Flight Testing Homebuilts: Are You Ready

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by Lt Col Mike ‘Vac’ Vaccaro

            It’s been discussed and written about quite a bit in the experimental/amateur built community, but it’s worth inclusion in any safety program geared toward operation of EAB aircraft:  are you ready to fly your newly built or newly acquired plane?  I’m always impressed by the number of pilots that will agonize over

Test Flying

what type of engine or avionics to install in an airplane, but when I ask if they have an instrument rating they reply, “no, I have no intention of flying in the weather…”  With a bit of extrapolation, this line of thinking can be translated to “I’m willing to invest as much as I can to make my plane the best it can be, yet I may be hesitant to invest in the most critical component in the airplane, me.”  I hear all manner of rationalization to support this idea that somehow the airplane is more important than the pilot, and if it can just be made right, it will take care of the aviator.  Unfortunately, things don’t really work this way.  The pilot is the single most critical “component” in the airplane, period.  It is always more efficient and effective to invest in the pilot than it is to invest in equipment.  To put it another way, a good pilot with marginal equipment is safer than a marginal pilot with good equipment.

So that brings to the first point to ponder when considering if you’re ready to fly your new airplane, have you invested properly in the most critical component in that airplane?

Thoughts for builders 

If you are building, this may mean a series of trade-offs throughout the process to ensure that you are current, but more importantly, QUALIFIED when you strap into the airplane for the first time.  One approach is to equip the airplane to grow with the pilot.  If you are a newly minted private pilot, you may not want to equip your experimental with F-35 fire control technology, but rather a relatively straight forward suite of basic avionics that can be added to over time as you progress in your own capability.  This is even more important in the current era of avionics revolution, especially when you consider the half-life of any “latest and greatest” technology to be about five years at best.  During the building process, that money would serve better purpose to maintain proficiency or to achieve advanced ratings.

Training vs. Flag-pole Flying.  If resources are limited, it is more effective use of your flying dollars to be involved in continual upgrade training (instrument, aerobatics, commercial, etc.) than it is to simply fly around the flag pole, even if this cuts the overall number of hours you are able to fly.  One hour of dual upgrade instruction may cost as much as two or three hours of flag pole flying, but will make you a better pilot.

Reality Check:  This is expensive.  Because aviation is something we pursue as a passion, there isn’t always a lot of reasoned thought involved, but rather, much more rationalization.  Unfortunately, this is merely self-delusion in many cases.  As a private pilot, there isn’t much required in the way of regulations defining what is meant by “current” and “qualified,” so let’s take a look at those terms.  A recent AOPA poll showed that the average active pilot spends about $10,000 dollars per year on personal flying.  You have to ask yourself if you have the resources to invest this amount of money to maintain your flying habit while you are building.

Ramp-up training.  If all of your resources are required for building, so be it.  If that’s the case, you’ll need to objectively assess your ability prior to the beginning of Phase I.  You have two options at that point:  1.  Utilize a test pilot or 2.  Complete sufficient ramp-up training to make sure you’re ready.  If you choose option 2, be honest with yourself and make sure you’re really ready to strap your newly minted homebuilt on before you fly it.  This ramp-up training could be expensive and will likely take some time, so you’ll need patience to do it right—don’t set an unrealistic time limit.

Thoughts for All Pilots

“Current” means sufficient recent experience to ensure that the pilot is “qualified” to accomplish the desired flight or task.  We’ll come back to the “qualified” discussion a bit later, but what does “current” really mean?  As in all things aviation, the answer is “it depends.”  It depends on how long you have been flying, how much and what type of experience you have, the quality of the training you received, your physical condition, mission preparation, the amount of support you’ll receive during the flight and your personal risk management skill set.  If you flew professionally, these requirements would be laid out in a set of operating specifications, company manuals or military regulations all supported by robust training and safety programs.  In the self-policing world of private aviation, we are largely on our own, and in the case of EAB aircraft operation, we have the added dynamic of maintenance and flight test/performance considerations that are absent from operation of certified types.  In many cases, we will face challenges that will never confront an airline or military pilot, so a large part of the “currency” equation is are you ready to face these challenges?

Interestingly, old, experienced pilots make just as many mistakes as young, inexperienced pilots—they are simply better at catching those errors or mitigating potential bad outcomes by managing risk more effectively.  If we think of flying in terms of a simple observe, decide, act model, “currency” means that we can efficiently flow through that process for the desired task.  A lack of currency means we may be slow to observe, decide or act.  This varies by individual, but a typical pilot will likely find that basic skills (for example, takeoff and landing) will suffer some degradation if it’s been more than about 7-10 days since the last time that skill set was utilized.  Have you ever had to remind your feet to wake-up on a takeoff roll as you raised the tail?  If you felt just a little “behind the power curve,” then that’s telling you that you’ve exceeded a personal “currency” comfort limit.  It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fly solo if you haven’t performed a takeoff or landing in the previous 14 days, it just means that if it’s been a while, you need to increase your vigilance through preparation.  In this case, a simple mental review of the takeoff procedure prior to taking the runway is one risk mitigation measure.  In this example, thinking about when you’ll have to apply rudder, what cross-wind control input will be required and reminding yourself that focus needs to be at the far end of the runway or beyond, etc.

Two primary techniques are used by professional aviators to plan and execute any flight:  A.  Robust standard operating procedures; and/or B.  Mission planning/briefing and critical de-briefing at the conclusion of the flight/mission.  Any pilot can adopt portions of these techniques to provide a basic framework for personal flying.  Perhaps the easiest thing to do is sit down with a pad and simply jot down a typical flight briefing from start to finish in outline form, adding to it as thoughts pop up or experience is gained.  This will become a personal “briefing guide” that forms the structural frame work for all of your flying.  The trick is to develop a good habit of always executing the same flow, because you’ll be surprised how often you catch yourself making mistakes of omission.  A good brief/game plan should include sufficient “what if” to cover most contingencies you expect during that flight.  At the conclusion of the flight, a few minutes spent digesting key points is also worthwhile, even if this just means a few minutes of critical thinking.  Did things go as planned?  Did I learn something new today?  Do I need to do any follow up study or check with my peers or a mentor to figure this out?

“Current and Qualified” 

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Private flying that we enjoy in the United States is a tremendous privilege that is, effectively “de-regulated” to a great extent.  What?  Am I serious?  De-regulated?  Don’t we see the FAA as “big brother” and the massive amount of regulation as onerous?  I don’t, and here’s my thinking:  in this country, I can test for a private certificate with 40 hours of flying time, if I earn the certificate, I can keep it current with 12 takeoffs and landings per year, a “flight review” (not a check ride) every 24 months and medical exam every two or three years depending on age.  Not much to hang your hat on, but it does mean you’re “qualified.”

I’ll also share my own personal set of annual “training squares.”  This is how I define “current” for myself, and my intention is not to start a debate, but simply to share a personal technique.  I have a “buddy IP (instructor pilot, military slang for CFI)” that serves as my sounding board and assists with regaining any lost currency.  The primary technique I employ is to simply not lose currency!  I keep things simple by flying a dedicated “handling” sortie at least once per month.  That mission has a standard profile that includes aerobatics, stalls, slow flight, confidence maneuvers (Steep Turns, Lazy 8’s, etc), unusual attitude/ballistic recoveries (I use a 3000’ AGL minimum altitude for all air work), holding, precision and non-precision instrument approaches (flown in VMC), a visual straight-in, normal and no-flap landings, and a “simulated flame out” (i.e, no engine) pattern.  “How” I fly each of these maneuvers is spelled out in my pilot’s operating handbook for our plane.  I endeavor to fly the plane 100 hours per year (about 8 hours per month), so if I’m not going anywhere in particular, a “handling” sortie becomes my primary plan if I’m just flag-pole flying.

Thanks to Mike ‘Vac’ Vaccaro for his insightful article!

Vac is an USAF Lt Colonel with a Master of Science Degree from Embry-Riddle. He is experienced in several high performance military and civilian aircraft. He owns and flies an RV-4.

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