Flying Instruments (in Pilatus #2) to “The Rock”

So far my life in charter has been a pretty charmed existence. Piloting brand new planes with luxurious interiors for pampered part 91 owners is not too tough. Additionally, except for dodging a couple of TSMs and a bit of ice, we have been mostly in clear air. Today was a test by fire piloting the ancient “legacy” Pilatus on a  “bus run” to Nantucket with the weather “in the weeds”. This Pilatus was only the second one ever manufactured by the Swiss company and showed it’s 11,000 hours. The interior resembled a post Soviet “people mover” with diamond plate floor and school bus seats. This was also my introduction to Nantucket and the vagaries of the Atlantic coast weather (at least in charter flying). The two names I have heard for Nantucket among charter pilots are “The Gray Lady” and “The Rock.” Neither sounded especially friendly.

IMG_9109On the drive to NJ this AM the news was not good with 300 IMG_9112O/C and additionally blowing up to 30K. At first glance I thought the NOTAM said 06-24 was closed which would have been a stiff (over 25K) crosswind. The closing was actually the tomorrow so we were OK to proceed. Pre-flighting and readying “Never Ever” (comes from the NE in the tail number) was a wake-up call. The “legacy” Pilatus have many differences in addition to the rather Spartan interior and basic avionics. The electronics are not fully redundant with only a small back up generator similar to the Cirrus SR-22 system. There is just enough power to get you out of the weather with basic instrument functionality. Instead of a sophisticated well-arranged panel, there are basic toggle switches and weird arrangements of gauges. Additionally, there are time limits on the power and lower temperatures they eliminated in the newer models. This was clearly the “alpha” model (and not in a good way!) After enjoying the amazing Honeywell APEX in the NG models, this was a less impressive, but admittedly fully functional, suite of instruments. A Garmin 700 and 650 with a digital HSI and 3 axis autopilot is a pretty capable combination. Still, it would be a challenging flight adapting and figuring everything out. This was my partner’s first time as captain too; Game On!

As it turned out, no real stories to tell, just getting the job done.  And in the flying business, no excitement is a very good day. We dead headed out to KACK and IMG_9118parked in the confusion of jets and turboprops, all waiting together for our customers. People were schlepping everything from their dogs to espresso machines back home from their vacation houses on the islands. It actually reminded me of Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas on a holiday weekend with too many fancy planes and not enough ramp. For our ride, people had purchased “a seat on the plane” and our flight was probably the bottom feeder among all the planes. We were the Uber style on-line shuttle among the silver spoon crowd. Some of our passengers were clearly uncomfortable with the bumps but mercifully no one got ill. I found the avionics actually very workable and despite the rumor around the company “Never Ever” and I got along nicely. When you are used to old King KX-155s and even Narco flip/flops this is not really suffering! I think I could grow to like this plane.

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And overall, as you might suspect, a lot of this flying is EASIER than getting your Mooney or Skylane from here to there in the clouds. If you are good at flying instruments, this is just doing that same job faster, in a busy environment, with better equipment. A turbine engine start is just one button push, throw in the fuel at 13% NG and stand back. There is no priming, giggling, and required black magic to get some recalcitrant piston to fire and run. That amazing Pratt and Whitney would probably run fine on sawdust if you could figure out how to deliver it reliably to the furnace up front. There is no prop lever to adjust and tweak, and no mixtures to fool with, just put the condition lever to flight idle and push the power lever all the way forward…1200 ponies really do pull you into the air. It mostly runs at 96% power and you just make sure it does not run too hot. The greater challenge of charter is creating transparent efficiency through continual adaptability. This job requires ingenuity and resilience in the face of continual changes and challenges. You have to be savvy here to survive well, this is no place for the clumsy or clueless (though we all have our days). So far it’s a great job and a wonderful learning experience but then again I *do* like a challenge. (I’ll keep you posted)

Finally Flying (Flight Levels!)

So as you might imagine, flying clients is much easier and more fun than training with every possible emergency being continuously hurled at you! So far at this writing, I’ve made four trips and I am currently sitting in Chicago waiting for clients to return to KSYR as I type this. Then we reposition to KCDW where this plane is based.

The major focus of charter flying, as I understand it so far, is providing safe, comfortable transportation for the client who pays the bills. The convenience of direct flights on their schedule without TSA intrigue makes the extra cost well worth it. Usually a company like ours does not own the planes but “manages the asset” for people who own the plane. A mutually satisfactory contract is arranged to split costs and revenue. This provides relief from the total cost for the owner and they sacrifice some flexibility of going “anywhere anytime”. Usually when the owner flies it is  a part 91 operation (less restrictive). When we fly a non-owner charter client this is under part 135 of the regulations. We have a very detailed General Operations Manual and Operating Specifications that interprets the regulation and provides guidance on how to legally transport these people; 90% of our flying. In all cases, the maintenance is Part 135 (pilots don’t even put air in the tires, this would be done by an approved  135 maintenance facility!)

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My first flight was a reposition from KCDW to KHPN for a pick-up at Westchester. The routing was directly over Kennedy and down to South Carolina. One obvious rule of the charter business is maintaining the confidence of the clients so we don’t reveal any actual identities, but you hear all the names in the news every day. This client  lives in South Carolina but works in Manhattan. Their company bought this aircraft just to transport it’s employees (and this one in particular). It is equipped quite nicely with internet service at all altitudes and they are even installing jet beds. This pristine plane has fewer than 150 hours on it (and you certainly will not find it on FlightAware). This particular C-level employee shuttles into town a couple of times a week for a day or two to go to work in the city, then we provide the transportation home. Weather was good for this flight and just a few turns avoiding storms at FL240.

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Three important “gotchas” for the Pilatus: First; watch the brakes with the low pressure tires and no anti-skid braking system. If you are in a crosswind and grab a brake or are overeager on landing you can easily “flatspot” or totally ruin a tire. Second, with take-off flaps at 15 degrees and a slow 22 second retract cycle, it is very easy to exceed the 160K limitation which will alert on the electronic maintenance logging system and lead to a very expensive (required…$20K) inspection. Lastly, the shaker/pusher system is very touchy and can activate on landing (especially in the ice pusher mode) if you attempt a really nose high landing. Just slightly nose off to avoid the shake/push (a know Pilatus problem) OK…got it!

KPWKsectionalToday’s flight was a Part 135 charter out to KPWK, north of Chicago. As usual these are early starts, with a 4AM wake-up and out to the plane an hour before departure to arrange the catering, preflight plane and final check on weather. When the clients load up we should be cranking and rolling. They enjoy coffee and pastries and we go to work up front with aviation. This whole business is built on transparent service and customer satisfaction.

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You could not ask for a better day to fly with clear skies and little surface wind. At FL270 however we had a 52 knot  headwind. SInce TAS increases and the fuel burn decreases so dramatically on a turbine up high (half the fuel) we need to cruise high despite winds. It was over two hours to Chicago…and now we wait for the day until the clients return for the flight home; driving the bus! Lunch at Bob Chinn’s Crab House was memorable and worth the exploration of the neighborhood. Hawthorne FBO at Palwaukee is a wonderful facility.

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The return from Chicago at the end of the day was initially disappointing with only a 5K tailwind at FL200. Having faced a 60 knot headwind on the way out , we were looking for some payback (that pilot game). Finally, climbing to FL270 we picked up a 71 knot push and decreased our time to SYR to just 2 hours. At this altitude the cabin climbs to around 8,000 ft (5.75lb differential pressure) which is what the airlines usually maintain. This can be hard on some customers (why you feel beat up after a day on the airlines!) Our customers had discovered the booze and there were no complaints from the back!

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After SYR, the last leg was a quick Part 91 repositioning hop to KCDW for a flight the next morning. This was only 36 minutes @ 15K over the clouds for a visual into runway 22 at CDW. Despite the 14 hour duty day we vacuumed out the plane and restocked the catering for the next crew and completed all the flight logs and expense reports for the day. What an amazing experience with so much left to learn. My next challenge is mastering the General Operations Manual and Op. Specs. for the FAA line check next week. Back to the books!

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Flying the PC-12NG Sim at Flight Safety

PC12SimulatorBayBeing a beginner to motion simulators and also a pilot who has flown very little on autopilot (and especially coupled approaches), I knew I was in for a steep learning curve at Flight Safety. I had trained in Duluth and acquired the Cirrus Instructor Certification for the Avidyne  Cirrus 22  but that was years ago now. With little recent automation experience I expected this to be tough but I did probably underestimate the level of challenge. My instructor, Josh Rivera, was a two-year FSI veteran and had clearly seen all sides of this training experience. Each lesson in the simulator was proceeded with a careful and complete briefing and after each “flight” there was a complete playback of all the tracks and controls (including cockpit video and full audio).  You had an opportunity to relive your moments of terror and triumph.

JoshRiveraSImCFIThe first session was Sunday morning with an off-motion “sit session” identifying switches and reviewing checklists and procedures. Since I have been on the other side of this equation way too long (as the CFI) I could uncomfortably feel Josh’s need to swallow hard and be excessively patient as I fumbled around finding switches. I had been a good boy and practiced dutifully with the poster in the hotel but the real thing is always different when your mind is in a cramp. The experience is so real you find yourself being excessively cautious so you do not cook the PT-6 engine on start up. At this point it is hard to believe in four days you will be even partially “competent.”

By Sunday afternoon, with take-offs and maneuvering, the experience was becoming a bit more fluid and fun. This sim flies so realistically, you are quickly convinced you are burning Jet A. With that huge Hartzell prop and 1200hp out front,  this plane requires massive amounts of right rudder and can be tricky on take-off and landing.  Learning the pitch and power settings (and even where the knobs and gauges are) takes a few mistakes and recoveries: 15psi level gives you 150 knots, 25psi 200 knots level (for that speed limit within 4nm C and D) Climbing at 150K needs 28psi and descending 8psi. You can easily achieve 3,000 fpm on the climb if you are light. Learning all the functionality of the Honeywell APEX flight management system obviously is the most challenging for most transitioning pilots. FSI gets candidates at all levels of experience. Fortunately I already had an ATP SEL and MEL but that certainly does not guarantee success.

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Remembering where everything is and programming for the departure, enroute and approach while flying was initially overwhelming. You are simultaneously “reprogramming” your brain while operating with some new (and not yet firmly established) habit patterns. The software menu and tab orientation was manageable when  no disasters were occurring but got challenging as the pace picked up. With only four days to go from bozo to competent, it’s a steep slope to climb.

And you know the standard pedagogical process; the first day everything goes right, the next day everything goes wrong. With 11 electrical buses,  4 display units and two independent graphical processors, there are endless failures modes and reversionary tactics you need to memorize. DaveFSIComputerPracticeI spent a lots of hours on the videos and procedure trainers building habits and working through sticking points  from previous lessons. The PC-12 also has a detailed CAS (crew alerting system) with many annoying aural chimes and bells going off (continuously in training). Each alert requires consulting the QR checklist and performing a detailed, timely response. This noise and confusion probably was the hardest for me to get used to.  Since all the equipment is actual manufacturers OEM, these alerts are excessively loud (designed for the Bose A20s…which we did not have in the sim!) I felt a little like I was the chrome ball inside the pinball machine on day three. Just try to run a list with someone screaming “fire, fire, fire” at 90 db in your ears.

Fortunately I got a little payback for all my “yank and bank” skills. These worked perfectly for the complete engine failure at 1500 agl. They want a quick power back, feather, best glide and 180 degree turn back to the runway (while securing and alerting ATC). I am proud to say I nailed this on the first surprise attempt. Balancing that was the required RVR 500 take-off; pretty ragged on the first attempt! But failures like this point out the amazing utility of a simulator; a safe opportunity to live and learn. You can practice all kinds of hazardous procedures repeatedly and master them with only a damaged ego and no blood on the floor.

PC12SmokeInCockpitThe fire in the cockpit at FL280 required donning the real oxygen mask and smoke goggles and flying an approach and landing at the nearest airport. This simulation leaves you sweating and panting. This certainly is something to practice in the sim and pray you never have to prove in real flight.

Day three was the “valley of death” and I died on a nasty crosswind approach at RVR 1800 (a company requirement) and also iced up (even with boots on full) on autopilot and trim stalled at 5,000 agl on approach. It is somewhat depressing to die so realistically twice in one afternoon! By day four I was getting fairly proficient but took one last day to polish and prepare for the check ride on Friday. As with most evaluations, you know you are going to be less than 100% under the microscope and I was still struggling with the FMS programming.

FullSizeRender 68Friday was the payoff with a review session and check ride. This went pretty clean with only a few minor snafus. Most notably on the engine failure on departure at 1500 agl, I managed to also hit the “kill button” (out of sight under the fuel cut off lever) and  the machine went “off motion” (suddenly very smooth and quiet). We had to run that a second time with motion “on” to prove the element was successful. Examiner Water Bryant is a very fair and calming influence but also very detailed and comprehensive.  The whole experience at Flight Safety International was superb with great equipment and a talented and caring staff of instructors. Now on to the real plane and to see if we can really fly!

 

 

Flight Safety International: Pilot Valhalla.

FullSizeRender 73Flight Safety International has been the standard of quality in flight training for over 60 years. Their reputation mostly comes from superior quality training in “big iron” e.g. larger corporate jets. They train around the clock and around the world (just like the aviation market they support) and hire the best people in the industry. Their quality and unimpeachable integrity obviously comes at a considerable cost for the client. For the top shelf Gulfstream 650, an initial type-rating is around $100K (but two are included usually if you buy the $65 million jet).  Clearly, most people do not arrive at these doors unless their corporate flight department is paying for the training. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to train at FSI and expand my skills and knowledge. The fact that my company insists on FSI over cheaper and  lower quality training options is also a testimony to the company’s commitment to safety and quality.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 9.14.24 PMFlying the Pilatus PC-12NG is also a privilege. This Swiss aviation company has a reputation for quality, and their unbreakable yank and bank turbines have been the choice of the military around the world for many years.  Starting with their legendary Air America Porters landing on postage-stamp-sized Lima Sites in Laos, the PC-6 military trainer and later PC-7 and 9 have been the choice of most foreign countries for military pilot training. The Beechcraft T-6 “Texan II” currently used by  the US Air Force and Navy is a modified version of the Pilatus PC-9.

PC12NGCockpitTheir first Pilatus passenger transport, the single-engine PC-12 was initially very controversial with only one big Pratt and Whitney PT-6 turbine up front (our company owns the second one imported into the US). Prior to the arrival of this airframe, all Part 135 (on demand charter) in the US required two pilots and two engines to carry passengers (by regulation) with very few exceptions. The success and growth of the Pilatus market and the incredibly reliable PW engine, led to the development of the PC-12NG  (Next Generation) and new regulations. This plane is approved for single pilot, single engine Part 135 charter on demand. Airlines like Plane Sense have built a whole regional markets based on this airframe (though they usually fly two-pilot Part 121 or Part 135). The Swiss single has earned a well-deserved reputation for quality, comfort and reliability. They have been recording record sales due to the success of the PC-12.

PC-12-NG-SpectreThe fact that Flight Safety has a prop-driven plane in their training livery is a bit of an aberration. The only reason this program exists at all at FSI (I have been told) is again due to the military and specifically the Navy Seal program’s utilization of the PC-12 Spectre. Their unique requirements needed a first class preparation since these guys were not trained as pilots in the military.  Through a collaborative process with Flight Safety to train their pilots, a simulator was created and the PC-12 program was born. The PC-12NG is one of the most sophisticated (and expensive at $4.2 million) simulators in the Dallas building. Banks of servers and continuous meticulous maintenance are required to keep these simulators happy and functioning to FAA standards.

IMG_0012 3The FSI training process actually starts a few weeks before the class date with training materials arriving via a very slick iPad app from the company. As soon as I established an account and logged in, 8,000 pages of training materials arrived in digital form. They actually give you an iPad Air with this course if you do not have one! It’s a very slick presentation and absolutely first-rate materials. The manual on the Honeywell APEX avionics system alone is 1,200 pages. For this is a fully automated, electronically-driven machine, so totally digital training is so appropriate. Since I already had one I asked for paper copies instead and cluttered up the hotel room with endless paper products.

FullSizeRender 69As a pilot I always wanted to train at FSI and try my hand at “real flying.” I still have to pinch myself every day I walk in the door here for training. It was an even better experience since one of my former students, Justin Maas, worked here and was a highly-respected instructor for a couple years before he went to Gulfstream. What a nice surprise to arrive in the aura of this talented pilot! Better yet, our paths happened to cross for a week here and I got to try out the amazing new G-280 (with a full-functioning HUD) for a little trip around the pattern with Justin. Nothing like starting out your week with a little time in a $4,000 an hour jet (and feeling like a total klutz). In a distinct swap of roles, FullSizeRender 77guess who was in the right seat assuring the safety of flight? Justin was at FSI doing his required 6-month requalifications in the G280. What an amazing pilot (and person) to hang out with; great times! His stories of international trips in the Gulfstreams for his corporate flight department are quite amazing. Their job is to demo some of the extreme things a Gulfstream are capable of to impress their clients. Certainly all safe but definitely on the edge.

IMG_8928So the first week of any initial training at FSI is all about learning the systems of the airplane. The enduring joke is “I want to fly it not build it” but the reasons for the excruciating detail in this plane is obvious. The classroom delivery of the material is first class but the volume is almost overwhelming. It involves 8-9 hour days for a week and studying every night to keep up. My master’s degree was a good preparation for workload but the technical detail is daunting. Finally yesterday we finished with the last testing (and I passed!) so we get in the sim for “flying” starting on Sunday.

EdSimonFlightSafetyA shout out to my instructor, the very talented and passionate Ed Simons. He is a total airplane nerd, part time PC-12 pilot and a professional educator. He digs deep into the maintenance manuals to understand and convey every important detail of PC-12 operation. Additionally, with all his hours training everyone from Canadian Royal Mounted Police to Seal Team Six, he has a wealth of real-world tips and stories to keep the presentation interesting. I can’t say enough about the quality of the instructors here. On to the sim and let’s hope I am still smiling next week!