You Don’t Have to be “Superpilot”
Article appeared in Flying Magazine January, 2017 by John King
“John, AFA.” My hands were shaking. I was sweating. I was clearly intimidated by being in the left seat of this Lear 24. I had no idea what “AFA” meant. My questioning look at my instructor prompted his explanation. “Another friggin’ airplane.” I suppose that was meant to comfort me. It didn’t.
It was not my first experience in a jet—we had flown our own Citation in to meet the instructor. But the very early Citations were famous for being benign. They had thick, straight wings which gave them great runway performance and wonderful handling characteristics, but made them the butt of a raft of “slow” jokes. Controllers called them slowtations, crustaceans, frustrations, and mutations. They had a special bird-strike problem—they got run down from the rear. Turboprop sellers used to claim that their aircraft flew at “near jet speeds.” The Citation was the “near jet” they were talking about. These jokes may be the very reason that Cessna eventually built the Citation X, one of the fastest civilian jets ever.
But the Lear was something else. To begin with it was hard to steer on the runway and my takeoffs consisted of exciting excursions from one side of the runway to the other until we got enough speed for the rudder to be effective. Once I lifted off, the Lear would climb at a stunning 6,000 feet per minute. I found the Lear to be hard to control on all axes, but with the yaw damper off, a kick on a rudder pedal would send it into a fit of oscillations which made me wonder if I was ever going to get it back under control.
This wasn’t the only time I was to be intimidated by a jet. When, after 15 years, Martha and I decided to trade our on Citation 500 in for a Falcon 10, our performance in the simulator made us feel like we had never flown a jet before. The Falcon is even faster than the Lear, has more highly swept wings, and is more heavily wing-loaded—all of which tend to make an airplane require special attention. My steering problems in the Lear prompted us to do our first takeoffs and landings in the Falcon on the 200-feet-wide runway at Moses Lake.
Later on, after flying as a two-pilot crew for 30 years, Martha and I each got single-pilot type ratings in both the Citation Mustang and the Eclipse Jet. I found flying single-pilot in jets to be daunting. After so many years of flying with a co-pilot, I was very accustomed to issuing commands to make things happen. During my single-pilot training, I discovered it didn’t work. I’d keep looking to the right for Martha, only to remember she wasn’t there.
In each case both Martha and I finally tamed the jet that at first intimidated us, but confirmed that learning to fly a new jet requires special effort and attention, even if you have flown other jets before.
The number one thing about jet flying that makes it different from prop airplane flying is just that—jets don’t have propellers. Propellers provide a lot of benefits in addition to thrust. In a propeller aircraft, power increases put more air over the wings and tail which immediately increases lift, and reduces stall speed. It also creates more downforce on the tail and an automatic pitch up.
If you are slow and sinking in a jet, to get more air over the wings you have to accelerate the entire airplane. And if you are pitched down when you add power, you just go down faster. To go up, you have to pitch up.
Plus, on jets with high wing-loading and highly swept wings like the Falcon, when they get slow, induced drag increases dramatically—causing them to get even slower and develop a high sink rate. This is a problem you need to fix right away. This is not easy because at lower power settings jet engines are much slower to respond than piston engines. I once got slow in the Falcon and started this scenario. It’s the kind of thing you only do once.
Another great thing that propellers do for you is help you slow down when you need to. When you pull the power back, the propeller discs act like great big air brakes. Jets on the other hand don’t have propellers to help them slow down. In fact, even at idle the engines are still putting out some thrust. Plus, jets are very clean aerodynamically. Most have airbrakes, but pilots often feel that using them is an admission of poor planning.
Once you realize that when you get slow in high-performance jets they tend to get even slower, and when you get fast they are harder to slow down, you understand why people make such a big deal out of speed control in jets. Speed control is always a good idea. It’s just that jets are less forgiving about lack of speed control.
Another characteristic of jets is that they require more precise pitch control due to their higher speeds. Plus you use a wider range of pitch attitudes, especially in highly swept-wing jets. The pitch attitude in our Falcon for a takeoff with an engine failure is 16 degrees nose up. But at that pitch attitude, if you don’t lose an engine (which with any luck is all the time), at 16 degrees pitch attitude the airplane will accelerate rapidly and bust through speed limits. So normally we pitch up to 25 degrees or so.
So what’s the big deal about flying jets? Are they just “another friggin’ airplane”? Yes they are, but they are less forgiving and require more attention. The controls are more sensitive—especially at altitude. It’s harder to hold speed on final approach. And the tempo of flight on departure and approach is much increased.
But boy are they fun. To a pilot with a piston-powered background, there is no greater thrill than transitioning to jets. You are flooded with excitement and sensations. The thrill of hearing a jet engine wind up on engine start, so full of promise, the semi-sweet smell of jet fuel, the exhilaration of hearing jet engines following you wherever you go. And the power, oh so much power, and all at the command of your hand. The story goes that Lear pilots used to tape a $100 bill between their seats and tell the back-seat passengers that they could have it if they got there before they reached 10,000 feet.
And you don’t even have to be “Superpilot.” All it requires is the commitment to do it. With enough application even Martha and I found we could master it. In fact, when we got done with our simulator training for the Falcon we figured we must have done pretty well, because the instructor got us aside and said, “John, Martha, I’ve got wonderful news for you.” “That’s fantastic,” I said, “What’s that?” “You’ll never have to worry about a midair collision in this airplane.” “That’s wonderful,” I said, “Why not?” “Well,” he replied, “You’re so far behind this airplane, you won’t even be involved.”