Owner Flown: Preparing for the emerging market for owner-flown turbine airplanes

 - October 12, 2006, 10:33 AM

It was 25 years ago last month that New York Yankees team captain Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of his Cessna Citation I. The accident remains one of the most significant in general aviation, especially among those who fly their own turbine-powered aircraft for business, pleasure or both.

With less than 700 hours of total time, Munson, 32, had recently moved up to his new single-pilot Citation from a Beech Duke piston twin. He received a type rating in the jet from FlightSafety International in Wichita as part of the purchase agreement and had almost 40 hours in type when he mushed in short of the runway while performing a series of touch-and-goes at Akron-Canton Regional Airport, near his home in Ohio. Two passengers escaped (including Munson’s primary training instructor in the right seat, who was on his first ride in the cockpit of a jet), but the airplane burned and Munson was unable to get out.

The NTSB blamed the all-star catcher for the crash, pointing out that he was flying the visual approach at an airspeed consistent with full flaps, though he had not extended the flaps for this landing. The report also indicated that he had not consulted his checklist during what was the fourth approach of the sequence.

As with so many celebrity accidents before and since, the publicity was a black eye for all of general aviation. A string of lawsuits and countersuits dragged out for years, with Cessna and FlightSafety ultimately settling with Munson’s estate for a reported $1.69 million. For both companies, the scars have been slow to fade. To this day, manufacturers and training providers remember the Munson scenario as something to be avoided at all costs when selling turbine-powered aircraft to low-time, high-profile pilots.

In the two-and-a-half decades since the Munson accident, the record of owner-flown Citations has been exemplary. As an example, when Cessna introduced its single-pilot CitationJet almost a decade ago, there were fears that another such accident was inevitable. It wasn’t. NTSB records show only three fatal CitationJet accidents (including a midair collision in which the CJ pilot was deemed blameless) and eight non-fatal accidents in the past nine years. Cessna has sold 750 of the Williams-powered twin turbofans, of which it estimates 50 percent are owner-flown.

Cessna took the Munson lesson to heart and has quietly and diplomatically exerted all available influence to ensure that owner-pilots receive comprehensive initial training and regular recurrent sessions. Cessna and its training partners have been successful in instilling a culture among customer pilots that enables them to fly with safety matching that of the professionals.

Particularly with the advent of very light jets–just around the corner, we are told–the issue of non-professional pilots flying turbofan-powered equipment resurrects some of the old issues. At the same time, advances in avionics and aircraft systems make today’s owner-flown operations very different from what they were 25 years ago. The near-term future looks even more dynamic, as the combination of light, relatively inexpensive turbofan twins, the proliferation of glass cockpits (already here) and an ever-evolving air-traffic system will forever change the complexion of the owner-flown business aviation segment.

FAA statistics show that general aviation accident rates improved substantially until the turn of the millennium but they have leveled off since. Early indications for this year, according to the FAA, show that we may be in for an increase in the accident rate–the first such rise in decades.

As always, accidents among non-salaried pilots are dominated by those involving maneuvering (buzzing) and continued VFR flight into IMC. The Flight Safety Foundation, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, National Air Transportation Association and other groups involved in pilot training and evaluation acknowledge there is little that can be done to impart judgment in the training process–and poor judgment is certainly the villain in most of these accidents.

The final NTSB report on a recent accident involving a Piper Malibu (converted to PT6 turboprop power) illustrates, once more, that accidents often leave investigators questioning why the pilot would have attempted the flight in the first place. The Malibu went down over central Florida while trying to penetrate an area of level-6 thunderstorms. The pilot knew before takeoff that the storms were in the area but told controllers he thought he could make it through a small gap in the radar returns.

Some have argued that the decreases in accident rates leading up to 1999 represent the reasonable limit to how much can be done to ensure safety among owner-pilots flying sophisticated turbine aircraft. The term “glass floor” has been used to describe the baseline of such accidents. There are few common denominators among those who crash after exercising questionable judgment. Is it time now to introduce psychological screening to finger student pilots who might be prone to such risk taking before they take lives?

Efforts to improve the accident rate through tweaking the training process at one end and developing avionics hardware and software at the other continue. Among the advances in the latter are more affordable weather, traffic and terrain awareness equipment in the cockpits of smaller personal airplanes.

Moving On Up

Not just pilots, but airframe and engine manufacturers, the FAA, training providers, avionics innovators and insurance companies alter their outlook when the subject changes from simple pistons to complex, high-performance pistons and then to turbines–be they turboprops or turbofans.

Generally, the more sophisticated the airplane, the more capable it is in speed, range, payload, weather avoidance and navigation. With that increase in utility, however, comes greater demand on the pilot to master the airplane and its systems–and to remain current over time. Even after a three-month hiatus, most well trained private pilots could probably fly a Cessna Skyhawk safely across state to visit grandma on a calm, sunny day. The same cannot be said for launching a Mitsubishi MU-2 halfway across the country through a weather front for a make-or-break business meeting.

For that reason, pilots who enjoy flying their own aircraft for business inevitably must decide to accept that there will be some trips that cannot be completed, sometimes halfway there; buy a more capable airplane or avionics suite and budget the time and energy to become a more proficient pilot; or hire a professional pilot as a backup. A groundswell of opinion from such manufacturers as Adam Aircraft, Cessna and Eclipse Aviation indicates that combining the latter two strategies is a really good idea.

Personal Ops Manuals

Given that Part 91 corporate jets flown by salaried pilots provide the safest form of transportation known to the human race, it would seem to behoove personal business pilots to emulate them as closely as practical. At the Aviation Industry Week convention in Las Vegas last May a panel discussion on very light jets suggested that owner-pilots ought to develop a personal “operations manual” that addresses known elements of risk.

Panelists from several of the manufacturers and the FAA talked of establishing a “point system” to assess the risk level of a particular flight. For example, six hours of headache-inducing meetings may represent subtracting two points; an intermittent avionics glitch, subtract two more points; a delay turning a proposed daytime flight to an after-dark affair, subtract six points.

Conversely, if the line of flight covers familiar territory with an easily anticipated routing, add two points; the weather is dominated by high pressure and low dew points, add two points; you have a well rested, capable second pilot to ride in the right seat, add six points; and so on.

Having such a formalized system in place, the panelists said, takes on the role of a risk-evaluator checklist, ensuring that no pertinent factor, plus or minus, falls through the mental cracks when the pilot decides whether to launch or go out to lunch. It replaces a seat-of-the-pants method of evaluating a potential flight that could involve an unforeseen element.

FAR Part 135 certificate holders are required by FAR 135.21 to have operations manuals “acceptable to the Administrator” that spell out for the professional pilots what parameters constitute safe or unsafe operation. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for judgment, but the basic guidelines for wind, weather, runway conditions, minimum equipment, fuel requirements and so on are there in black and white.

Most owner-pilots have no such formal guidance beyond their aircraft’s pilot operating handbook and the sparse FARs regarding currency and safety of flight.

Anyone with an instrument rating who has been actually using it for very long develops “personal minimums” that reflect his or her comfort level. According to Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, they should be adjustable based on elements of the “point system.”

Maybe the pilot is normally comfortable flying to an ILS-equipped airport that has nonprecision minimum ceilings forecast, or to an airport with a nonprecision approach with VFR ceilings and visibility in the offing (assuming the forecast can reasonably be trusted, and/or guaranteed VFR weather is well within range). But maybe the pilot hasn’t flown for six weeks and would rather not tackle the inside of clouds before getting back in the saddle for a flight or two.

One professional Learjet pilot smilingly referred to personal pilots who flew what he called “gentlemen’s IFR”–that is, flying under IFR rules but with a healthy respect for one’s limitations.

When setting personal minimums, it’s vital to work from the assumption that conditions might be better than expected, but probably will not turn up as advertised. It’s the same philosophy that dictates assuming every instrument approach will end in a missed approach.

There should always be more than a couple of safe options included in the flight plan, even if it means ensuring there is enough fuel to fly an hour or more to better weather conditions after missing an approach. Sometimes, the best alternate is the departure airport itself. As aviation humorist Rod Machado once wrote, “After all, that’s where you left your car.”

Developing a personal operations manual could involve consulting with a local instructor who is familiar with the pilot’s skill level, an independent training provider associated with the manufacturer of the airplane or an association such as AOPA or NBAA.

Permission or Forgiveness?

For those who are self-employed or run their own companies, there is no boss to be persuaded to grant permission to fly on business. For the rest of us, however, the problem is not insignificant. Hand in hand with gaining the boss’s approval is the issue of satisfying the company’s liability insurance provider. It seems unfair that an executive v-p can take clients bungee jumping at his crocodile ranch– or to an after-hours nightclub–but taking that one-and-a-half-hour VFR hop over to the next town to sign a contract is verboten.

Several months ago, AIN asked its readers–largely made up of corporate professional pilots–what they thought of company employees flying personal aircraft on business. “Absolutely not” and “a lawsuit looking for a place to happen” were among the more eloquent responses. But other reader pilots recognized that support for their flight department solidified when more and more members of the management team understood, enjoyed and appreciated aviation. In many cases, the flight department came about in the first place because the company founder or a CEO along the way not only recognized the business value of corporate aircraft, but also just liked having them around.

The readers also recognized that a non-salaried pilot could be a safe pilot if he knew his limitations and made good decisions. Albert Murrer is director of national logistics and transportation for Quest Diagnostics, which fields a mixed fleet of turboprop singles and piston twins flying medical samples to and from labs overnight. He told AIN, “Sometimes the owner-pilot is safer than a professional, because he has less ego invested in the go, no-go decision.”

Avionics Competency and Currency

Murrer’s sentiments and those of the owner-pilots in the accompanying sidebars emphasize another common thread. Part of the regime for remaining competent and safe when flying a personal aircraft involves first mastering the avionics of the particular airplane and then working at remaining current. Traditional training methods have not kept pace with the myriad avionics systems and combinations found in most of today’s personal aircraft used for IFR flying.

Two navcoms, a transponder and an ADF used to be referred to as a “full IFR” panel, even in fast, complex turboprop twins flown by professionals. Radios made by different manufacturers still had the knobs and dials in the same basic places, so training was standard.

Then more sophisticated personal aircraft started sprouting autopilots (with or without flight directors), HSIs, DMEs and other enhancements. They dramatically increased the aircraft’s capabilities, but required upgrades in pilot training–especially autopilots. Then came the first GPS navigators, soon to be equipped with moving maps and databases incorporating a wealth of data, including detailed instrument approach information and guidance.

Supported by the computer industry, the maps grew in size, the displays became more sophisticated and the symbology more complex. Airborne radar, lightning detectors and traffic avoidance systems originally had their own separate screens and icons, but software developers taught them to talk to the central navigation system so the data could be overlaid onto the larger navigation screens.

Most recently, terrain database information has been made available and can also be overlaid onto a screen. When the screen becomes overloaded with nonessential information, the pilot can remove layers to simplify the workload.

Understanding how all these different units work together can be an impressive feat of systems analysis. Often the best instructor is the avionics tech who wired it and has the best mental picture of how to coax all the varied components to play nicely together. For the pilot buying an airplane that has already been set up with such a lucrative source of data, it’s best to approach the equipment as if it were an artichoke–one layer at a time.

It’s Getting Simpler, Sort Of

Over the past five years, more fully integrated glass cockpit avionics suites have begun to appear in personal aircraft, and the trend is clearly accelerating. In some cases, buying a new piston aircraft with an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) costs no more than buying the same airplane with conventional mechanical instruments and gauges. With the advent of the Avidyne Entegra, Garmin G1000 and Honeywell Apex systems, it’s conceivable that it won’t be long before most students will be taking their primary training behind glass panels.

The new displays go a step further than the glass cockpits in today’s business jets in one controversial aspect. In the Avidyne Entegra suite, the artificial horizon line extends the full width of the landscape display screen, rather than stopping under the directional gyro as it does on most business jet avionics suites. The object is to place the depiction of the aircraft’s pitch and bank angles well within the pilot’s peripheral vision, even when the eyes are engaged in switching radio frequencies or manipulating some other cockpit device.

Some critics have complained that having the horizon line extend under the airspeed and altitude tapes is a distraction and makes it harder for the eye to pick up the information on the tapes. For someone who is accustomed to a conventional EFIS avionics suite, that is probably true.

Avidyne president and founder Dan Schwinn, however, is committed to the theory that, for a pilot transitioning from old-style mechanical “steam gauges,” the massive screen looks all new, so a more intuitive-looking horizon is less of a bother. For the newbie pilot who has never seen either one, he maintains, the more the display looks like the real VFR world outside the window, the better.

For those who learned to fly behind mechanical gauges, the transition to the new electronic flight instrument systems takes some time–as it did for corporate jet pilots when glass cockpits first appeared in the 1980s. But those pilots had the benefit of mandated initial and recurrent training. Private pilots with thousands of hours flying behind conventional gauges have to go it alone.

The proud owner of a new airplane with an EFIS panel turns to his old instructor for help with the transition. In this case, it’s a matter of both pilots learning together. As this scene plays out repeatedly at airports across the country, there will be more and more proficient instructors who can help their students become familiar with the new avionics.

One way the FAA and industry are addressing the changing state of flying and its associated software is the FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS) program. Though not intended to change the FARs regarding pilot licensing or currency, the FITS program aims to promote affordable training with accredited providers–and to recognize and validate pilots who secure such training.

More important, FITS recognizes the hodgepodge of equipment in the general aviation fleet. Curricula are to be specific not only to an aircraft type, but to each particular cockpit and panel. The training is also tailored to the individual student, meaning that the program can address what the pilot wants to do with the airplane and logically expand the pilot’s repertoire of skill sets, one step at a time.

As Rick Adam, CEO of Adam Aircraft, said during the VLJ panel discussion at the Aviation Industry Week event, “Train for the mission, fly the mission, then train for the next mission.” It’s a philosophy that embodies the FITS concept.

Cirrus Design and Eclipse Aviation are also participating in the FITS program. Insurance companies could become one of the most powerful drivers of the concept, as pilots who achieve FITS recognition for their accomplishments might enjoy lower premiums, as long as they fly within their FITS-recognized skill level and remain current.

The Pilot as a ‘System’

In a way, the FAA–from a certification point of view–has always considered the human pilot to be part of the airplane’s operating equipment. Over the years, the pilot’s responsibilities have included safe and efficient engine operation and navigation. Through its certificate- and rating-training requirements and currency standards, the FAA has “certified” the quality and safety level of the pilot component, just as the agency certified the engineering and manufacturing quality of an aircraft’s control system or landing gear.

Now consider turbine aircraft with single-lever FADEC power controls and computerized engine monitoring. Once set up properly, these airplanes’ multiple GPS receivers, moving maps and highly intuitive displays provide situational awareness at a glance. Timely weather information is becoming more readily available, as are traffic and ground proximity warnings. Modern autopilots can fly en route and approach procedures far more precisely than the human in the left seat.

The equipment is all certified as reliable. So where does that leave the skill level of the pilot? Relieved of the mundane chores of tracking VORs, holding altitude, tweaking engine controls and looking up approach plates after a last-minute runway change, will tomorrow’s pilots be less proficient than their forebears? And is that OK?

It’s hard to argue that the old salts who flew turbo-compound, radial-engine aircraft on four-course-range approaches to a few hundred feet weren’t sharper pilots than today’s GPS- and ILS-dependent needle followers. But flying today is certainly safer than it was in the old days.

What is unclear so far is whether the FAA is comfortable with putting less demand on the pilot, or whether the agency will assume the same level of proficiency for the human link in the chain when it decides how complex it will make the pilot’s responsibilities in the airspace system of tomorrow. In other words, will air traffic controllers expect more from pilots in the way of en route workload once pilots have less to keep them busy in the cockpit?

Very Light Jets and the Owner-pilot

Among the contending VLJ developers, estimates vary on how many of their aircraft will be professionally flown, as opposed to owner-flown. Avocet predicts its ProJet will be just that–an airplane designed to be flown by professionals. The target markets are overnight package delivery, other cargo applications and the so-called air-limo operators.

In contrast, Rick Adam at Adam Aircraft anticipates that the majority of his A700s will be flown by the person who writes the checks. Other manufacturers, including Cessna with its Mustang and Eclipse with its Eclipse 500, are less forthcoming in their estimates, preferring to wait until closer to certification to define their markets.

How the VLJ marketplace shakes out will have a deep effect on those who choose to buy and fly them. For instance, if an air-limo industry does spring from a VLJ revolution, FBOs across the nation will have to adapt their ramps, terminals and business plans to accommodate high-frequency arrivals and departures. FBOs’ operating economics will have to address volume fuel arrangements and their passenger facilities will need to reflect security concerns and federal requirements.

JFK Jr., Five Years Later

Unlike Thurman Munson 25 years ago, John F. Kennedy Jr. wasn’t flying a turbine-powered airplane when he crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard a little over five years ago. But with the proliferation of turbine singles since then, it can be assumed that he might have been, had the timing been a little different. Regardless, the circumstances of his accident still speak to the risks involved when non-professional owner-pilots make go/no-go decisions.

It was all too easy to condemn JFK Jr. for attempting to fly his Piper Saratoga to an island off the coast of Cape Cod in questionable weather conditions without holding an instrument rating. But examining the sequence of events leading up to the accident reveals a more complex set of circumstances. What if the young pilot had used a point system to evaluate the flight?

On the minus side, he hadn’t yet passed his instrument checkride; haze and low visibility dominated the weather; there was pressure to get to the destination (a wedding); and, very important, what was planned as a daytime flight was delayed until after dark.

On the plus side, Kennedy had been training intensely over the preceding months for his instrument flight test; he had navigated to Martha’s Vineyard dozens of times in his Saratoga, and had even flown a practice ILS to the airport recently with his instructor; and he was flying a highly capable airplane with a good autopilot.

Given the outcome, it’s hard to argue in favor of launching on such a trip. Judging Kennedy’s legacy as a pilot remains an individual matter, but more important is the value of the lessons learned by the tragedy. Once backed into a pressure situation, he obviously found circumstances too compelling not to rationalize his way into taking off.

Had he had a personal operations manual in black and white to consult, he may have been convinced that the minuses were stacking up and the plusses were ebbing away. Had he talked it over with an experienced mentor pilot unswayed by the strong desire to get to the destination, then just maybe he would have called an instructor to fly with him, chartered an airplane with an experienced crew or made his excuses for missing the evening’s festivities and flown out the next day.

Instead, three young lives were lost and the image of non-professionals flying their personal aircraft acquired another stain. Like the Munson accident, the only positives this accident offers are the lessons we can learn about not repeating it.