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A year of extremes

A real-world turbine indoctrination

The rapid-fire clinking sound of ice pellets striking the airframe was the first sign of trouble.
Sunset over West Virginia. Photography by the author
Sunset over West Virginia. Photography by the author

It was quickly followed by sudden up- and downdrafts too powerful for the autopilot to match. Indicated airspeed surged, then fell, and the angle of attack indicator spiked to an abnormally high level, something I hadn’t seen, or ever expected to see, in cruise at the airplane’s 41,000-foot service ceiling. Then a flash lit up the windshield as static electricity discharged in a blinding instant.

The episode lasted less than two minutes but it showed how poorly I understood high-altitude weather, the limitations of weather radar, and how easy it is to blunder into extreme conditions even with a modern, fully functioning avionics suite. The high-speed contact with ice pellets also knocked the paint off the radome, requiring repair.

Now, after a single calendar year of turbine flying following an initial CE-525S type rating—all for private, FAA Part 91 owner/operators—my learning curve remains remarkably steep. And I’m often struck by the broad gulf between turbine training and real-world flying: two disciplines which seem, at times, to have almost nothing to do with each other.

Simulator training is an ultra-efficient way to standardize procedures. Pilots get exposed to the various and cascading emergencies required to pass the FAA type-rating checkride. But once that’s complete, real-world flying turns out to be astonishingly reliable from mechanical and systems standpoints, but operationally almost unrecognizable.

Freshman year

Sunset over West Virginia. Photography by the author The Rocky Mountains are daunting in piston airplanes, but from turbine heights they can seem almost trivial. Riding a tailwind at sunset over Cleveland at 41,000 feet. Chocked on an icy ramp in Minnesota.

In the simulator, for example, IFR clearances are issued well in advance, and there’s plenty of time to configure the airplane, anticipate and precisely fly briefed speeds and profiles, and the process is orderly and predictable—even with “surprises” like missed approaches caused by low ceilings, engine failures, and other complications thrown in.

Real-world scenarios are typically free from such drama but far more dynamic in other ways. Instead of a long final approach of 10 miles or more, the challenge is fitting into a busy traffic mix with a range of faster and slower aircraft. The game, most of the time, seems to be keeping descent speeds up as long as possible, then smoothly configuring for landing relatively late in the game.

Fly 250 KIAS or more all the way down to 10,000 feet; avoid using the speed brakes unless you absolutely must; then wait for approach flaps, landing gear, and final flaps until you just can’t stand it. Good visibility and VFR weather are helpful here, but marginal conditions are the norm—and pilots adapt. The dirty little secret is that straight-wing business jets are so forgiving that they give pilots the tools to easily stay within surprisingly broad tolerances and quickly get back on the straight and narrow when we stray.

On a personal level, one of the biggest wake-up calls has been the consistent fallibility of what I thought were my well-honed seat-of-the-pants flying instincts. Simple matters such as spotting the landing runway and visually flying a normal three-degree glide slope seem second-nature after having done them for many years in a variety of aircraft. Yet the normal (and smart) turbine practice of loading an approach with vertical guidance whenever possible (and these days, it’s almost always possible), even in visual conditions, showed to my horror that I consistently fly well below the proper glideslope. And that’s especially true in haze, rain, and darkness.

The vertical guidance on approaches has become such a valued friend that I’ve come to trust and follow it implicitly. Yet I’ve still got to force myself to resist the urge to duck under the glideslope on short final because the picture I’ve become accustomed to over the years just looks right.

Another eye-opener has been the critical importance of short-field landing technique in jets. I had long regarded such seemingly specialized touchdowns as the province of Super Cubs and backcountry pilots, but they’re fundamental for corporate jet pilots, too. The ability to get in and out of relatively out-of-the way airfields is a major advantage for light jets. It avoids the cost, complexity, and delays of bigger airports. And getting it right demands pilots understand and fully employ the robust capability of their equipment.

That means precise airspeed control, hitting aiming points, getting the nosewheel in contact with the pavement quickly, and deploying ground flaps, spoilers, and antilock braking systems aggressively. It’s not pretty, and it goes against the training and habits of pilots like me who take pride in touching down lightly and being easy on the equipment. Yet the bang-it-on landing technique cuts rollouts dramatically and is well within the aircraft limits—and it allows jets to safely operate in places where seemingly more civilized techniques needlessly eat up distance and reduce margins. Residual thrust and trailing-link landing gear do a remarkable job of cushioning the impact and making even firm arrivals less objectionable.

I guessed the higher jet certification standards (FAA Part 25 equivalent for takeoff and landings) would mean more reliable performance data and less preflight guesswork. Actual aircraft performance turns out to be quite close to predicted values, but there’s a lot more to consider than raw numbers. A wet or contaminated runway or unfavorable winds or density altitudes change the risk/reward equation. Light jets are quite capable of getting in and out of runways tight enough to make pilots swallow hard before attempting them. But pilots are there to exercise good judgment.

Takeoffs—especially on icy surfaces—also defy easy answers.

Entering the takeoff data into the flight computer yields immediate and seemingly satisfying data about distances required. There are exact numbers for V1, V2, VENR, but reality isn’t so neat or tidy.

For example, a “static” takeoff in which the pilot stands on the brakes, runs up the engines, and then starts the takeoff roll always nets the best book results and shortest “balanced field” length, and it’s tempting to make them a standard practice. The takeoff roll is as short as it can be, and that means there’s more space to abort if necessary.

Yet the reality of standing on the brakes on an icy runway carries the risk of a loss of directional control, and it would be easy to end up in a ditch before, or moments after, brake release. A “rolling” takeoff is the obvious alternative. Yet it eats up significantly more runway, and that means the possibility for a successful high-speed abort is reduced or eliminated. A takeoff decision speed of about 100 knots is typical for most light jets, yet aborting a takeoff at 99 knots seems unrealistic on an icy 3,500-foot runway, even when the performance numbers say it’s possible.

There’s also a great deal of operational knowledge, particularly about air traffic control and flight planning, that’s gained through sometimes painful experience.

Flight planning apps for calculating jet fuel consumption and flight times are astonishingly accurate—and totally misleading. They don’t consider the practical realities that you’re unlikely to be quickly cleared to climb to high altitude when leaving Florida, for example. Or when arriving anywhere near the East Coast, you’re likely to be assigned an early descent that increases fuel consumption well beyond anticipated figures. None of these critical limitations ever came up during training, although corporate pilots share such information, and workarounds, informally.

During this freshman turbine year, I’ve been fortunate to have access to pilots with vast knowledge in these areas, and they’ve been patient teachers.

Other review tools have helped, too, particularly tiny action cameras. After a day of flying, I’ll review video of the approaches and landings to pick up on the nuances I missed in the moment, and to try to answer some basic questions.

How long does it take to decelerate from approach speed (VAPP) to the reference speed (VREF)? The video shows it typically takes about 10 seconds to slow from 125 KIAS to 105 KIAS in the landing configuration at idle power. But there’s a hidden trap. The rate of deceleration barely changes at first when power goes to idle. Then indicated airspeed bleeds off more and more rapidly as the airplane slows and induced drag and angle of attack increase. By the time you actually get to the VREF target, it’s possible, even easy, to blow right through it.

Also, about angle of attack and AOA displays. Some pilots adore them, others ignore them. But my video archive shows astonishingly consistent results when the main wheels touch down at exactly the AOA target marked on the Garmin G3000. My only real complaint about the AOA display is that it’s hidden. And unlike so many aspects of modern displays which are pilot customizable, AOA isn’t. It’s there, fairly low on the primary flight display—and a handy green dot on the airspeed tape serves as a good way to catch it at a glance. But if there were a way to place that AOA indicator front and center, I’d do it without shame or embarrassment. Call it a crutch, but it sure seems to increase precision and predictability.

I never expected to have the opportunity to fly jets, and I leapt at the chance for the challenge of learning new skills, immersing myself in a new aspect of aviation, and eventually learning the craft well enough to teach it. I’m amazed by how much I’ve been drawn to this strange and intoxicating world of high altitude, high speed, long range, and the indescribable pleasure of seeing a sunset from the flight levels or the moonrise over a stratus layer of clouds thousands of feet below. There’s so much to learn. And that’s the attraction.

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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