Don Stephens and his Cessna 182

Can one man's love affair with flying safely lead him from a Skylane to the jet lane? Richard Collins evaluates one pilot's flying.

Don Stephens, 67, is a (retiring), as he puts it, builder/developer. He has been flying out of the Lakeland, Florida, airport since he started 37 years ago and has owned a Cessna 152, two 172s, and currently has a 1998 Cessna 182S Skylane, "which has every conceivable instrument known to man." As this was prepared, he was moving ahead on plans to add a BAC Strikemaster single-engine jet warbird to his fleet, which, he says, "might sound a little crazy at my age, but it's just something I need to do."

A few years ago he built a SeaRey amphibian and flew it for a couple of years. He described that as "one of the most exciting and enjoyable events of my aviation life." There are a lot of lakes around where he lives, "and I think I landed on most all of them! What a trip!" Type "SeaRey" into Google and you'll see that it is a neat looking small amphibian with a Rotax engine.

Stephens has the ideal aviation set-up, too. He bought the defunct Aviation Career Academy, which was in the old Piper corporate and sales building on the Lakeland airport. He liquidated the assets and now has his office overlooking the airport, located just above the hangar for his airplane(s).

In 37 years, Don Stephens has flown over 2,400 hours and is currently flying 125 hours a year. The most he has flown in a year is 150 hours. He has a private certificate with seaplane and instrument ratings. He flies IFR and night IFR when necessary and in the past year has flown four low approaches in actual conditions. All were ILS approaches, and two were at his home base. His average trip length is 175 to 200 miles, and his average passenger load is three. He frequently flies night VFR and he'll fly into the night, depending on the weather. His Skylane has Bendix/King nav/coms, a KLN 94 IFR-approved GPS and a Bendix/King IHAS 2000 system that provides uplinked weather, traffic and terrain mapping. He says, in regard to this recently installed equipment, "I absolutely love it." The airplane also has a WX-500 Stormscope.

Stephens doesn't have any routine maintenance other than oil changes and annual inspections, and in flying his Cessnas he hasn't had an engine failure or engine problems nor has he had vacuum or electrical problems. His Skylane came with dual vacuum pumps.

He did have a control system problem in the SeaRey that he built. The elevator stuck in the down position and he was unable to keep the airplane from descending. By cycling the trim several times he was able to break the control loose and regain control. He sold the SeaRey shortly after that adventure.

He flies practice approaches with a CFI-I on a monthly basis but doesn't do any formal recurrent training nor does his insurance company require any.

The Skylane has a KAP 140 autopilot. Stephens feels like he understands the autopilot, and he uses it about 75 percent of the time, but he hand flies the airplane on low approaches in actual conditions.

In regard to the approach-approved GPS, he says, "I understand most of it, and I do use it both for en route navigation and approaches. I'm still learning GPS approaches." He doesn't have a handheld GPS, but he does fly with a handheld transceiver and he uses an active noise reduction David Clark headset.

His next airplane will be that Strikemaster jet warbird that will be in addition to his Skylane, which he intends to keep. It has 1,400 hours left on the engine before overhaul, and at his level of activity and age he feels like he and the airplane might hang it up at about the same time.

The greatest risks that Don sees in general aviation flying are crowded skies and flight into adverse weather conditions.

This is all pretty neat. An office/hangar on the airport where he has flown for 37 years, a late-model Skylane and a jet warbird on the horizon.

The Skylane is a combination of ingredients that really works for a pilot who flies 100 or so hours a year and takes 175- to 200- mile trips. It is fast enough to go somewhere, the flying qualities are exemplary as long as you remember to limit flaps to 20 degrees unless someone is in the back seat, and it's a great platform for a pilot who flies IFR, but not often and not a lot.

It's good that he flies with an instructor on a monthly basis, too. Instrument flying is demanding in any airplane, and in that Stephens is not the youngest pilot on the block at 67, he's facing the fact that everything slows a bit as more pages fall off the calendar. Also, his level of activity isn't too high, so that monthly exposure to a CFI-I can help keep the rust away.

If he is still learning GPS approaches, that would certainly be something to work on monthly.

The equipment in his Skylane is neat, too, especially the IHAS 2000 system. The more pilots fly with uplinked or downlinked Nexrad pictures, the more they appreciate the value of having this. Florida has no shortage of thunderstorms, so it is especially useful there.

It's great that Don has flown all those Cessnas with no electrical or vacuum problems, but that control system problem in the SeaRey was not a good deal. That airplane is in his past, though.

The Strikemaster jet will be exciting but had best be approached with a lot of care. Trying on his first jet at age 67, with nothing other than light airplane experience, will be a huge challenge and will involve a lot more risk than he has found in the Cessnas. There's a big difference between a 235-horsepower Lycoming and a 3,410 pounds of thrust Rolls-Royce Viper turbojet.

As this was prepared, Don had flown the Strikemaster three times and he says, "Each time I fly it I feel a little more comfortable, but it still intimidates me because everything happens so fast." The safety record in the warbird jets is marred by pilots playing with them, doing aerobatics at low altitude, and by the occasional power failure for whatever reason. If he'll stick to normal flight the risk will be lower.

Don is the first in this series to identify the crowded skies as one of the main risks in general aviation flying. He has TIS (traffic information service) in conjunction with his Bendix/King IHAS 2000 system and this provides traffic information on the screen when he is in range of an approach control radar that provides this service. That is an aid when it is in range, and the only other way to manage the midair risk is through vigilance. The risk will always be there, though, and even acknowledging it and trying hard to do all the right things can't be a complete shield from that bit of aeronautical bad luck, with emphasis on luck.

"Flight into adverse weather" is a recurring theme, and it is great that so many of our check ride pilots have singled out weather as a big risk factor. That's the good news. The bad news is that, for pilots using airplanes for transportation, weather is still the number one accident factor, even in docile airplanes like Skylanes.

Most of us are nomads, and it's pleasant to find a pilot who has been at the same airport since he started flying. That must be fun.

Check Ride Checklist: Don Stephens and his Cessna 182 SkylaneExperience: 2,400 hours spanning over 37 years Annual Use: Currently flies about 125 hours a year Recurrent Training: Nothing formal, but he flies approaches with a CFI-I every month. Equipment: His Skylane hasall of the good avionics things in it. Maintenance: As required, which is just fine for a Skylane flying 125 hours a year Wishlist: As this was prepared he had decided to buy that Strikemaster jet. He plans on keeping his Skylane for the duration.


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