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What You'll FlyWhat You'll Fly

An overview of the training fleet

By William L. Gruber

To anyone just entering light aviation, the array of aircraft types and the terms describing them can be bewildering. From neophytes who refer to anything smaller than a Boeing 727 as a "Piper Cub" to enthusiasts of World War II fighters and the like, new student pilots soon find that they will need a basic knowledge of general aviation aircraft types just to join in the bull sessions at the local flight school.

You will find that once you start grouping airplanes together based upon common characteristics, things get a lot less complicated. The best way to become an ace at identifying specific airplane types, of course, is to spend a lot of time at the airport. Watch the comings and goings on the local ramp, and eavesdrop on the conversations of the old hands—"Say, there's a Mooney Mite. Saw one o' them at Oshkosh last year." And of course, read a lot. Once you're bitten by the flying bug, your subscriptions to aviation magazines will no doubt start multiplying at a rate that can be slowed only by the intercession of a spouse or other figure of domestic authority. Reading those magazines (as you are doing now) is one of the best ways to start to pick up the jargon and recognize the traits that make airplanes stand apart to the studied eye. Here's a brief primer to start you out in this largely self-taught education:

Fixed-Gear Singles

Singles is a term that encompasses all single-engine aircraft as opposed to twins, which have—you guessed it—two engines. The simplest airplanes, and the kind you will be training in, are called "fixed-gear singles," a reference to their landing gear. Although this term could give a first- time flier pause, it has nothing to do with the gear having been broken in the first place. Fixed gear means fixed in one position; you can't retract the wheels the way airliners do. This results in somewhat lesser performance than a retractable-gear airplane, because you've got those wheels and struts hanging out in the breeze (just stick your arm out the window on the highway to see how much force the air can put against you). But fixed-gear airplanes are lighter, cheaper to build, and less costly and time-consuming to maintain. They also tend to be easier for the novice pilot to handle than the slippery retractable-gear airplanes. So it's not too hard to see why they dominate the trainer fleet.

Once you're talking fixed-gear singles, the most obvious next delineation is the number of seats. Although it has been changing gradually in recent years, the traditional number of seats for trainers is two: one for you and one for your instructor. In older training airplanes, like the venerable Piper J-3 Cub, the seats were arranged one in front of the other, or tandem. Nowadays, however, nearly all trainers seat you side-by-side. The most common two-seat modern trainers in this configuration are the Cessna 150 and 152 and the Piper Tomahawk. Undoubtedly, the Cessna 152 is the most familiar to today's private pilots. Chances are, when you go to the local flight school to sign up for your first lesson, you'll be flying a Cessna 152. Although it may seem a bit cramped at first, the 152 contains nearly all the basic controls and instruments you will find in larger airplanes. It is widely considered an excellent trainer. And like the Tomahawk, it's among the least expensive airplanes to rent and fly.

You may, however, decide to learn in a slightly larger airplane, or perhaps your school only offers four-seat trainers. Then it's a good bet you'll be flying in a Cessna 172 or a Piper Warrior. These two airplanes retain the simple design characteristics of their smaller siblings, but larger engines enable them to carry more people and more fuel. Many schools use these airplanes as basic trainers, and they commonly are used for instruction leading to the instrument rating and other advanced ratings. Many new private pilots will move up to the larger 172, or "Skyhawk" as it's also known, or a Warrior when making early cross-country jaunts or taking friends flying. The most noticeable difference between the two is that a 172 is a "high-wing" design—the fuselage is below the wing—and the Warrior is a "low-wing," with the fuselage on top of the wing. There are advantages and disadvantages to either setup, and what it boils down to is a matter of personal preference.

A relatively new entrant onto the training scene is the French- built Aerospatiale Tampico. When American manufacturers virtually halted production of new trainers in the past decade, the market opened up to the French airplanes, which had been prevented by cost from being competitive in America. The Tampico, the most simple Aerospatiale airplane, compares roughly to the Warrior in performance and configuration. It's been gaining acceptance in recent years, especially among the larger aviation schools, and Aerospatiale has won several contracts to fill large training fleets. Their distinctive "gull-wing" doors lend the Aerospatiale airplanes a sleek, sports-car look that appeals to many student pilots.

Complex Singles

Although complex has a technical definition under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, basically this term refers to airplanes that have retractable landing gear and bigger engines than those found in most trainers. These airplanes, although far more costly than their basic- training counterparts, are really what transforms lightplane flying into a practical transportation tool. Most complex airplanes are equipped with avionics—aviation electronics—which allow flight into the clouds and in bad weather. All prospective professional pilots must demonstrate competence in flying complex singles before they can earn their commercial pilot certificates. Because they are faster and heavier than fixed-gear airplanes, with more complex power and propeller control systems and the added landing gear controls, flying complex singles requires additional training. Private pilots need a sign-off from a flight instructor before they can legally fly a complex airplane or "retract," as they're sometimes called.

There are many examples of complex singles, from those just a step above their fixed-gear precursors, like the Cessna 172RG or Cutlass, to highly advanced airplanes pushing the envelope toward jet performance, like the turboprop-powered Aerospatiale TBM 700. Nearly all complex singles have at least four seats. Some have several more than that. Common sights at your airport probably would include airplanes like the Piper Arrow, a retractable advancement of the basic Warrior design. Some companies, like Mooney and Beechcraft, now focus all their piston-powered efforts on complex singles. Various models of the basic Mooney design, distinguished by its unusual swept-forward tail and sleek profile, can be found at most airfields. The same is true of the Beech Bonanza, considered by many as the Cadillac of piston singles. In addition to the Tampico and TBM 700, Aerospatiale also exports its complex Trinidad to the U.S. market. The Trinidad might be compared to an Arrow in size.


Some pilots feel that if you're going to get really serious about flying general aviation aircraft for transportation, you're going to get into flying twins. Also referred to as multiengine aircraft or simply as "multis," twins have—as their name implies—two engines. Usually, but not always, you'll have one engine on each wing (variants include the Cessna Skymaster [sometimes drolly called the "Mixmaster"], which has its engines situated in front of and in back of the fuselage). Although it seems like a truism to most people new to aviation that two engines are safer than one, experience has proved that to be a myth. Without going into a lot of detail, suffice it to say that you are as safe in a single as in a twin— the really important factors being the proficiency of the pilot at the controls and the kind of weather you're flying in. Still, many pilots simply feel better with that second engine humming alongside them.

Because twins are far more complicated to operate safely than most singles, an additional rating is required to fly them legally. While the multiengine rating can be earned quite quickly, the rating alone doesn't make you a safe twin pilot (see "Beyond the Private," p. 47). Although the multi can be earned before the instrument rating, the majority of pilots go for their instrument rating first, because most insurance companies virtually demand an instrument rating if you're going to fly twins.

From classic antique twins like the Beech 18 to modern turboprops like the Cessna Conquest, the world of twin-engine flying encompasses a vast array of airplanes ranging from relatively small to very large indeed, like the famous Douglas DC-3. The most common ones you are likely to see and fly, however, include various Piper designs such as the Seminole, Seneca, and Aztec, both of which are widely used for multiengine flight training. Cessna's twins include the 310 and several more advanced models. Varying models of the Beech Baron, which looks like a Bonanza with two engines on the wings instead of one up front, are commonly seen at most airports.

Although no quick roundup can begin to cover all the twins, especially if you start to get into turboprops and light jets, the ones mentioned here are most apt to be a part of your introduction into multiengine flying. By then, of course, you will be able to recognize these and many more just by having hung around the airport with other pilots during your flight training and leisure flying.


Thanks largely to a California company called Robinson Helicopter, rotary- wing aircraft have been becoming a more and more important segment of general aviation in recent years. Last year, for example, Robinson helicopters outsold every other type of piston-powered aircraft in the world. That's because Robinson designed what is arguably the world's first truly affordable and reliable mass-produced light helicopter. Common in the training role but adaptable to a variety of other missions is the two- seat Robinson R22. If there's a helicopter flight school near you, chances are it flies R22s. Walk up close to one, and you may be surprised at how tiny it is—when you fly in an R22 with the doors off, you're really letting it all hang out. But the visibility, versatility, and plain fun this kind of flying offers is unrivaled. To add more utility to its helicopters, however, the company recently introduced a beefed-up four- seat version that it calls the Robinson R44.

There are many other types of helicopters out there, of course. Most familiar to many Americans is probably the Bell Model 47, with the plexiglass bubble design universally recognized as the aerial ambulance of the 4077th MASH. Many of these helicopters—a design that dates back to the 1940s—are still in service today in roles varying from crop dusting to fire spotting to flight instruction. Various models of Bell's more modern JetRanger probably would win runner-up status in a familiarity contest. The turbine-powered JetRanger is ubiquitous in nearly all helicopter roles. Other common light helicopters include Schweizer and Enstrom models.

Helicopter flying is almost a world unto itself but one well worth exploring.

Other Stuff

The variety of light aircraft types is practically as diverse as the variety of people who fly them. Although we've covered the basics for you, here are a few fun- oriented airplane types that you'll find on the fringes of mainstream lightplane flying:

  • Many older airplanes fall under the category of "taildraggers," which have a different landing-gear setup than modern tricycle-gear airplanes. (Go to Beyond the Private, for a discussion of tailwheel flying.) Ones you might frequently run into include the Piper J-3 Cub mentioned earlier and the similar-lookingAeronca Champion, or simply "Champ." These designs date back to the 1930s and 1940s, with airframes constructed of wood or metal structures covered by fabric. All-metal taildraggers include the Cessna 120 and the Luscombe, among others.
  • Biplanes bring out the romantic in anyone, whether you're a 747 captain or a fledgling with a blank logbook. Probably the best-known biplane is the Stearman of World War II pilot training fame. Many of these airplanes are flying still, and a few—if you're lucky enough to find one—even are used for basic pilot training. Very similar to the Stearman are various models of antique Waco biplanes (pronounced like "taco"). The best news here, though, is that you can buy one brand spanking new. A company called Classic Aircraft today builds the Waco Classic, an updated version of the traditional Waco, at a factory in Lansing, Michigan.
  • Another fun subset of lightplane flying is float flying (also discussed in Beyond the Private). Because you can make a floatplane out of nearly any light airplane by bolting a set of floats where the wheels should go, the variety of floatplanes is nearly endless. They vary from float-equipped versions of airplanes like the Cessna 172 that you might be taking flying lessons in to complex airplanes designed as floatplanes, like the Lake amphibians. One other well-known example of an amphibian—a purpose-built seaplane that also can land on dry ground—is the Republic Seabee.
  • Another custom-designed category of light airplanes includes those built for aerobatics. The strains of loops, rolls, hammerheads, and the other specialized maneuvers that pilots call aerobatics require a stout airplane made for the job. Perhaps the most familiar small aerobatic airplane, thanks to its appearance in countless air shows, is the Pitts Special. Sprightly and usually adorned with a colorful paint scheme, the Pitts was for many years the leader in world aerobatic competition. Although it has been eclipsed in recent years by other designs, it still is the workhorse of aerobatic training and competition. Among the powerful new up-and-comers in air shows and aerobatic competition are the made-in- Russia Sukhoi Su-26 and Su-29. Anyone who has flown one of these capable airplanes can't doubt that the former Soviet Union is capable of producing top-quality products. One common aerobatic airplane produced closer to home is the American Champion Decathlon, built at a small family-run factory in Wisconsin. A descendant of the Aeronca Champ, the Decathlon is the first aerobatic airplane flown by many aspiring aerobats. Still other multinational examples include the French-built CAP 10 and the Swiss Trainer, whose country of origin is obvious.

Well, we hope that gives you a start on that learning curve faced by every new pilot. If variety truly is the spice of life, general aviation is a dish that should be served up with plenty of cold water. Pretty soon, though, it will be you impressing the gang hanging out by the ramp with your quick identification of some obscure aircraft type. Like mastering flying itself, all it takes is some patience and attention to detail.

William L. Gruber is a writer and pilot living in Venice, Florida.