A Complex (Airplane) Question

By Scott Spangler on September 21st, 2009

After reading last week’s post, NPRM Points to Flight Training’s Future, Jason Blair, the executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI), called early the morning it arrived in his email box. He was off to DC, he said, to meet the with John Lynch, who’s been the FAAer on point for pilot training and certification issues for more than two decades.

JetWhine_Bonanza-gear-up Jason kept his promise to call back with any news from that meeting. Nothing would be set in stone until the FAA published the final rule, but it would seem that the changes outlined would come to be as proposed. But that wasn’t the interesting part of our conversation.

Jason brought up the point that if new commercial pilots didn’t need training in a complex airplane, that means flight instructors would not have any training in them either. And for the next half hour we discussed the pros and cons of training pilots and flight instructors to fly complex airplanes, those with constant-speed props and retractable gear.

What makes something pro or con is a subjective evaluation, so I won’t assign labels to the topics we discussed, including: a lack of aircraft diversity among CFIs, the savings of not having to maintain a middle-aged retractable single for a handful of pilots.

JetWhine_Piper-Arrow That led us to the realization that airframers today don’t make a lot of retract singles, and most of them–the Bonanzas and Mooneys and multi-seat Pipers–would be unaffordable, uninsurable complex airplane trainers. Piper still makes the Arrow, and according to GAMA, in 2008 Piper delivered exactly one PA-28R-201.

We hung up before fully exploring the topic of safety. From his perspective as an instructor, Jason worried about gear-up landings. Under the new regs, a CFI checkout in a complex airplane might be just three circuits of the the patch, and would that be enough to keep student and teacher safe?

Thinking about it later, I’m sure it would because, in most cases, the “student” would be the complex airplane’s owner, a pilot conditioned to lower the gear before landing. With no complex requirement for commercial pilot applicants, the safety question of retract experience for CFIs seems moot.

JetWhine_Arrow-panel Surely, the commercial ticket’s complex time would be better invested in advanced instrument training, and accident data seems to support this. Compared to weather-related accidents, many of them fatal, the number of gear-up landings is minute, and all non-fatal. In the new century of powered flight, it seems that digital technology has superseded last century’s mechanical innovations.

Really, the complex question seems to be vanishing with the fleet of complex airplanes because their replacements offer equal–or better–performance with fixed gear. Jason then asked why this trend didn’t extend to twins. The answer came to me after I hung up: Certificating a new airplane costs a lot of money and there’s no return on that investment with a piston twin. Turbines, on the other hand…well, it seems worth the investment for Viking Air to resume production of the Twin Otter. — Scott Spangler

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5 Responses to “A Complex (Airplane) Question”

  1. Brian Futterman Says:

    Many flight schools looking at fleet replacement or modernization, including the collegiate program I am currently in, are stuck when it comes to getting that complex signoff for the commercial certificate.

    As you mentioned, Piper’s venerable Arrow is the only reasonable trainer short of a Money Mooney or a Billionaire Bonanza. And once Piper scrubs the 28R, the days will count down faster for any remaining training fleet that exists at the mercy of insurance underwriters and cost of parts and service.

    Consider this a possible solution: If the closest you can get to complex is a constant-speed prop and flaps with fixed mains and a castering nosewheel, just stick a functioning gear lever in the cockpit with three lights in the panel and a conniving instructor with a finger on some “fail gear” button. The only reason you fly a retractable gear airplane is to get used to lowering the gear and to learn how to troubleshoot the system. You can still accomplish that this way with ZERO risk of a gear-up landing.

    Wait, was that…did I just say…ZERO risk? In aviation? Wow.

    I’ve heard the idea in discussions several times. It would be nice to see this in an NPRM.

    Keep up the great work,


  2. Robert Mark Says:

    I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a complex airplane for a commercial student of mine to include in his training.

    Somehow though, it seems silly to force this man to spend four or five hours learning the complexities of a Piper arrow when we’re training in an SR-22.

    Like so many elements of flight training that haven’t evolved with the rest of the world, we MUST simply check off the box for the flight test.

  3. Ron Says:

    To play devil’s advocate, perhaps your student gained something from the four or five hours spent in that retractable. Gear extension/retraction procedures, emergency gear extensions, dealing with squat switches, gear motors, hydraulic reservoirs, etc. Maybe it was nothing more than dealing with a higher workload of learning a new aircraft type.

    I’m not saying I disagree with you. But perhaps he did gain something. In addition, I find that I always gain something from flying a new airplane, even if I only get a few hours in it.

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    Absolutely he gained something from the experience in the Arrow Ron. No question about it.

    When I did my commercial, I spent 15 hours in a Cardinal RG, which meant I performed all the maneuvers and took the checkride in the airplane.

    The way the FSDOs seem to interpret the complex element today is that you need only check the box. I think that’s a crime to charge people that kind of money when it is irrelevant to the Feds.

    Easy for them. They don’t pay the bill.

    And then, of course, there is the problem of finding an airplane. Piper deliver one single Arrow last year … one.

    OK, I’ll get off my soapbox.

    And it is just fine to disagree here … in fact, bloggers just live for that. It makes us feel loved!

  5. Matthew Stibbe Says:

    I did my FAA commercial two years ago in Florida. I fly a Cirrus SR22 normally, which I regard as ‘complex’ because of its sophisticated avionics and capabilities. However, I had to do my training on a PA28 Arrow. The two Arrows at the dreadful flying school I attended were so dilapidated and unreliable it was a constant problem to actually do the hours and complete the course. They had one working nav radio between them and no autopilot. But, yes, they had retractable gear and a VP propeller. I did learn a lot about flying more accurately and so on, but really I felt like the whole course could have been so much more useful.

    Instead of learning to remember to lower the gear and adjust the prop lever, I could have learned advanced techniques for using GPS, how to use an autopilot more effectively, advanced aeronautical decision making, how to create and use checklist and company operations manuals etc. etc. The stuff that would make me more of a *professional* pilot.

    I think that the COPA Cirrus Proficient Pilot Program is a model for how the commercial licence could be enhanced.

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