeronautical friends, and I’m looking forward to the new relationship even as I fondly remember an old friend who’s no longer there. We should all be students of flight.