Flying with Chip
What you should know about flying in a small airplane.
My airplane, N207LT, is certificated as an Experimental - Amateur Built. This is a different category of airplane than the Cessnas
and Pipers that you might be more familiar with. Those are Standard Type Aircraft. Standard Type certificated aircraft have a
relatively strict list of parts and procedures that must be used to build and repair the airplane. One of the downsides of this is that
certificated aircraft are very restricted in what kind of avionics they can use. The instrument panel in N207LT is vastly superior
to most Standard Type aircraft.
While experimental airplanes are not as tightly controlled as Standard Type aircraft, that doesn't mean that they can't be as safe.
N207LT was built from a kit supplied by Van's Aircraft. There are over 8000 completed and flying Van's airplanes, a number that
compares with how many Standard Type airplanes are out there. The kit came with a complete set of well proven parts and good
assembly instructions. Most of the construction steps are not too difficult and don't require special skills. There are a number of
training resources available for aircraft builders, and Van's kit builders enjoy the industry's best online community in the form
of Van's Airforce. I did the best job I could building this airplane, and I have received many complements on the workmanship.
A common question is "Does your airplane have to be inspected?" Prior to flight, the FAA only requires a
final inspection before granting an airworthiness certificate, but I also had periodic inspections by a number of experienced airplane builders.
Another item required by the FAA is that I have to carefully inspect the airplane once a year to make sure it is in good
operating condition. I take this seriously and spend about a month taking off all the inspection panels, inspecting the airframe parts,
checking all the nuts and bolts, plumbing and wiring, and verifying that the engine is in good operating order.
As part of the certification process, I have to abide by a set of Operating Limitations. This is a letter that was provided by
the FAA designated examiner when my airplane was officially inspected. The operating limitations say things like no commercial
operations, no aerobatics (I will not be doing loops and rolls!),
and I have to display the following statement:
- PASSENGER WARNING-
THIS AIRCRAFT IS AMATEUR-BUILT AND
DOES NOT COMPLY WITH FEDERAL SAFETY
REGULATIONS FOR STANDARD AIRCRAFT
This placard might seem scary at first. But I can tell you that I did my best to follow good construction practices. You
often don't have look too hard on factory built aircraft to find examples of construction practices that are not as good as what I did.
I don't want to represent my work as flawless, but it's a very solid airplane - it's not going to come apart.
One thing to keep in mind about flying in a light plane is that insurance companies don't like them very much. They frequently have
exceptions in their coverage with regards to flying in a light plane. In other words, you should carefully look at your insurance
policies. You might not be covered when in a small plane. You'll have to decide if this is a reason to not fly with me or anyone else.
That brings up the topic of safety, and the number one reason that people don't want to fly - they don't like small planes, or
they're afraid of them.
I usually try to take people up early on nice days. This avoids the worst of the bumpiness and makes your first small plane ride
much more enjoyable.
I won't be doing any abrupt manuevering or anything else intended to impress or scare you. I might let you fly a little bit, if you
So let's talk about safety. People, especially Americans, have a highly distorted risk scale. They think nothing of talking on their
cell phone in rush hour traffic, but a small plane is viewed as a death trap. The media do their share to perpetuate this, for the
most part focusing on the bad news. Any crash is sure to make the headlines, but millions of safe takeoffs and landings go entirely unnoticed.
Flying in a small plane has about the same level of risk as riding a motorcycle. But if you look at motorcycle accidents, the vast
majority are caused by the rider. Yes, motorcycles are harder to see, and some accidents are not the direct fault of the rider.
The experienced rider knows this and rides VERY defensively, avoiding situations where mistakes by other drivers can be lethal.
Motorcycles are not inherently dangerous when handled properly, and if all rider caused accidents were eliminated, then motorcycles
wouldn't have such a bad rap.
Unfortunately, similar logic comes in to play with airplanes. Most accidents are caused by the pilot.
The leading causes of airplane accidents are flying into the clouds without the proper training, hitting things (like the ground) when
manuevering at low altitude, and running out of gas. These are all preventable. Factor out these causes and light
aircraft would not be seen as inherently dangerous. In other words, light airplanes aren't dangerous, poor judgement is dangerous.
My pledge is to learn from other's mistakes so that I can hopefully avoid them. I'm constantly reading and learning about flying
and flying safety. I attend local safety seminars. I subscribe to Aviation Safety! I'm not immune from mistakes, but I try really hard.
Here's another way to look at safety. In the US, about 250 people die each year in light plane accidents (most of which are preventable).
About 40,000 a year die in motor vehicle accidents. If you are between 8 and 34, you are most likely to die from a car crash. Does this keep you out of your car?
Here's the Passenger Briefing section of my preflight checklist:
Hand holds - The canopy roller track (the side of the airplane that you have to step over to get in) is very solid and can be used
as a handhold. There are two red handles on the roll bar that can also be used.
Once in the airplane, the back of the seat is a good place to grab and brace yourself.
Don't grab on to the canopy, or any thin fiberglass parts.
Boarding/Unboarding - The most imporant thing is don't step on the flaps, where it says "NO STEP". It could bend the flaps and
make the airplane unflyable. I try to put the flaps down for passengers to avoid the temptation.
There is a step on each side and black antiskid mat on each wing. Both of these can be stepped on.
I don't like to put a lot of weight on the steps (to avoid cracking), so my preferred way to climb up is
to put a hand on a rivet line (the right hand on the passenger side) and grab the canopy rail (the side of the airplane).
Put your weight on your hands, and then use the step to get up on the wing. Think of walking on your hands and feet. If you can do
that, then you can keep most of your weight off the step.
Once standing on the wing walk, you can step over the side of the airplane and in to the seat. You can step in the seat if you need
to, assuming your feet are clean! Then use the seat back and red hand hold to lower yourself into the seat. Getting out of the seat is nearly impossible without stepping on the seat cushion.
Seat belts - I have a very nice 5-point harness made by Hooker Harness. These are commonly found in race cars. I'll demonstrate
it for you (I'm required to by the FAA!), but adjusting is just like any other airline seat belt, pull on the loose end to tighten,
pull the red strap away from the buckle to loosen. The buckle turns instead of the typical airplane clamshell buckle.
I have seat wedges to lift smaller people a bit higher in the seat. If you can't see over the panel, please say something about it.
Canopy operation - The canopy (the plexiglass bubble on top of the airplane) slides forward and back on rails, and a handle is used to latch it securely closed. I will demonstrate this, and have you open and close it, so that you know how to get out of the airplane.
Headset - I have a noise-cancelling passenger headset. You'll probably have to figure out how to plug it in. Once the radios are
on, your headset will turn itself on.
Panel and cabin features - For short trips, I will do a very brief overview. If you fly with me more often, I'll show you how to use the Skyview display. I may even ask you to help with some navigation chores. Don't touch anything on the panel unless I tell you to.
Oxygen system - I do have an oxygen system, but it is only used for longer high altitude trips. If you fly with me more, we'll do
some training on this system.
Traffic/bird awareness - Aside from enjoying the flight, I will ask you to keep an eye out for birds and other airplanes. The panel usually shows the location of other planes, but even knowing where to look they can be hard to spot. And birds usually don't
show up on radar. If you see something that looks like a problem and I haven't already acknowledged it, please point it out to me.
Emergencies - I will point out my emergency checklists and what you might expect. Opening the canopy and exiting the plane
is part of this.
Airsickness - If we end up flying in bumpy weather, or it just gets to you, please let me know as soon as possible. We'll get on the ground and try again another time. I do have airsickness bags in the airplane.
Route Briefing and Weather briefing - I will go over the plan for the flight and what we can expect for weather.
It will be rare that weather is something other than really nice flying weather.
For a first flight, we will usually keep it to 10-20 minutes, and from Lakeway, you can expect a scenic tour of Lake Travis.