Back to School: The Commercial Multi-Engine Rating

After a week in south Florida training for the commercial-multi, I came away with my ticket and a newfound respect for fast-track pilot courses.

Commercial Multi-Engine Rating

Commercial Multi-Engine Rating

I've always been intrigued by accelerated flight training courses that promise to add on the next rating or certificate in a fixed number of days for a set price. Maybe it's because the concept is so far removed from how I learned to fly back in the 1980s. At the local grass strip where I first started taking flying lessons as a teenager, scheduling two or three flights a week seemed like a lot. Now I was being offered the chance to fly two or three times a day and knock out my commercial multiengine ticket in less than a week. With a written proposal from Pan Am International Flight Academy in Miami for a packed schedule that would involve more than 20 hours of flying and a ton of learning, I packed my bags and headed to south Florida in mid-February. This was going to be a blast, I thought to myself.

Although I was excited, I also had my doubts about whether I could really master everything I needed to learn in such a short amount of time — especially after I arrived in Miami and was greeted by low overcast and drizzle. The weather cleared, but other hurdles made completing my training on time a challenge.

I flew out of Opa-locka Airport (KOPF) with Wayman Aviation, with which Pan Am contracts for the private through commercial portions of the training before students transition into airliner sims. At times during my training, I wished for a less hurried pace. Two days before my check ride I was still being introduced to new concepts even though I wasn’t yet totally comfortable with everything I’d learned so far. But Wayman’s instructors follow a structured approach that’s intended to tick all the boxes in a set order as a pilot progresses through the Part 141 training syllabus. On the morning of my check ride, I was surprised by how confident I felt that I really could do everything that would be expected of me. After 20.1 hours of flying in a Piper Seneca, I was ready.

Unfortunately, the airplane wasn’t.

The list of things that had gone wrong in my brief time flying N887SP, a 1973 PA-34-200, was longer than I or my instructor would have preferred. A starter had failed the previous Saturday and couldn’t be fixed until the following Monday when the mechanics returned to work; a dead battery needed replacing right before my long night cross-country; and now, during my check ride, a new problem surfaced. The left brake was starting to feel soft. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete the check ride before it got worse.

There was another problem further complicating matters. I’d booked an airline flight for that afternoon to take me back home to New Jersey. Pan Am had built some wiggle room into my original training schedule in case weather or mechanical issues prevented me from flying, but that time had already been used up because of the bad starter. Of course, the two days of downtime gave me an opportunity to study for the oral exam, meticulously plan my cross-country flights, learn the Seneca’s POH backward and forward, and even get in a couple of hours in a full-motion Boeing 737 simulator at the Pan Am training center, so this wasn’t truly lost time. Still, if the airplane couldn’t continue to fly today, I wasn’t sure what would happen.

It was too bad, because the oral exam had gone about as well as I could have hoped, and I was feeling confident about the check ride. I credit three people for this: My flight instructor at Wayman Aviation, Alex Alvarez, is one of them, and John and Martha King are the others. In my lifetime I feel as though I've been blessed to have had some excellent flight instructors, and Alex continued this trend. As for the Kings, I've done all of my ground school training with the King Schools home study courses, and I'm a big fan.

To my surprise, it was actually kind of fun dusting off my old Sporty's E-6B and performing the various calculations the FAA deems necessary for the commercial pilot written exam. For those of you who are considering taking the commercial written, be prepared for a dizzying number of questions about ADF navigation and calculations involving time and distance to station based on trigonometry that you'll never use in a real airplane. Also understand that there's not a single question pertaining to GPS navigation. I have no idea how it's possible that pilot written exams in this day and age can completely ignore GPS. It's as though the exam hasn't been updated in 30 years — which, of course, it hasn't. At any rate, thanks to the Kings I passed the written exam with a score of 97 and can highly recommend this route of study.

"Zero to Hero"
One of Pan Am International Flight Academy's specialties involves taking zero-time pilots and preparing them for the right seat of airliner cockpits in record time. Many of its students these days, said Pan Am head of sales Greg Darrow, come from countries in Asia, Africa and South America, where demand for qualified pilots is exploding. As you might have guessed, the company traces its lineage back to Pan Am the airline, and many of the employees who work for the flight training provider today were Pan Am instructors long ago, some of them going back to the 1960s. In fact, the main training base in Miami still features the familiar Pan Am globe logo on the front of the building and houses a fully functioning Boeing 707 simulator that has been in use for decades. When the producers of the ABC drama Pan Am were seeking to re-create the cockpit of a 707 for the show, Pan Am Flight Academy allowed artists full access to the simulator to get it exactly right. And, of course, 707 pilot and owner John Travolta is a customer.

Pan Am’s ab initio pilot program begins at Wayman Aviation, where candidates start out in Cessna 152s and 172s training for the private and instrument rating before transitioning to the Seneca for the commercial-multi — what Alex calls Wayman’s six-month “zero to hero” program. Since I already had my private and instrument rating and the required number of hours for the commercial ticket, I was going to experience only the commercial-multi portion of the training on this trip. I would be set to eventually return for a type rating without missing a beat.

One of the surprises when I arrived at Pan Am was realizing that I wouldn’t need to perform chandelles, lazy eights, eights-on-pylons or steep spirals, which are all required maneuvers for the single-engine commercial certificate. The reasoning makes sense: The FAA figures that a pilot who is training for the commercial-multi ticket is likely to be on an airline career path, while the commercial-single pilot candidate will be more likely to land a job involving sightseeing, banner towing, crop dusting, aerial photography and other activities that often require aggressive maneuvering.

Alex and I started our time together with a couple of familiarization flights in a Cessna 172 to give me a chance to get a feel for flying out of KOPF and around south Florida before transitioning to the Seneca. When it was time to move to the twin, we flew a lot. My first day in the left seat of the PA-34 included three separate flights, one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night (this third flight was with Alfredo Wayman, who helps run the school with his father and siblings) for a total of 4.4 hours and 10 takeoffs and landings, eight of them at night. By the second day we were practicing engine-out procedures, stalls, steep turns, emergency descents and ILS approaches under the hood.

Arriving at the airport on day three, I was feeling pretty good about how the training was going so far. That’s when we hit our first snag. Alex and I had settled into the cockpit and were ready for a full day of training, but the right engine wouldn’t turn over. The bad starter. After a new starter was finally installed, the morning flying on Monday went well and I was progressing at a good pace. During the later flight, unfortunately, the second hurdle presented itself. After preflighting the Seneca for our planned round-robin journey from KOPF to Tamiami (KTMB) to Northeast Florida Regional (KSGJ) to Vero Beach (KVRB) and back home to KOPF, Alex and I climbed aboard the airplane and I began running through the engine-start checklist. We were ready to go, but again the Seneca was not. This time it was a dead battery. We clambered back out of the airplane and hailed a mechanic, who set about replacing the old battery with a fresh one.

Thirty minutes later we were good to go and on our way. I was excited for this trip for a number of reasons, but first on my list was getting the chance to fly along the Florida coast at night, including passing by the Kennedy Space Center. I had my camera in my flight bag and was hoping to take some pictures. I should have known better. Not five minutes after we’d reached altitude and were on course along the coastline, Alex reached behind him and grabbed the IFR hood. I slid it over my head, realizing my excitement about doing some nighttime sightseeing was pure fantasy. My view for the next several hours would be of the Seneca’s instrument panel.

With the required cross-country flights in the rearview mirror, by day four it was time to focus on what I would be required to demonstrate on the check ride. We practiced engine failures — lots and lots of engine failures. For me, the hardest part in the beginning was memorizing the emergency checklist flow, which I would perform over and over in the airplane as Alex cajoled and corrected. I found myself practicing the flow on my drive on the way to the airport, while sitting in my rental car in the Burger King parking lot during lunch and in my hotel room in the evenings. Ad nauseam, my hands moved over an imaginary set of controls, performing the same flow every time until I knew it all by heart.

The Check Ride
The last flight with Alex on day five went well, although I wished I could have done five or six more engine-out ILS approaches for good measure. Most of the check ride with the designated examiner, Michelle Melendez, a former airline pilot who now owns a DC-3 cargo airline at KOPF with her former-airline-pilot husband, progressed without a hitch. My 50-degree steep turns, which had been nearly flawless during training, weren't quite as precise, but they were still well within practical test standards. After conducting the emergency descent, I forgot to retract the landing gear, prompting the examiner to pipe up and say, "Gee, there sure is a lot of green out here," referring to the landing gear lights. Whoops.

After doing power-on and power-off stalls and the Vmc demonstration, all that was left was the engine-out instrument procedures, plus a simulated engine failure in the pattern. Setting up for an ILS approach, the controller added a new wrinkle by asking me to keep my speed above 130 knots until established. I wasn’t sure this aging Seneca could do 130 knots on one engine. I acknowledged the instruction and, sure enough, a moment later the examiner brought back the power on the left engine. The airplane was yawing and banking into the dead engine, and I was going through the emergency checklist, setting up the zero sideslip and securing the left side. To maintain 130, I had to firewall the good engine. After reaching the final approach fix, I momentarily got high on the approach but was able to correct while carefully adjusting my crab to the right to account for a crosswind blowing from 120 degrees at about 18 knots on the ground.

After we touched down, the examiner instructed me to do another takeoff, this time a short-field demonstration. I was fairly certain this would be my last circuit in the pattern. Nail this, and you’ve got your ticket, I thought. On the downwind, like clockwork, Michelle failed the left engine. As I was securing it, the controller cleared me to land on Runway 9L, and then, seconds later, he threw me a curveball, amending my landing clearance to Runway 12. But far from causing me problems, the switch actually did me a favor. Besides being pretty much directly ahead as I was making the base turn for 9L, Runway 12 was also perfectly aligned with the wind. Thank you, Mr. Controller.

As I rolled out on Runway 12 and turned off the runway to the left — the back of my shirt now drenched with sweat — the brake on that side suddenly felt very mushy. Oh, boy, I thought. If the examiner wanted us to do another circuit in the pattern, I would have to decline. As far as I was concerned, this airplane was now officially broken.

“Where to from here?” I asked as I completed the after-landing checklist.

“Take us back to Wayman,” she said. “Nice job. Congratulations, you earned it.”

Phew.

Back at the flight school, I bid farewell to the great folks I’d met at Wayman Aviation as we posed for pictures with the Seneca. In the rental car on the drive to the airport, the full weight of what I’d accomplished hit me. The feeling was a mix of pride and relief. The last week had been a blur of activity that I knew would take some time to process. But my mind wouldn’t allow itself to dwell for long on the past, no matter how recent. I was already thinking ahead to the next phase of my training, looking forward to the next adventure, a new opportunity to learn and grow behind the controls of another wonderful airplane.