Master the Skills Needed to Safely Fly Alone

These single-pilot tips can help you avoid an accident.

Flying Alone
Flying alone in the cockpit of a light jet can sometimes overwhelm even experienced pilots.Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

Early on in every pilot’s lifetime there’s a moment when he or she is faced with the yin and yang of flying alone.

Viewing the majesty of the sun as it disappears below the horizon from a vantage point that no one else shares is a reason many of us learned to fly. Then there are moments — such as watching chunky walls of cumulonimbus build around us faster than our airplanes can climb — when we alone must find the solution. Heady stuff.

Many pilots see their airplanes not simply as extensions of the romance and lore of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry but also as business travel machines and entrepreneurial extensions of themselves.

With fewer aircraft to choose from, this group has begun chasing sophisticated airplanes, such as the Cirrus SR22, Cessna TTx, TBM 900 and light jets, like those built today by Eclipse, Cessna, Honda and Embraer, originally thought to be only in the realm of a pair of pilots.

And why not? What could outweigh the benefit of climbing aboard a sleek turboprop or jet capable of high-speed flight above most of the bad weather? Perhaps only one thing: The safety record for owners flying alone on business represents the only segment of aviation where the accident rate is actually rising, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. During the depths of the recession in 2009, the accident rate for owner-flown aircraft traveling on business hovered at around 0.3 per 100,000 hours. By 2013, that number had climbed to approximately 2.2, with the primary cause for these accidents falling in line with the rest of GA: loss of control.

As further evidence of industry concerns, experts point to the 2012 inflight breakup of a Pilatus PC-12 flown by a single pilot, climbing through ice-laden clouds at FL 250. At the time the pilot lost control of the airplane, he had logged 800 hours total time in the seven years prior to the accident. In the 2014 crash of a Phenom 100 in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the cockpit voice recorder captured the aircraft’s automation as it announced “stall, stall,” during the last 60 seconds of the flight. While the lone pilot added power, the aircraft departed controlled flight and impacted a home near the airport. This pilot was experienced, however, having logged nearly 4,800 hours flying time, with just over 100 in the Phenom. The question, of course, is identifying the actual problem and figuring out just what the industry and operators can do to shrink those accident numbers.

While the total number of light jets being flown by just one pilot is still relatively small, just shy of 800, the number is increasing at a fairly rapid rate. Unlike turboprops and piston aircraft, jets require a type-rating check flown to ATP standards, an effort that might result in an embarrassing failure that some owners and pilots would rather avoid. Despite the fuss, a 2015 Embraer analysis showed that 62 percent of people from North America who attended Phenom 100 training at Embraer/CAE Training Services chose the single-pilot option. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone will operate with just one pilot.

Single-Pilot Tip: Understand your aircraft’s automation thoroughly enough to never say, “What’s it doing now?”

The oddity of the loss of control problem on aircraft operated by just one pilot has not gone unnoticed by the industry. Loss of control in 2016 again made the NTSB’s most-wanted safety list. The National Business Aviation Association’s safety committee also put loss of control at the top of its priority list last year and formed a special committee, the Single-Pilot Working Group (SPWG), to both study and suggest solutions. The SPWG recently debuted its first product, a video titled “Alone in the Cockpit,” focused on how easily a conscientious and experienced pilot flying alone can find himself overwhelmed in challenging weather and air traffic situations. The SPWG will soon add a comprehensive PowerPoint file program to accompany the video, creating a complete stand-alone training session for single-pilot operators or groups aligned with single-pilot operators, such as aircraft-type clubs.

Single-Pilot Tip: Be sure your electronic flight bag is mounted to the panel, not simply sitting on the right seat.

The FAA’s General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), relaunched in 2011, is attempting to use a data-driven approach to loss of control accident reduction, similar to that used by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) a few decades earlier. CAST is credited with helping to reduce commercial accident fatalities by 83 percent. The enormity of the task for GA, however, is underlined by the GAJSC’s more modest expectations to achieve a 10 percent reduction in fatal accidents by 2018.

Flying a high-performance airplane alone can be challenging, even for pilots used to operating in a multicrew environment, say training icons John and Martha King of King Schools. Both possess a number of single-pilot ratings, and John points out, “The second pilot can share the workload.” Martha adds, “Just having someone to set up the navigation and handle ATC communications takes a huge workload off the PIC, especially if there’s any kind of equipment failure. The second pilot can also catch errors.” Both acknowledge the traditional advantage of becoming familiar with an aircraft’s performance while occupying the right seat for a few hundred hours. “Knowledge lets you better understand the utility of your airplane, but it also makes you aware of the risks you’re taking that can spell trouble. Scenario-based training shows pilots how they might end up behind the 
airplane.” But can you learn what you don’t know if you don’t train regularly in scenario-based training?

Single-Pilot Tip: Remain instrument proficient by taking an instrument competency check every six months, even though it’s not required.

Embraer/CAE Aviation Training Services prescreens all new single-pilot applicants, matching their past flying experiences with the type-rating objective of six days of classroom training and seven two-hour simulator sessions for the Phenom 100. The company says it is absolutely critical that pilots arrive at school with a thorough knowledge of instrument and ATC procedures. Things simply move too quickly for anyone who’s not up to speed on instrument flying.

To prepare for a first type rating, “Every new single-pilot applicant must complete 40 hours of computer-based training (CBT) before they arrive on site,” says Phil Nardecchia, the company’s head of training in Dallas. Embraer/CAE knows the world is full of Part 142 training stories, such as those that claim new pilots are fed academics through a fire-hoselike system, which many less experienced aviators find intimidating. “If we find that to be the case, we’ll invite the student down to our Dallas training facility for a few days of indoctrination long before the start of class to see the simulator and classrooms and meet their instructors.” Nardecchia says they usually return home much more relaxed and better prepared to begin their CBT prior to the first day of classroom study.

A glimmer of hope in reducing the fatal GA accident numbers is the aircraft-type clubs, such as the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, Citation Jet Pilots Association, American Bonanza Society, Embraer Jet Operators, and Eclipse Jet Owners and Pilots Association. These independent groups create an information conduit for best practices with single-pilot operators around the world. TBM owner Matt Desch says: “There are so many practical answers to questions that I don’t know how anyone could transition into [turbine] airplanes without being a member of a type association. Membership shouldn’t be optional, I think.” Eclipse owner Victor Girgenti agrees. “The Eclipse owners group is phenomenal with all the information it posts,” he says. “I’m on the site all the time.”

Despite the fact that they fly a two-pilot jet — a Falcon 10 — John and Martha King believe in the value of type clubs to improve safety. Martha says: “I strongly recommend single-pilot operators join the user group for their airplanes. The accident rate for members of COPA, for example, is considerably lower than for nonassociation members.”

At the NTSB’s general aviation loss of control forum last fall, Tom Turner, executive director of the ABS Air Safety Foundation, echoed Martha's sentiments. “Accident investigator Jeff Edwards found a positive correlation between type-club membership and reduced accident rates,” he said. “ABS members were 2.5 times less likely to have a serious accident and 11 times less likely than nonmembers to have a fatal accident. Edwards found similar results for other airplane types, although he acknowledged the unanswered question: Do type clubs make safer pilots or do safer pilots tend to join type clubs?”

Mentoring is another avenue to create better pilots. In fact, Eclipse made mentor flights a requirement for its type rating. While some pilots consider mentors as babysitters of sorts, others see these experienced aviators as safety pilots willing to share their practical knowledge of the airplane for as long as they’re wanted.

Jim Gardner, president of aviation insurance broker James A. Gardner Company, spoke of another training motivation: “Every pilot’s insurance rates are decided on a case-by-case basis and depend upon their past experiences and training, including post-type-rating mentor flights.” He encapsulates single-pilot operations rather neatly. “The guy transitioning from a piston airplane to a turbine needs a good training plan and should look at himself more like a professional pilot. If you think like a professional pilot and train like a professional pilot, you’ll fly like a professional pilot and keep you and your family safe.”