Flying Unfamiliar Airplanes: Transition Checklist

“The keys are in the airplane. Just fill it up when you get back.” These are fantastic and wondrous words for a pilot to hear, the ticket to adventure and freedom. Whether the airplane’s borrowed, rented, or one you’ve just bought or built, if the airplane’s unfamiliar to you, you need to do your homework before jumping in and going off to fly.
Inside Information: Most accidents happen to pilots with less than 50 hours in make and model, *regardless* of the pilot’s total flying time.

The Federal Air Regulations spell out a minimum level of experience in order to be “legal” flying an airplane. Unfortunately, just because you’re “legal,” that does not mean you’re “safe.” Before stepping into an unfamiliar aircraft, do your groundwork

  • The Pilot’s Operating Handbook — Study it!
  • V-speeds — Memorize them for normal and emergency flight. Check the associated power settings, configurations, and attitudes;
  • Checklists and Emergency Procedures — Get comfortable with the;
  • Sit in the cockpit — and learn the location and operation of all controls;
  • Compute expected performance — using the Handbook charts;
  • Weight-and-Balance — Calculate it for your planned use of the airplane; and
  • Preflight — Learn *specifically* what to look for.

Get a thorough checkout with an instructor familiar with that particular airplane and *insist* on practicing airwork

  • Takeoffs and landings — Normal, crosswind, and maximum performance;
  • The Basics — Turns, climbs, descents, and straight-and-level flight;
  • Stalls — and stall recoveries, as well as, flight at minimum controllable airspeed;
  • Avionics — and familiarization (understand the audio panel on the ground and in the air);
  • Autopilot operation — normal and emergency disconnects and coupled procedures;
  • Fuel system — operation and techniques for fuel management;
  • Gear extension — Manual landing procedures, in retractable gear airplanes;
  • Abnormal procedures — electrical failures, no-flap landings, “go arounds” etc; and
  • Instrument approaches — including partial-panel flight, if you plan on flying in IMC.

Practical Considerations: Be ready to answer questions like “What do I do if the electrical system fails?” or “How do I properly manage the engine and fuel mixture for all phases of flight?” before you take the plane out alone.

Even if you’re familiar with the airplane type (you fly a 172, but not this 172), it just makes sense to take a short “shakedown cruise” *before* making that first long cross-country in an unfamiliar airplane. Three simple steps can save you a lot of trouble:

  1. Make a short flight in VFR conditions, without passengers — this will help eliminate pressure or time stress.
  2. Check every piece of avionics and every system to be sure you know how to work it, and to see if anything’s broken.
  3. Spend some time establishing a “comfort level” in that airplane. I know, for instance, that it takes me five or more hours in a particular airplane to feel ready to fly it at night or in IMC.It’s easier and more efficient if you write up a list of things you’ll check during your “shakedown,” and follow that flight profile during your first flight in the airplane.


    You’ll be putting your life on the line in this airplane, as well as those of your passengers, so be sure you’re completely at home in the airplane before you go off on your own. You’ve got to log at least one hour each of ground and flight instruction every two years anyway, so why not log a meaningful Flight Review with an instructor and get comfortable in the airplane at the same time?

    BOTTOM LINE: The key to flying an unfamiliar airplane is not to fly an unfamiliar airplane at all. Satisfy the legal requirements to fly the airplane. Then learn as much as you can about the airplane before you fly, spend some time getting used to the cockpit layout before taking off, and insist on as thorough a checkout in the airplane as possible. After the checkout, take a short VFR “shakedown cruise” to test your knowledge and the airplane’s equipment. And then…you’ll be ready when you hear “The keys are in the airplane….”