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Making a big-iron step-up

It can be a month-long saga to get “typed” in most business jets, a time filled with as many soaring achievements as humiliating setbacks as you climb the learning curve. How steep is the curve? It depends on the pilot, the airplane, and the training institution.

Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500

  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    The Level 10 Legacy 500 simulator at Flight Safety International's St. Louis Learning Center.
  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    Classroom sessions give students their first opportunities to shake hands with the Legacy 500’s Pro Line Fusion cockpit. Each student’s interactive desktop simulator lets him configure the screenviews, make system inputs, and even start the engines. The cursor control devices are duplicates of those used in the airplane.
  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    The author’s notes of the electrical system discussion.
  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    The Graphical Flight Deck Simulator gives students a chance to learn checklists and cockpit procedural flow.
  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    Touchscreens may not have the tactile feel of real switches, but you can “fly” and shoot approaches by using the thrust levers and the autopilot’s vertical speed, heading, navigation, and other functions. Before each simulator session is a thorough briefing on the day’s training objectives, flying techniques, and procedures.
  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    In the simulator, you’re in a world controlled by instructors like Mike Williams, who can create any number of flight conditions and system malfunctions. In the right seat is Ken Cook, FSI’s Legacy 500 program manager.
  • Type rating in Embraer's Legacy 500
    Ready for a problem during takeoff? With a V1 cut, the airplane will want to drift off the extended runway centerline; it’s your job to add enough rudder and aileron to climb straight ahead. Fly-by-wire control laws automatically provide most of the corrective control inputs, but the pilot still has to add control force to finesse the maneuver and bring the airplane to a zero-sideslip condition. It’s Embraer’s way of tweaking the flight control software so the pilot is always in the loop.

Recently I was lucky enough to earn a type rating in Embraer’s Legacy 500—a 460-knot mid-size business jet with a maximum takeoff weight of 38,360 pounds and a maximum range of 3,125 nautical miles. That’s quite a step up from the smaller, single-pilot jets I’m most familiar with. Training was at FlightSafety International’s St. Louis Learning Center, a campus with two buildings and 15 Level D simulators—the most sophisticated level. Level D simulators can duplicate day, night, and dusk conditions; visibilities from zilch to CAVU; wind shear; rain; and icing; and they have databases that let you fly in and out of airports around the world. Their movements, cockpits, systems, and ground and flight behavior are so faithful to the airplane that the FAA counts flying the simulator the same as flying the real airplane. A newly typed pilot can step from a Level D simulator into the real thing, and fly away as a legal crewmember.

Oh, and the simulators can also duplicate all manner of failure modes, and just as faithfully put you through several levels of aviation trauma. If trainees enter the simulator with trepidation at first, they leave it with smiles. In the process, confidence builds.

Class starts

Training begins with six days in a more-or-less traditional classroom environment, comprising 68.25 hours. I say “more or less” because each student has a station with an interactive desktop simulator. There’s even a cursor control device (CCD) so students can make flight plan entries, change display configurations, start engines, and familiarize themselves with the systems. For someone like me, accustomed to Garmin avionics, this was a great introduction to the Legacy 500’s Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion panel. Learning it would be just one of my many hurdles over the coming weeks.

Mike Kotch was the instructor. He teaches nonstop, draws system schematics by heart, and each day ends in a round of questions. “What’s an electrical emergency?” Answer: When both main generators and the APU generator fail. “What displays are available in an electrical emergency?” Answer: Only one, the center display. “What buses are powered by the ram air turbine?” Answer: Emergency 1, 2, and 3, plus the batteries will be charged. “What is the APU starter limitation?” Answer: Three tries with 30-second intervals between each. “What are the nosewheel steering angles?” Answer: Plus or minus 62 degrees at 10 knots, decreasing to plus or minus 3 degrees at 68 knots. And even questions such as, “How many toilet flushes?” Answer: 26, with a full, 3.96-gallon tank. Those are just a few of the topics covered by the 527-question pool. But within that pool, heavy emphasis is placed on one system in particular: flight controls. There’s a reason for that.


Most of the Legacy 500’s systems are conventional, but it’s important to remember two things: It’s an electric-dominant platform, and it uses fly-by-wire flight controls.

Fly-by-wire (FBW) uses computer-generated, digital commands to power the hydraulically or mechanically actuated flight controls, invoke flight envelope protections to prevent stalls and overspeeds, and carry out control laws associated with various phases of flight. With FBW, there are no mechanical connections between cockpit controls and flight surfaces—it’s all done digitally.

Except for the few minutes after takeoff and before landing, flight using the autopilot and autothrottles is standard procedure. You can hand-fly the airplane, but not in the way hand-flying is normally construed. That’s because FBW has an autotrim function, which automatically maintains pitch and bank. Think of it as a “set-and-forget” way of flying. Use the sidestick to set an attitude, release it, and the airplane remains the way you left it. This poses a learning challenge every pilot must face.

We’re hard-wired from day one to constantly jink the controls to hold an attitude or altitude, or overcome any minor changes caused by turbulence or other unwanted inputs. In an FBW airplane, this is often wasted energy unless you’re hand-flying an approach and have to, say, precisely track a course down final. Otherwise, the airplane will maintain the path you’ve set if you just keep your hands and feet off the controls.

Not that this matters when you’re in the cockpit, where FBW operates transparently. You use the sidestick, flap, speed brake, rudder, and other controls the way you would in any airplane. Still, it’s important to learn the control law basics—along with how to respond when they are degraded, and the airplane goes from Normal Mode to Direct Mode. That’s when automatic flight envelope protection and other functions are lost. The airplane is still eminently flyable but you won’t have the luxury of an auto-pilot, autotrim, or other automated features. Now hand-flying is a must.

Graphical flight deck simulator

The next, one-week phase of training uses FlightSafety’s Graphical Flight Deck Simulator, or GFS. This is a $1-million, interactive panel simulator—built by FlightSafety’s Simulator Systems Division—that uses touchscreen functionality to teach flow patterns, the Pro Line Fusion, creating and modifying flight plans, manipulating screenviews on the airplane’s four huge displays, and the entire panel’s switchology. It’s even possible to “fly” the GFS. Touch within the grids surrounding a switch or other control and you can advance the thrust levers, pitch up using the autopilot’s vertical speed thumbwheel, and bank by using the heading bug. It’s a way to come to terms with the Legacy 500 (or Legacy 450, as both share a common type rating) without wasting valuable time in the full-blown Level D simulator. The GFS is light years better than poking at an old-school cardboard “paper tiger,” but because the “switches” and other controls are flush with the panel surfaces, you don’t get the tactile sense of feeling and moving the real things. Even so, the practice is essential for the next step.

Home stretch: The Level D

FlightSafety’s Legacy 500 simulator, also built by FlightSafety, sits in a room with other simulators for Embraer’s large-cabin Lineage 1000 business jet and the company’s E170, E190, and E145 airliners. It’s worth $18 million—almost as much as the real Legacy 500—and it’s where the hands-on learning really begins.

As mid- and super-midsize jets go, the Legacy 500 is easy to fly, as long as you’ve memorized the speeds and configurations for the approaches, program the auto-flight system in the correct mode, and stay ahead of the airplane. The autopilot and autothrottles take care of the tracking and airspeeds while you prepare for the landing—or a missed approach. A word about the autothrottles: They automatically retard power at 30 feet agl and are designed to provide an approach speed—VAPP—that’s five knots higher than the airplane’s VREF. This requires you to multiply a factor of 1.1 times the published landing distance. You can turn off the autothrottles and fly VREF for shorter landing distances. Other factors—such as icing conditions, engine-out approaches, or contaminated runways—also boost required runway distances. If the runway is too short, the Fusion’s FMS will alert you by posting the calculated runway distance required in yellow digits.

Simulator sessions run two hours per day (with an hour each for prebrief and debrief) for seven days, and with few exceptions the drill is to fly real-world, line-oriented flight training (LOFT) style missions. This gives students plenty of time to come up to speed with the Pro Line Fusion and its displays, not to mention getting the feel of the airplane. The first flight covered basic airwork in both Normal and Direct modes, followed by four approaches—and a missed approach and hold—using the Memphis, Tennessee, airport as a destination. In Direct Mode, the airplane flies like a conventional airplane, but lacks the damping of Normal Mode and can be sensitive in pitch. It’s best if you fold down the armrest to steady your hand and minimize overcontrolling.

By the second day it was fuel and electrical problems, more practice in Direct Mode, and four more approaches, using the Memphis and Tupelo, Mississippi, airports. The third day brought V1 cuts and crosswind landings, plus four more approaches with, yes, missed approaches followed by holding patterns. My instructor, Michael G. Williams, and my right-seater, FlightSafety’s Legacy 500 program manager Ken Cook, emphasize that technique is critical when it comes to V1 cuts and crosswind landings. I’m told to look down the runway for visual cues as V1 nears, and avoid the common temptation to yank the airplane off the runway at VR. This way you’re much more likely to keep the wings level during the initial climbout. Also critical is their advice to avoid the wing-down, opposite rudder method when landing in crosswinds. Instead, land in a crab. Why? The Legacy 500’s wings are swept, and their tips are close to the ground. Engineers built in a small amount of crosswind control capability, but not enough to prevent a wing strike if you’re not careful; a mere 10 degrees of bank can cause a wing strike.

Subsequent days brought more V1 cuts, more systems abnormalities, icing, wind shear, and lower weather. Topping it all off was a full-blown electrical emergency. This is where a second crewmember becomes essential. As the pilot flying, you’ll be busy enough using the smallish standby flight instrument to track inbound to a runway. Remember, you have no autopilot and no autotrim. That second crewmember becomes vital to verifying the ram air turbine’s extension; writing down localizer frequencies and inbound courses; lowering the landing gear; and setting up the sole, center display’s moving map for situational awareness.

Cook, a high-time CRJ pilot for Comair before FlightSafety, is a blur of helpful activity in the darkened cockpit. I get the feeling he does this all the time. Oh, and did I mention that the weather was one-half-mile visibility with a 100-foot ceiling?

FBW detractors may point to this scenario with scorn. But an emergency like this would be extremely rare, let alone one that would bring a Legacy dead in the water, electrically speaking. For that to happen, both engine-driven generators would have to fail. Then the APU generator would have to fail. Then the ram air turbine would either fail to deploy automatically, or fail once it did deploy. Then both the airplane’s main batteries would have to exhaust themselves, which happens in 30 to 45 minutes. Finally, the ship’s two emergency batteries—one for the flight control system, one for the standby flight instrument—would have to die (another 15 minutes.) Through all this, the engines would continue to operate. Differential power could be used to steer, and power increases and decreases could be used for shallow climbs and descents. Dire? Yes—Sioux City dire. But odds are against it.

By checkride day, I’d flown 14 hours in the left seat, two hours in the right, 18 night takeoffs, 16 night landings, 16 precision approaches, five nonprecision approaches, and six holds. Except for the nerves, the oral exam and practical checkride—which lasted almost four hours—were almost anticlimactic. Sure, I muffed up a couple times, but I made some saves and the examiner pronounced me qualified.

In the market for a Legacy 450 or 500? If so, you’re certain to find the type rating experience one of the highlights of your flying career. You’ll drink from the fire hose of learning, but walk away standing a little taller.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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