My flying has recently come full circle. My first flight was in a Piper J-3 Cub back in the 1950s. I worked line service as a teenager in the 1960s to pay for my flying lessons, and in the early 1970s I earned my fixed-wing single-engine and glider commercial and instructor ratings so I could work as a flight instructor and tow gliders in L-19s. Over the next 10 years I accumulated several thousand hours as an instructor and charter pilot. Securing my ATP in 1979 led to the next jump in my experience — flying as a copilot in the Metroliner for a commuter airline in Tucson, Arizona. That in turn led to a job as an international corporate pilot, adding experience in the Piper Seneca, Beech Baron, Cessna 320 and 414, Navajo Chieftain and P-Navajo.
My aviation experience made a huge jump in 1982, when I was hired by FlightSafety in Tucson as a Learjet 35 simulator instructor and later became the Learjet 55 initial ground school and simulator instructor. Then, in 1983 while instructing at SimuFlite in Dallas, I earned my Learjet type rating flying a Learjet 55, followed by a type rating in the Westwind several years later. When I became the manager of military instructor training for CAE-Link in the late 1980s, my time in the cockpit, whether simulated or real, decreased greatly. My logbook shows just a few hours each year with large gaps until I purchased a Turbo Twin Comanche in 1999 to use for my business travel. I flew that airplane 500 hours over the next four years as I traveled around the country presenting my Preventing Human Error Seminar.
Eventually the cost of maintaining a 40-year-old airplane led me to sell the Twin Comanche and return to the airlines for my travel. From 2005 to 2008 I served as an instructor, check pilot and mission pilot for the Civil Air Patrol, flying a Cessna 182T out of Payson, Arizona. In the meantime life’s distractions were mounting. In the November 2010 issue of Flying I wrote about my “Difficult Decisions” to take myself off of flying status because I was under so much stress and had so many distractions that I felt I was not safe to fly.
Three years later my life has finally calmed down enough that I am ready to get back into the cockpit. Besides, I have some grandchildren that want to go flying, and I am taking seriously my own advice in my column last month to introduce people and especially kids to the joy of flying. Although I have had a problem with my left eye for 25 years that required a Statement of Demonstrated Ability, I met the minimum vision requirements for my last third-class medical, so I decided to dispense with the medicals and fly a light-sport airplane. After much searching, I located Parrish Traweek (email@example.com) in San Manuel, Arizona, who has a couple of Ercoupes that qualify under the Light Sport regulations available for rental pilots.
Making the Transition
It would be easy for someone with my experience to be dismissive about getting checked out in an Ercoupe. After all, it is a simple little airplane. The only glass in the cockpit is in the face of the few round-dial instruments on the instrument panel. There are very few systems or procedures to learn. It doesn’t even have rudder pedals — how hard can it be? However, I am very aware that it is just as easy, or perhaps even easier, to kill yourself in an Ercoupe as it is in a Learjet. Every airplane has its own peculiarities and techniques for flying it well, and I wanted to know everything I could about an Ercoupe before I climbed into the cockpit to fly one. The best source of information on an airplane is the pilots who fly it, so I spent $25 to join the Ercoupe Owners Club (EOC, ercoupe.org).
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.