Trial By Type Rating

The July, 2011 cover of AOPA Pilot

That’s the title of the July, 2011 AOPA Pilot magazine (turbine edition) cover article. It seems that the author, Thomas A. Horne, took the Phenom 300 initial type rating course at Simuflite’s Dallas training center shortly before I arrived for the Gulfstream IV program.

The July, 2011 cover of AOPA Pilot

Horne’s impression of Simuflite and the training course were very similar to mine, right down to photographs of the classroom, simulator, Simfinity procedures trainer, and avionics trainers which accompanied the article. Makes me wonder how many other turbine type rating course journals are out there on the World Wide Web. I performed a fairly thorough Google search before I departed for Dallas just to see what I was in for, but, aside from the John Deakin articles on AVweb, came up empty. That was part of the reason I wrote about the experience.

The Phenom 100 and 300 are interesting airplanes. They’re clean-sheet designs from the Brazilian aerospace company Embraer. Until recently, Embraer was primarily a maker of small airliners, but several years ago they jumped into the VLJ (very light jet) market with both feet, and have achieved considerable success against the Citations, Learjets, and other traditional light jet aircraft.

A JetSuite Phenom 100

I see the Phenom 100 around Southern California quite frequently. Typically, I’ll find one parked at Signature Flight Support at SNA or over at the Mercury Aviation FBO in Long Beach. Primarily, these are JetSuite charter aircraft, easily recognizable with their distinctive red racing stripe running along the upper longitudinal axis of the aircraft. From what I can see via their Facebook page, they’re expanding rapidly as a “no frills” charter operator. I’ve seen them advertise one way flights from Orange County to Phoenix for as low as $499, however I’m not sure that’s for the whole airplane. It may be for filling in empty seats on an upcoming flight. I’m not sure.

JetSuite’s web site advertises flights from the L.A. basin to Las Vegas for $999, and that is for the whole airplane. Not a bad deal if you’re heading to Sin City for a big weekend with a few friends — just $250 per seat if you fill all four passenger seats. Sure, Southwest can get you there cheaper, but c’mon, the overage for a JetSuite flight is astoundingly low when you consider the panache associated with rolling into town in your own private jet. Cheaper than a high-end hotel suite, and much, much cooler. (disclaimer: I’m a pilot — I have to say that)

If you’re going to start a charter company during the worse economic environment since the Great Depression, this is a smart way to do it. I’ve got a couple of friends who work for JetSuite, and they seem to love it.

Anyway, the Phenom 100 is a fairly common sight in these parts. The 300, however, is a newer, larger aircraft, and as far as I know there aren’t too many of them out in the wild just yet. At Simuflite, one of the Phenom simulators — I can’t remember if it was a 100 or a 300 — was located in a bay directly adjacent to the Gulfstream IV on which I trained. Likewise, a Phenom classroom was right next to ours on the third floor of the Dallas facility. As a result, I noticed the goings on over there, and it seems to me that things were always busy in Phenom-land.

As Gulfstream guys, we were obligated to make a few friendly jokes about the little jet, but personally, the Phenom is an attractive aircraft for several reasons:

  • It’s a fast airplane with a high service ceiling — no “Slowtation” jokes here
  • The avionics suite, which as Mr. Horne noted in his AOPA Pilot article can be one of the most challenging parts of a high performance jet aircraft to master, is basically a Garmin G1000, a creature I know and love
  • The systems are apparently quite automated and self-healing, as you’d expect from a turbine aircraft designed in the 21st century
  • And last, but certainly not least, the airplane was designed for single-pilot operation

It’s that last bullet point which really intrigues me. Solo flying has always been a great passion of mine; being alone up there in the wild blue yonder with nothing but your trusty steed! Um, and in this case, a million dollars of avionics hardware, I guess.

Okay, so it’s not as romantic as barnstorming across the country low and slow in an open cockpit biplane. Still, it must be a hoot to be master of your own domain in an aircraft so capable. Other airplanes approved for single-pilot operation tend to be slow, altitude limited, diminutive in stature, or lacking in some other way. The Phenom tops out above 40,000 feet and although it’s not as fast as a Gulfstream, it’s still respectable. The range is short enough that you don’t need the stand-up cabin of the larger jets because you’ll be on the ground within three hours anyway.

The single-pilot approval might be a moot point for the bulk of Phenom operators due to insurance or other requirements. The JetSuite airplanes all fly with two pilots. Still, it’s a nice option to have.

I’m couldn’t be happier about moving into the G-IV, but if I was out there just looking for a gig, I could think of far worse things than zipping around the country in a little Phenom with new-airplane smell.

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.

G-IV Type Rating, Day 18

This was our finest day of (fake) flying yet. The difference? A new instructor we were assigned — a former military pilot named Norm. Easygoing, friendly, and truly interested in teaching, Norm was a pleasure to work with. He shared his knowledge about the airplane and wasn’t just checking off boxes on a form.

A pleasant demeanor does wonders for the learning environment. It creates an atmosphere where students are not afraid to ask questions or seek clarification when necessary. With other instructors, I might just let a question go because of the manner in which it is likely to be answered. With an instructor like Norm, however, you can be assured before the issue is even raised that it will be addressed as a conversation among professional peers.

To be sure, the job at hand is a serious one, and there are things which must be accomplished during every classroom and/or sim session, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the process.

The good stuff started as soon as he entered the room. The day always starts with a pre-flight briefing, and this one was communicated so clearly and concisely that I could imagine the maneuvers while he described them. Everything was thoroughly explained, the session ran on time, and there were no surprises. First day I’ve experienced like that in this program. The other instructors are certainly knowledgeable, but as anyone who’s ever worked in the educational field can tell you, there are teachers, and there are teachers.

This was the “hot weather day”, meaning high altitude airports and high atmospheric temperatures. Aviators refer to this as high density altitude. We flew out of Denver, with an altitude of about 5,800 feet (the mile high city, right?). The 35 degree (C) air temperature produced a thin atmosphere akin to what you’d find on a normal day at 9,500 feet. You’re nearly two statute miles above sea level before you even taxi away from the ramp.

Now, the G-IV doesn’t mind those conditions at all… unless an engine fails. Then you might only get a 500 fpm climb rate if you’re at maximum gross weight. Which we were. And you’re surrounded by mountains. And, as can only be seen in a simulator, the area somehow was filled with ground fog and clouds which rose up to the flight levels. A challenging environment, but nothing a properly trained pilot shouldn’t be able to handle.

The Level D simulator creates highly realistic visuals, sounds, and movements. These can be seen very clearly during the windshear encounter. We got one on takeoff and one on final approach. It actually gave me shivers to push the power levers forward and take off into that thunder and lightning. At night, no less. The only time the towering cumulonimbus clouds could be seen was when the lightning struck. And that was fairly often.

The windshear encounter was a downburst of about 5,000 fpm, and even with the high density altitude, the aircraft was able to maintain level flight with full flaps and the landing gear down. To do that, however, I had to pitch up 25 degrees right to the edge of a stall and push the engines well past their temperature and RPM redlines.

It’s surprisingly difficult to push the power levers that far forward, even when your life depends on it. It’s not a physical difficulty, but a psychological one. We’re trained not to do it when flying turbine equipment, lest we destroy a million-dollar engine. But if that’s the only thing keeping you from pancaking into the ground, well, you do what you have to do. The engine is more than happy to run there, but all the gauges turn red, warning alerts are heard, and ominous messages like “ENGINE EXCEEDENCE” and “EXCEEDENCE RECORDED” appear.

Speaking of simulators, at lunch I snapped this photo of a museum relic located in the lobby at Simuflite. It’s a Link trainer. These were built during World War II for use in training allied pilots to fly on instruments. They were the first motion-based flight simulators. Believe it or not, this little blue thing is a direct ancestor of the Learjet “Level C” simulator you see pictured above. In fact, the two devices were both built by the same company — Link!

Back in the G-IV box, another fun maneuver was the no-flaps landing. The landing speeds are, as you might imagine, higher when approaching with the flaps retracted. Add in the high density altitude and you have a recipe for very high ground speeds. High enough, in fact, to push the limits of the tire’s speed rating. Nothing quite like blowing a tire while touching down at a 195 knot ground speed to add a skosh of interest to your day.

The most memorable part of today’s training came during our debriefing. My sim partner mentioned an issue he had been having with a low visibility circling approach. Norm not only took the time to explain his recommended technique for fixing the issue, he asked if we wanted to go back into the simulator and try it! The guy was five minutes away from being done for the day, and he offered to head back into the sim, set the thing up, and let us try it. And we did — for an hour and a half.

Norm was definitely dedicated to our success in the program, and it paid off for us. The circling approaches worked perfectly and are now the lowest stress item on our list.

Tomorrow we’ll have a new instructor in the sim — our fifth. If you include the three guys we had in the classroom, that’s eight different people. I’m not sure I’m a fan of that sort of thing. It takes a while for students and instructors to get to know one another. As I mentioned at the top, the comfort level students have with those who teach them will affect the progress they make in their learning. It’s not a factor you’ll see noted in any syllabus, but it’s as real as any other aspect of flight training. In an ideal world, anyone could have any instructor and if they’re all standardized, the student will progress at the same pace.

Unfortunately we don’t live in that ideal world. We live in this one.