Flying Other People’s Planes
Yes, it’s fun—but beware of unexpected problems.
One of the benefits I have found of being in the aviation writing business is that I get the chance to fly a fair number of other people's planes. Whether I am doing it to write a flight review on the type, test or check out new avionics, or am simply offered the chance to go flying, I enter a lot of strange N-numbers in my log. Sometimes, the airplane is a type I'm familiar with. Sometimes it is completely new to me. Regardless of which category the craft falls into, there are many things to consider when flying a borrowed airplane.
In my old job conducting space shuttle flights, our goal was safety and mission success—in that order. That's the way I approach any flight—especially one in an unfamiliar aircraft. My first priority is that the airplane and I come back together and intact. I am also cognizant of the fact that someone cares a great deal about the airplane (as I do about my own), and that while fun is important, safety is always paramount.
The mission might be, as I mentioned, a flight evaluation, a photo hop, avionics testing, a checkout in type, or training for some specific piloting task. It might also be that I am simply borrowing the airplane to go on a trip, or the owner wants me to fly it and tell him how it compares to others of the type. Whenever we consent to take the controls, we have to think about our qualifications, the condition of the airplane, the known flight characteristics, and what we can realistically do with the airplane on the intended flight.
Insurance is one of those logistical considerations that is too important to ignore. For some, we simply agree that we are responsible for the craft. For others, we formally submit paperwork and get coverage. This is mostly decided by the owner, and it is more common for a private owner to want to add the casual pilot to their insurance than it is for a corporate concern asking for a flight review. Even when it is simply the case of a friend throwing me the keys to "take it around the patch," it is always a good idea to ask the insurance question—just to be polite and make sure there is no misunderstanding. In some cases, the owner may not have thought about it, and bringing it up is a responsible thing to do. Of course, sometimes the response is, "Well Paul, I have your plane here on the ground, and I'll enjoy flying it while you get mine repaired…"
Companies for which we fly airplanes are less likely to worry about the insurance issue. They are either confident in their self-insurance, or know that it can be tough to get coverage for a new pilot in an Experimental aircraft. In this case, they accept the financial risk in order to have the airplane reviewed or simply tested by another pilot. Insurance is one way to mitigate risk, and some simply choose to accept the financial risk if they believe the chances of an untoward event are small. We all hope that is the case, especially the pilot that is about to put their little pink body in the seat.
The important thing is that whether you are borrowing a friend's airplane, flying a demo aircraft from a factory, or testing an airplane for a corporation, make sure that you discuss the financial obligations in advance.
When we fly a new airplane for a magazine review, the best situation is when it is a two (or more) seat aircraft, and we can take along a factory pilot or the owner. In fact, in that case, it is more correct to say that they are taking us along. There is little worry about flight safety, so long as we brief beforehand on who is pilot in command, and who will do what in the case of an emergency. Demo and test flights such as these are sometimes the most fun—so long as the demo pilot is experienced, we can trust them to get the airplane up and back, and we can concentrate on evaluating and flying, knowing that we have a safety net if something odd were to occur. It is easier to take notes, capture photos, and dedicate 100% of our attention to what we are doing, rather than having a few brain cells worrying about survival all the time.
Two-seat airplanes can provide a more challenging time when the owner is asking us to help them get used to the machine, do transition training, or help them learn their avionics. In this case, it is usually not a factory-trained demo pilot with whom we are flying, but rather a novice owner that may not be very experienced in type, and toward whom we will have to dedicate some of our attention. In short, now we not only have to worry about flying the airplane, but also about giving the other pilot attention. The new Additional Pilot Program allows an experienced pilot to go along with one less experienced during Phase 1 training (under specific guidelines). This program formalizes the process and gives some good guidelines for this type of activity.
Single-seat airplanes are, of course, another matter. In these, you don't have to divide your attention—but you have to be confident that you can fly the airplane and bring it back safely, alone and unassisted. For pilots who have always checked out in a new airplane with a CFI or safety pilot, that first time crawling into a machine with only one seat can be very intimidating. Good fundamental piloting skills are important here. So long as the airplane type has flown before and the previous pilots have not ended up screaming or muttering to themselves as they hug the earth post-landing, you can be reasonably certain that it will "fly like an airplane," and you can bring it back safely to the earth. Fundamental skills include staying above stall speed, keeping it within the flight envelope, and knowing how to land with the type of gear (tricycle or taildragger) that the type presents. Good fundamentals apply to any machine, and the mark of a pilot who is ready for this type of flying is that they don't just learn airplanes by rote (memorizing speeds at points in the pattern, relying on specific altitude cues for checklist steps, etc.), but rather look outside (as well as at the airspeed), feel the aircraft, and find where it fits within their experience continuum.
With single-seat airplanes, you simply can't afford to wonder if you are going to make it back—you have to know that you will, and that while you might bounce it, there will never be any doubt about the safe and successful outcome of the mission. Having made this transition into numerous single-seat airplanes myself, and seeing others never take that step, I suggest doing initial solo flights in benign airplanes that have straightforward characteristics similar to other types that the pilot has flown, regardless of the number of seats. They might think that taking a machine aloft with a qualified pilot who promises never to touch the controls might be a good idea—but the psychological environment is different. You know that they aren't going to let you take them to their death, so it really isn't being alone.
The single-seat airplanes many of us are familiar with are usually small, close-coupled, nimble, and can be intimidating with their speed—and reputation. Others might be large (a single-seat fighter or replica) with actual intimidating speed and flight characteristics. In truth, size shouldn't matter—flight characteristics should. Stall speed is the first big indicator of the challenge the pilot faces. The faster it stalls, the faster the approach, and the quicker you'll have to be on the controls on landing.
Bigger, with more engine torque? Better be prepared for a boot full of rudder on the takeoff roll. Many pilots, used to docile aircraft, are scared of quick and nimble—until they find out that it is more a question of how stable the airplane is than how quickly it maneuvers. Instability is a problem, but quickness in itself is just a delight.
Unusual Flight Characteristics
Unique design aspects of an airplane can affect how it handles, and how it lands. It is good to find out in advance if it pitches up or pitches down with flap deployment. Those big Tundra tires on a wild new bush plane—how do they react if you land hard? Is the CG forward or aft in the configuration you're going to fly? This will greatly affect stability and control. And if it is too far one way or another, you might run out of control on landing—or be pushing on the stick to prevent an over-flare. If this is a new airplane with few hours, and the owner is asking you to test or evaluate it, you need to be on your toes and be honest with yourself: How much experience do you really have in oddly configured aircraft? Practicing flying out of trim (in an airplane you are familiar with) is a good way to prepare for the unexpected in a test airplane.
Aside from being able to actually fly and land the airplane, there are far more trivial things that can potentially get you into trouble when hopping in another person's airplane for a quick spin around the patch—and most of them would surprise you. Especially in the homebuilt world, no two aircraft are exactly alike, and the small differences can provide big surprises. Our biggest problems, in fact, arise when flying an aircraft similar to what we fly all the time. "Hey Paul, you've got over 2000 hours in the RV-8; could you take mine up and tell me how it compares to others?" Well sure—that should be simple. But gee, this fellow has the tall-man option, which pushes the seat back a couple of inches, and since I can just barely reach the fuel selector in my own airplane with the harnesses tight, now I can't reach it at all. The question is—did I discover that on the ground, or in the air?
This illustrates the importance of knowing exactly what is critical to flight and having a mental—or better yet, a written—checklist of items that you always check before flying a new airplane. These things, if missed, could cause major distractions or endanger flight directly. When I sit in a new type, I move all the controls to full travel, including engine controls, both primary (throttle, mixture, prop) and secondary (fuel selectors, ignition switches, carb heat, etc.). I put on the harness and make sure that I have good reach to everything critical—and move my head around to find potential blind spots. Don't forget to try the brakes. Some rudder pedals are awkward, and as we age, our flexibility decreases. Have you got full motion everywhere?
Canopy and Door Latches
Canopy and door latches are some of the greatest "gotchas" in the homebuilt world. They can be finicky, they can be marginal—and sometimes, we have to line up three different things in order to get them to work. I have learned through hard experience to have the owner/designer/builder go through the latching sequence and pitfalls with me before we ever get to "how do I start the engine?" I have seen two-piece doors that can really cook your noodle—and some latches that simply didn't work, or wouldn't work if the airplane flexed a little. While it is true that in most certified aircraft, an open door in flight is almost always survivable, in many homebuilts, the loss of a door or canopy can result in tail damage—and loss of control, no matter how cool you remain in the cockpit.
Homebuilts have other issues, often related to electrical systems. I flew one airplane that had a five-by-five matrix of toggle switches that controlled all of the electrical items in the airplane, including multiple buses and the electronic ignition. While they were labeled, it was in some esoteric language that made sense only to the builder, and the current owner basically set things up "by rote," making sure that the switches were on and off in the same pattern for every flight. I declined to fly that one solo, by the way. And then there are fuel systems. Creative fuel systems might have their place if you're building an airplane with enough tankage to fly around the world, but multiple tanks, valves, and fuel pumps to transfer go-juice around the airplane can give a new pilot headaches, and if you're going to take a plane with such a system aloft, you need to make sure you fully understand where the gas is, and how to get it to the engine.
Where Am I ?
By the way—have you got a map? It can be more than just inconvenient to strap into a new airplane at an airport in an area you have never flown, then take off—only to find out that you have no idea where you are. Many, if not most, airplanes today have a GPS somewhere in the cockpit. But some of those handhelds can be mighty tricky to operate, even if it is just to bring up a map! Make sure that you either know how to work the fancy hardware before you go aloft or have a good local map in your pocket.
Seat and control adjustments, how to turn on (or off) the heater—these are all trivial items that can become significant when you are all alone in an aircraft and working hard just to adapt to its flying qualities. It is easy to reach task saturation and then have a little extra annoyance push you over the edge—so make sure not to take off in a hurry—take the time to ask questions and get good answers. If, at any time, you find yourself rushing to get in the air ("Hey, you can fly my plane, but I need to leave in 45 minutes, so make sure you have it back by then!"), it's probably time to stop, pass on the opportunity, and come back when you have more time.
Avionics are another huge area of complication these days. With the proliferation of glass cockpits, no two airplanes ever seem configured the same. Don't get me wrong—I am all for advanced displays that make a pilot's job easier and have been involved in their development for decades. However, the user interfaces are far from standard at this point in time, and once you start pushing buttons, you can end up with no usable displays at all—or worse, end up with guidance that is taking you someplace you don't want to go. There are four or five major brands of EFIS out there in the homebuilt world today, and while all of them have similar displays, when it comes to critical parameters (such as airspeed, altitude, and attitude), the button-pushing and knob-twisting that you have to do to change a page or set the altimeter is different from brand to brand. Once again, know what you have to do to fly a safe mission, and then "keepa-your-hands-off" the rest! If your goal is to experiment with, and experience, the EFIS, then have at it—but do a lot more ground prep with the manuals and with the system before you go aloft—and take a safety pilot.
When I am flying/testing/evaluating an airframe, I make sure that I know how to bring up the primary flight display, bring up a moving map, and set the altimeter. If I have to control radios and the transponder through the EFIS, I make sure I can do that as well. I rarely use the navigation or guidance features of an EFIS in an airframe evaluation, so I leave those alone—or I have a handheld or iPad that I know how to use along for the ride. Many accidents have happened due to distractions in the cockpit—which is a good reminder to always check on how to cancel visible and audible alerts before you go flying! Also make sure you ask the owner if there are any engine parameters that they are still "working out" in their EFIS or engine instrumentation.
Should I Do This?
Flying other people's planes is a great way to grow as a pilot, and it is an honor to reach the point in one's career when such offers are made. Yet, it is probably some of the most subtly hazardous flying you might do—simply because there are so many little things to learn about a particular Experimental aircraft. Always be brutally honest with yourself before you accept an offer (or assignment) to fly a new type. Is your experience base broad enough to accept? I have turned down remarkable offers to fly some fascinating airplanes because I just didn't feel like I was qualified—despite what the owner thought. I have never met an airplane that was worth dying for—and while some specific opportunities might never come again, it is better to be around later for other opportunities than to take one that you shouldn't and make it your last.
Paul Dye retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA's Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the space shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 that he built in 2005, and an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 4800 hours in many different types of aircraft. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Kitplanes magazine.