|When slumming down from a heavier airplane to a lighter one, watch the V-speeds and donít count on the automation. As Pat Veillette reported in Aviation Safety, there isnít any.
February 15, 2002
If you're ever lucky enough to fly a
transport-category simulator, you'll probably be overwhelmed by the first few
minutes of the experience. The big airplane's systems are complex and compared
to a light aircraft, the handling can best be described as whale-like.
Anticipation and patience are critical skills.
But what about the other side of this coin, the heavy jet pilot slumming
down into a light GA airplane? Does it present similar pitfalls? Indeed it
does, especially for pilots who haven't stepped into anything small for many
years. There are lots of examples in the accident record that show that
transitioning down has smeared an otherwise clean safety record for some big
metal drivers. Ironically, as I was preparing this article, a nearby NTSB
field office was investigating fatal accidents in general aviation aircraft
suffered by four pilots from the same major airline.
Why? There's no pat answer other than to say that compared to
heavy-aircraft airline flying, GA's little airplanes have simpler systems with
fewer automatic back-ups, rarely have icing protection, use single-person
crews, have vastly different handling characteristics and, in general, the
training may be less thorough. Yet all of these risk factors can be addressed
in one way or another so that transitioning down needn't be unusually risky.
classic example of pilots caught in the trap of transitioning down happened to
the U.S. Air Force. Cadets at the Air Force Academy destined to be trained as
pilots undergo a flight screening program during their senior year. In my
time, the program used the Cessna 172, which flew for 30 years without a
The chief of staff then decided that an "enhanced flight screening
program" was needed and the Academy acquired the British-built T-3
Firefly, which was capable of 200 mph speeds and full aerobatics. Instructors
were chosen from the rated military pilots on the Academy's staff, pilots with
heavy jet experience of all kinds. In parallel to the Academy's program, the
Air Force operated a flight screening program staffed by civilian instructors
in Hondo, Texas. That program also used the T-3.
With the acquisition of the T-3 and the modification of its large
fuel-injected engine into such a small engine nacelle, the program was
troubled from the start, with 53 unexplained engine failures, thought to be
fuel-system related. How these failures were handled by the pilots is telling.
When I went through the screening program in Cessna 172s, simulated forced
landings were part of the curriculum and it's a maneuver practiced many times
during a civilian pilot's training.
But on September 30, 1996, an Academy instructor pilot and cadet were
practicing a simulated forced landing. The engine actually failed during the
maneuver and they were unable to safely execute the forced landing, a maneuver
that should have been benign. Both aircraft occupants were killed. The
accident was the second of three fatal mishaps the screening program suffered.
One involved an unrecoverable spin, the other a stall/spin in the pattern.
When High Time Means Squat
One pitfall CFIs face when transitioning an experienced pilot into a
smaller or simpler aircraft is what I call the "skygod complex."
It's another way of saying, well, heck, if this guy has 20,000 hours in
Boeings and MacD's, who the heck am I to tell him how to fly a Skylane?
I fell into the trap about 10 years ago, when I was asked to check out
a retiring airline captain, Tom, in our flying club's Mooney. He was one
of those perfect aviation specimens: military trained, with Vietnam combat
experience, type ratings in a half dozen airliners and thousands of hours
of time, including his last assignment as a Pan Am 747 Captain.
Despite his pedigree, Tom was down-to-earth and unassuming and, more
important, he made it clear that I was in charge of the training and he
would complete whatever task I put before him. He had the professionalism
of a guy who had been through the training ringer many times and knew what
We hit it off well and and after an hour or two on the ground,
reviewing systems, we headed for the airplane. In the air, we breezed
through the usual stuff, including slow flight and stalls, steep turns and
emergency procedures. His instrument flying under the hood was superb. We
had taken off late on a winter afternoon so in the remaining daylight, I
made sure Tom did a couple of simulated engine-failure approaches to a
pasture, figuring to save the landings on hard pavement until after dark.
That was a mistake.
For the first normal landing, I suggested an approach speed of 75
knots; a little fast for our light weight but acceptable for the first
attempt. Tom nailed the speed but 50 feet above the runway, he commenced a
surprisingly abrupt flare. "Oh," I thought, "he's just used
to a larger airplane; he'll correct that."
He didn't. He actually continued to increase the pitch until the
airspeed sagged toward 60 knots. The airplane ballooned, with the speed
decaying to near a full stall, still 40 feet above the runway. I waited
too long to fix it.
With the stall buffet nibbling, I took the airplane, crammed in full
throttle and lowered the nose gingerly. We were sinking like an anvil and
in the glow of the landing light, the runway was rushing closer at
blinding speed. At first, I wondered how I'd explain a totaled airplane to
the club but as we neared the runway, I worried that we would survive at
all. We hit hard but level. With full power, the resulting bounce put us
back at 20 feet and we motored around the pattern. "I've got
it," I said weakly and belatedly.
Luckily, there was no damage to the aircraft and the next day-in broad
daylight-Tom completed the checkout with no problems.
The fact that he nearly crumpled the airplane on the first try was my
fault, not his. Since he was transitioning down, I assumed that landing
the Mooney would be child's play. The fact that he hadn't flown a light
aircraft in 30 years and his last frame of reference for landing flare was
a 747 didn't register with me. Further, both of us had the arrogance to
attempt his first landing at night, a gross mistake.
After that incident, I was more circumspect of transitioning pilots
into smaller, simpler airplanes from something larger. To assume that what
works in a big airplane necessarily works in a small one can be a costly
error. With our bounced landing, we got off cheap and the lesson stuck.
- Paul Bertorelli
All three of the instructor pilots had flown large transport aircraft in
their previous Air Force assignments, while instructors at the sister-base in
Hondo, Texas were civilians under contract with the Air Force, whose
backgrounds included years flying small, piston-powered aircraft. One of the
instructors at Hondo was quoted as saying, "If the engine quits, we know
how to land the airplane and walk away from it. The Air Force guys just know
how to bail out when that happens." Adding insult to injury, the former
chief of staff suggested that having three transport pilots in the right seat
contributed to the accidents.
The T-3 screening program has since been scrapped and the Air Force's
expensive Firefly fleet sits idle in Hondo. Even if the airplane itself was
flawed, the Air Force's experience harshly illustrates the difference between
big and little airplanes.
Not The Same
starters, the difference in flight momentum is substantial. A larger aircraft
has more momentum due to its mass. It will tend to retain its speed and
direction more solidly than will a lighter aircraft. However, once disturbed,
a heavy airplane takes longer to get back to the desired altitude and heading.
I once took a small experimental for a test flight. The aircraft was so
light that a child could have picked up the tail to reposition it. On final
approach, I couldn't believe how quickly the airplane lost its momentum.
Conversely, it also regained momentum faster with power application. It took
far different control reaction to keep the aircraft on speed in wind shear or
turbulent air that I'd expect in a heavy airplane.
Speed and speed control are widely different between light and heavy
aircraft. Consider that a Cessna 172 can comfortably fly an approach at 60
knots, less than half the speed that a heavy aircraft might fly on final. In a
jet-powered heavy-even a turboprop-slowing down for approach has to be
anticipated well ahead of the point where on speed must be achieved.
Similarly, the decision for a go-around has to be made many seconds sooner
in a heavy than it would be in a light aircraft. Power response in a piston
aircraft is almost immediate; in a jet, there's likely to be some lag.
The sight picture from the cockpit is utterly different, too. A light
aircraft pilot trying to land a larger aircraft for the first time will be
alarmed at how high the flare begins. On the other hand, the heavy driver may
tend to flare a little airplane 50 feet too high.
If handling and speed are different between light and heavy aircraft,
systems can be like night and day. In general, the larger aircraft have more
redundant systems that are more reliable.
Redundancy is expected and accepted in transport aircraft; in light
airplanes, it's optional. Take the attitude indicator, for example. In a jet,
if the attitude indicator on either side malfunctions, the pilot can switch
the source of attitude information driving the indicator, commonly called an
ADI in airline circles. In the rare circumstance that both attitude indicators
fail, a battery-powered standby indicator will provide attitude information
for 30 minutes after a total electrical failure.
For all practical purposes, there's no such thing as "partial
panel" in the heavy metal. That said, take your heavy metal buddy out of
his jet and put him into a Bonanza and have him fly simulated partial panel.
He'll probably make a hash of it. That doesn't make him a bad pilot, just one
who hasn't been trained in the peculiarities of little airplanes.
De-icing and anti-icing is another area where jet pilots are often caught
short when they get into a GA aircraft. On one common turboprop, the engine is
protected from icing by a heated inlet plus pilot-activated inertial
separators which direct the heavier ice particles overboard before they reach
the compressor section. When the separators are deployed, the powerplant gets
less air which means that it also produces less power.
Now compare that to something larger, like the Boeing 727. The engine
anti-ice diverts bleed air from the engine and re-introducing it into the
inlet also decreases power output, as with the turboprop. But the power loss
isn't as noticeable as it would be on a PT-6-powered King Air.
Jets tend to slip through ice without much concern, while propeller
aircraft slug it out in ice and can quickly pick up dangerous loads. I mention
this because I was reading one accident narrative in which a retired airline
captain who had flown jets for most of his career was flying a turboprop in
icing conditions and apparently failed to understand how engine anti-ice would
seriously sap the airplane's performance.
I once tried to explain the limitations of icing equipment on lighter
aircraft to a friend who flies large transport aircraft in the military. He
couldn't see a problem. To him, climbing is always the quickest way to get out
of icing. That works well in aircraft which have the power to climb but piston
aircraft don't always have that luxury, especially if they've picked up some
wing icing or are already near service ceiling.
Somehow, merely reviewing the manual doesn't always drive this home. Book
knowledge is critical but understanding how to use the systems in flight is
more important, information that isn't always contained "in the
book." Sometimes it comes only from trial and error, sometimes from luck
and occasionally from good instruction. Sadly I think we rely too much on
trial and error rather than sound, well-developed curriculums to help with
What to Do
And now we get to the crux of the matter: training. Although the heavy
pilot may be at some disadvantage in transitioning down, he can easily be
trained to adjust. And transitioning down isn't limited to going from a jet to
an Archer; the same advice applies if you're going from a Baron to J-3.
It's critical to understand that procedures can be quite different between
aircraft. For example, you'd think that unusual attitude recoveries would be
identical, regardless of aircraft. I did too until I was doing some research
at a major airline. The training department was adding unusual attitude
recoveries to the training programs.
We found that during a nose-high unusual attitude, adding power created
such a large pitch-up moment that it increased the high angle of attack,
making things worse. Clearly, the airline needed another recovery method. And
aircraft manuals for smaller aircraft are often lacking in this fine-point
detail so that pilots trained in one maneuver may mistakenly apply the same
strategy to another aircraft, assuming it will work.
In developing a training curriculum, remember this: similarities between
aircraft may be small but differences can be quite large. If you're an
instructor transitioning a pilot downward, common sense will dictate where the
risk areas are. Here's a short list:
Tricks And Traps
- Review the critical V-speeds.
- Note effect of weight on stall and approach speeds.
- Concentrate training on fuel, electric and back-up systems.
- Assume the transitioning pilot will know the landing sight picture.
- Overlook review and limitations of any aircraft automation.
- Neglect to point out limited backup systems.
Systems: Review the aircraft systems carefully, with emphasis on the fact
that light aircraft have little redundancy compared to transports. Fuel,
electrical and vacuum are the important ones to review.
Speeds: Light aircraft fly comfortably at speeds far slower than larger
aircraft do and, in general, the speeds don't vary as widely with weight as in
transport aircraft. Critical speeds? Vs, Vso, Vlo, Vne and Vref, what airline
pilots know as weight-dependent final approach speed.
Engine/fuel management: For a jet or turboprop pilot, managing a piston
engine may be a throwback to the dark ages. Emphasis should be on power
management and leaning, which will markedly impact range planning.
Emergency procedures: The important items are engine failure drills and
system emergencies, such as vacuum, electrical and instrument failures. These
may be trivial in a large airplane, life-threatening in a small one.
Avionics and autopilots: It's a fact of life that a pilot used to a 727
with steam gauges may encounter glass-cockpit-state-of-the-art in a Bonanza or
Saratoga, especially with regard to the latest generation GPS. Briefing up
this equipment-including all aspects of autopilot operation-should be on the
A well-developed training curriculum, complete with reference material and
an experienced, motivated and insightful instructor is the best way to
transition into another aircraft, whether it be smaller or larger. If the
transition down is done with care and guidance, it will be a pleasure for both
the pilot and the CFI.