Flight Level Flight

October 19, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

I’ve  enjoyed the privilege of being invited into the flight levels by friends and co-workers, sometimes as PIC and other times just a radio operator/navigator. (Remember when those used to be career fields once upon a time?–but it’s not a growth area these days.) Last week it was high and fast flight on board a friend’s Cessna 441. The trip was East coast to Vegas for NBAA and a speech, then to Prescott, AZ to visit Embry Riddle’s western campus, where I sit on a safety advisory board, then to California to visit Foundation donors and return.

A couple of observations: First, everyone reading this blog knows that GA makes trips possible that would be impossible or completely impractical on the airlines–wish some in our government could understand that. (The Foundation is working on the image education aspect for the general public.)

Secondly, flight in the flight levels is usually much easier than down low. I’m always amazed at the simple operation of turbines compared to pistons: no leaning, no shock cooling, easy starting – etc. Flying high over the mountains is much better than slogging through up and down drafts, dealing with ice and not being able to see boomers nearly as well.

There is turbulence up high but not nearly as much and it is well forecast. There is great psychological comfort in knowing that if you’re getting the bejabbers kicked out of you on takeoff or descent, it will usually be over in a few minutes. Also a highly wing loaded aircraft rides the waves better.  Down low, I’ve had flights where it’s best to resign yourself to a long and largely uncomfortable ride. Best to cancel those trips if passengers are going. Icing? Not very often at -20C.

The machines, while complex are also highly reliable with lots of redundancy–not perfect–but very good. Training tends to be much better for turbine pilots because the hull values are high so insurers want to protect their investment. Owners usually also want to protect those reliable and very expensive engines by understanding how they work. The avionics are now largely comparable between high and low altitude aircraft but I remember well both flying and teaching basic IFR in basic aircraft–no autopilot, and no flight director. The workload was a lot higher by looking multiple places for information. After seeing my first flight director the awe that I held for high end pilots largely evaporated. (“Just tuck the V-bars into the wedge son and adjust your power on the way down until getting to minimums”–but I digress. )

Next week we should talk about oxygen. In the meantime, is it your experience that bigger aircraft are generally easier to fly or not?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Richard


    Yes, with the heavier wing loading and just heavier in general, bigger aircraft are much easier and nicer to fly than a C-172. I have time in a Cheyenne, Aztec, and Bonanza along with the C-172/182 and I’ll take any of the former over the latter any day…turblance just eases away and I actually fly IFR better than I do in the C-172/182.

    Keep up the good blog entries!

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Richard ….The wing loading makes a big difference in the ride and the only time I’d want light loading is in forced landing situation (except) on a nice calm morning when the small birds are great fun to fly…..Bruce

  • http://www.theliedsonthelake.com Jim Lied

    When center points out severe weather ahead, it’s great to be able to respond “no factor, we are above it!” Jim

  • http://Www.bje.bz Kevin Jordan

    I flew Falcons 10,20,200,Sabreliner,and Gulfstream II, III for 20 years. It is far easier in the big airplanes. Besides performance, you get preferential treatment by ATC. I’ll tell you something else, ATC treats jets better than turboprops.
    I own a 414 now, and while it is a good airplane, there are a lot of challenges that don’t exist with turbines. I laugh at the ongoing debates about single pilot certification of some jets. Any jet is easy to fly compared to pressurized twins, and as for the old saw of “things happen too fast in a jet for one pilot”, all jets are specially equipped with big levers, and if you pull them back, you slow way down.

  • Dave Alexander

    I flew KC-135’s high and fast. IMC lasted maybe 10 minutes on either side of the trip, otherwise it is virtually always severe clear on top in the big iron.

    Also true, the go-levers for turbine power are much similar that mixture, prop pitch, cowl flaps, etc.

    Large airplane flying is actually slower-paced than small airplane flying. Yes the airplane goes much faster, but since everything else in big iron flying is also correspondingly larger ( the leg lengths, the decent, the pattern, even the size of the high altitude sectors of ATC center) the result is a much more leisurely flight experience.

    My hats off to small airplane pilots, especially single-pilot IFR, of which I am now one. Our flying is far, far more difficult to do safely.

  • Jim D

    I agree with all your points. I flew jets in the Navy and have been telling GA pilots that for a long time. In a fast aircraft you have to think farther ahead but engine management and flight conditions are generally much better. IMC at FL350 would be rare and avoidable. My biggest concern in GA aircraft is icing. In a turbine you just flip a switch. In a Bonanza with no anti-ice it takes a lot more planning to avoid it, and inadvertent conditions result in much higher stress levels, especially in the mountainous West where climbing out of it is not an option.

  • Chuck C

    I’m now flying a King Air B-200. I agree with all the comments regarding the benefits of turbo-props. An important advantage that I don’t believe has been mentioned is the ability to drop power to flight idle and use the big 4-blade flat pitched props as parachutes. Coupled with pressurization controls, you can get down easily at 3,000+ ft/min, not to mention the availability of reverse if needed on landing.

    The twin turbo-prop is clearly much easier to operate than a twin piston. Likely more reliable, but also much more expensive.


  • Paul M.

    Turbines…absolutely easier to fly than the Bonanzas/Barons I was accustomed to. Been a pilot for 36 years. Started flying a King Air 90B about 6 years ago. My first impression was “look at all the switches, this looks tough.” It proved to be insanely easy. The 90 is a great aircraft. Recently started flying a King Air 200GT. The ProLine 21 package really decreases the pilot workload.

  • Blair

    Of approximately 2,000 hour TT, I have logged approximately 665 in KingAirs and 550 in the Beechcraft Premier with the vast majority single pilot. While agreeing with the previously posted comments, it should be noted that when something goes wrong in the jet, problem solving can be far more complex. The failure of a critical system yields a dash full of warning lights.
    In general, piloting the jet is more about managing systems than hands on flying as pilots are taught to engage the Auto-Pilot at 1500 AGL on take off and release it on short final. So when everything is working properly, which is does with greater reliability than in piston powered aircraft, the work load is dramatically less.

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