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Unsupervised

Like it or not, solo jets are here to stay

Let’s put aside for a moment the debate about whether single-pilot jet flying is a great idea and recognize that it’s a reality. An acute shortage of qualified pilots accompanied by a surge in demand has made single-pilot jet flying the norm for many aircraft owners and managers operating under FAR Part 91.
Photography by Mike Fizer.
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Photography of the Cessna M2 business jet at Grand Lake of the Cherokee in Oklahoma.Wichita KS USA

I’ve been flying a Cessna Citation as a single pilot since 2020, and while I vastly prefer sharing duties with other type-rated pilots, that’s not always feasible. Trips come up on short notice and involve traveling at odd hours. As a result, I’m often alone in the cockpit flying in busy airspace and the high flight levels.

And while all that seemed hard to imagine just a few years ago, I’m gradually becoming accustomed to it. I recently flew several solo trips across the continent, and they were followed by a multi-leg solo-pilot trip to a distant Caribbean island and back. In all, I’ve now spent hundreds of unsupervised hours up front and found some strategies that—while nowhere near as good as flying with another pilot—at least make single-pilot jet flying more doable: 

Show up at the airport early. Extra time in flight planning and preflight preparations just has a way of making things go better in the air. 

When you get into the cockpit, don’t rush. Be slow and deliberate so you don’t have to repeat any overlooked tasks. 

Don’t taxi and program the flight management system at the same time—especially at night or low visibility conditions. (I confess to sometimes violating this rule, but at least I feel guilty about it.) 

Engage the autopilot as soon as practical after takeoff. Doing so relieves your workload and allows you to take a more expansive view and better anticipate the actions likely to come next. 

Talk to yourself. Give the same callouts and responses when flying solo that you do as part of a crew. Things like “positive rate” and “gear up,” and “V-two plus 20,” naturally trigger the next step in a logical flow and provide a steady and familiar cadence to every flight segment.

Leave your shoulder harness on and the music off. When I’m part of a crew, I can’t wait to disconnect my shoulder straps and turn on XM satellite music. When I’m alone, I don’t. The shoulder straps serve as a tactile reminder that the passengers are relying on me completely, and the entertainment system is a luxury I can do without. 

Single-pilot jet operations are harder on sunny days than instrument conditions, particularly at busy, nontowered airports.Don’t eat snacks you can choke on. This sounds paranoid because it is, but the people in the back have put their lives in your hands and it sure would be embarrassing to take them out by gagging on a grape. Have a Ritz cracker instead.

When given a crossing restriction, go ahead and start climbing or descending right away using the autopilot’s vertical speed function. Vertical navigation is terrific for hitting the fixes precisely, and you can still use VNAV as a backup. But if you get a late clearance, or you make a data entry error, you’ll have to scramble to fix it at the last minute, and that can be uncomfortable for you, your passengers, and air traffic controllers. 

Don’t accept a clearance you haven’t had time to review. A last-minute change of arrival procedures, for example, can include mandatory speeds that a Citation can’t meet, and you’re obligated to comply with them once you accept the clearance. The same is true of many departures.

Perform required tasks at the earliest opportunity instead of the last moment. For example, you might turn on the recognition lights as soon you begin a descent (instead of 18,000 feet) because the workload is likely to increase as the descent progresses. Similarly, try turning on the landing lights at 10,000 feet (instead of when selecting landing gear down) for the same reason. 

Load an approach even when landing in visual conditions. Having the approach symbology on the primary flight display enhances situational awareness and makes it less likely that you’ll set up to land on the wrong runway—or at the wrong airport. If the approach you load has vertical guidance, so much the better. It’ll help you nail the glideslope when rolling out on final. 

While loading an approach, go ahead and preprogram the decision altitude just in case you happen to encounter clouds, glare, or haze that weren’t in the forecast. Doing so only takes a moment, and the “minimums” aural warning triggers one last confirmation that the pre-landing checklist has been completed and that the approach is stable.

You don’t have to diagnose and fix every anomaly in real time. If an advisory or caution message pops up, run the non-normal checklist—but only delve into the possible causes if you’re in a low-workload phase of flight. I recently had an avionics failure crop up a few minutes before landing, and it would have been nice to dig into the submenus and determine whether the problem was caused by a faulty GPS antenna or something else. But doing so would have required head-down time that I couldn’t afford at that moment. 

Let the autopilot fly as much of the approach as practical, even in visual conditions. Keep your eyes outside looking for other aircraft, birds, and hazards—and hover your thumb over the autopilot disengage button in case you need to click it off to maneuver around a flock of seagulls on final. 

Single-pilot jet operations are harder on sunny days than instrument conditions, particularly at busy, nontowered airports. In visual conditions, you’ll often be vectored to a close-in approach at a bustling airport where you may have to fit in with a swarm of relatively slow-moving trainers. By contrast, IFR conditions typically reduce overall air traffic and make the pace and procedures more predictable. 

Paper printouts—particularly airport diagrams—are still useful in the digital age. 

You will miss fewer radio calls when flying alone than you do when flying with other pilots. 

Give yourself some quiet time to debrief your own performance after shutdown. Provide an honest assessment of how things went, and areas you can improve on your next flight. You’ll find strategies that work for you, and your single-pilot skills will improve. Or you may decide that single-pilot jet flying is just a terrible idea and decline to do it—and that’s legit, too.

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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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