Reminiscing on Flight Manuals

A home improvement project leads to reorganization and reflection.

flight manuals on a shelf
The historical traces of a pilot’s evolution.Dick Karl

We’ve got new carpet around here. After 20 years, it must have been time to refresh the place. Though, to tell you the truth, the old carpet looked fine to me. This ­exercise meant removing ­everything from shelves and surfaces in the room I call my study—a misnomer for certain, as no studying ever takes place within its confines.

When the new carpet was installed, I had to admit it looked better. This may be why men frustrate women.

Restocking the bookshelves in a more organized fashion than the previous 20 years of randomness allowed for a sentimental review of several airplanes. I was in love with each of them in sequence, and they each came with training manuals and handwritten notes in big binders. Now they are arranged chronologically—or by maximum takeoff weight, whichever measure you prefer. Like an archaeological dig, each airplane was more complex and heavier than its predecessor.

The skinniest binder is for the Cessna P210 I bought in 1982. Until then, a new-to-me (but used) airplane acquisition involved little more than a bill of sale, a handshake and a first flight. Equipped with just a private license and an ­instrument ticket, I’d hop in and fire up—it was like that back then.

The P210 was a whole new ­ballgame. Pressurization and turbocharging meant flying in the flight levels—albeit, the lowest, most ­juniorlike flight levels. The binder is titled “Cessna Flight Crew Manual.” I got this official-sounding tome during a course in Wichita, Kansas. I was learning how to manage that big Continental, especially in descent, and what a turbine inlet temperature gauge was all about. Outflow valves and upper-deck pressure were discussed at length to my constant delight and intermittent consternation. This was the first time I had sat with other aviators while learning a new airplane. Since then, I’ve always loved school. Before that, I had always hated school of any type.

After 13 years, the P210 gave way to a Cessna 340. The pressurized twin made me feel like an airline pilot. According to the Simcom binder, the maximum takeoff weight was about 2,000 pounds more than the P210. The 340 was a majestic animal equipped with air conditioning and stairs. You could be mistaken for a movie star when disembarking. You could also experience some shock when paying for gas. It held almost twice as much fuel as the pressurized single.

By 2000, I had managed to ­persuade my wife, Cathy, that burning jet-A was a really sound idea. I set my sights on the poor man’s King Air: the Piper Cheyenne. Cathy saw no difference between the Cheyenne and the 340. Both had club seating, and both were luxurious. Though the Cheyenne was faster, it was only 30 to 40 knots faster—hardly appreciated on most trips. Where she saw a need for new carpet in the house, I saw a need for turbine reliability.

To me, of course, these PT6 engines meant a huge difference. Never again would I see the flicker of an ­oil-pressure gauge or hear the ­sudden warble produced when the props slipped out of sync. This baby could get you somewhere. No longer ­confined to Flight Level 190 to 210, the Cheyenne could easily get to 250 and forge forward at 230 knots.


Read More by Dick Karl: Gear Up


And so began 17 years of yearly ­recurrent training, first at FlightSafety Learning Center in Lakeland, Florida, and then at Simcom in Orlando. These courses featured simulators, concepts such as bleed air and, most ­important, a group of more experienced ­classmates. I sometimes think I learned as much from these folks as I did from the ­formal course work. On one occasion, a guy in class had suffered an actual ­cockpit fire; another knew a guy who once had a catastrophic decompression. That will catch your attention. I came to look forward to the yearly ritual, ­especially when friend and fellow Cheyenne owner Bill Wyman would come down from New England and stay at our house in Tampa. We’d drive back and forth to Lakeland and talk about life.

Having been entranced by ­learning about airplanes in a classroom, I sought a type rating in the early Cessna jet, the Cessna 501SP. There was very little hope that I could ever afford a jet, but the fantasy propelled me to FlightSafety in Atlanta.

OMG, as the kids say, was that fun. Now I was learning about and practicing V1 engine failures, ­precautionary engine shutdowns, dual generator failures and “emergency restart—two engines.” Two happy weeks later, I walked out with my first type rating.

Another lark presented itself in the form of a Boeing 737 type rating at Higher Power Aviation in Dallas. Clearly, I would never fly such a ­grandiose beast, but I took a two-week vacation and joined a group of fabulous aviators who were gunning for jobs at Southwest Airlines. This experience can be reasonably compared to a fantasy baseball camp where you get to suit up with Derek Jeter and face Nolan Ryan for a few swings.

The three big binders remind me of the fire hose of information that came at you with such velocity that you sometimes couldn’t remember if we were talking about hydraulics or ­electrical. Interestingly, a type rating in the 737 was available if you already had another type rating. My Cessna 501 rating qualified.

In late middle age, I took on the notion of flying a jet for hire as a contract pilot. A type rating in the Learjet meant I could fly occasionally as a backup first officer for a Part 135 company on weekends and holidays. Was that ever fun. I will not forget—ever—the first time I flew left seat on an empty leg or the first time we flew over a line of thunderstorms.

At age 68, I quit being a surgeon to fly jets full time. I happily landed at JetSuite, a Part 135 company with a welcoming, professional vibe. Paired with Phil Smith, the Air Force’s F-15 demonstration pilot, I began training for the Cessna Citation CJ3 at CAE in New Jersey. This was an entirely different experience. No longer was I a private client with a Cheyenne, I was an employee for a company. Furthermore, my employment was based on successfully passing the oral and simulator exams necessary for the Cessna 525(S) type rating—S for “­single pilot.” This lent a certain ­seriousness to the proceedings and sharpened my resolve. The biggest binder on the shelf is the CJ3 manual.

A thousand hours of flying for JetSuite made the thought of owning a jet possible. Like new carpet, I thought this was a terrific idea. It turns out that the lineup of manuals has brought me to owning a Cessna Citation CJ1. We put new carpet in the CJ too. It looks good.