The smell of fresh paint mixes with the aroma of hot new steel as the engine warms up. You've run through the check list a dozen times and you're now sitting at the end of the runway, propellor a blur, mind a frenzy of thoughts and images. Are you ready to fly the object that has occupied center stage in your life for the last umpteen years?
If accident statistics are any indication, the anwer is no. You aren't ready to fly the object of your aeronautical affections.
It has long been held that builders are generally the wrong people to test fly their own airplanes. On top of that, they are often not qualified to fly them under normal situations. The reasons are simple: The builder has spent so much time with his head under the cowling, he looses sight of the fact that the airplane is more than a machine. Being mechanically perfect isn't all that's required to let it function as a flying machine. It has to be told to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time.
As flawlesst as the machine may be, it is lacking a brain. It depends on the pilot to make it thread its way through the jungle of physics known as flight. It can't do it by itself.
Often, it can't do it with the builder as the pilot, either. That's because the builder hasn't spent nearly as much time fine tuning himself as a pilot as he has fine tuning his airplane as a machine.
There has to be a balance.
When sitting at the end of the runway and asking yourself if you are really ready for this flight, the answer should come in four parts. First, are you as a pilot qualified to make the first flight? Second, are you qualified to fly the airplane in general, which includes being current? Third, is the airplane actually ready to be flown and last, is there a specific mission profile planned, so you know what you are going to do ahead of time and don't have to do any thinking past flying the airplane?
Taking these points in reverse order: The last two points, checking the airplane and developing a first flight mission profile were handled nicely by Tony Bingelis in Sport Aviation, XXXXXXXXXXX. Check Tony's words out We'll take on the pilot part of the equation.
The first point, are you ready to do the first flight is a much discussed and very serious topic. It's also a complex topic since it involves liberal doses of ego and emotional attachment. It is a rare builder who immediately admits he may not be up for the first flight. After all, he has spent much of his life creating his dream. Shouldn't he be the first to sample it? In about 75% of the cases, the answer is no. He shouldn't for the very same reasons he desperately wants to.
He is so emotionally attached to the airplane, in an emergency situation he may make decisions based on his love for his creation rather than his natural needs to survive. He may do something irrational, like trying to turn back to the field or stretching a glide, both of which happen far too often on first flights gone sour.
The first flight of an airplane is a special event, for a number of reasons. First it is the culmination of thousands of hours of work and anticipation. Excitement and adrenlin is running out of every pore because this is not only the first flight for the airplane, but for the pilot as well. Both are being tested and, depending on the pilot, both may contain unknowns that won't surface until off the ground.
Besides the mechanical unknowns, there may be a pilot/airplane mis-match that effects the pilot in a wildly unimaginable fashion. Many pilots have gotten off the ground and found themselves so paniced and determined to get back on the ground they literally drove them into the runway. Others found the airplanes so much more sensitive than what they were used to, they fought them all the way around the pattern and slammed them on the ground. Thankful to be safe.
But, the pilot is only one unknown.
The excitement and joy is also clouded by the spectre of emergencies: There is always the possibility something may go wrong. No machine is perfect and that is where piloting skill and experience pays off. That is also where emotional detachment works to the pilot's advantage. He'll make the right decisions if he doesn't get overly absorbed with trying to save the airplane and forgets about himself.
The assumptions that must be made before the throttle goes forward is that not one system in the airplane will work properly and the engine is going to quit immediately after takeoff. If that assumption is made and the airplane is flown accordingly, then, when no emergencies occur, the pilot can enjoy the flight. If something does happen, the pilot will survive the flight.
One of the biggest contributing factors to first flight accidents is when the pilot has a low adaptability factor. He probably doesn't have much time in the type of airplane being flown so he is depending on what he has learned from flying other airplanes and is extrapolating to make those experiences fit this airplane. If he has flown a lot of unusual airplanes, his adaptability factor will allow him to see what the airplane is doing and compensate correctly. If his experience is limited to one or two types of factory build airplanes, he is going to find his expeirience letting him down. The new characteristics of his airplane will overwhelm him forcing him to fly to the limit of his already limited envelope. Then, if something goes wrong, his abilities to cope will be practically non-existent.
The ideal situation for a pilot to conduct a first flight of
an airplane, his or anyone elses, should include:
· He should be very current; at least 70 landings in last two months. Hours logged in total and hours flown recently don't count. Landings do.
· The landings should be in an airplane very similar to that being tested.
· If possible the experience should include the exact make and model.
· He should have flown dozens of different airplanes, some of which have very similar envelopes and characteristics to the test plane. This builds the adapability factor.
· The runway should be long (5,000 feet plus, depending on type), wide and unobstructed.
· The pilot should do enough high speed taxi tests to get used to the sight picture over the nose and how the airplane reacts to power.
· If an emergency crew isn't available or practical, someone should be watching with a car full of emergency equipment, i.e. fire extinguishers, axe, etc.
The idea of hopping the airplane off the runway and then putting it back down is controversial. Some feel it keeps the airplane and the pilot in the most dangerous part of the flight for entirely too long. Other's feel it necessary to make sure everything is working correctly before going on. A middle ground might be to select a long enough runway the airplane could be lifted 10-15 feet off and flown level for a short distance, checking controls, etc., before climbing out. If something isn't kosher, the power can be chopped and the aircraft landed. If the runway is even close to being marginal in length, the prudent approach is probably making a normal takeoff, keeping the nose down to gain plenty of speed before easing into a climb. The assumption in that is the airspeed is wrong.
We've been talking first flight, but maybe we should have been talking about being qualified in general. Homebuilt airplanes are often entirely different animals than those bred in Wichita, Vero Beach, Kerrvile, etc. Some homebuilt aircraft, like the composite bullets are much quicker on every axis and require a gentle hand that is well ahead of the airplane.
Other homebuilts make an airplane like a Cub look sleek and fast. One of the biggest dangers of transitioning "real" pilots to the more traditional ultra lights, for instance, is that they don't have the control they are used to and they are more at the whims of the elements. Their biggest surprise is generally how much drag the airplanes have and how much power is often used in landing.
About the only firm generality that can be made in comparing homebuilts to Spamcans is that they are different. How that difference manifests itself depends on the airplane.
It is the differences that catch the homebuilder up short, as the project draws to a close.
At the very end of a homebuilding project the builder always finds himself so caught up in little details he can't believe the airplane is almost finished, but it is still sucking up so much of his time and energy. He'll be working so hard, it is as if he is still in the middle of the project. Those last few weeks seem to eat him alive.
That's when the homebuilder is most likely to make the wrong choices in terms of flying the airplane. His mind has been so fixated on the hardware that, even if he has gone out and tried to requalify or increase his competency, he is probably not giving that part of the project his entire mind. He is splitting it between the hardware and the software. Himself.
The usual mistake is in believing basic compentency in his usual type of airplane will suffice. Often it is assumed going out and shooting a few landings will knock off all the rust that has accumulated during the building process and he'll be right back up to snuff. Sometimes that is the case. Usually it isn't. Often the differences presented by the homebuilt are great enough they require more, sometimes much more, than basic proficiency.
When it comes to jumping into a strange new airplane, regardless of the number of times the airplane has been flown, every first flight is a test flight, if only because the pilot has never flown it. Only the hardware is a known quantity at that point. When trying on a new airplane for the first time, the pilot's instincts must all be working. His adapatability factor must be adapting him as quickly as things are happening.
The key is training which clearly recognizes the difference between the training aircraft and that which will be flown. It must be training in which the instructor knows the new aircraft and can help guide his student's development so as to dovetail his newly gained skills to the new aircraft. This is much more than simply going out and shooting three bounce and burns in a C-152 and pronouncing him current. The instructor has to work at stretching the pilot's talent envelope in the direction of the new airplane. He has to present his student with challengs to be met.
This type of instruction goes far beyond that normally found in flight schools. It usually takes some sort of school that includes tailwheel training and aerobatics, since they are more accustomed to taking Spamcan drivers and pointing them in new dfirections.
The type of instructor is crucial, when preparing a pilot to fly a homebuilt, especially if it is one that presents great differences. This has recently been recognized in the case of the high performance airplanes, but depending on the pilot's background and adapability factor, it can be true in any homebuilt.
It is the instructor that makes the difference. It doesn't make anay difference that he has 10,000 hours of instruction, if he has never sat at the controls of a homebuilt similar to that which will be flown. If he lacks experience in the homebuilt arena, he can do nothing more than upgrade the pilot's basic profeciency. He doesn't know what the pilot will be facing, so he doesn't know what type of differences to prepare him for.
The ideal situation is to find a homebuilt qualified instructor and either get dual from him in the homebuilt, or at least let him fly it and get qualified himself. That way he can custom tailor his instruction.
Do not for an instant think that just because there is a CFI certificate in his wallet that an instructor can fly a homebuilt any better than anyone else. If he hasn't flown a number of homebuilts, don't let him in the airplane unless it is a very basic machine. Instructors are people like anyone else and are often very airplane-specific: They've been flying one kind of Spam can for so long, their ability to adapt quickly is limited.
Don't take dual in a homebuilt from an instructor who is learning at the same time you are.
It is up to the builder to know he needs that training. No, it is more than knowing he needs the training. He has to admit that he needs it, since that is the first hurtle. Admitting he isn't as good as he should be isn't easy.
Even if he feels confident and profecient, the smart builder will over-train. He'll do so much profeciency work before climbing into his new bird that everything it does will be anticlimatic.
Just like assuming the engine is going to quit, the pilot should always assume he isn't qualified to fly the airplane and is ready to take on a tiger and win. Then he is ready to fly it. BD