John Mahany has been flying for more than 30 years. He is a CFI and has corporate, airline, and charter experience, and also spent four and one-half years flying in Alaska. He currently is a King Air instructor at FlightSafety International in Long Beach, Calif.—Ed.
Nearly every pilot aspires to move up, or upgrade to bigger, faster airplanes at some point. After all, isn’t that one of the main reasons why we fly? To get there faster, and carry more payload, right?
Upgrading to “bigger and faster” is relative. It depends on what you are flying now, and what you have in mind. If you are a new private pilot who has been flying a Cessna 150/152 or similar for primary training, you might simply want to move up to a 172 or Piper Warrior/Archer to carry more passengers and bags, as well as the ability to go farther, faster.
On the other hand, you might already be an aircraft owner and are using your airplane for business or personal transportation; it may be time for you to step up to a bigger airplane. It all depends on your mission. This could mean stepping up to turbocharging, multiengine, or even a turboprop or entry level jet (very light jet, aka VLJ). Simply stated, the bigger the step, the more there is. What kind of flying do you need to do? What are your requirements for speed, range, and payload? That will define what you need to consider.
Moving up from a typical two-place trainer to a Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior/Archer is a relatively simple process. There are no endorsements required. You would need to pick up the airplane flight manual (AFM), or information manual, as it might also be called, and spend time reviewing it.
Read it cover to cover. It’s not exciting, but it includes important information about the airplane and its systems. And then schedule time with an instructor, on the ground, first to review the systems and performance as appropriate. Work out a sample weight and balance for a typical flight, as well as for your favorite destination. How much fuel can you take with all the seats filled? You may find that you can’t fill the seats with full fuel, especially on a hot summer day. How much more runway will it take for takeoff and landing on a summer day with a high density altitude? Every airplane has its limits. Every summer some pilots seem to forget this and have a density altitude related crash on takeoff.
Keep in mind that the performance numbers as given in the POH/AFM are optimistic, generated by the marketing department, designed to sell airplanes. They do not accurately reflect the likely performance of an older, high-time piston engine and the average pilot whose skills are not at the top of his game. They are numbers that a test pilot would get in a new airplane with a new engine. So, conservatively, add at least 10 percent or more to the performance numbers to be more realistic.
Then, with your CFI, go fly for at least an hour and get a feel for it, going through maneuvers, takeoffs, and landings. Especially, work through stalls and slow flight. See how it feels and handles on the back side of the power curve. How does it handle on the stall break? Is it gentle or abrupt? Find out at a safe altitude (at least 3,000 feet agl) with an experienced CFI. You don’t want surprises in the traffic pattern.
Check with your aircraft insurance broker early in the process to find out what training your insurance will require, based on your experience (flight time), before you can fly this airplane. This is important. The FAA stipulates under FAR 61 which certificates and ratings are required to fly a given airplane as the pilot in command. But the insurance company will tell you what you will need before it will insure you to fly this airplane as PIC.
Why? The insurance company writes the checks following an accident or incident. For example, if you are a low-time pilot who wants to step up to a high-performance single (Bonanza or Cirrus) or light twin-engine airplane, insurance may require, after you have completed the formal training, that an experienced mentor pilot or CFI fly or ride with you for 10 to 50 hours or more before “approving” you to fly your airplane alone.
More airplane usually means more engine(s), more horsepower, and more fuel. Translation: more money to operate on an hourly basis. Depending on how high you step up, this will determine the level of training required. I should point out that there are separate endorsements for complex (FAR 61.31 (e)); high-performance, (more than 200 HP) (FAR 61.31 (f)), and high altitude, above FL 250 (FAR 61.31(g)).
If you are moving up to a turbocharged aircraft, you will likely need the high-performance endorsement. You will need to learn how the turbocharging system operates, along with the power settings and operational techniques for that particular engine. When a piston engine is turbocharged, some of the exhaust gases are redirected back into the intake manifold, along with incoming ambient outside air. This enables the engine to develop greater horsepower at sea level, and it typically is able to maintain sea level horsepower as you climb up to some specified altitude, typically in the mid-teens.
If you are considering stepping up to multiengine flying, welcome to the world of twin engine operations. Multiengine training typically takes between 10 and 20 hours, depending on your proficiency and where you train. You will be limited to VFR flying unless you also include instrument flying as part of your training and checkride.
Please also understand that a typical light twin has two engines because it needs both engines. If an engine fails, especially on takeoff, you will lose 85 percent of the performance! Unless you are proficient in multiengine, engine-out procedures, the loss of the second engine will only take you to the scene of the accident. Regular, ongoing proficiency training is a must in any light twin. Your insurance will require this.
Upgrading to bigger, faster airplanes is something that nearly every pilot will experience at some point. Find a competent instructor with experience in make and model, and take it a step at a time. Spend the necessary time to become properly acquainted with it, especially learning about any quirks. This will also depend on your experience and what else you have flown. You will be a better, safer pilot for it. We will all benefit from that!—John Mahany