First Flight: Flight Testing your Experimental Aircraft
First Flight: Flight Testing your Experimental Aircraft
Flight testing your homebuilt aircraft for the first time is statistically proven to be a riskier proposition than normal flight operations. Of course this makes sense; the first time a bundle of parts are assembled into an airplane and take flight there are going to be opportunities for things to go wrong.
In this article we’ll talk through some of the strategies you can use to keep yourself safe during this critical operation.
This article will be limited to YOU test flying an airplane that YOU built. I will publish a separate article for self-checkouts, which could be in production or experimental aircraft.
Disclaimer: The information presented herein is for reference only and should not be treated as the definitive word on test flying your homebuilt. You should consult all the relevant material for your aircraft as well as governmental and industry related documentation.
It’s all about you:
First you need to do some significant introspection if you are planning to fly the airplane yourself. Are you proficient in the type of airplane you are testing? Notice I didn’t say current. Currency is a legal requirement; proficiency means I can fly the airplane to a standard. If the answer is ‘no’ do not attempt to test fly your airplane. There are several hired-guns and free test pilots out there that are would be willing to fly your airplane for you. Don’t feel pressured to do this unless you are 100% capable.
If you are in a position to do the flight yourself you should do some prep work regardless of your resume.
- Know your emergency procedures. Certain emergencies dictate that you memorize the critical steps
- Sit in the aircraft and ‘dry fly’ every procedure, especially the emergency ones
- Visualize your flight from start-up to shut-down
- Don’t be afraid to pull the plug on the day of the flight if you are “feeling it”
You need to determine what goals you have in mind for your first flight. I would recommend the following:
- Normal takeoff and climb to at least 3000’ agl
- Determine there are no significant controllability issues
- Conduct slow flight with an approach to stall so you can determine your approach speed (in landing configuration)
- If there are no indications of an issue (engine or airframe), continue flight for a maximum of thirty minutes. I recommend a short flight so you can get it on the ground and pull the cowling and look everything over from top to bottom.
- Normal approach and landing
- Celebrate your success
- Fuel. If you fly thirty minutes I would recommend ½ tanks unless you have significantly large fuel tanks. No need to carry full fuel unless you have a really small fuel capacity
- Be mindful of your CG. Optimally, you should try to load the aircraft to the middle of the envelope, erring forward
- You need to set some weather minimums for your first flight. Obviously VFR, but you need to be able to climb to a conservatively safe altitude and you need favorable winds. This is not the time to be careless. Postponing your flight should be an easy decision
- Bring a knee board or some way to capture important flight data. Many of the modern EFIS systems have this capability, which can free you up to fly the airplane. It still not a bad idea to have a way to take a note.
Your support crew:
- Are you planning to draw a big crowd for your first flight? Don’t! You are inviting outside pressure to cloud your judgment when you need it most. Only invite necessary people for your ground crew. Again, postponing your flight shouldn’t be a high-pressure decision.
- Your ground crew should be equipped with a radio and any emergency equipment you can acquire (hopefully not needed).
- If you are planning on using a chase plane, be sure that you thoroughly brief your expectations and unless you are both trained in formation flying, the chase plane should keep a healthy distance. One benefit of the chase is it might make you more relaxed having someone up there with you
- Everyone on the primary team should be briefed on your planned flight profile and emergency procedures
- The secondary team you should leverage is the local airport infrastructure itself. It would be a good idea to brief the controllers in the tower and any airport fire or police officials, if applicable
- The prime and secondary team are your assets to manage, do not take for granted that they will know what to unless you communicate. It wouldn’t be too much to verbally brief them and then provide a note card with any important details you want to call out
- You need to have a checklist with abnormal and emergency procedures
- Have an alternate airport picked out if you can’t come back to your home field. Especially if your home airport doesn’t have emergency services
- Think through every thing that could go wrong. What will I do if the engine quits on takeoff between 10′ and 1000’? Another example: What do I do if I have a total electrical failure? Airspeed failure? etc. The point is you want to have thought through this before strapping on the airplane
- I would recommend a minimum of a nomex flight suite and nomex gloves, but if you don’t, at least avoid wearing anything synthetic that can melt in the unlikely event there is some kind of fire.
- Have a crash axe or some other way to free yourself from the airplane
- Fire extinguisher on board and one (or more) for the ground crew
- Take lots of video and photos
- Have refreshments there if possible
- If it’s winter, make sure there is a place for you and your crew to find warmth; conversely in the summer, fly early or late to avoid the heat of the day.
We would love to hear your thoughts or questions below in the comment section.
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