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Nothing personal, just business

We don’t just fly airplanes, we develop relationships with them. After nearly two years in 861, I can say that I have a fine relationship with it.

We don’t just fly airplanes, we develop relationships with them. After nearly two years in 861, I can say that I have a fine relationship with it. I talk to it and it to me, we share good flights and bad, and I admire and respect it. (I take its reliability as confirmation that the feelings are mutual.) So, dear Aztec, it is with great trepidation that I offer up this confession: I recently began flying another Piper, a Navajo, on the side. But please do not take this as philandering, two-timing, or stepping out on you. It’s not personal, it’s business. Besides, it’s no piece of cake for me, either. I’m learning something that actual philanderers know all too well: Managing two separate relationships is not easy.

I began training in 705 earlier this year, and after three aborted attempts, finally succeeded in completing a checkride with an FAA inspector (see “Checkride: Three and Counting,” April 2010 AOPA Pilot). Now I’m on call to fly charter trips in the airplane, and I’ve been getting some calls. I may fly 861 one day, and 705 the next. On a couple of occasions I’ve flown trips in both on the same day. Like I said, it’s business.

Flying multiple airplanes is nothing new or dramatic for a busy instructor who routinely jumps from a two-seat primary trainer into a twin, or a professional pilot who flies the company helicopter across town one day and the company business jet across the country the next. The foundation of the FBO, flight school, charter operator, and flight department industry was laid with the flexibility and “git-er-done” attitude of hard-working line pilots. You were expected to, and did, fly anything on the ramp. But it’s a more specialized, insurance-regulated world today, with fewer opportunities to get and stay current and proficient in a variety of aircraft. It’s been some time since I regularly flew more than one make and model airplane at a given time, and I feel fortunate to do so again.

It takes time to get to know an airplane well, especially one that has more than a few hours and miles on it—to discern its personality, recognize its hidden strengths, and come to terms with its shortcomings; to feel the vibration passed on by engine mounts growing tired, and hear the faint whine of a gyro in its twilight; to catch a whiff of seeping oil, or see another blemish in the fiberglass cowl. It takes time to truly understand the unique language spoken by an airplane, and from that know how it is feeling this day.

I’ve spent almost 500 flight hours getting to know 861, and vice versa, and I think we’re pretty comfortable together. I know precisely how long to run the electric fuel pump for the right engine to fire after just two or three blades, and that it will take a fraction less time to prime the left side. I know that closing the big cowl flaps 100 feet shy of reaching cruise altitude pitches the nose down just enough to make for a smooth level off. I know the ancient Altimatic IIIB autopilot will command a slight climb when I engage altitude hold no matter how carefully I set it up. I know where to set stabilator pitch trim for takeoff for the specific aircraft loading. I even know—finally—how to get a greaser with full flaps deployed. Scored one yesterday, I’m happy to report.

Just as I think I’ve advanced to the super-comfy level with it, that special place where you feel at one with the airplane and can begin to coax the absolute best from it and yourself, along comes 705.

Now I have to start the process all over again. I’ve learned things from my experience with 861 that will help flatten the learning curve somewhat, but the only thing that really counts when it comes to taking the measure of an unfamiliar airplane is experience; you have to fly it. A lot. And that takes time.

I’m gradually picking up clues to its personality. The rumbling I felt in climb turned out to be coming from the barn-door cowl flaps; when I closed them halfway in the latter stages of the climb the rumbling ceased. And, as with 861, closing the cowl flaps completely a little early helps in leveling off in cruise. I’m playing around with takeoff trim to find the sweet spots for various passenger configurations, but I have miles to go before I put that one to bed.

Some things are more easily accomplished on one than the other. I can make consistently smooth landings in 861, while 705 seems to be afflicted with overly stiff limbs. Experimenting with throttle settings in the flare is helping, and I’m confident success will come. On the other hand, hot starts of 705’s big-bore turbos have been a pleasant surprise—they’re easy—compared with 861’s normally aspirated but cantankerous Lycomings.

I have trips in both airplanes tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to learning a little bit more about each, especially 705. After all, it’s still new and different to me, and that’s exciting. But not to worry, dear 861, it’s just business.

Mark Twombly flies a Piper Aztec for a small company in Southwest Florida. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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