On the EOC website, under the ubiquitous FAQ heading, I hit pay dirt. EOC member Ed Burkhead has written a very comprehensive article on everything I needed to learn to fly an Ercoupe but didn’t know enough to ask. He starts with a short but complete history of the Ercoupe and what made it a revolutionary airplane, especially in 1939 when it was first produced. He explains in simple language why many Ercoupes don’t have rudder pedals and no Ercoupes have flaps, and the reason for the “H” tail and the cutout in the middle of the elevator. Most important of all, he explains how to safely operate an Ercoupe.
Using Ed’s simple but complete guide, I tried to imagine “steering” on the ground using the control wheel. I mentally prepared myself to let the airplane land in a crab in a crosswind, and to let it straighten out by itself without trying to keep the wings level with the control wheel because that would turn the nosewheel. I carefully studied the “falling leaf” method of losing altitude on final approach and made a mental note of the importance of pushing the nose down at or before 200 feet to increase the airspeed for the flare and landing. I also mentally sketched out the fuel system in my head, with the engine-driven fuel pump moving fuel to the header tank in front of the pilot that will allow the airplane to fly for up to an hour after a fuel pump failure.
When I arrived at the airport for my checkout, instead of trying to learn everything from Parrish for the first time, I found his instruction was clarifying and confirming what I already knew. It was still kind of weird steering with the control wheel on the ground, but I had mentally prepared myself to do that. I was ready to take off without holding the upwind wing down, and on approach I had no problem just letting the airplane land in a crab and straighten itself out because I had already done that before in my head.
Recognizing the Risk
I also recently had an opportunity to fly a short body Mitsubishi MU-2P. During an extensive briefing by Rick Wheldon, co-owner of Turbine Aircraft Services, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc.’s Aircraft Product Support Division contractor for the MU-2, Rick told me about the significant difference in the center of gravity between the short- and long-body MU-2s. I could easily see how a pilot with experience flying a long-body MU-2 could get in trouble trying to fly a short-body model without getting instruction from someone with experience in that airplane. Instead of the smooth, effortless takeoff and gentle landing I accomplished in a long-body Marquise, the MU-2P required the strongest back pressure to rotate for takeoff I have ever experienced, and I followed Rick’s advice to do an initial flare and then just let it land to avoid having the nosewheel slam down on the runway.
We have always known that the first few hours in a new type of airplane are the most risky for a pilot. The NTSB recently confirmed this when it focused on the fact that experimental amateur-built (EAB) aircraft represent less than 10 percent of the general aviation fleet in the United States but accounted for 15 percent of all accidents and 21 percent of the fatal accidents in 2011. The NTSB said the gap in safety is widest on the first flight and during the first few hours being flown by a pilot without experience in that kind of airplane.
The NTSB found that pilots who did not seek training were overrepresented in the accidents, and that EAB aircraft accidents involving loss of aircraft control could be reduced if more pilots received transition training. This was especially true of pilots who purchased an EAB from the original builder. The NTSB said that in many cases the accident aircraft lifted off in the hands of a pilot who had never read an operating handbook for that specific aircraft.
With the wealth of information available today, there is no excuse for taking off in an airplane without fully familiarizing yourself with the systems and operating characteristics of that airplane. Most airplanes have an owner/operator group like the Ercoupe Owners Club that can provide a wealth of information and advice. The Lancair Owners and Builders Organization even offers a special transition course for new owners and claims that pilots who have taken its course have a significantly lower accident rate than those who haven’t.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc., SimCom and Honeywell regularly offer a free Pilot’s Review of Proficiency (PROP) to the MU-2 community and others who may want to attend in a number of cities around the United States and sometimes internationally. I attended this year’s PROP in Reno, Nevada, and found the presentations were very interesting and informative even for someone who doesn’t fly an MU-2. Approximately 65 percent of all MU-2 pilots attend the PROP on a regular basis, and along with the FAA SFAR, this has helped the MU-2 achieve the lowest turboprop accident rate for the last five years.
Whether you are moving up the aviation ladder to more sophisticated airplanes or like me are getting back to your aviation roots, treat every new kind of airplane you fly with the same respect. Take the time to fully familiarize yourself with the airplane before you do any flying, or do a thorough review if it is a type of airplane you have not flown for many years. Careful preparation will ensure your first flight is safe, leading to many enjoyable flights for you and your passengers instead of another news story that reinforces in people’s minds that flying is dangerous.