FAA and industry create training program for technically advanced, owner-flown aircraft

Aviation International News » September 2004
October 20, 2006, 8:07 AM

It’s an unusual fact that, unlike just about any other marketable items, very light jets (VLJs), alcohol and tobacco share one unique characteristic. Even if you have the money, the seller can refuse to sell them to you if you’re not qualified. What’s more, those qualifications are all based on time, measured in years for would-be drinkers and smokers, and in left-seat hours for would-be VLJ pilots. Of course, this is as it should be.

But how many hours, in what previous type or types and under what conditions? These are the critical questions today facing the FAA, the airframe builders, the potential buyers and the insurance industry.

In those heady days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when affordable small jets first appeared to be a future reality, the imaginations of many private airplane owners were fired by the thought of having a little jewel of their own at the local airstrip. And being so small, they couldn’t be all that hard to fly, surely? After all, in an interview in 2000 Eclipse president and CEO Vern Raburn, referring to the ab initio pilot-training programs at Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, said, “There is no reason why a well trained 300-hour pilot cannot step right into a Boeing, Airbus or an Eclipse.” Heady days, indeed.

However, those young Lufthansa and Singapore pilots would make an immediate right turn on entering the flight deck, since the left seat would already be occupied by a four-striper with many thousands of hours logged.

Yet one can forgive Raburn’s enthusiasm. Four years ago, many would have felt the same way. And, catching up with reality four years later, his company has now announced a comprehensive pilot-training program that has made Eclipse the pace-setter in VLJ pilot training and qualification.

So how much training do you really need to fly away in your own compact jet? Some have implied that you might not need all that much, since these machines will be very well built, easy–even docile–to fly and have incredibly reliable engines, astonishing performance, extensive systems automation and an avionics suite that will be the envy of every airline pilot. All of which is true, of course. But there will still be one item of uncertain reliability on board–and that, as always, will be the person behind the controls.

The evidence of this has been seen several times in the past with the introduction of private aircraft that were, from a pilot’s perspective, significantly different from their predecessors. Bonanzas, Malibus and early Learjets were typical, with eight of the first 10 production Learjet 23s destroyed in crashes between 1963 and 1965. But even these were relatively isolated cases, when viewed against the tidal wave of VLJs, which is forecast to engulf the NAS during the next decade. Even conservative estimates put their number between 4,000 and 5,000 aircraft, with one study anticipating twice that number.

All the Training that FITS

Recognizing that accident rates would soar if nothing were done to improve pilot training and qualifications for VLJs and other advanced-technology aircraft, the FAA has now stepped in with a comprehensive safety program. Called the FAA/Industry Training Standards, or FITS, and developed jointly by the FAA’s Center for General Aviation Research, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of North Dakota and the general aviation and insurance industries, the program takes an entirely new direction in pilot training. The FITS mission statement is simple enough: “Ensure pilots learn to safely, competently and efficiently operate a technically advanced piston or light jet aircraft in the modern National Airspace System.”

FITS essentially states that traditional pilot-training methods are no longer adequate for technically advanced aircraft. Too often today, the basic training philosophy is aimed at getting students to pass the flight check in a reasonably short time span, following which they will, on their own, gradually develop skills and absorb experience–often from their mistakes–as they build hours. Usually they will accumulate these hours not too far from their local area. And stemming from their initial training and continuing into the future will be the flight school’s prime emphasis on maneuver-based flying: how to taxi, take off and fly the pattern; how to hold airspeed, altitude and heading; how to judge the approach; and how to land. Do all that adequately, and you’re a pilot. And for a Cessna 172, it works fine.

But now come the VLJs and their piston and turboprop relatives. These are IFR airplanes, which are faster–in some cases, much faster–fly best at high altitudes and over longer ranges, are designed for virtually all-weather operation and are managed via extremely sophisticated flight-deck systems. In other words, a flight environment that is radically different from that with which most private pilots are now familiar.

Maneuver-based flight training no longer cuts it. Owners of technically advanced airplanes won’t want to realize their investment by taking VFR cross-country trips and attending $100 hamburger fly-ins, however delightful they are. The new machines’ capabilities and ranges bring a new term–“IFR scheduled”–into a private pilot’s lexicon and, with it, routine single-pilot high-altitude operations over long distances and over different, and sometimes hazardous, terrain and through distant, and sometimes equally hazardous, weather systems.

The ‘Mental’ Airplane

Now the emphasis shifts to preflight planning, en route flight management and, frequently, risk assessment and critical decision making. The airplane will be up to the task, and the purpose of FITS is to ensure that its pilot is equally capable of completing the mission safely. So while possessing the maneuver-based skills will be a prerequisite– to handle what FITS calls the “physical” airplane–it will also be essential to train for full mastery of the “mental” airplane. This includes not only a complete and instant understanding of the aircraft’s systems and the many modes of its advanced avionics, but extends to embrace continuous situational awareness and decision making to stay ahead of the airplane, while operating safely at high altitudes and in busy terminal airspace, alongside the heavy iron in the NAS.

For single pilots of advanced machines, the task of learning to fly the “mental” airplane could be a much tougher call. To train for this new regime, students will be required, before each instructional flight, to review the planned training sortie via e-learning material, with the instructor charged with postponing the exercise should the student appear not to have fully understood its purpose. Also, FITS will introduce scenario-based flight training (SBT) and single-pilot resource management (SRM) into the curriculum, tailored to the characteristics of the specific aircraft model.

SBT and SRM are similar to LOFT and CRM training, but instead of the conventional review and critique after completion of the exercise, the instructor will, as the flight proceeds, continually ask the trainee “What if?,” “Why?” and other questions to provoke discussion.

In turn, this will provide the trainee with increased exposure to proper decision making. And these will not be canned questions with canned answers, but are intended to require the trainee to assess the current situation, discuss alternative ways to handle it and select the best option under the particular circumstances. Research has shown that this type of as-it-happens discussion helps build judgment and offset low experience.

In fact, low or no experience was a major trigger for the FITS initiative, particularly when it turned out that some of those putting down cash deposits on VLJs were nonpilots, and were often businessmen who saw the machines as simply investments in improved efficiency. Which is, of course, what they are designed to be. But those expected efficiencies cannot be safely achieved by simply learning about the “physical” VLJ and how to take it around the pattern.

As much as it practically can, VLJ flight training will explore the full flight regime and prepare the trainee not only for expected events, but also for unexpected emergencies, such as engine and other system failures, fire and loss of pressurization. And external safety techniques must also be learned, such as those for weather penetration, handling clear-air turbulence and recovery from unusual attitudes. Clearly, a student who gets a high passing grade from the FITS “mental airplane” training process is going to be a cut above the average. And, of course, a much safer one.

Eclipse has already broadly described its training program, and over the next several months other VLJ builders can be expected to make similar announcements. AIN contacted most of these companies, and every individual we spoke to asserted that training, whether performed in-house or by a separate training organization, was a key part of their marketing activity. Few, however, were quite ready to endorse Eclipse’s formula of refunding the aircraft’s deposit or purchase price if the trainee failed to make the grade.

But some responses were also pragmatic: “If a customer doesn’t make it through training,” said one marketing person, “he won’t get insurance coverage, and we won’t make the sale.” Unquestionably, the availability of insurance will be a key element in VLJ sales, and coverage is not expected to be easy to obtain. In fact, said another manufacturer’s spokesman, “Without a standard-setting program like FITS, the insurers wouldn’t touch an awful lot of our future customers, even with a long stick.”

Besides Eclipse, however, there is another VLJ manufacturer that, while it has not yet published its training program, gave AIN a fairly clear-eyed summary of its training philosophy. This was Air Technology Group, future builder of the two-place, swept-wing Javelin. Of all the VLJs moving toward market readiness, the Javelin might be the airplane most pilots will lust after.

It looks like a fighter, will be built like a fighter (with a +9, -3g airframe), and will perform like a fighter, being expected to reach FL410 in four minutes–at a 45-degree deck angle–and then be capable of Mach 0.92. [These capabilities complicate the aircraft’s classification with other, more businesslike VLJs.–Ed]

The Javelin’s rectangular PFDs and MFDs will be installed vertically, rather than horizontally, for extended look-ahead capabilities. In fact, according to marketing manager Simon Maina, in its intended military garb it really will be a fighter, designed specifically as a low-cost, high-performance interceptor for third-world nations. The civil Javelin will actually be a spinoff from the basic military machine, with such items as dual ejection seats, Sidewinder launching rails, guns and other equipment removed.

Maina said that to qualify as an acceptable Javelin buyer, one would probably need, before training, to have a commercial license–and preferably an ATP–with a minimum of 2,000 hours TT, of which 500 or more must be in multi-engine (preferably jet) airplanes, in addition to a high-altitude signoff.

Alternatively, the customer would have to enter ATG’s training program, which will be set up across the company’s distributor network, currently being established. Called the “aluminum ladder,” the program envisions a progressive series of instructional levels, where the trainee would move from a basic machine through a series of increasingly advanced aircraft, at the end of which he or she would have accumulated around 1,500 to 2,000 hours.

Maina described a typical airframe progression as starting in a 172, then moving to a Saratoga, then a Malibu, then a Meridian and then a King Air, followed by around 25 hours in a fully aerobatic Czech L-39 jet trainer, with rigorous testing after completion of training in each type. Trainees would enter the ladder at a point appropriate to their previous experience, which would be verified by a comprehensive flight check and ground examinations. But only after completion of the full program from an individual’s entry point would actual Javelin training begin.

Is FITS Too Much?

Some may believe, even putting aside ATG’s program, that FITS is simply too demanding for would-be owners of conventional VLJs, and could discourage buyers from benefiting from the efficiencies these new aircraft will undoubtedly bring. It is argued that the VLJs will be so much safer, and so well equipped with avionics to protect pilots from their own mistakes, that such high standards are inappropriate.

It’s an interesting question. It certainly seems likely that, just as today’s Cessna 172 embodies technology unknown in vintage airplanes, so will the VLJ technologies gradually become more common, and more familiar to more pilots, thereby making the transition to future airplanes easier. The very rapid shift by airframe manufacturers to integrated glass cockpits in what were traditionally round-dial airplanes is already a clear move in this direction.

And yet, as FITS officials point out, as long as conventional flight training is based only on the “physical” airplane while ignoring the “mental” airplane, catching up to the VLJs might take a lot longer than many would hope.

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