Industry makes progress on VLJ training standards

 - July 3, 2007, 10:15 AM

Mentoring, where a more experienced pilot flies for some time with a new very light jet buyer until the owner gains confidence and experience, is receiving increasing scrutiny and consideration from aircraft manufacturers, insurance companies and operators.

Those involved in the still-developing VLJ industry seem worried that if the industry doesn’t take action to promote safety, VLJs will have the same experience some now popular aircraft had when they were introduced: a surge of early deliveries and rapid growth followed by a series of tragic and preventable accidents and an FAA crackdown in the form of a special set of regulations mandating training that aims to prevent those accidents.

This has happened twice already, to the Robinson R22, which saw an SFAR enacted early in its long production run to mitigate safety issues caused by inexperienced flight instructors, and Mitsubishi’s MU-2, for which the FAA is in the process of issuing an SFAR after years of urgent requests by Mitsubishi that the agency require a type rating for the demanding twin turboprop.

An industry-led effort is under way to craft a set of standards–not FAA regulations–that would address VLJ training and mentoring. To be developed by an SAE International committee, these standards will cover issues such as mentor qualifications, training, responsibility and liability. Adam Aircraft is the first VLJ manufacturer to formally sponsor the SAE G-10 committee that is being formed, and Embraer has also indicated that it is interested in joining this effort.

An industry-led effort such as the SAE G-10 committee seeks to address potential VLJ safety issues before they become problems. While the SFAR had a dramatic positive effect on safety for the R22, that process, like any FAA rulemaking, is reactive instead of proactive. Industry people often complain that the FAA has a “tombstone” approach to safety, taking preventive action only after a number of people die in accidents. While this view fails to recognize the FAA’s numerous safety improvements that have saved many lives, an industry-led system could help smooth the entry of VLJs and promote a robust set of operating standards for non-professional VLJ pilots.

The problem with VLJs is that the training and operational standards for most general aviation pilots–those who will be moving up to the faster, more capable very light jets–are lacking. Unlike corporate, airline or military aviators, these pilots have not experienced professional pilot training. Many of the accidents that non-turbine general aviation pilots have every year are the result of the same cause: lack of sound judgment and decision making, often because many pilots do not adhere to minimum standards. Adhering to such standards is a hallmark of professional flying and could benefit the coming group of mentor-pilots.

While VLJs will require type ratings, the type rating training alone won’t turn a formerly operationally lazy pilot into a professional who adheres to standard operating procedures. VLJ manufacturers and developers clearly recognize this, and some have tried to eliminate potential problems in their training requirements. For example, Eclipse Aviation’s draft FAA Flight Standardization Board (FSB) report lays out in detail the requirements for a type rating in the Eclipse 500, including pre-type training personality testing, upset training in a military jet and its own mentor program.

What the VLJ industry is trying to prevent is a repeat of the R22 and MU-2 pattern: the FAA taking action related to aircraft safety after a number of accidents. In both cases, the aircraft likely could have benefited from earlier industry intervention in the form of more stringent and standardized training programs.

The industry is also trying to prevent high-profile accidents such as the fatal Thurman Munson Citation crash, in which the famous baseball player, flying with a pilot buddy (who wasn’t qualified in the airplane) in the right seat, flew into the ground after getting too slow on final approach in a perfectly good airplane in excellent weather.

In another baseball-player accident, Cory Lidle and a flight instructor in the right seat died in the crash of his Cirrus SR20 when whoever was at the controls misjudged how large a radius of turn would be required to make a 180-degree turn to avoid restricted airspace. The airplane hit an apartment building in New York City.

Would a qualified, trained and experienced mentor have helped Munson and Lidle? Possibly, but even the best of mentors can’t overcome serious errors in judgment, and who is to say that a pilot, after graduating from mentoring, won’t do something stupid and kill himself and maybe others later on?

That’s a hard question to answer, but learning how to handle a VLJ in busy airspace using standard operating procedures and performance measurement will likely be much better than turning loose a newly type-rated VLJ pilot (without previous turbine experience) after two weeks of systems and simulator training and a checkride.

Industry Standards
Consultant Robert Barnes of Scottsdale, Ariz., is an outspoken voice in the growing VLJ mentor movement and the point man for the SAE G-10 committee and other industry entities interested in VLJ mentoring. “I hate to be a fear-monger,” Barnes said, “but we’re talking about a complex aircraft and a complex environment. It requires more discipline than the current general aviation pilot has. That’s the direction we’re headed.”

Barnes, a former Air Force pilot, believes that VLJ mentoring is the easiest way to help non-professional pilots transition to what is essentially a more professional type of flying. “There’s never been a major requirement for sophisticated professional-type training for general aviation,” he said. “With the proper training and the proper discipline, a person with an interest in aviation and talent for being able to fly an airplane shouldn’t have a problem operating in this environment.”

Barnes first learned to fly while in college, in light airplanes, then joined the Air Force, where for the first time he experienced stringent operating standards. After the Air Force, he worked on his flight instructor rating. “I experienced the most frustrating thing in my life,” he said, “how disorganized it was and the horrible training. I haven’t noticed it’s changed a lot.”

The problem with most non-turbine general aviation training, he said, is that the standards are weak. “We’ve got to have measurable standards, that’s what’s missing from Part 91. The typical general aviation pilot who’s earned enough money to buy a VLJ is competent and successful and likes challenges but needs a structure” that lets him make the best use of a VLJ. He continued, “I don’t think the system is there.”

While standards for professional operation of high-performance technically advanced aircraft (TAA) and VLJs have not been carved in stone, some work has been done. NBAA has published training guidelines “for single-pilot operations of very light jets and technically advanced aircraft.” These guidelines address many of the issues that Barnes raised, although he doesn’t believe that they cover all the potential VLJ mentoring problems.

The NBAA guidelines, Barnes said, “are good common sense but nothing you could make operational.” What is needed, he maintains, are measurable objectives for achieving particular levels of competence.

The NBAA guidelines are, however, comprehensive and could form the basis for development of a TAA/VLJ transition training program. They cover candidate evaluation, pre-training study, single-pilot cockpit resource management, manufacturer training, post-rating training, initial operating experience and mentoring.

Adam Aircraft
Adam Aircraft, which has achieved certification for the piston-powered A500 and is nearing certification of the A700 VLJ, is jumping into mentoring with an active program. “Our mentor program is tied into our training program,” said David Thompson, director of training. “It’s one component of training.”

Adam Aircraft’s approach to training is proficiency-based, which means that there is no specific time mandated for training. Pilots are ready to fly Adam A500s and A700s after attaining proficiency in required skills, Thompson said. “Our approach to training is focused on developing decision making and resource management skills as well as stick-and-rudder skills.

“We had the idea for a mentor program a long time ago,” he said. “One of the main drivers is insurance requirements.” A problem with VLJs is that the skills and experience of owner-pilot buyers who intend to fly themselves vary greatly, “ranging from bare minimum to highly experienced and anything in between,” he said. “If you go to the current training providers, you get a course that’s cookie-cutter in nature; it assumes everybody starts and ends in the same place. That works well for professional pilots.”

Still in the process of finalizing an agreement with a training provider, Adam wants to take what Thompson calls a tailored approach to training, where the trainers learn as much as possible about the trainee, their personality traits and the flying environment that they’ve experienced.

The company’s training plans include high-fidelity flight training devices and a full-motion simulator. For fleet operators like Part 135 charter companies, some kind of initial operating experience will be required, and this is where Thompson sees the owner-operator and mentor making the move into more stringent operating standards. “Basically,” he said, “initial operating experience is the real foundation that the mentor program is based on. We’re just trying to take that to the owner-operator.”

A mentor pilot will not be an instructor, according to Thompson. “The mentor’s job is to be a highly qualified and knowledgeable safety pilot, to facilitate the learning process. He won’t intervene in the flight unless it’s a safety issue. His job is to sit there and take notes and once the flight is over, to facilitate the debrief and make sure while in flight that everything’s safe.”

Adam mentors will undergo the normal type rating training program, then an additional mentor-qualification course that will have to be renewed every year. Mentors will be employed by Adam’s training provider, and the owner will pay for the mentor’s services. The ideal mentor is not only an experienced pilot but one who has good people skills and plenty of experience in general aviation operations.

For Adam Aircraft, the reason for the mentor program, said Thompson, is that “we want the same thing the insurance companies want, a safe mode of transport. We think that even if you forget about the insurance company, the mentor program just makes sense. We make sure you’ve  been given every tool to operate safety and confidently. If we make a training program that makes safe pilots,” he concluded, “we don’t have to worry about an SFAR.”

Embraer is also planning a mentor program for its Phenom 100 VLJ. “It will be available by the beginning of next year,” said Edson Mallaco, vice president of aviation services, “before the delivery of the first airplanes.” Embraer’s mentor program is being developed in partnership with Phenom training provider CAE SimuFlite, and training will take place at SimuFlite’s Dallas facility.

“The requirements will be set by the insurance underwriters,” said Marcelo Tocci, senior manager for customer service. “They are pushing the market to have mentors, who will be pilots experienced in jet operations and environments, to guide students on actual flying once they get the type rating.”

Embraer plans to use the NBAA guidelines and insurance underwriter requirements to set the mentor program standards. Because the underwriters will be involved in setting the standards, Tocci doesn’t see any problems with liability for the mentor-pilot program. Mentors will be employed by CAE SimuFlite and will be type-rated in the Phenom.

Embraer is also interested in participating in the SAE G-10 standards-setting committee, according to Mallaco. “Right now we are in the initial stage of developing this program,” he said. “Soon there will be more structure and we’ll provide more information.”

Eclipse Aviation
Eclipse mentor pilots will be independent contractors who must pay for their own training, including the Eclipse type rating.

Minimum qualifications include ATP certificate, jet type rating, 5,000 hours total time, 1,500 PIC jet, experience as an instructor, check airman or pilot examiner in jets, experience in flying to high-density terminals and in the use of aviation resources, Eclipse 500 transition training and special training for Eclipse 500 mentor
pilots. Eclipse’s list of mentor responsibilities includes reporting the progress of the owner-pilot to Eclipse.

Eclipse’s type certificate makes its training program mandatory, which is interesting because the FAA FSB draft report for the Eclipse 500 type rating incorporates the requirement for mentoring. In other words, non-Part 135 pilots will be required to use a mentor, according to the draft FSB report, which states: “All other pilots who will be operating the EA-500 under 14 CFR Part 91 will be subject to Eclipse mentoring.”

What’s Next?
Barnes and the community that he has created are coalescing around a more formal definition of VLJ mentoring and the SAE G-10 committee’s planned work. “Our discussion group is now working toward developing a consensus on the key VLJ training issues and/or concerns that have been identified,” he explained. “This will lead to a series of position statements that relate to key training issues, either leading to a VLJ type rating or to post-type rating training and, specifically, the concept of owner-operator mentoring.”

The next step was a meeting last month at the 10th Annual World Aviation Training Conference in Orlando, where a breakout session on VLJ training issues was held. For the SAE G-10 committee, Barnes added, “SAE International has invited our group to submit a proposal to form a standards committee to develop unique aerospace recommended practices for qualifying and training pilots for a VLJ type rating; qualifying and training pilots as VLJ mentors; and managing a VLJ mentoring program.”

Barnes plans to submit this proposal at the G-10 committee meeting scheduled for August 13 to 16 in San Diego, and this will be followed by the first formal meeting of the standards committee at SAE’s AeroTech Congress & Exhibition September 17 to 20 in Los Angeles.

The goal, Barnes said, is to get the best standards published. He’d prefer to see all the VLJ manufacturers working together on the standards instead of each company creating its own requirements. The committee, he added, “is a way to get together and share lessons learned. A standard becomes a baseline best practice. You don’t want it to be a regulatory requirement as much as a ‘this is how we improve the system of safety’ requirement.”