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On my own

Flying a jet single-pilot

By Ben Berman
The Cessna Citation struggles off the runway, with only one engine contributing to the climb. I call out “Positive rate, gear up,” but nothing happens. Oh, yeah, I have to do this myself. I reach out and pull up the gear handle.


Photography by Mike Fizer.
Zoomed image
Photography by Mike Fizer

It’s day one of my type rating course in the Citation Jet. I’m doing this in the airplane, so the engine failure is simulated but everything else is for real. The CJ is designed to be flown by one pilot, and we’re going to operate it that way. So, John Cirincione, an expert instructor in all manner of Citations, is sitting to my right. But he’s not helping.

Single piloting a jet means juggling a lot of balls. It gets worse when something goes wrong. Later that flight, descending with one engine still pretending to be out, I am holding the normal checklist in one hand, reading the emergency checklist in the other hand, and peeking between them to make sure the autopilot is intercepting the ILS course and we’re slowing to gear speed.

When two pilots fly a jet together, they share the workload and catch each other’s mistakes. As a single pilot, what’s the best way to juggle all that workload and catch my own mistakes?

Cirincione owns Aeromania in Broomfield, Colorado. He’s trained all manner of pilots for single-pilot Citation type ratings. Pilots transitioning from pistons are getting their first exposure to jet speeds, altitudes, and performance. Others, like me, transitioning from an airline, are used to getting help from another pilot. Both are big adjustments.

Cirincione says I should talk to myself out loud, same as if I had a co-pilot. Takeoff briefing, V1/rotate callouts, altitude selections: “People remember what they just heard, so say it out loud,” he instructs. If I say it, I’m more likely do the right thing.

Meanwhile, just after takeoff, I’m realizing there’s no co-pilot to do the after-takeoff checklist. I manage that workload by turning on the autopilot. Of course, the automation may mess up, or I may have programmed it wrong, so there are quick glances at the instruments while I run that checklist. I’m the only backstop for catching a bad command performance by the electronics.

Besides using—but verifying—automation, the best way to keep all the balls in the air is to plan and work ahead so tasks don’t pile up later in the flight. Planning the top of descent early, I can prepare for approach and landing while still in level cruise. The faster I’m moving, and the more complications I can foresee—like weather to fly around—the further ahead I need to think and act.

We all make mistakes in flying, and it’s hard to catch our own. Catching an automation error is subtle: I just programmed it, so at a glance, it looks fine to me! Cirincione says, “Some people hate being a critic, but as a single pilot you have to be your own best critic.” For automation, have a discipline of looking at (and saying out loud) the changes on the flight mode annunciators, or “scoreboard.” Every button push is followed by a look at the scoreboard and bugs to see whether the airplane received my command, and then at the flight instruments to see the airplane’s response. Cirincione also notes that every switch on a jet has a response to check, such as the ITT rise verifying engine anti-ice is active.

Checklists are there to catch errors, but in single piloting errors also happen while doing checklists and flows. Pilots may unintentionally skip items or do the challenge/response without actually verifying the item, often without even realizing it.

Because there’s no one else aboard to notice when I make one of these mistakes, I need to slow down on checklists. You guessed it—saying the challenges and responses out loud is a great way. Also, when I point at the instrument on the panel, it focuses my attention for that fraction of a second. I’m much less likely to brush past the item without really looking or seeing.

When I’ve finally wrestled the CJ around enough, Cirincione declares that I’m juggling all the tasks well enough to go for a checkride. After that, it’s focusing on managing the workload and catching my own errors, I’m looking forward to doing some single-piloting in the CJ. Cirincione leaves me with this caution, though: “These jets are easy to fly when everything is going right, but they can be a handful when tasks pile up. Look at each flight beforehand—weather, airport and airspace complexity, night, fatigue—and decide which ones to crew up with a co-pilot. Not every flight should be flown single pilot.” Ben Berman flies Citation jets and is a former airline captain, NTSB accident investigator, and NASA human factors researcher.

Besides using—but verifying—automation, the best way to keep all the balls in the air is to plan and work ahead so tasks don’t pile up later in the flight.

 Ben Berman flies Citation jets and is a former airline captain, NTSB accident investigator, and NASA human factors researcher.

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