Insuring the Solo Jet Pilot

Experience has everything to do with how much you will pay and what you will get.

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Paul Bowen

Major concerns for anyone planning single- pilot operations with a jet airplane are first the availability and cost of insurance, and then what limitations are going to be placed on the pilot and the use of the airplane.

The issues the insurance companies have are first that the pilot applicant doesn't have the requisite experience and then that in many cases, someone who can afford to buy a jet and plans to fly it single pilot is used to being in charge and not being told what they can and cannot do. We'd be sticking our heads in the clouds if we didn't acknowledge that there are two types of pilots who want to operate jets single pilot. There are those who have been flying turbine-powered airplanes such as King Airs, TBMs and even jets and want to transition to a single-pilot jet, and then there are those who have no or little experience in even large piston singles like Bonanzas or Malibus, or piston twins, let alone turbine-powered airplanes. Historically, there haven't been that many pilots in the second group, but now with delivery of new very light jets imminent, there is expected to be an increasing number of pilots with the wherewithal to become jet jockeys, but relatively little experience.

There are four basic factors that come into play for someone wanting insurance to fly a jet with one pilot. They are prior experience, training, insurance limits and the cost of premiums.

The fundamental insurance consideration, Tim Bonnell Jr., vice president at Professional Insurance Management (PIM), said, "if you're talking about a transition situation, is prior experience." Before quoting a policy, he explained, the underwriter will take into consideration a pilot's total number of flight hours as well as the applicant's multiengine, turbine and jet time and training.

Stuart Hope, Hope Insurance, agreed, "It's really a matter of the match of the airplane and the pilot. The situation's going to be much different for a Bonanza pilot with 500 total hours, 200 in the Bonanza with an instrument rating, compared to someone who's got 500 hours in a King Air C90 or a Cessna Conquest and now wants to move up to a CJ."

Tom Chappell, CS&A Aviation Insurance, said he gets many calls from buyers who want to move up to aircraft they are too inexperienced to handle. "Many of these candidates," he wrote on his website, "are a real stretch to insure and, in the opinion of many, questionable as to safety. In short, they are skipping steps of much needed experience and over-estimating their skill level. Often the caller confuses ability in the cockpit with ability to afford the aircraft." As an example, Chappell cited the pilot of a Beech Baron 58 who wanted to move up to a single-pilot CitationJet. "You think I'm kidding? After all, he heard that a Citation is a safe aircraft and easy to fly. This type of transition candidate never fails to proclaim his ability in the cockpit and his attention to detail and safety issues. When questioned about taking an interim step, maybe to include experience in pressurized aircraft or possibly turbine aircraft such as a C90 King Air or a TBM 700, the question usually falls on deaf ears."

Despite the pilot's lack of experience, Chappell said there was a slim chance of insuring the risk. "But everything must be done right. There's no hope if the candidate protests and refuses a suggested transition plan." The plan, he said, may include a simulator-based ground and flight school, a type rating, followed by 50, 100 or, in some cases, even 200 hours of dual time with a captain-qualified pilot.

A pilot's previous training and subsequent training are an important consideration in the availability of insurance, the limitations that may be imposed and the cost.

Danny Bullard with USAIG, said the company looks at single-pilot applicants the same way it looks at its insurance business overall. "One risk at a time, one decision at a time. It could be that two applicants have similar qualities, but depending on the proposed use of the aircraft it may not make sense for us to insure them. We rely on the knowledge of each underwriter to assess the risk. But we can say this categorically, no one should be getting into a single- or two-crew turbine aircraft without annual simulator-based training," he insisted.

In many cases, particularly with pilots with minimal experience, the insurance requirements will likely include a period spent flying with a "mentor" pilot. According to PIM's Bonnell, the formula for moving a low-time pilot into the left seat of a single-pilot jet involves six steps. The first is the evaluation of the pilot's prior experience and abilities. If required, the pilot would then be recommended to take some training before beginning the initial approved school training for the type rating. With the type rating secured, the pilot would then fly for a prescribed period with a mentor pilot. Depending on the mentor's evaluation, additional training might be required. And finally, the pilot would be required to attend periodic recurrent simulator training. Stuart Hope said that pilots will be required to go through a full initial type-rating course and fly with a "captain" who's well qualified in the airplane for probably at least 25 hours. "Depending, they could be limited to dual only for the first year or 200 hours. If the pilot is very low time, the 'captain' will reevaluate their capability and if satisfied may turn them loose after they attend a recurrent training course."

Depending on a pilot's prior experience, the availability of liability limits may be a concern for an owner pilot who wants to fly without a second pilot. "For an owner who plans to fly his personal jet single pilot, the companies may only write $5 million to $10 million," Bonnell said. "With professional pilots, the cap is generally $25 million to $50 million."

The practice of limiting the amount of insurance a pilot can buy is called "limit management." According to Stuart Hope, "A marginal pilot is going to have to go with the lowest limits, typically $1 million per occurrence and $100,000 per passenger. As they build time they should be able to increase the coverage up to a million smooth, two million and five million. Until you have an accident you won't know who you've injured and whether you've bought enough, so you want to buy as much as you can afford." In general, he said, underwriters make it more difficult if limits of liability are in excess of $10 million or if the hull value of the aircraft approaches $5 million or more.

David McKay, president of USAIG, said that "limit management" has been a tool of the industry for a while and is expected to continue to be used by insurance companies to mitigate their risk.

Approval for unrestricted single-pilot operations is based on an individual underwriting review of each account. Assuming an account meets the criteria to make it an acceptable single-pilot risk, an additional premium of approximately 35 percent may be charged and the pilot will often be required to maintain a "Pro-card"-recognition of the highest standards of proficiency-in the make and model from an appropriate training facility.

The premiums for insurance are generally based on a percentage of the cost of the airplane, but there are so many variables that it's hard to define what's typical. According to Bonnell, for a professionally flown single-pilot airplane the rate may be $.60 per $100 of insured hull value; for an owner-flown airplane with a nonprofessional pilot it could be $1 per $100. That's compared to a professional two-pilot operation that might be $.50 per $100 and $.75 per $100 for an airplane flown by an owner but with a copilot. The difference in cost for insurance for an owner-flown airplane compared to one flown by a professional pilot could be as much as 25 to 50 percent more, Bonnell said.

The premium, Hope said, will depend on the pilot. "Generally the bump [in cost] from two-pilot operations to single-pilot operation is something on the order of 20 to 25 percent."

It's going to be interesting to see how the insurance picture evolves with the introduction of the rash of very light jets. According to Bonnell, the manufacturers have recognized the importance of training in their being able to insure low-time pilots and are formalizing broad training programs so insurance companies will write insurance for their buyers.

From the very beginning, Bonnell said, the very light jet manufacturers recognized that insurance was going to be an issue in terms of the success of their aircraft sales. Eclipse's Vern Raburn, he recounted, first presented the Eclipse 500 to the Aviation Insurance Association (AIA) at its annual conference in May 2001. That presentation was followed by an underwriter and broker divisional meeting with Eclipse and Cessna representatives at the AIA conference in 2003. "Underwriters have been meeting with the individual manufacturers periodically to track the progress of the aircraft and their training programs," he said.

How the insurance picture will develop is going to depend in a large part on how safely the pilots of the very light jets operate their airplanes. USAIG's David McKay pointed out that the Air Force and at least one airline have successfully used a system of risk assessment worksheets that assign a numerical value to items involved with a particular flight. If the numbers add up to a predetermined value, the pilot has to get approval to make the flight from a chief pilot or supervisor. Even if a pilot is operating his airplane single pilot, having a second pilot available as a sounding board might help him better manage the risks. The "mentor" pilot with whom he flew to satisfy the insurance requirement could be available as his "chief pilot" to approve a flight when the numbers indicate that a consultation about the risks is prudent.

Pilots will continue to be able to secure insurance coverage for their single-pilot operations, but once again, it is the insurance companies, not the FAA, that will establish the limitations and maintain the requirements-and the cost.