Learning to fly is something very few people ever do, and we all take pride in our own aviation achievements. As our skills expand, along with it, so does our life. It becomes part of what we do, who we are, and what we come to take for granted. And it’s only human nature that such a pre-selected group of goal-driven individuals would also want to continue to improve their tribal standing.
As a student pilot, I quickly became acutely conscious of the higher status held by the pilot of any airplane that was larger and faster than my Cessna 150 (which was just about anyone). To me, a multi-engine pilot was doubtless someone of daunting presence, unassailable skill, with the implicit right of living large. My instructor was then occasionally flying twins; in fact, with some of our flight school’s more elite customers. But I can still remember what I saw on my instructor’s face when he looked out the window of our hot, cramped Cessna 150 toward the cockpit of the bizjet that just happened to taxi blithely by. Yes, everything is relative. There’s always something bigger, better, and usually faster.
In my case, this predictable first step came when I wanted to be able to take my wife and two small children flying. I can still remember the feeling of increased speed, power, and stability when I took my first checkout flight in a Cessna 172. There! Now we’re going somewhere! But just how do we get there?
There are actually several transitional cautions involved with taking that next step up to a larger and more capable aircraft. It’s by no means complete, and you should feel free to add to it, but here are some that I’ve picked up over the years:
- Bigger. We climb up into the higher seat, we pore over the pages of the now-thicker POH, and we gaze out across a higher and possibly wider panel having more instruments for flying, navigating, and communicating than we had before.
Strategy: Our plane is bigger but we’ve stayed the same size, so maybe we jack the seat up (or buy a seat cushion). You’ll need to stay on top of the new feel for the needed control inputs too, such as the increase in right rudder pressure, as well as the need for increased coordination at high angles of attack and/or lower airspeeds. You don’t want to be at a disadvantage when you reach for the now more important trim wheel(s) to relieve the now heavier control forces.
- Heavier. One big advantage to a bigger aircraft is usually that a higher wing loading brings a more stable ride. But the down side to that is more critical: the need for higher approach speeds as well as maintaining some power in the landing flare.
Strategy: When I got checked out in a 210, I was amazed that I needed to keep some power in if I didn’t want to make an unceremonious arrival. Floating in that airplane (at least at normal landing speed) was something I could no longer expect.
- Thirstier. Fuel management becomes more than “on or off“. Someone transitioning from a 152 to a 235 for example, will discover that more power most often translates to higher fuel burn. Large aircraft can more easily (and suddenly) teach you the fine line of distinction between the definitions of fuel starvation and fuel exhaustion.
Strategy: Flight planning just became much more important. Know when you will be where and what that will cost you in fuel. Bigger airplanes with bigger engines are also more sensitive about leaning. You may have an EGT or cylinder head temperature gauge to master, instead of just using your ear.
- More Levers. Optimizing fuel usage becomes a bit more complicated than simply leaning. RMP and Manifold Pressure, power and efficiency.
Strategy: It now becomes necessary to select both an rpm setting and manifold pressure to achieve either the greatest speed or the most economical operation. Climbing and descending similarly require additional engine control settings, as well as managing other controls such as cowl flaps. You’ll need to make it all second nature.
- Weight and Balance. A bigger aircraft will not always be as utilitarian as we might expect. When the pilot and passengers are all adults, very few light airplanes can remain within their maximum takeoff weight limit with the fuel tank, baggage compartment, and all the seats full.
Strategy: You’ll need to become familiar with the limitations of your aircraft in different load configurations. Plus, acknowledge that a fully loaded aircraft has more restrictive operating limitations (not that you’re likely to explore the maneuvering envelope with your new passengers, but the weather might have different ideas).
A bigger aircraft will weigh more and carry more, and we need to become familiar with the new numbers, and respect them. An airplane with four people is a good deal more likely to suffer from an off-limits center of gravity than one seating only two in a side-by-side configuration. I almost learned that the hard way the first time I had two adults in the back seat of a 172. Departing the Sussex, NJ, airport with my brother, and with my sister and father in the back seat, I’d done a weight and balance, but I very quickly learned that an aircraft with two on board and an aircraft with four on board will feel very different on the controls. I needed to make a very hasty adjustment in nose-down elevator trim.
All of these things should be well understood before the aircraft takes to the air. Next time we’ll look at the performance of a larger aircraft and the demands that performance places on the pilot.