There is one word, one common element that pilots will encounter when transitioning from a piston airplane to any one of today’s modern turbine aircraft, whether turboprop or jet—speed. It seems so obvious, and the reason many of us have converted to turbine aircraft for our business and pleasure flying, speed gets us to our destinations sooner. But for the new turbine pilot, speed can be a real demon in the cockpit. In my many years of attending FlightSafety International for initial and recurrent training in a variety of aircraft, the instructors consistently cite that new pilots to high performance aircraft often have one common flaw, the lack of basic instrument skills. Why, one might ask, since they all pass the rigorous FAA checkride and are current in their present airplane? The answer is that one word—the speed at which things are happening.
Today’s transitioning pilots often choose the model aircraft for all the automation it brings, thinking this will be the answer to every situation. But, I can attest that often the automation is an additional barrier, unless one has mastered the boxes almost without even thinking about the next keystroke. Altitude, frequency, and route changes are often heard in one run-on sentence from the busy air traffic controller, particularly in the terminal environment. Accommodating these instructions with speed is a challenge, especially when flying 200 or 250 knots in a turbine-powered airplane.
I have always found that one must fly the airplane almost by second nature—like breathing—and then build on that skill by thoroughly understanding all aspects of the technology on board, and how to seamlessly integrate it into the fast-paced flight regime of jet aircraft. Studying the entry screen, thinking through each input or entry must come correctly and without hesitation. How many pilots have you known—since the emergence of long-range navigation devices—who still don’t use all the capabilities? Many times I have flown with pilots who know the Direct-To button and nothing else. While we all wonder who designs the human interface, it is important for pilots in modern cockpits to get inside the inventor’s head in order for the operator to quickly and easily program the avionics.
Speed also means pilot decision making must happen at a much faster rate in turbine versus piston equipment. This pilot decision making is truly the best illustration of the maxim that “a good pilot is always learning.” In modern, jet-powered aircraft we can’t be “always learning” basic instrument skills, how to operate the avionics, or how to fly the basic airplane. If these come naturally, then time for those all-important tasks related to weather deviations, fuel management, altitude versus time/speed/fuel burn, and myriad in-flight questions can occur at a rapid rate without sacrificing the fundamentals of managing the cockpit.
Ten years ago, about a week after AOPA acquired its original Cessna CitationJet, I found myself ferrying it back from Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) to AOPA’s headquarters and my home base at Frederick, Maryland (FDK). It was a short 50- nm trip, in mild instrument conditions, but requiring an ILS approach at my destination. This is where I first really experienced the speed aspect of flying a jet. Departing a busy air carrier airport is difficult enough with frequency, altitude, and heading changes, not to mention needing to set up the precision approach, obtain the destination weather, and manage the descent and vectors to the final approach course. Speed, speed, speed—wow, the airplane was truly ahead of this new jet pilot! Then it dawned on me that I didn’t have to be operating at 250 knots just because I was flying a jet. Deploying approach flaps and lowering the gear I was able to reduce the speed to 130 knots, well within my more familiar piston airplane parameters. This bought me the time and thinking-power to get everything completed in the relatively short distance I had remaining to the initial approach fix. Speed is the reason jet aircraft are so popular, but it can also be a new pilot’s worst enemy.