It was 40 years ago almost to the month that I earned my private pilot certificate, after spending some four months and 40 hours in the left seat of a Cessna 150. Never did I think, in 1967, that flying would become so rewarding in terms of recreation, business, and then career. And, at no time during my almost first-quarter century of flying did I ever dream I would be putting jet fuel in an airplane flown by me.
Like many pilots, I have successfully and safely made the transition from a two-seat piston trainer to a nine-seat turbo-jet, but not by any planning or design. Luck, timing, coincidence, and unpredicted career changes all brought about the set of circumstances that have allowed me this opportunity; not to mention a lot of discretionary income spent on flying during these four decades. Perhaps reviewing the history involved in my somewhat seamless aviation path can be helpful to others who have a desire to upgrade to turbine aircraft. While my ability to pilot a turbine-powered airplane is directly related to the work and heavy travel I do for AOPA, you may have businesses or individual net worth that allows ownership and maintenance of higher-end aircraft.
It was less than a week after getting my private ticket that, like many, I checked out in the Cessna Skyhawk. This was a necessary upgrade since I had a wife and two small children. I should note that since I could ill-afford not only the initial flight training, but also the continued rental, my trips all had a purpose. Destination flying, rather than punching holes in the sky, was key throughout my logbook. Working for a television station that owned a radio station, and which had bought a Cessna Cardinal for traffic reporting, provided me a no-cost opportunity to build hours and get my instrument rating. Without a commercial certificate I truly experienced "fly for free." In the ensuing five years I accumulated more than 800 hours and fell in love with what I thought was my "dream airplane," a 1950's Beech Bonanza, which the local flight school had on rental. Over the next decade and a few job relocations I rented whatever was available and that I could afford. At one point in Southern California, I owned a third of an S-model Bonanza, giving me a taste of ownership. Like many pilots, there were often times when flying took a backseat to family, building a career, and a heavy work schedule. In the early 1980s, however, after a real dry spell in flying, but a job change that afforded me more time, I took a giant step with the purchase of a Beech Baron. This was probably the most instrumental move in my proficiency as a pilot and, a decade later, prepared me for the left seat of AOPA. Flying a light twin demands proficiency and is a challenge. Since I lived in New York City, I used the twin for heavy travel to see family in the Chicago area. To maintain proficiency, one evening every 90 days a freelance flight instructor would meet me at Teterboro airport in New Jersey and put me through the paces.
In the late 1980s the Baron was paid for and, looking for faster and higher, I bought what I thought would be the biggest airplane I would ever own and fly - a Cessna 340, turbocharged, pressurized, small cabin-class twin. Well, I was half right. It was the biggest airplane I would own, but the AOPA president's job in late 1990 found me flying the association's Cessna Conquest I - a twin turboprop. As I said, the transition from avgas to jet fuel for me was luck. Here I was stepping out of a twin-piston Cessna into a very similar cockpit, only an airplane that burned jet fuel and had no "pesky" magnetos. Six levers in the throttle quadrant became four - no more mixture controls. In 1998, after putting some 3,000 hours on the turboprop, AOPA acquired the first of the new breed of light jets, the Cessna Citation Jet. Four levers now became two, with the absence of prop controls. The CJ could be flown single pilot and provided the weather-topping capability that the turboprop couldn't achieve - although I often say that we are all equal when the heavy weather is in the terminal area. Today the original CJ has been replaced by the newer CJ3, still in the same family of light jets.
One could not ask for a more seamless transition to flying a jet, from an insurance point of view, and confidence in the cockpit as the pilot. Years of piston flying in all sorts of weather and conditions, including a flight across the Atlantic and back, pre-AOPA employment days, allowed me to be prepared for the faster speeds and second-nature need for sharp instrument skills. I have relied on a minimum of annual simulator-based training at FlightSafety International for the past two decades. The instructors claim the biggest problem they have with transition pilots is a lack of proficiency in basic instrument procedures. So if I were to pass on two key points that have served me well, it's IFR knowledge and skill along with knowing the avionics backwards and forwards, so the black boxes work for you, not the other way around.
So that's the history of my transition, but not really. I will never personally have the dollars to own a jet and I really haven't totally transitioned. When not on AOPA missions, you'll find my wife and me enjoying the low-and-slow pleasure of flying an old Skyhawk (back to my roots), and me building tailwheel experience in my recently acquired biplane. Neither burns jet fuel.
E-mail the publisher at [email protected].