Eclipse Aviation sets the pace for VLJ pilot training

 - November 1, 2006, 7:00 AM

Eclipse Aviation is now putting the finishing touches on its very light jet (VLJ) pilot training program. Planned in coordination with the United Services division of United Airlines, the program will bring a different philosophy and a marked change of emphasis to bear on flight training as we have known it in the past.

It hasn’t always been this way. The company’s program has intrigued corporate and private pilots since 2000, when Eclipse founder–and Commander 690B owner-pilot–Vern Raburn reportedly stated there was “no reason why a well trained 300-hour pilot could not step right into a Boeing, Airbus or Eclipse.”

At the time, this was heady news indeed to beginner pilots with around $900,000 to spare. Since then, however, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based company has tended to soft-pedal Raburn’s optimism–but certainly not his enthusiasm–as it slowly built up a comprehensive training program more in line with transitioning to a small but sophisticated twinjet.

Eclipse’s training program reflects much of the thinking behind the FAA/Industry Training System (FITS) initiative, which was aimed at improving the safety of new, advanced-technology airplanes. In addition, the company’s program will reflect, and in several areas exceed, the VLJ pilot training recommendations NBAA published in February.

Much of the credit for this goes to Don Taylor, the company’s vice president of safety and training. A former United Airlines 747 captain who currently owns and flies a Beech Baron, Taylor has firm opinions about training standards in the coming VLJ era. “Just getting by is not good enough,” he told AIN, and this appears to be the fundamental principle of the program that he has developed with United.

Pilot Skills

The performance capabilities of the Eclipse–and of all other VLJs, for that matter–will place many pilots in operational environments that they may never have encountered before but in which they must confidently make the correct decisions, based on a solid training background. Today’s piloting proficiency standard, which too often means demonstrating the ability to taxi safely, take off, fly in benign conditions, and land just won’t cut it with a VLJ. To Taylor, there can be only one level of proficiency for all pilots, and that’s a pretty high level.

And the emphasis of the Eclipse training program is different. Whereas traditional type training has emphasized systems knowledge and assumed a certain pilot competency Taylor’s view is that most small jet systems can be learned easily, and VLJ training must concentrate on the pilot, not the airplane. “In the future,” he stated, “major training time must concentrate on improving pilot management skills and judgment.”

As a result, while the Eclipse training program requires training candidates to hold a private pilot’s license and instrument and multi-engine ratings–as do the NBAA’s and the FAA/Industry FITS group’s recommendations–it also includes an exacting review of an applicant’s overall experience and qualifications before he or she can move to the next step in the acceptance process, before beginning type-rating training.

Simulator Training

The next stage is critical. The applicant will fly a full-motion Boeing 737 simulator under the direction of a United pilot instructor/evaluator at the airline’s Denver flight training center. No previous 737 knowledge or experience will be required, since the object is to assess instrument proficiency and airmanship skills in performing fairly straightforward maneuvers such as turns, climbs and descents, interception of radials and similar routines, with the instructor setting appropriate power levels and calling out required speeds, headings and climb or descent rates.

While Taylor was carefully non-committal about any allowance to be made for pilots with no previous jet experience, it seemed clear that repeated altitude busts or serious heading overshoots, for example, would be frowned upon.

At the same time, he emphasized that the United instructors could recognize fairly quickly a candidate’s ability to handle the airplane. The 60- to 90-minute simulator assessment will be followed by a classroom discussion between an instructor and a small group of three or four candidates to further evaluate individual judgment skills under various conditions.

The instructor’s assessment will determine whether the candidate is ready to enter the formal Eclipse 500 type-rating transition course. If the evaluator considers a candidate unprepared for the transition course, he might suggest supplemental training in specific areas. Candidates could then retake the assessment at their own expense.

Transitioning to the Eclipse 500

A satisfactory assessment would qualify the candidate to enter the type-rating transition course. This FAR 142 program, run jointly by Eclipse and United, will begin with self-paced CD-ROM and Web study covering basic jet operations and aircraft systems, and is intended to be preparatory work aimed at maximizing the efficiency of the follow-on classroom and simulator sessions that form the body of the course.

Eclipse expects to have both a fixed-base Eclipse 500 procedures trainer and a full-motion simulator operational at United’s Training Center by the middle of next year. The essential type transition course, following the self-study portion, is expected to last seven days, but Taylor said there could be some flexibility to accommodate differences in progress between experienced jet pilots and those who require more training.

Importantly, all training will be scenario-based rather than procedures-based. In other words, it will emphasize situational judgment in realistic, mission-oriented exercises and, for example, will avoid the compounded “fire hose” emergency simulations that are still too common today. Trainees will not, for example, be startled by a fire warning while trying to determine why the gear won’t come down during a single-engine approach.

High-altitude indoctrination and the ability to recover safely from upsets are obviously an essential part of VLJ training, and all trainees except those with documented upset-training experience will fly in Eclipse’s Aero Vodochody L-39, a Czech-built, fully aerobatic, tandem-seat, fighter trainer. Currently, two training sorties, each including 20 minutes of instructional work at altitude, are planned. Most of the second sortie will be under-the-hood work to simulate IFR and night recoveries.

The L-39 has a conventional instrument panel, but Eclipse is considering installing the model 500’s primary flight display so trainees can become familiar with that unit’s “escape” guidance cues, although these will in any event be part of the full-motion simulator curriculum.

The company is also examining adjuncts to high-altitude training, including individual mixed-gas face masks that can be used in the classroom for anoxia (lack of oxygen) understanding–thereby obviating the need for a decompression chamber–plus a medieval-sounding “hanging in your straps” seat to emulate inverted attitudes and, at United’s Training Center, a positive and negative “g” simulator.

So when do trainees finally get to fly the real airplane and take it home? Experienced jet pilots can be expected, like their airline counterparts, to be FAA type rated in the simulator, while others may require a sortie or two with a check airman.

Recurrent Training

But those with little or no previous jet time will be required to have an experienced, Eclipse 500-qualified, mentor pilot riding shotgun–at their expense–until they are deemed capable of flying solo. Those who don’t successfully complete the course will have their deposits on the aircraft returned.

That may sound drastic, but it reflects Taylor’s training philosophy that there can be only one level of proficiency for all pilots, and that “just getting by” is simply not good enough. It also reflects stiffening insurance industry attitudes and, possibly overriding all other considerations, the company’s determination that its product be seen as a safe, dependable form of transportation.

Yet that’s not the end of pilot training. Every six months, pilots in the mentor program will be required to take recurrent training, which will involve a Web-based home study course, followed by a classroom review at the Eclipse Albuquerque facility and a return to the United Training Center for a proficiency check in the full-motion simulator. Non-mentored pilots will follow the same routine, but at 12-month intervals. Will this therefore be an honor system? Not really, unless pilots wish to fly without insurance.

Other than military pilots, few of us have gone through such rigorous training. Do we really need it? Unquestionably, yes. Traveling solo alongside the heavy iron at more than 300 knots at high altitudes in all weather, or working into a high-density terminal area is just no place for a less than very well trained pilot. And in 10 years, when industry observers forecast that traffic will double, and we could see as many as 5,000 VLJs in the sky, traditional pilot training as we know it today will likely have become history.