We Don’t Train For That

Gulfstream G550 simulator

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate”, in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training — whether in the simulator or the classroom — is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots — about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator”.

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.

This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Crappy Sunglasses


Sunglasses are to a pilot as tanning beds are to the cast of Jersey Shore. Many — perhaps most — aviators buy expensive shades, and I understand why. It’s not just about the look (although that’s certainly important), it’s about comfort. Comfort with a headset, comfort on a 10-hour flight. It’s about preventing headaches and protecting one’s eyes when you’re above much of atmosphere and therefore exposed to more of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.

Me, I do it differently: I buy the cheapest pair I can find. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the optical clarity, build quality, and style of expensive shades. I do. But over the years I’ve developed a theorem called Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity. It simply declares that the length of time a pair of glasses will last is inversely proportional to how much you paid for them. I bought a $10 pair of sunglasses at a gas station and they lasted for 6 or 7 years. On the other hand, I’ve paid $200 for a set of non-polarized Maui Jim sunglasses (polarization doesn’t mix with computerized cockpit displays) and had them disappear or break within weeks.

Not only do I lose sunglasses, but I often manage to do it in the most creative way possible. It’s almost an art form. One time I put my sunglasses and a book on the ground for a moment while I checked something on an airplane. Naturally, they were forgotten about until the main landing gear ran ‘em over, shattering the polycarbonate lenses into a million pieces. Thankfully the tire was not harmed — that would have really been expensive!

Another time a famous celebrity stole my shades. I don’t want to mention any names, of course. They were one of the cheap pair from that same gas station. I had duplicates in storage for just such a scenario (at $10 a pop, even the most poorly compensated among us can afford backups), but these were record-holding in terms of how long I’d had them. It must have been eight or ten years by this point. I almost couldn’t get rid of them even if I tried. Like a bad penny, they’d somehow find their way home.

Anyway, the aircraft had a galley in the aft section and I had set my sunglasses down on the counter there while offloading some baggage from the cargo area. When I returned, they were gone. I think the flight attendant figured they belonged to one of the passengers and they had walked off with the celebrity. She tried to get them back on a subsequent leg, but in the melee of a multi-day trip it just never happened. I sometimes wonder if that celebrity isn’t wearing those sunglasses today, unaware that they were an ancient $10 Chevron special with Twilight Zone-ish longevity.

The last example — the one which prompted this post — was a wholly new and innovative way to dispose of a decent pair of specs. I’m fond of saying that every situation in life can be directly related to a Seinfeld episode, and this is no exception. If you’re a fan of the show you’ll know exactly which one I’m referring to.

We were returning from New York without any passengers, so everything was casual on board the jet. No uniforms, just a pair of jeans and a V-neck t-shirt. A couple of hours into the flight, I excused myself from the cockpit to visit the aft lavatory. As is my custom when I’m not wearing them, the sunglasses were clipped to my shirt when I entered the restroom. (You can probably guess where this is going, right?) So there I was, standing over the toilet “taking care of business” when I reached up to close a vent which was blasting cold air and somehow managed to knock the them off my shirt. The next couple of seconds passed in slow motion. The sunglasses twirled through the air, bounced off the granite counter, and completed the swan dive with a perfect hole-in-one into the bowels of the toilet.

The lav is pretty simple on a Gulfstream; it’s basically just a tank full of “blue juice”, so there wasn’t much risk of the glasses jamming up any drain lines or whatnot. The only thing down there is a valve which is manually actuated from a panel outside the aircraft. It allows the old gunk to be drained and fresh liquid pumped in by the ground service personnel.

Nevertheless, I was going to have to fess up to what I’d done. The look on my face must have said it all, because when I exited the restroom, the flight attendant asked what was wrong. I gave her the “short” version, and she proceeded to shock the hell out of me by asking in a very matter-of-fact way if I wanted her to retrieve them. I thought she was kidding, but it turns out there were long rubber gloves on hand for just such an occasion. I offered to do the dirty deed myself, but she said “no problem, it’s not the first time something’s fallen down there” and before I could even think of a clever retort she had fished them out!

I’ve given a fair number of gifts, tips, and thank-yous over the years, but I’m wondering: how much does one owe another person when they stick their hand into a dirty airplane lavatory in order to retrieve your pair of $10 sunglasses?

In case you’re wondering, the glasses were double-bagged and sealed until I got home. The next day, I thoroughly cleaned them with multiple rounds of hot water, soap, sanitizer, and anything else I could get my hands on. I half expected the metal frame to be partially dissolved or corroded by whatever was in that toilet tank, but they came out as good as new. Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity at work again!

There was a definite moment of pause before putting them back on my face for the first time, but today those Chevron Special’s are back at work. I wish I knew who manufactured them, because they build a hell of a product. While they might not repel bullets the way some sunglasses do, there’s no doubting they’ve been through the proverbial wringer.

G-IV Type Rating, Day 21

It’s mid-afternoon on The Day After, and I’m sitting in my suite looking at a coffee table. There’s nothing on it. Likewise, the bed, floor, nightstands, granite counter tops — come to think of it, the entire hotel room — sits completely devoid of the books, class notes, reference manuals, fold-out diagrams, flow charts, cheat sheets, and Post-It notes which have polluted the joint for more than three weeks. Lord knows how the housekeeping staff managed to clean anything with so much detritus scattered all over the place, but they did it.

And now it’s all gone.

In it’s place rests a single 4-inch square piece of paper, a Temporary Airman Certificate. It’s exactly the same as the old one with the exception of six new letters: “ATP” and “G-IV”. Six letters! Is is possible that all the time, effort, and money applied to this crazy adventure can be reflected with only six measly letters?

If you’re a pilot, hell yes. I keep looking at the certificate and thinking about how much I’ve learned, and how much is still to be learned about the Gulfstream IV. It’s probable that the former outweighs the latter by a ratio which is embarrassing to admit to oneself. Still, I’ll take it.

Rewinding the clock 30 hours (though it seems more like 30 days) finds me and my trusty sim partner rolling into room 333 at Simuflite for the start of our checkride. The adventure began at 10:30 a.m. and didn’t finish until nearly 9:30 p.m. Eleven hours! That seems inordinately long, but when you think about it, a typical checkride for a private or commercial certificate is probably five hours long, and since both me and my sim partner were having our checkrides at the same time, it ought to take twice as long because we have to do everything twice.

What neither of us anticipated was that it would feel a lot longer even than that. A product of test anxiety, not to mention the end of more than three weeks of living out of a suitcase and a flight manual, I expect.

Our examiner, Tod, had been our instructor for a significant chunk of the ground school. We knew he was a good guy, but we weren’t too sure how he’d be during a checkride. When someone takes off their instructor hat and puts on the examiner hat, what do you get? The answer is: it varies. Teaching is technically verboten during a checkride, and examiners are acutely aware that they’re the last threshold to be crossed before the students are authorized to go out into the real world with that 75,000 pound chunk of metal and fly it across the planet at darn near the speed of sound.

The oral portion of the test was surprisingly easy. The questioning was thorough but fair, and for an hour and a half we answered everything to Tod’s satisfaction. I did mangle the answer to a question about when the auxiliary pump would activate during a specific kind of hydraulic system malfunction, but he let it go. Likewise, my sim partner got one wrong as well. It was a question whose answer was so obvious that you didn’t even think about it from that perspective.

We — or should I say, I — was given a weight & balance scenario to complete, along with a few performance calculations. My sim partner is already type rated on the G-IV, so he wasn’t required to partake. Of course, he didn’t know that going in, and had spent the morning doing weight & balance computations in preparation. Murphy’s Law. Tod told him he could take a break while I worked on the performance data packet, but being the good guy that he is, he stuck around and provided moral support while I crunched all the numbers. To be honest, it’s simple stuff once you know where to look for the data.

We were given a half hour to grab a bite, and then it was off to the briefing room to prepare for the simulator flight. I think we both wanted to fly first, but my sim partner was gracious enough to allow me to have first crack at it. We both knew whoever flew last would be awfully tired by the end, and that could lead to a stupid mistake and a checkride failure. I was willing to let him to first, but in the end Tod said I should go first because I was undergoing a more high-profile test.

G-IV cockpit

Lined up for departure on runway 32 at Anchorage (in clear weather)

Tod laid out the approach plates and the checkride scenario. It was a profile we had been well prepared for: start with a cold, dark airplane and do everything necessary to get it up and running. Then, a 500′ RVR low-visibility taxi from the ramp to runway 32 at Anchorage, followed by the Anchorage Four departure procedure, V334 to Kenai, then back to the PANC. In between, we had stalls, steep turns, and unusual attitudes.

About those steep turns. They really had both of us nervous. A single degree of pitch movement will quickly turn into a 100′ altitude loss or gain when you’re flying at 250 KIAS at 11,000′. The G-IV handles like a truck, and rolling from a left turn into a right one requires serious muscle to hold the pitch attitude steady. Most of our steep turns had been fine, but every now and then we’d flirt with the 100′ altitude or 10 knots airspeed change limits, not something which engenders a warm-and-fuzzy feeling.

The testing standards are fairly generous and not difficult to hold to, but the consequences of exceeding them for even a moment could be severe, especially for me. As the one undergoing an ATP certificate and G-IV initial type rating checkride, I was told there wasn’t to be any leeway. My sim partner was receiving a more routine Part 135 check, and as I understand it, even though he was to be held to the same standards for his flying, a minor amount of remedial instruction was allowable on his portion of the test. As it turns out, neither of us needed any freebies, but those steep turns can go bad quickly.

After the airwork, the cockpit filled with the bong-bong-bong and various warning annunciator lights of a Major Problem as the left engine summarily rolled back to zero thrust. I ordered an immediate airstart, and we got the engine back online within a minute. Then it was vectors back into town for the RNAV 7R approach, which I hand-flew to LNAV/VNAV minimums without breaking out of the clouds, so we executed the missed approach and held as published. We returned for the coupled localizer/DME approach to runway 7R and circled to runway 32.

A low-visibility circling approach in a Category D airplane is nothing to sniff at. Most airlines don’t even allow them unless the weather is VFR. What makes this particular approach challenging is the hill northeast of the airport. This terrain rise gives the impression of a high descent rate during the base-to-final turn. If you ease off on the descent, however, you’ll end up too high and either end up back the soup, exceed the descent rate limits, or land too far down the runway to meet the test standards. In addition, the simulator doesn’t have 360 degree visuals. I’d say they’re more like 180 degrees — excellent by any standard, but still less than you’d have in an actual airplane. But I’d worked on the approach over the past two days and nailed it. In fact, it was the thing I was least worried about on the checkride. I could do that approach a hundred times in a row and grease it onto the touchdown zone smoothly every single time.

After landing, we turned around and departed runway 14, aborting at about 50 knots for an uncommanded thrust reverser deployment. After Tod cleared that fault, we taxied to the end of the runway and departed on 32. At V1, the left engine failed and I flew the ILS 7R approach on a single engine, followed by the single engine missed approach and a second engine-out ILS to a landing.

The last item on the checkride was a no-flap landing made from the right seat. Technically all that was required was a takeoff and landing from the right seat, but for expediency we combined it with the no-flap.

By this point we were both wiped out… and my sim partner had yet to even start his flight test. As I noted previously, my nightmare scenario wasn’t busting my checkride, it was causing my sim partner to bust his. There are a hundred ways to do it, from distracting him to setting up the FMS incorrectly. I’m proud to say that despite being tired enough that I couldn’t tell right from left, I held up my part of the bargain and we both finished with what Tod described as “an impressive performance” and one of the best he’d seen from an initial candidate. We shut down by the checklist and exchanged handshakes after mustering the strength to drag ourselves out of the simulator. We were done!

The debriefing was mercifully short, basically an exchange of paperwork and the receipt of my temporary certificate. Speaking of which, one of the guys in my class told me that some countries will not allow a pilot to fly on a temporary in their airspace. That seems absurd to me. The FAA can take as long as 120 days to send out a permanent certificate. Are international pilots supposed to simply not work until that time? I suppose I’ll find out when my next bit of training beings. Oh yes, the training never ends when you’re a professional pilot. There’s Part 135 indoc, international procedures course, RVSM training, the list goes on. And on. And on. And there’s a five day recurrent training class required on the jet every six months to stay current.

Those are things to worry about tomorrow, though. Now is a time to relax and enjoy what I’ve achieved. Oh, and I almost forgot, there was more good news last night: each of our classmates passed their tests, and better yet, a student of mine back home who was taking his private pilot checkride also passed. That last one really took a load off my mind, and as a result I left Simuflite for a final time — until recurrent training is due in six months, at least — a very relieved and happy guy.

Now that the course is complete, I look back on the description of a turbojet PIC type rating as “drinking from a fire hose” as an apt one. They throw a lot of information at you, no doubt about it. But that’s a minor point. How well you’ll do in a course like this is determined as much by personality traits as anything else. Do you have the discipline to study, yet the wisdom to take time off so you don’t melt down? I can’t tell you how many times I was advised by Simuflite instructors not to study on a day off. Can you handle the stresses of a course like this, roll with the punches, accept the disparate personalities of your sim partner, instructors, and classmates? If you can’t, it will interfere with your learning, believe me. Can you function under the stresses inherent in such a course? The pressures experienced in training are not severe, but they are constant. And they’ll be upon you for three straight weeks.

From a experiential standpoint, this course should be quite manageable, even for someone without any pre-existing type ratings, assuming you come to school with well-developed instrument skills and sufficient real-world flying experience. Two of the five guys in my class came in with no type ratings, and both of us did just fine.

My years working as an instrument instructor and the thousands of hours of hand-flying BE-90s and aerobatics provided the foundation, the skills which were so useful during G-IV training. That’s why I urge flight instructors, banner towers, Medfly pilots, and others in so-called “beginning” flying jobs to focus on their current gig. You’re gaining the skills and experience which will get you through training when you land that dream job.

In fact, when compared to the accelerated CFI course I survived in Las Vegas seven years ago, the G-IV Initial was easy. In Vegas, the days were 15-16 hours long, I was living in a lousy hotel, and there was no sim partner to lean on or commiserate with.

As with the CFI course, the key to picking up a new airplane is to have transitioned to many new ones over the years. If you’ve flown the same aircraft for 20 years, learning a new one will be tough. But if you’re constantly moving back and forth between a King Air, Pitts, Cirrus, RV-6, etc. then you’re used to adjusting quickly to a new cockpit. Just one guy’s thoughts on the matter…

So. My initial training on the G-IV is complete. Now, as they say, the real learning begins. I expect I won’t be comfortable in the plane for quite a while. That’s normal. In the meantime, my bags are packed and it’s time to get caught up with the wife and the life I lead outside the cockpit.

G-IV Type Rating, Day 20

The end is in sight! It feels like I’ve been living in this Marriott for a month. It’s a nice place. I’ve got probably five hundred feet of space in this suite. They even do the dishes for me. Still, after shuttling between Simuflite and the hotel non-stop for so long, I’m looking forward to saying goodbye to the persistently hot, humid, and windy metroplex that is Dallas.

Day two of our checkride prep was very encouraging. Only made one major mistake, setting up the aircraft for a full rated power takeoff when I was asked to select reduced, or “flex”, power departure. The flex power takeoffs make a V1 cut much easier to handle. Unlike every other multi-engine airplane I’ve flown, power available after an engine failure is not an issue in the Gulfstream IV. The limiting factor is running out of rudder to counteract the yaw from the dead engine. When you consider that the engines are mounted on the fuselage close to the longitudinal centerline, that’s really saying something.

Selecting the wrong power setting made the V1 cut a lot harder for my sim partner. And that brings up my true worry about the checkride: not that I’ll fail the ride myself, but rather that I could do something which would cause him to fail. That’s something I’d really feel bad about! The G-IV is a two-pilot airplane, so even after my sim ride is done (and I’ll be tested first), I still have to bring my “A” game for his checkride. There’s just no way for one person to do it all. This stuff only works well when we’re operating as a cohesive crew with good communication and attention to detail.

When I look back on the last week or so of sim work, what I notice is that you develop a certain amount of tunnel vision when flying left seat. You’re so busy physically controlling the airplane and running the flight that you can easily miss things. That’s where the co-pilot comes in. No matter who’s in the right seat, they invariably seem to catch things that the captain misses, and when that co-pilot isn’t on their game, it’s the captain who suffers. This checkride will be unique in that regard. In the past, a checkride was something I could pass or fail without affecting anyone else. Now, each of us has the ability to sandbag the other guy on their checkride with a simple moment of inattention. The rated vs. flex power issue from today’s flight is an example of that.

After the sim session was complete, we found out who our examiner would be for the checkride. He’s a Simuflite instructor who taught about half of our ground school days. The guy is a little gruff, but I think we impressed him when we got into the sim for the first time about a week into the course. Remember those checklists I wrote about at the time? We managed to whip through them with excellent CRM, and he commented at the time that it was clear we had been working on our flows and that it was definitely paying off.

The checkride is a long affair. If the published schedule is to be believed, it’ll take more than 10 hours from start to finish. Assuming things go well for everyone tomorrow, will the class be in any condition to celebrate, or will we just say our farewells and head out, exhausted?

After today’s session, my partner and I spent another couple of hours in Simuflite’s dining room, reviewing the aircraft systems and limitations. I remember the first time I looked at that sheet. I thought “are they serious?” Were we really supposed to commit all that to memory? Yes, all that… and more. We quizzed each other until our brains were mush. The only thing I need now is a good night’s sleep.

G-IV Type Rating, Day 19

This 21-day program is rapidly coming (careening?) to a close. As it does so, the teaching stops and the testing begins. The Big One, the checkride, is in two days. To prepare for it, the schedule calls for a two-day dress rehearsal which ideally gives us a chance to see what the checkride will look like, and ensures our instructor that we are ready to undergo the examination.

We had another new guy with us in the sim today. I’ve officially lost count of how many instructors we’ve had since day one. Our class must have seen at least 10 of them, all told.

The day began with a three hour mock oral exam. The instructor didn’t mess around — there was no introduction, no “Hi, my name is…”, no nothing. He literally walked in, dropped a packet of performance data and weight & balance numbers on the desk for us to chew on, and sat down to wait for us to do it. That took a solid hour.

What were those limitations again?

The next two were a series of questions on systems, limitations, scenarios, and so on. I wasn’t expecting a break today, but we got an hour off for lunch. After that, it was a half hour briefing, then into the sim to run through all the normal procedures, airwork, and approaches, including the dreaded no-flap approach, which for some reason we flew from the right seat this time. I noted that this was the first approach I’d done from the right seat in the G-IV, but after thinking about it, I’ve made at least two in the actual jet. I’ve done plenty of right seat flying in the King Air and dozens of other airplanes as a CFI, as well. It was a total non-event.

I flew better than my sim partner did today, but I think part of that was my fault. I screwed him up accidentally on his steep turns by spending too long fiddling with the power levers, so much so that I missed an important call out. Also, he got a raw deal on his no-flap landing because the VNAV profile we’d programmed into the FMS disappeared for no apparent reason. We’d been warned about this “sim-ism”, but hadn’t seen it until now. After five hours in the box, we debriefed with our instructor (who we apparently won’t see again) and then retired to a local restaurant to review some of the performance calculations we’d had trouble with.

Tomorrow should be a shorter day, only 6-7 hours. The checkride day itself is quite long, about 10-11 hours depending on how things go. Our start time for the big day isn’t until 10 a.m. Our classmates, however, drew the short straw and their session starts at 5:00 a.m.