Safety Pilot: Transitions

Moving from model to model

July 1, 2012

 

Bruce Landsberg

“Hey, if it’s got wings, I can fly it.” Well, maybe. With the jet age, some airline pilots had to retire early because they couldn’t make the transition. Engine response, speeds, and landing characteristics were different from the big piston liners of the day. The same challenges afflict GA pilots moving from model to model.

We are much more likely to bend something in the first 100 hours of acting as pilot in command in a new type, regardless of total flight time. Ignoring or rushing thorough transition training is not a life-prolonging, career-enhancing, or pocketbook-protecting practice. Failure to become proficient with a new-to-you aircraft has attracted both industry and FAA attention because of a disproportionate number of accidents.

Landing mishaps and inadvertent stalls are two major concerns. Ironically, the pilots who are sure they have it wired are often the ones who come to grief. There is a strong correlation between mishaps and pilots with cursory or no instruction in a model.

Let’s start with an extreme case, but unfortunately it’s not unique: A 70-year-old pilot on his first flight in an amateur-built Kolb Mark III Extra completed a high-speed taxi test and then decided to fly. It was the aircraft’s first flight as well. The witnesses stated that the airplane pitched up steeply and then leveled off about 75 feet agl. It then pitched up again until about 200 feet agl and then recovered to a lower climb angle. On the downwind leg, while only 300 to 400 feet agl, the airplane rolled right, pitched nose down, and spun.

The pilot had 138 hours total time and no tailwheel experience in any aircraft. The NTSB could find no mechanical faults and determined probable cause as “a failure to maintain adequate airspeed. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s lack of experience in the make and model airplane.”

Lancairs are among the most beautiful and fastest Experimental amateur-built aircraft, but their phenomenal performance comes at a price. The FAA has been looking at Lancair loss-of-control accidents for several years because the series has a disproportionate involvement in stall/spin mishaps. The Lancair Owners and Builders Organization (LOBO) preaches transition training and considers it essential for anyone flying these high-performance machines. In August 2011, a Lancair 235 crashed on takeoff after the loss of directional control and subsequent stall. Witnesses described that the airplane “flew erratically, with continuous pitch, yaw, and roll changes, and cleared a row of hangars by approximately 10 feet” before crashing and killing the pilot. According to the NTSB, “The pilot reportedly had not flown the airplane since he purchased it from the original builder on September 14, 2010.”

It isn’t just amateur-built aircraft that have trouble in transition, and there are multiple examples. Cirrus has a substantial mishap record and one has to wonder why. The aircraft are well-designed with thousands produced, yet some pilots—especially lower-time ones—seem to get into trouble. In a recent conversation with a Cirrus accident investigator, he noted that takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds were some of the most common accident phases of flight. There is factory training that is also available to second owners. The Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) has ongoing proficiency programs, and the group claims its members have a significantly better safety record than nonmembers. That’s true of all safety-related activities. Those who have a safety mindset will participate in training.

Generally speaking, both Experimental and certificated aircraft that have high wing loadings and/or a high power-to-weight ratio are more demanding to fly. Sink rates, directional control, and stall characteristics are not as docile as in low power and low-wing-loaded machines. Transitioning into these aircraft requires a solid understanding of the hardware, and especially the aerodynamics at slower speeds.

Tailwheel aircraft are also in the mix because they are more difficult to take off and land, hence the requirement for an endorsement, and many of the landing accidents result from nonproficiency with tailwheel machines.

The airlines require that until newly transitioned captains have flown 100 hours in type, they must raise their approach minimums by 100 feet and one-half mile. It’s tacit recognition that even with the best training, it takes time to learn. Professionals take thorough transition training for each new type of aircraft they fly, no matter if they’re going to bigger or smaller aircraft, and no matter how much flight time they have. In some cases the training may be extensive and in others, more basic, but the idea is that the aircraft will never surprise them. Amateurs make assumptions and take shortcuts—sometimes with disastrous results.