How to safely fly a VLJ
One of the questions I am often asked, especially when they learn that I fly a jet single-pilot, is, “What do you think about all these new VLJs?” This question is often followed by additional questions such as, “Do you think there will be a rash of VLJs accidents?” or “How are they going to train inexperienced pilots to fly a jet airplane?” I usually answer these questions as politely and aviation friendly as possible. “I think VLJs are a logical step for many pilots” and “The VLJ manufacturers are making sure pilots are trained and prepared” and “The insurance companies act as a natural filter”. Here’s the problem, I don’t necessarily believe all of that. As a pilot of a very fast single pilot airplane (a Beechcraft Premier), I know first hand the requirements, challenges and pressures that many new VLJ pilots are going to face. And to be honest, it does worry me thinking about many of the non-professional aviators who may operate these aircraft. Are jet aircraft inherently more dangerous just because they are faster? No. Flying a jet can actually be easier than many complex multi-engine airplanes. However, in order to fly a jet single-pilot you have to have a mindset about flying and safety that completely permeates the way you operate. I sat down recently and made a list of some of the things that I do that helps me fly a single-pilot Beechcraft Premier in and out of high density IFR environments. Click the read more link to see some of my recommendations.
- Always use a checklist…always. This seems like a simple enough recommendation, but the problem is when the flying starts getting really busy or you have a short taxi, checklists get discarded and replaced with a cockpit flow. Not that there is anything wrong with a flow (in fact, I recommend them) but you should always always always back up a flow with either a manufacturer approved electronic or paper checklist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been busy and almost forgot something critical but caught it at the last moment because I took the time to review the checklist.
- Fly ahead of the airplane. This means that you know your landing weight before you even think about taking off. Usually passing through 10,000 feet I store my departure charts and prepare my arrival plates. You should use cruise and enroute time to review STARs and approach plates. Actually I should say “re-review” because you should have already have looked at the approach charts long before takeoff (to familiarize and make sure they’re current).
- Study airport diagram charts. With a jet airplane, VLJ owners are more likely to visit airports like ORD, JFK and MIA. In a lot of ways, big airports are just like small airports when it comes to instrument approaches (vectors to an ILS). The big difference is when you land. Suddenly you are faced with multiple intersecting runways and confusing airport layouts which can lead to runway incursions. Know where your FBO is and mark it on your chart. If you get confused STOP the aircraft and ask for assistance. Don’t let your VLJ pride come in the way of safety. If I am unsure of where I am going, no matter what I’m flying, I have no problems asking for a progressive taxi.
- Review Area Charts (Class B airspace). What is the speed limit below Class B airspace? 200 KIAS. If you use Jeppesen charts you can find area charts that detail Class B airspace surrounding the nation’s largest airports. Set up your avionics to let you know where and when you need to slow down to 200 KIAS when you get vectored below the Class B shelf.
- Use an autopilot. I love hand flying and try to manually fly the aircraft as much as possible but when I’m operating in a congested airspace, I can’t get the autopilot on fast enough.
- Don’t be afraid to turn the autopilot off. There are a lot of jokes about the pilot asking, “What is this thing doing?” when referring to the autopilot. We have also all seen the infamous Youtube clip of the airbus flying into the trees. If you are unsure of what the airplane is doing, turn the autopilot off and hand fly the damn thing. Once you are established where you need to be going, verify the flight director modes and rearm the autopilot. Then verify the autopilot is in fact working (believe it or not, they can break sometimes).
- Use your “speed bug”. I’ve flown right seat on a few checkrides where I watched the pilot fumble with airspeed management while his speed bug was still set to the speed he set before takeoff. I use the speed bug constantly to remind me of speed and airframe limitations such as 250 KIAS below 10,000 and flap speeds. I look at the speed bug as the proverbial string on a finger. It is a way to remind me of a limitation or a prompt of what I’m doing next.
- Develop a flow you could do in your sleep (and then read rule #1). The hardest part about transitioning to a new aircraft is developing a solid flow. It just takes a little time. My procedure, when flying the Premier single pilot, is to execute the flow and then back it up with the checklist. This method assures that everything is being checked twice. I heard once that, “If it is important enough to be on a checklist, it needs to be done twice.”
- Develop your own set of standard operating procedures (SOPs). I used to work for an airline that had two large binders dedicated to operating procedures and both binders were required to be on board. Now I know most VLJ owners will not take the time and money to create a whole book, but I would recommend trying to sit down and develop or borrow some SOPs for important things like takeoff callouts or verifying altitudes and ATC assignments. I swear, if the NTSB ever had to remove and listen to my CVR, they would be looking for an extra body because they would swear that two pilots were onboard. I verbally callout and verbally verify all altitudes. “3,000 feet set.” “One thousand to go.” “Leaving 2,000 for 3,000.”
- Know your avionics. You should be the living expert on your avionics system. You should know everything about it and constantly trying to learn more. Purchase every book, read every manual and buy or download a simulator for your particular avionics system. I simply cannot stress that enough. When the proverbial crap hits the fan, the last thing you need to be doing is fumbling over avionics.
- Fly with another pilot whenever possible. Flying a jet airplane by yourself is fun. I’m not going to deny anyone that. But have you ever thought to yourself that there is double of everything on that airplane except you? 2 engines, 2 radios, 2 (or 3) glass panels but only 1 pilot. Even if the other pilot can only help with radio communications, that is still reducing your workload thereby increasing safety. Even though a co-pilot is technically not required it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make sure you review the FAR SIC requirements just to be safe. Also, check with your insurance company about putting a pilot in the right seat.
- Treat every flight like a checkride. My dad told me something once when starting to ride a motorcycle. He said, “Paul, you need to ride like every car is purposely out to hit you.” When flying a very fast, very complex jet aircraft you need to fly like anything could happen at anytime because it can. Continuously scan the cockpit during cruise to make sure you haven’t missed something and nothing looks out of the ordinary. You should also routinely review your emergency checklists, not just when you are preparing to go to recurrent training.
Those are just some recommendations that I have to help you fly a VLJ safely as a single pilot. Looking over this list I realize that this doesn’t necessarily apply to just a VLJ owner but really any pilot. Flying is fun (obviously) and I am not trying to take the joy out of it but flying an airplane (especially a VLJ) is serious business and demands serious adherence to procedures and training. Feel free to respond with your own suggestions.
Please fly (your VLJ) safe.