Jet Transition: Fast-Track or Step-Up?

Jet Transition: Fast-Track  or Step-Up?

Jet Transition: Fast-Track or Step-Up?

For decades, the path to advancement in high-end personal or business aviation was clear: learn to fly in a simple, fixed-gear single-engine airplane. After a time check out in a high-performance piston airplane, that is, one with more than 200 horsepower, usually with a controllable-pitch propeller. You’d probably earn your instrument rating in this airplane. Next, get into a light retractable-gear airplane and, after a few hundred hours, transition to a heavier retract. When the time (and your experience) was right, pick up your multi-engine rating in a low-horsepower light twin, and later move into a heavier piston twin. Only after all this experience you might consider turbine transition, into a turboprop twin. Several hundred  or more hours of experience later, get your jet type rating.

But is that still the “right” way to get into today’s stable of light, single-pilot jets?

The industry is geared toward this “brand loyalty” progression. Cessna and Piper had products that took you from simple trainer to turboprops and, in the case of Cessna, into that destination light jet. A couple of decades later, at least for a while all Cessna products from its entry-level trainers to smaller Citation jets all featured nearly identical Garmin G1000 panels, a move made in part to make it easier to move up through the model line. Other manufacturers didn’t cover the entire progression, but tried for those airplanes coming off their lines. For example, although Beechcraft never made a huge splash in the training market (it’s Musketeer/Sierra/Duchess line tried, without success, to capture a major market share), in 1984 Beech redesigned the “heavy retract” Bonanza and twin-engine Baron with what its sales brochure called “turbine-style” panel gauges and engine controls, looking as close to the turboprop King Air panel as they could.

Surely this is the way to become qualified in a single-pilot jet: gain hundreds of hours of experience in each succeeding step upward in complexity and performance, both of the airplane and the airspace in which it flies.  But is it necessary to work your way incrementally up the line over several years, sometimes having to reach back decades in airplane model and equipment to fill a gap when there is no current-production equivalent available?

Do you need to buy-sell-buy-sell-buy, and sell again, going through the hassles of swapping airplanes every few years when you can buy the jet you want now and train in it until you are single-pilot ready? Do you have to step up incrementally to achieve your goal, or in today’s world, can you efficiently fast-track your way into the jet you want far sooner?

What It Takes

For purposes of this discussion we’ll assume money is no object. You can afford the airplane(s) personally, or through some combination of business use and tax advantages have what you owe the government diverted to cover most or all the costs of owning and operating your aircraft. Given the financial solution, what it takes to fly a light jet is training and experience. Recall that experience can be defined as learning by what happens to you, while training can be considered learning from the experiences of others. Training does not necessarily mean time spent with a Certificated Flight Instructor, but flying with a trained aviation educator is probably the most predictably successful way of learning to fly advanced aircraft.

Therefore, what is the minimum training and experience you need to fly a single-pilot jet? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not all that much. At a minimum you’ll need a:

  • Private Pilot certificate;
  • Instrument rating;
  • Multi-engine rating, if the jet has two (or more) engines;
  • High Performance endorsement (although arguably this does not apply since jet thrust is not normally measured in horsepower);
  • High Altitude endorsement;
  • RSVM qualification, if the jet will be flown above FL290;
  • Type Rating for the make and model of jet to be flown;
  • Single-pilot authorization for that make/model jet, if the type rating distinguishes between single-pilot and two-pilot crew.
  • Except for the 40 total hours required for the Private certificate and the 40 hours of dual required for the Instrument rating (some of which may overlap), there are no further minimum hours required to fly as single pilot of a light jet. Of course, no one is going to get in the left seat of a jet in 80 hours of training (solo time toward the Private is technically supervised instruction). But you don’t have to have 2,000 or 1,500 or even 500 or 300 hours total time to earn single-pilot jet privileges.

The real question is: what do you need to know to be in command of a light jet? In addition to the basics of visual, instrument and night flight, you’ll need to master operations in all these arenas. You’ll need intimate familiarity with both low- and high-altitude airspace rules and requirements. You must be an expert on aviation weather in the low and high altitude regimes. Human factors education is vital as you’ll be operating at a fast pace under extreme workloads in all kinds of weather with pilot fatigue as a constant concern. On top of this all, you need to know your airplane’s systems, procedures and techniques intimately, in normal, abnormal and emergency conditions. (One hint: if you aren’t familiar with the difference between “abnormal” and “emergency” procedures, you aren’t ready for a jet yet). The Type Rating Practical Test, in fact, focuses sharply on your knowledge of the airplane and its systems. It’s the same, exact check ride you’d take to earn your ATP. The only difference is you don’t have to have at least 1,500 hours; you aren’t required to do the simulator training now required to earn an ATP; and you don’t need to pass the ATP written exam to get a type rating. However, you must perform at the ATP level, even if you’re a Private/IFR pilot.

How To Get It

This brings us back to our original question: what is the best way to get all this experience? Is it better to learn incrementally, gradually moving your way up while delaying your end goal? Or can you go virtually straight from first airplane (trainer) to last (single-pilot jet), from Alpha to Omega, without the years in between?

Certainly, it’s possible to make the jump to jet-speed in one great leap. That’s what the military does, right? Jet pilots go into combat with less than 400 hours. For a while the U.S. Air Force started pilots on Day One in jet airplanes. Why learn propeller habits when your target is mastery of a jet? Of course, military pilots don’t even begin training until they’ve passed a battery of physical and knowledge testing that eliminates most those who apply before they ever strap into an airplane. Pilot training is a full-time, seven-day-a-week job. Trainees don’t have to run a business or manage a practice to afford the jet they fly; all they do is learn to fly jets. Training is extremely regimented and fast-paced, with little tolerance for those who can’t keep up, even when they are well along with their training. Those who can’t pick things up quickly are washed out. 

Most civilian, single-pilot jet pilots live in a different world, where flying airplanes is secondary to what they must focus on professionally. They do not face involuntary elimination from training. If they can pay the bills and pass a medical they can continue to fly. If they fail a check ride they can take it again and again as many times as they want until they pass. So “military pilots step right into jets, so can I” is not a valid argument for the single-pilot jet hopeful.

However, working your way up the line step-by-step is no guarantee of success either. Just because you fly a particular model of airplane does not mean you have mastered it, and to paraphrase what they say in financial circles, past performance in less-complex or capable airplanes does not guarantee success in the next step up. Whether you build experience incrementally or you leap to the top, success—and survival—require these traits:

An attitude of continuous learning, with a commitment to study outside the cockpit every week;

Unfailing commitment of time and money to regularly scheduled training. Training is part of the cost of ownership just like an oil change, and training events do not get pushed back or canceled because of business commitments;

Extreme discipline to fly to standards…and better;

Complete fluency with the avionics: no fumbling with buttons, no “what is it doing now?” moments;

Ability and willingness to fly very frequently, two or more days a week;

A strong sense of personal commitment to flying excellence and an honest appraisal of their performance on every flight;

Acceptance of flying as a second career, one that frankly you’re probably not yet as good at as the one that pays for your airplane.

Many pilots take a long time to realize these traits all apply to them. Generally, we come to that realization only by making mistakes—hopefully not too terrible—and coming away with another “I’ll never let that happen again” experience. If you move up too rapidly you’ll have to learn those lessons quickly from someone else, and severely limit what you let yourself do in the jet until you assimilate them.

You may choose to enjoy the journey, and gradually earn experience as you move up through successively more capable airplanes. Or you may have the means and urgency to move directly from piston single to single-pilot jet. Ultimately, safety and success depend more on your attitude and discipline applied to whatever type of airplane you fly. Fast-track or step-up, you need extreme commitment, professionalism, and a willingness to admit you will never know it all…but must keep working to try. 

Flying Direct To Jets Leading Light Jet Instructor Discusses Moving from Piston

With high-performance airplanes increasingly used as initial aircraft, it’s becoming more common for pilots to fast-track themselves directly from first airplane to jet. Introduction of the Eclipse 500 and Citation Mustang led to the concept of a “mentor pilot,” an experienced right-seater – usually, but not always, a certificated instructor – to guide the new jet pilot through the transition after earning the type rating but before the pilot flies completely alone in the cockpit.

There is no requirement for this aerial internship in the Federal Air Regulations. If you’ve passed the type ride you’re qualified, as far as the FAA is concerned. The insurance industry, however, frequently requires 25 or more hours of flight time of Supervised Operational Experience with a mentor pilot.

2010 National CFI of the Year Jeffrey Robert Moss is one of the best-known jet mentor pilots in the industry. MossY is typed in several single-pilot jets and has had enormous success in creating highly qualified jet captains from low-experience pilots who have made the leap from first airplanes, usually a Cirrus SR22 or Cessna Corvalis/TTx. Part of that success, he says, is inherent in the pilot who buys one of these technologically advanced piston airplanes as a first aircraft.

“They like to be on the cutting edge of technology,” Moss said. “They want to go higher, faster, farther.”

These pilots are comfortable and completely proficient with the ubiquitous G1000 flight deck. They might not be thinking about jets when they first learn to fly, but they tend to consider airplanes “people movers” rather than the traditional pilot who flies more for fun. As they see the freedom and utility of personal flight and their travel needs call for more speed and capability, they look past the array of intermediate airplanes and move right into the light jet that happens to permit a single-pilot crew.

Moss doesn’t just fly around with new jet owners. He follows a stringent 25-hour flight syllabus that delivers a lot of experience in this short span of time.

“That’s what the mentor pilot is there for,” he added, to “take them out of their comfort zone” and put them in crafted, real-world situations that force them to make decisions about weather, fuel reserves, and approaches at nontowered airports.

“About 10 percent of them can’t complete [the syllabus] in six days and need more time,” MossY reported. “Seven of 10 of those were typed in a simulator” and had little or no actual airplane time before beginning their mentorship. Lest you think this is marketing, Moss is a simulator instructor as well. However, he prefers to “type in the jet, then verify in a simulator.”

In Moss’s experience, pilots who move directly into jets are “much more receptive to training” than those who have worked their way up the traditional way. He prefers pilots to earn their multi-engine rating in the jet so they don’t have to unlearn the “mixture, prop, throttle, identify, verify, feather” routine used in piston twins, which is contrary to how engine-outs are handled in jets.

His experience is that pilots who have a lot of unsupervised flight time in turboprops have much more difficulty becoming single-pilot jet proficient, because they must unlearn a lot of their turboprop and piston habits. Overall, Moss thinks the glass cockpit single-engine piston to single-pilot jet transition is “the most efficient path to a type rating” in a single-pilot jet.

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