What does it take to pilot a jet?

 - March 22, 2007, 9:40 AM

The “right stuff” might be your answer, particularly if you liked what author Tom Wolfe had to say in his recounting of America’s efforts to send a man to space. Was Wolfe referring to what it takes to be the first man on the moon, or was he addressing high-performance vehicles in general? Piloting a sophisticated aircraft successfully in pursuit of meaningful transportation takes something special– indeed the “right stuff”–even if the craft you are flying is not a rocket ship.

But what is the “right stuff?” Is it something a person has at birth? Or is it something a person acquires, such as dedication to aviation, good training and self-discipline? I believe it is the latter, and I feel confident that people of reasonable intelligence who conscientiously focus on achieving and maintaining the knowledge, skill and attitude needed to be jet qualified can learn it.

The opinions expressed in pilot lounges and on NBAA’s Air Mail forum not too long ago suggest that professional aviators are acutely aware of the emerging market for very light jets and they are concerned. They realize that many of these sophisticated and relatively high-performance machines will be flown by owner-pilots without a long history of jet experience–or any flight time above FL290. While a small number of professional air taxi firms (or entities that want to launch a “Sky Cab” network employing VLJs) hold the majority of delivery positions, individuals are responsible for about one-third of the total number of aircraft that are scheduled for delivery over the rest of this decade. There could be–probably will be–hundreds, if not thousands, of non-professional aviators operating jet equipment by 2010. Many, if not most, of those owner-pilots will want to fly without a copilot, just as they currently operate their light twins and sophisticated singles.

While current FAA regulations require those who wish to pilot a jet to hold a type rating and to fly the flight check for such certification to ATP standards, there is no minimum number of flight hours needed before an applicant can post for the test. If the pilot holds a private certificate and has passed the requisite written exam, the type ride can also serve as the flight check for an instrument rating. If the applicant does not hold a multi-engine rating, he can obtain that certification during the flight check, assuming he has completed all aspects of the exam in a satisfactory manner.

Insurance companies will play a significant role in determining who operates a VLJ, but their power is limited. I know of an owner of a high-performance turboprop who flies his aircraft with neither hull nor liability coverage because the insurance companies he contacted felt he lacked sufficient experience. While the VLJ manufacturers are adamant that they will not sell an aircraft to a person who fails to meet their training requirements, there may be nothing to prevent the first owner from selling his VLJ secondhand to a pilot who might not be quite up to speed.

Owners of jet aircraft that are approved for single-pilot operations, such as certain smaller Citations and the Premier I, can obtain insurance provided they meet the specific and often changing demands of their insurance carrier. Typically, an applicant can purchase insurance if he has a clean record; sufficient flight time in sophisticated aircraft to convince the underwriter that the risk is minimal; initial training from a reputable provider (most likely one that incorporates simulation in its curriculum); initial operating experience ranging from 25 to 100 hours with an experienced jet pilot; and regular recurrent training. Liability coverage, however, is typically about $5 million and rarely above $10 million, whereas a professional aviator operating the same aircraft in commercial or corporate service can obtain up to $100 million without difficulty.

Insurance companies are reluctant to take uncharted courses or to pursue lines of business where the community has little experience. The VLJ movement is new, and it is understandable that insurance providers will be cautious when approached by a private owner who wants to fly a VLJ without a copilot. Turbine-powered, twin-engine business aircraft flown by two salaried pilots have the best safety record in all of aviation, which is good news for insurance companies. But simply having two pilots on board, even if one is very experienced in jet operations, is not the answer if the cockpit duo lacks training in crew resource management and procedures for operating as a constructive team.

VLJs will change the face of general aviation. The very light jet movement will not be denied. Regardless of whether you subscribe to the theory that good pilots are born or you believe (as one participant in NBAA Avmgr Air Mail stated on the Association’s Web site) “…if you put enough bananas in the cockpit, you can teach a gorilla to fly,” non-professionals will be operating these aircraft. Thus it is incumbent upon the community to encourage those practices that inject VLJ owner-pilots with the right stuff.

The right stuff of safe aviation starts with training and preparation for all possibilities, regardless of how remote. Nothing by chance, everything by plan. In addition to training for knowledge and skill, pilots new to jets must be exposed to and absorb the culture of the proficient aviator. Aircraft such as the Adam A700, Cessna Mustang and Eclipse 500 probably will be easier to operate and more reliable than a typical light twin. But ease of operation can lead to overconfidence. The owner-operator, like the professional, must recognize that complacency is an aviator’s greatest risk.
Yes, flying a jet takes the “right stuff,” which is something that comes from training and attention to detail, not from the womb.