As we await the ramp-up of the very light jet (VLJ) market, it's hard not to think about what kind of training will be required for the owner pilots of this new market. In the past, most small jets have been flown by professional crews, and although some of the VLJs undoubtedly will be, they are being marketed to pilots who have the means to train for and fly their own jets.
Pilots have moved to turbine aircraft by progressing from the single-engine private certificate to the instrument rating, then the multiengine rating, and possibly the commercial certificate. In the last decade, the number of multiengine pilots has dwindled, with the exception of those who are pursuing a professional career. Private pilots looking to fly or buy a high-performance aircraft have plenty of options to choose from in the single-engine market: Beechcraft Bonanzas, Pilatuses, Piper Meridians, and more recently, Cirruses and Columbias have been available in sufficient numbers for pilots with the means to pay to play.
But with all but a few of the VLJs having two engines, the majority of pilots in the market for a VLJ are going to have to pursue a multiengine rating. These pilots also might be looking to get some true proficiency training before starting the intense training that will be required for a VLJ type rating.
As for your experience, FAR 61.129 lists the requirements in detail, but the highlights include 250 hours of total time; 100 hours of pilot-in-command time; 50 hours of cross-country time; a cross country that is at least 300 miles total distance, with landings at three points, one of which is at least 250 miles from the original departure point; and five hours of night VFR flight with at least 10 takeoffs and landings at tower-controlled airports.
So where does that leave the pilot? Anyone who is not already certificated for multiengine flying will have to secure a multiengine rating. While you are at it, why not pursue the commercial certificate as well?
Is there any reason or justification for signing up for commercial training? Is it really worth thinking about as you approach 250 hours? Or if you are past the 250-hour mark and considering a VLJ?
Perhaps. Whereas the instrument rating is the most difficult one to get, the commercial certificate is one of the easiest, most fun, and least time consuming. It requires learning some new maneuvers (all VFR): lazy eights, eights on pylons, chandelles, and steep spirals. They are flown using a combination of outside references that are cross-checked with the instrument panel. Steep turns are not new, but this time you will use at least a 50-degree bank versus the old 45.
You also will practice many of the maneuvers and procedures you did during your private pilot training. Short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings, simulated engine failures, and spot landings, especially with an engine out, are all included, as are slow flight and stalls. The goal now is greater precision.
If you've never flown a complex or high-performance aircraft, now you'll get your chance. This is the one part of the training that can cause some scheduling issues: You will be required to fly and demonstrate proficiency in using an aircraft with a constant-speed propeller and retractable landing gear (a high-performance signoff requires an engine of more than 200 horsepower). A typical airplane used for this is a Piper Arrow, and if your flight school doesn't have the equipment in the rental fleet, you'll need to shop around to find one to use during the checkride.
A common misconception is that the commercial certificate requires an instrument rating first. It doesn't. However, if you are going to fly a VLJ, you will be required to have an instrument rating in order to operate in all of the airspace now available to you. You also need the instrument rating to qualify to be a flight instructor or an aircraft-specific check pilot if that so inspires you.
Regarding the experience requirements to take the checkride, you can check the FARs (available on AOPA Online) for details. Keep in mind that many of the experience criteria can be combined and met on a small number of flights, and if you look through your logbook side by side with FAR 61.129, you may find you have already met some of the requirements.
You can also get your commercial certificate concurrent with multiengine training, and since you will want to have all the multiengine experience you can get before tackling your first jet, this is a smart avenue to take. The multiengine rating itself is relatively easy to acquire. Assuming currency and proficiency, a multiengine rating can usually be completed in 10 or so flight hours for a VFR pilot and less than 20 for an instrument-rated pilot. With both engines running, a multiengine airplane operates just as predictably as a single. Consequently, most of the training is centered on flying with one engine "failed." That is, most of the training deals with handling single-engine emergencies (initial jet training will put you in the same environment). The training is expensive, but it's fun and educational, and for a pilot who may be considering the purchase of a VLJ, getting the training first is the smart move.
If you are inexperienced in faster aircraft, one of the biggest adjustments to twin flying is getting used to the speed: staying ahead of the airplane, slowing down, planning descents, and flying faster approach speeds are some of the challenges, but you can overcome them with practice and good training.
The most common rationale for learning to fly twins is that the pilot wants to have redundancy in the event something goes wrong. This, on the surface, makes sense. The problem is that, unfortunately, most light twin-engine airplanes do not offer stellar single-engine performance, especially on hot days or at high density altitudes. The dark joke is that if you lose an engine in a twin, the operating engine is going to take you to the scene of the crash.
There are other areas, though, where that desire for redundancy does have merit. Because of the need to get fuel to the lone working engine, twins have some form of cross-feed capability, which is comforting if there is a problem with a particular tank. You may lose range because of a fuel system problem, but if you can still crossfeed from one side to the other, you are more likely to be able to keep both engines running long enough to get to a place where you can land. The key, of course, is system knowledge. More than one pilot has encountered trouble attempting to cross-feed, only to shut off the fuel flow entirely.
One of the myths of twin flying is that it costs twice as much as a single. Wrong. It costs more than twice as much. The reason is that while a twin may have two engines and two of this and two of that, it also has parts that a single-engine airplane doesn't have. The fuel cross-feed system is a great example. There are parts in that twin-engine system that a single doesn't need, especially a high-wing single that uses gravity to feed fuel.
Twins also cost more to insure because of their higher accident rate, especially among lower time (and lower multiengine time) pilots. One of the challenges of multiengine flying is finding an airplane you can rent. Flight schools are often loath to rent their twins for solo flight, usually citing insurance costs. There is also often a lack of comfort with renting a twin because the rental rates are so high that pilots can't fly often enough to stay current and proficient. If you buy a twin, it will behoove you to fly frequently to get some time under your belt so you can get cheaper insurance and get more comfortable with the equipment.
How about payload and performance? Twin performance is not always what you wish it would be, but if you buy a six-seat twin, you may finally have that full four-seat capability that you have so long wanted. It will be much easier to load four people and all their bags and the fuel that you want to take in something like a Piper Aztec or a Beechcraft Baron than it was in a Cessna 172. Will it always work? No. But you'll gain significant flexibility, though it should be stated that you must be much more cognizant of weight, balance, and center of gravity considerations than ever before—for both takeoff and landing. If the cost of operation is not an important consideration, perhaps more load capability will be enough to sway you into a twin, but for most folks, cost is a limiting factor.
Charles Lindbergh wrote that one of the reasons he chose a single-engine airplane to cross the Atlantic was that two engines meant twice as many things could go wrong. The reliability of modern equipment makes that less of an issue, but in certain phases of flight, single-engine capability should still give pause. The most obvious is during takeoff. If you were to lose power in a single there is no decision to be made. You will land. But if you lose power in one engine in a piston-engine twin, especially on takeoff, you start a very quick decision-making process. Prudence dictates that you have a plan for dealing with an engine power loss at low altitude before you ever start the takeoff. Trying to come up with a plan in the chaotic seconds after losing power in one engine shortly after rotation is an invitation to far bigger problems.
For instrument-rated pilots, getting a multiengine rating also means upgrading an instrument rating to a multi-instrument ticket. Flying a twin on one engine is a challenge. If something goes wrong in instrument conditions, you are dealing with a major systems management challenge along with an aviating challenge. The FAA allows pilots to get an initial instrument rating in a twin with no additional training for single-engine flying; not so the reverse. Also, a multiengine rating earned in a centerline thrust twin such as the Cessna 337 or the Adam A500 carries a statement limiting you to centerline thrust aircraft only. A conventional multiengine rating will suffice for a centerline thrust aircraft.
Is all this to say that a multiengine rating or a twin-engine airplane is not a good idea? Of course not. The point is that there are a lot of factors to consider. If you are considering a twin, spend some time with the performance section of the pilot's operating handbook (POH) of the airplane you are contemplating, and pay close attention to what kind of performance advantages and penalties you will face. Spend some time talking to members of twin-engine type clubs, as well as mechanics, to find out what ownership challenges you may face.
If you are contemplating a VLJ, it is worth talking to your insurance company and to the folks who will do your VLJ training for an opinion. Simulator training can be expensive, and it would be even more so to provide basic training that a pilot should already have. If your insurance carrier offers a significant discount for having your airline transport pilot certificate while flying your own VLJ, then the commercial certificate is a step in the right direction.
Chip Wright of Hebron, Kentucky, is a captain for a regional airline.