Tips for Tackling Transition Training
(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2014 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. We offer an updated version in this instructor-focused issue.)
In the flight school where I worked as a part-time instructor some years ago, it was common to assign newly-certificated instructors to flights deemed less challenging than training for a certificate or rating. Intuitively, it made sense. Rather than pairing a completely novice instructor with a completely novice trainee, the school would initially assign flight-seeing jaunts, introductory flights, flight reviews, and rental checkouts to newbies in order to give us an opportunity to get accustomed to the right-seat role.
That’s why on one fine autumn day, I was on the schedule to conduct an aircraft rental checkout in one of the school’s single-engine Cessna aircraft. The client was a genial, recently-retired airline pilot anxious to get back in the sky.
His credentials and qualifications were impressive — and somewhat intimidating to a newbie like me. I could not imagine that I could possibly teach him anything about aviation, and it seemed arrogant even to try. As I reviewed his neatly-completed paperwork, I realized that I didn’t even need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of aircraft types I had flown. My client, on the other hand, didn’t have enough room on the school’s standard checkout sheet to list all of his. My total time was a very modest three-digit number. His was somewhere north of 20,000 hours. Sure, most of that flight time, and all of his most recent hours, were logged in heavy metal. Still, he and I both approached his single-engine Cessna checkout with more than a little of the “how-hard-can-it-be” mentality.
You know where this story is going, right? The sight picture, speeds, and power settings that had become second-nature from his long airline career simply did not work in a light GA aircraft. Suffice it to say that he and I were both surprised and humbled by the experience. The first landing qualified as “great” only because we were both able to walk away from an airplane that could be flown again without a visit to maintenance.
Up, Down, or Over?
As you might imagine, this early experience taught me several important lessons. The most important was to never, ever make assumptions on how previous training and experience might translate to a different aircraft.
Another lesson involves perspective. When we think about transition, pilots often focus more on what we perceive as moving “up” in the aircraft taxonomy. With more capable aircraft, we naturally expect to invest considerable time and effort to master the machine by understanding its avionics, its systems, its performance, and its handling characteristics.
Too often, though, we tend to give short shrift to the idea of moving “down” to an aircraft that appears deceptively simple to operate. Here’s the trap. To assume that moving down is always less demanding is every bit as inaccurate — and dangerous — as responding to the intuitive sense of up and down that can lead pilots to mishandle an aerodynamic stall. As Northrop test pilot Max Stanley famously noted:
The J3 Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you.
Any pilot who has transitioned from a standard category airplane to a light sport aircraft (LSA) will attest to the very real challenges involved in moving to a lower-performance airplane. In addition to being less capable in weather and possibly less robustly equipped, some LSAs have very different handling characteristics that can bite the unwary or ill-prepared pilot.
The bottom line is that whether moving to a more capable aircraft or to a simpler machine, every bird we fly deserves, and indeed demands, the utmost level of respect from its pilot. For that reason, we would do well to banish the notions of “up” and “down” when it comes to aircraft transition, except to the extent that we focus on the correct way to make a particular aircraft properly go up on takeoff and smoothly come down again for landing. To establish a more appropriate mindset, think of it instead as moving on or over to a different aircraft.
Transition Training Trifecta
Any kind of aircraft transition demands appropriate training. The specifics for such training are rigidly prescribed in the air carrier world, but what constitutes proper transition training for GA? Whether the pilot is transitioning to a higher- or lower-performance aircraft, or even a different model, a sound transition training program should involve:
- Structure: Transition training should be conducted in accordance with a written training syllabus. Think of the syllabus as a checklist for training. As with an aircraft checklist, the syllabus provides a logical, systematic, and comprehensive approach to ensuring that you cover all the basics. It is also helpful to review the applicable Airman Certification Standards (ACS) or practical test standards (PTS), which list the performance metrics appropriate for the certificate and/or rating that the transitioning pilot holds.
- Specifics: Transition training is intended to teach the pilot what is different about the aircraft or its installed equipment (e.g., avionics). The syllabus should thus address basic characteristics of the aircraft’s systems (e.g., fuel, electrical, control, hydraulic, avionics, environmental, etc.), but with emphasis on how characteristics of the new aircraft differ from those in aircraft the pilot has already flown. It should cover normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures. The syllabus should cover performance characteristics, to include takeoff and landing, climb, cruise, descent, and glide. Finally, it must address limitations, such as weight and balance, speeds, and kinds of operations (e.g., landing surfaces, maximum demonstrated crosswind component).
- Qualified Instructor: To get the greatest benefit from your transition training, a pilot needs to hire an instructor who is current, qualified, and thoroughly knowledgeable about the airplane and/or equipment you want to master. If a pilot approaches you for help, do everyone a favor and be honest about your experience and your capabilities. If you do deem yourself qualified to take the job, you need to conduct the training in accordance with a comprehensive training syllabus. While it is important to cover all the material, remember that you may need to modify the arrangement of the subject matter and/or shift the emphasis to fit the transitioning pilot’s qualifications and goals, the characteristics of the aircraft or equipment involved, and the circumstances of the training environment.
What About Experimental?
If your pilot is making the transition to an experimental airplane, you will find a great resource in FAA Advisory Circular 90-109A, Transition to Experimental or Unfamiliar Airplanes. While not intended to address testing of newly-built experimental airplanes, AC 90-109A provides information and guidance to owners and pilots of experimental airplanes, as well as to flight instructors who teach in these airplanes. AC 90-109A provides recommendations for training experience in a variety of groupings based on performance and handling characteristics.
As the AC’s introduction notes, pilots making the transition to any unfamiliar fixed-wing aircraft (including type-certificated airplanes) can also benefit from the information and guidance provided in this document, which includes tips on hazard identification and risk mitigation strategies.
Regardless of the nature of the transition, any pilot moving to an unfamiliar aircraft needs to use a transition training strategy appropriate to the airplane or equipment in question. (FAA Safety Briefing SepOct 2017)