Gear Up: Learning the Learjet

** Paul Kanagie just happened to catch our
departure out of Philadelphia International
Airport (KPHL), flaps 8. It was my first flight
in the left seat.**

It has been eight months now since the ink dried on my ATP and Learjet type rating, and I am just now getting my feet damp. Though I had some wonderful introductory flights in Elite Air's Lear 31A this past summer, it hasn't been until a recent spate of trips that I have really gotten a sense of the airplane and the life of a Part 135 first officer. What a ride it has been.

FlightSafety in Atlanta took this turboprop pilot of a certain age and introduced him to the wonders of the two-pilot cockpit and speeds and altitudes with which he possessed no actual familiarity. I spent most of those two weeks in awe and a flurry of memorization. I was dimly aware of the first officer to my right, but had no idea how hard he was working to make me look like I knew what I was doing. It wasn't until last February that I got to make several trips and find out what this is really about.

Trips to Oklahoma City (KOKC) and Dallas (KADS) from home base in St. Petersburg, Florida, (KPIE) have been my initiation at the patient and tutorial hands of Capt. Jason Hepner. Jason’s a natural talent and a terrific instructor. During the before-taxi checklist, he had the nicest way of saying, “Jeez, Dick, that altimeter setting you’ve got has us 50 feet below sea level” without a hint of derision. Regrettably his observation in this case was correct.

Lessons learned on the KPIE to KOKC to KADS trip included a renewed sense of wonder at the capabilities of the Lear 31A. A cold front stretched across Alabama, but at 43,000 feet, we just looked down at the thunderstorms. After sitting at the FBO for six hours, during which I was so pumped up that I just roamed the place looking for people to talk to, we headed to the Dallas metroplex at night — a very clear winter's night. At 17,000 feet with the carpet of Dallas' lights below us, Jason nudged me to point out a meteor at 2 o'clock high. What a sight it was, lasting several seconds and prompting several calls on the frequency, including one from a guy in a Cessna 172 who claimed it was below him. The TV news at the Hilton Garden Inn that night had a report of the sighting, as did the newspapers the next day. It was that spectacular.

Perhaps the shooting star diminished my vision, because I could not pick out KADS from all the other lights and the highway that runs alongside it. Only by cuing the ILS could I spot the field, long after Jason had it in sight. This daytime pilot was learning already.

A week later we flew to KDWH in Houston, Texas. Headwinds taught me about stretching the Lear’s endurance, and a failed inverter taught me about in-flight planning, customer service and safety. Jason had the power slightly back, doing only Mach 0.78, when the right inverter fell off-line. Following the checklist, we recycled it and it came back on. For a little while. After this happened again, we proceeded to tie the AC buses together and rehearsed what to do should the remaining inverter fail. (Some Lear 31s have three, but this airplane doesn’t.) The consequences were significant. The checklist sent us to the airplane flight manual, which noted that we’d lose the autopilot, Mach trim and nosewheel steering. Jason was the perfect captain. When I said, “You know, in the sim, the answer might be to divert,” Jason said, “The checklist doesn’t have that ‘land as soon as practical’ warning. If you are uncomfortable with proceeding, tell me.”

I looked at our charges in the back and said, “We’ll be close on fuel at our destination, and if we need to do an instrument approach with little to go on, that would make me nervous. So, how about we continue as long as an airport within 200 miles is VFR?”

A call to flight watch reassured me. Our destination was clearing up quickly and was headed toward solid VFR. We subsequently wrote up the discrepancy and it was promptly fixed. This experience gave me a great lesson in crew resource management, good captains and backup planning that takes into account that this is a business.

Those five flights still had me doing stupid things. The altimeter fiasco made it clear that I needed to be sure to set all three of them. I do this on the Cheyenne that my wife and I own, but somehow I have been unable to transpose what I know about that airplane into the cockpit of the Lear. It may be because in our airplane there is no one else to set anything and I am dislocated by the presence of another pilot, a more experienced one at that, in the same living space. Just when I got myself disciplined to set the altimeters, all of them, I failed to set the heading bug for takeoff. Again, I do this instinctively in the Cheyenne, but I am still intimidated from thinking clearly in the Lear. Only as Jason’s hand silently slides down to set the bug do I realize I have missed another basic assignment.

The flight management system is different from our array of Garmin GPSs. Arrivals and departures must be entered by hand. Crossing altitudes are also hand-installed. I fumble from “list” to “menu” and back. I am guessing that only two-thirds of the FMS’s available capability is available to me.

Call-outs have me bamboozled. On early flights last summer I was so intent on the “after takeoff” checklist (gear up, yaw damper on, thrust reversers disarmed, flaps up at V2 plus 20/400 feet, ignition off, landing lights off, hydraulic pressure check, pressurization system monitor) that I totally missed the handoff to departure control. I have never missed this call in our airplane.

Similarly, on approach, when the captain calls for flaps 8 degrees, my response is to be “speed checks, flaps 8,” meaning that I have verified that the airplane is sailing along at 250 knots or less before hitting the flap control. Of course, I am so eager to get the flaps out that I start with that, then say “speed checks,” then look at the airspeed indicator. Below 10,000 feet we’re restricted to 250 knots. I’ve never owned an airplane that could boast a speed limit before, so this too is new.

Then, finally, came my debut in the left seat. A perfectly clear day and a perfect trip from Philadelphia (KPHL) to Tampa, Florida (KTPA). Excited, I was. So much so that all I had memorized about the engine start flow pretty much abandoned me. “Four Bs,” prompted Jason. He meant beacon, belts (seat sign), blowers (air conditioning off) and brakes. I got two of them. Slowly working our way through the checklist, we achieved two uneventful starts. We began to taxi out to 27L via a bunch of runway crossings, hold-short lines, slight turns and some beginner’s oscillation from side to side. The nose gear steering is sensitive — very sensitive.

The simulator is not lying about this.

As we taxied out, Jason ran the taxi checklist, which forced me to confirm flight instruments, V-speed settings and thrust reversers, among other tasks. Each time I took my eye off the centerline, the airplane lurched to one side or another. It felt like a car falling off its struts. Jason gently reminded me of the helpful centerline markings that were just visible out the right or left side window. So far as I know, no grass or taxi light was harmed.

The takeoff went well — there is very little time to screw it up. On a beautiful, clear winter’s day we followed departure control vectors and altitudes, remembering not to exceed 250 knots down low. Let me say that again: I had to work at keeping the airplane below 250. Soon we were perched at Flight Level 430. I just sat there, grinning.

The arrival in Tampa was a relief. This is my home base and I know the frequencies and taxiways by heart. We were set up behind a Southwest 737 for 1L when we were instructed to head for 1R. My first landing wasn’t bad. I forgot the spoilers, though. The thrust reversers are familiar to me in a sense; our turboprop uses beta range (reverse prop angle) to slow down, so at least I get the concept.

A few days later we repositioned the airplane from Tampa to St. Petersburg, a distance of eight miles. The weather was just low enough to require an ILS, which I hand-flew. Again, not a bad landing. Again, no go on the spoilers. The airplane is very stable, even “light” at 15,000 pounds.

A few days after that we flew empty to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (KFLL), and I got to do a crosswind landing. We landed on 9L with winds of 14 knots from 150 degrees. The right mains made it to earth first, and I savored the touchdown to the extent that Jason had to remind me that the airplane came equipped with brakes. Left to my own devices, I would have rolled out for 9,000 feet with the thrust reversers out, just enjoying it all.

The next day we flew short hops to Orlando and Naples, Florida. After dropping off our famous passenger at midnight in Naples, I came back from paying the landing fee to find Jason in the right seat. My first night flight was about to happen.

This time I was slightly better with the taxi steering, we finally made it out to the runway, and Jason reminded me of our light weight and the low V-speeds.

“This will happen fast,” he said.

Off into the darkness we went. St. Pete’s tower was closed. The wind was 070 at 12, gusts to 16 knots. I said to Jason that I’d rather shoot the ILS to 36R and have the vertical guidance than land on 9 with a better crosswind vector. He approved and I felt, for the first time, like a professional.

Soon we were on the approach and Jason was reciting the landing checklist. I was so busy, locked on the ILS, that I can’t claim any real participation in the exercise. But at a thousand feet I looked down and saw the landing lights were off. Finally Jason had made (or not made) a simple mistake. I said, “How about those landing lights?” I think he grinned. The landing was good from my perspective, and I don’t usually say that. I forgot the spoilers, though.

So, full of the day, I dragged Jason out for a drink at 1:30 a.m. We even found a bar that was open and featured a gaggle of drunks and smokers. Right about 2 a.m. both of our phones rang. Alert wives had noted our landing time on, and they each inquired as to where the hell we were.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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