Mentoring Programs

 - June 2, 2008, 7:21 AM

Twenty years ago owner-pilots of high-performance airplanes often supplemented their flying skills by offering the right seat of the airplane to a young CFI whose role was to help keep the left-seat aviator out of trouble. That usually meant working the radios, stowing the charts and generally acting as another set of eyes and hands when the weather was bad or the traffic was dense. Eventually the owner-operator would be able fly on his own, more confident in his abilities.

Not much has changed in 20 years when it comes to owner-pilots searching for that extra set of hands and eyes in the cockpit. What has changed, however, is the aircraft themselves and the airspace in which they operate. Today’s airplanes are often considerably faster and fly at much higher altitudes, often where they can mix with airliners and business jets flown by professional pilots. The cockpits of many new-generation, owner-flown turbines–and some piston- driven airplanes–are now digitized, demonstrating to a new generation of pilots how difficult it can be to maintain control of an airplane in the clouds while punching data into a keyboard.

At best, the complexity of these new airplanes represents a recipe for confusion by pilots unaccustomed to flying in the rarefied air of the 20s and 30s. At worst, an owner pilot could be headed toward an FAR violation or an accident. As a result, aircraft manufacturers, major training organizations and insurance companies are offering mentoring programs to prepare owner-pilots stepping up to more sophisticated airplanes for the challenges that accompany flying very light jets and higher-performance single-engine, single-pilot airplanes.

The FAA has rethought how this new generation of aircraft training should be conducted, developing the FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS). According to the new thinking, “The goal [of training today] is to help pilots of technically advanced aircraft (TAAs)–which have more automation and often greater performance capability–develop the risk-management skills and in-depth systems knowledge needed to safely operate and maximize the capability of these aircraft in the National Airspace System.”

Many owner-pilots of such aircraft are entrepreneurs or senior company executives accustomed to calling the shots; they often react strongly to a training regime that assumes everyone must be led through every task the same way.

However, the manufacturers want to be sure that pilots get the real-world training they need. Randy Burke, Cessna’s Mustang pilot program training manager at FlightSafety International, said the mentoring curriculum for the Mustang
is predicated on the notion that “the aircraft becomes the classroom and this is not regular flight instruction. It’s plain old flying.” He added, “Many Mustang customers want and expect single-pilot certification when they purchase their aircraft, but some simply are not ready. To us, total time isn’t much of a qualifier for anything.”

That attitude is in line with the scenario-based FITS approach to training that places the emphasis on training to proficiency rather than reaching a specific number of hours. Both the Eclipse and the Cessna/FSI mentor programs focus on taking the new aircraft and their owners into airports and parts of the country where they’ll experience the kind of flying they want the most help with, whether that’s into the mountains, New York or Los Angeles or out to uncontrolled fields with short runways.

Who Should Be a Mentor?

Randy Brooks, Eclipse Aviation’s director of customer training, explained the importance of connecting this new breed of aircraft customer with the right mentor pilot. “Every pilot thinks he will make a great mentor. Many of the 600 mentor applicants also thought this would be a great way to have some fun in a VLJ while earning $600 a day.”

The right connection between a mentor and a customer hinges on the personality of each. If the fit isn’t just right, the entire program is in danger of failing. Eclipse eventually pared the number of mentor applicants down to 22 and expects to add another half dozen by year-end. Brooks says many mentor applicants were former airline pilots, many with no small aircraft experience. Eclipse does not require mentors to hold a flight instructor certificate. “We really need people who have general aviation experience.” The work is not as easy as many believe, says Brooks: “I think our mentors earn every penny of their daily fee.”

To be certain the right mentors are connected to the right students and that they focus on the areas the new owner-pilot really needs, Cessna evaluates the applicants with a proficiency index profile long before they arrive for the first day of ground school. Chad Martin, Cessna’s manager of pilot and maintenance training, said the profile was developed in conjunction with the insurance companies, which wanted a more complete picture of pilots than only total hours logged.

The Cessna Proficiency Index looks at a number of factors to determine the need for mentoring, including the pilot’s certificates and ratings, total time, total turbine time, total TAA time, single and multi-pilot PIC time, as well as the recency of that experience and the amount of ground and flight training in the 12 months before beginning Mustang training.

Using this data, Cessna determines whether the pilot is ready for the single-pilot type rating or whether he should expect to take the instrument multi-engine refresher course, the turbine transition course, the Garmin 1000 transition course or some combination of all at an FSI Learning Center. If the Mustang is the pilot’s first type rating, FSI recommends at least 25 hours of mentoring time before heading out solo. Some insurance companies might require more.

Like Cessna, Eclipse also uses a matrix to choose the level of mentoring a pilot needs when he completes his type rating.

Standardized Mentoring Programs

NBAA has also chimed in to remind participants that the goal is “to use a mentor pilot until such time that the single-pilot operator acquires the necessary skills and proficiency for safe operation in all flight regimes.” The association further explains that mentors should fill the role of a coach, not a second crewmember.

Robert Barnes, leader of a 300-plus member international VLJ training stakeholder discussion group, believes not all the pieces are in place yet to smoothly integrate a mentor pilot into the daily workflow. To pilot a VLJ or even the single-pilot-certified Citation Mustang, a type rating is required. There is essentially no other formal training required short of what an insurance carrier might need to insure the pilot. “There is also no formal definition of the term mentoring, nor are there any formal guidelines,” according to Barnes.

U.S. pilots accept as normal the possibility that a pilot might require mentoring even after he earns a type rating. In Europe, authorities believe that once the type rating requirements are met, the pilot should be free to act as PIC. Barnes said, “The issue of who is pilot-in-command during mentoring sessions needs to be clearly outlined. Right now, it is not. A mentor who is not clearly in command of the flight has the potential to be a grave hazard.”

The group Barnes leads took part in a survey in February and concluded there should be some form of international VLJ training best practices created to help manufacturers, training providers and insurers more effectively approach those VLJ training issues–including mentoring–proposed beyond current regulatory guidance.

FlightSafety International’s Burke said about two-thirds of the 200 new pilots coming through the Mustang pipeline have opted for the single-pilot certification. One lead mentor pilot on the Mustang said he’d flown only five trips as a mentor since the program began last year. Clearly more of the new Mustang owners not qualifying for single-pilot certification are finding other sources of pilots, such as contract pilot sites, to find the right person to fly along in the right seat. Burke said, “Sometimes the owners are hiring an airline pilot to sit in the right seat.”

When asked if any unusual trends have emerged in the short life of the Eclipse mentoring program, Brooks said, “Absolutely. Several of our customers have asked for more mentoring than they were assigned because they think it works.”