When You’re Alone in the Cockpit

By Robert Mark on January 19th, 2021

A freshly minted CFI friend of mine called me recently almost completely out of breath with the exciting news that he’d managed to grab a few hours of loggable time in the right seat of an old Citation II, a bird that certainly turned out to be a great training ground for me too. It was also my first type rating. This guy was rather surprised that even though he’s been flying a glass-cockpit Cirrus SR-22 for the past 1,000 hours, everything in a jet seemed to happen so much faster than anything he’d flown before. How right he is. I thought the steam-gauge Citation II was a grand training environment from the Navajo Chieftain I’d been flying alone, once I figured out who was supposed to do what of course. Most of the rest of my flying time – except as an instructor – was as part of a crew and honestly, I think I became a little spoiled with an extra brain and another set of eyes, ears, and hands closeby.

A little jet time gives pilots something else that’s pretty important too, the proximity of another qualified pilot to help share the navigation radio and the endless work of dealing with ever-changing weather, and the passengers, all while learning the ropes of operating in the flight levels where speeds are measured in Mach numbers.

Time and Training Go Marching On

Of course in the past couple of decades, aircraft like the Cirrus and single-engine turboprops; the TBM, the PC-12 as well as a number of light jets, all glass-cockpit equipped, are now certified to be flown by a single pilot. With some previous jet time, flying one of these complex machines alone shouldn’t be too tough you’d think, except it often is. In fact, there are quite a few single-pilot certified jets and turboprops that operators have come to realize can become quite a handful when the chips are down. They’ve responded to these safety concerns by adding an extra pilot in bad weather. That doesn’t mean any of these aircraft unsafe of course … far from it. But having just one human in the chain of command can under stressful conditions can overwhelm most any pilot if they allow the airplane to move faster than their brain.

The video you’ll find at the end of this story was produced a couple of years ago by the NBAA’s Safety Committee Single-Pilot Working Group to highlight just how easy it can be for a highly automated airplane to get way out in front of the pilot at the controls. Why not grab a cup of coffee and spend 10 minutes watching the mess our pilot John manages to get himself into.

On a side note, you may recognize the PIC in this story making his on-screen debut. I confess it’s me. While I wrote the first draft of the script, I didn’t create this training video alone. The people at CAE in Dallas were kind enough to donate some Phenom 100 simulator time to the Safety Committee to allow us to shoot the video. I also had plenty of help from other committee members including Tom Turner from the American Bonanza Society, Dan Ramirez, who at the time was working for Embraer, Jim Lara from Gray Stone Advisors, Mike Graham, now with the NTSB, BJ Ransbury from Aviation Performance Solutions, Tom Huff, Gulfstream Aerospace’s Aviation Safety Officer, Bob Wright from Wright Aviation Solutions, Phil Powell our ace cameraman and of course Scott Copeland who I spent hours with in Savannah turning our raw footage into the video you’re about to see. We all hope you learn something from the time spent.

Rob Mark, Publisher

 

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3 Responses to “When You’re Alone in the Cockpit”

  1. Derek W Thomas Says:

    Nice write up and video, Mr. Rob. When I was riding around in our company’s MU-2, it was always 2 pilots. And just a few years ago I greeted some customers on arrival in their Cessna Mustang – single pilot. I recall thinking, “man, not sure I’d ride single pilot in that…” I’ve reconciled now that training, training, training can make it a safe flight, but I still think “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”.

  2. Douglas Boyd Says:

    Nice one Rob (John). As a research scientist studying GA safety (read accidents) I’ve always wondered as to the wisdom of allowing single pilot operations for GA turbofan/jets. I recall the original Citation 5xx was transport category certificated circa 1971 and thus required two crew members. Of course that went out the window in no time.

  3. Grant McHerron Says:

    Nice work Rob (erm, John :) ). It’s an interesting scenario of systems knowledge, weather & pilot overload. This one had a good outcome but, to be honest, it seems like some do not when pilots push on despite everything stacking up against them :(

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