By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the April 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
I am going to break from maintenance this month and spend a
little time on a critical part of keeping the fun factor alive — first flights.
After all, we typically build and fly the airplane for a while before we have
to do any maintenance.
We spend a fair amount of time in the EAA safety committee
meetings discussing the accident rate for experimental aircraft. The data shows
we have made huge progress in the last 10 years. However, we are still not on
par with general aviation as a whole, and the first eight to 10 hours seem to
be the highest contributors to the accident rate. Having made a bit more than
three dozen first flights myself, I thought I’d share with you some best
practices that should help reduce the risks.
There’s no doubt that many of us tell our friends and family that
we really aren’t flying experimental aircraft. They are just amateur-built
aircraft. In fact, some of the more popular and proven kits on the market today
border on assembly projects, with everything included except the battery and
paint. So, it’s not really a stretch to say we aren’t flying experimental
aircraft. I pretty much agree with that frame of thought after the Phase I test
flying is complete, and then I still tell everyone to not trust their aircraft until
it has flown at least 100 hours.
Why? Even though the kits are pretty complete, there is still a
lot of room for customization, especially in the area of avionics and
interiors. There’s also room for mistakes during the building process — dare I
say loose jam nuts and lack of proper travel on engine controls? So, most
definitely the first flight should be categorized as experimental.
There’s a lot going on during the first flight, especially during
the initial climb. Most likely, it’s the first time the engine has been under
full power for that length of time. Once you are off the ground, there is the
opportunity for a whole host of other distractions, and they will come at you
pretty fast. This is especially true with some of the lighter and
higher-powered aircraft, such as the RVs. If you haven’t taken the time to
practice by doing some “chair flying” and simulating some of the distractions,
there’s a good chance that your reaction could be wrong, and even fatal.
In the 12 years I have been a designated airworthiness representative, I have seen a real change in this area when certificating new airplanes. Early on, it seemed as though the vast majority of builders couldn’t wait until I left so they could reassemble the airplane and go fly it. In the last few years I have seen a greater majority ask for help by using the Additional Pilot Program, making use of the EAA Flight Test Manual, and even getting transition training. I do remind all of them that it is no longer a project. It is now an airplane and needs to be treated as such.
So, what can you do to help with preparation? Well, take the time to make a list of everything that might be working for the first time and consider various failure scenarios and how you should react. Have the discipline to create a “Before Takeoff” checklist — and use it! It could save your life.
Let’s walk through some examples. No doubt by now you have been
playing with the control system on the ground. Once those controls get airflow
over them, they are going to feel different. How should you react if the pitch
trim seems too heavy at rotation, or perhaps is even reversed? Yes, it happened
to me on one early test flight. I really thought I had checked the trim
operation. Sure enough, I started trimming for more nose-up on takeoff, and the
stick force continued to increase in the opposite direction that I was
expecting. My reaction — STOP using trim and fly the aircraft. I also reduced
power to make certain it was a controllable out-of-trim scenario. Once I got
some altitude, I verified it was reversed.
The next thing you might feel right after takeoff if you haven’t
balanced your tires is some shaking in the airframe as the tires slow down. It
doesn’t usually last long, but it can be a distraction. Right about this time
is when an unlatched door or canopy will come open. You did use that checklist,
right? I lost a friend last year to this scenario. The passenger door on his
RV-10 came open right after takeoff.
Speaking of checklists, many other facets of flying, such as airline and military, have what are called “Emergency Action Checklists.” They have to be committed to memory and demonstrated before you even get to fly the aircraft. There’s a reason for them. Some things do require immediate action — such as engine fire, smoke in the cockpit, etc. — but the most paramount thing is to fly the aircraft. Know before you begin your takeoff roll those items for which you will abort the takeoff if runway permits; if not, then know the correct action to take. Practice these scenarios sitting in the cockpit until they become second nature. You should be able to activate all controls blindfolded, such as turning the fuel off, cycling ignitions, opening air vents, using the fire extinguisher, etc. Think about having smoke in the cockpit that is burning your eyes and nose at the same time.
With all of the electronics in our cockpits, it is super easy to
get distracted by noncritical items, and that is a primary reason why I am a firm
believer in the Additional Pilot Program (assuming you use someone who is
familiar with your airplane and perhaps even an instructor). I have witnessed
how builder pilots react on first flights when alarms start going off because
they are so primed for a potential problem. Every alarm that I have seen so far
has been due to limits not being set correctly in the configuration or simple
things such as an alternator failure that don’t require any immediate action.
In one case, the pilot noticed the stick force was increasing as we leveled off
from climb, and the trim was no longer functioning. The proper action is to
reduce speed or continue the climb, so as to relieve the stick force. That
worked, and we realized that the trim didn’t work above a certain speed. Since
it was the first flight, and breaking in the engine is an important part of the
first flight, we just adjusted the trim while we were slow for what we thought
it should be at a faster airspeed. That worked great, and of course, we knew it
worked for slower speeds, so trimming for approach and landing was no problem.
A best practice I have always used is to think about how your
airplane might be different from the prototype or other flying aircraft. This
approach saved my life one day when it came time to make the first flight of my
Prescott Pusher. Mine was the first customer-built aircraft to fly. I realized
that the factory test pilot was about 30 pounds heavier than I was. So, I
placed a 25-poundbag of lead shot in the seat next to me. When the aircraft
broke ground for the first time and I had the yoke all the way forward and the
nose pitch was still increasing, I realized I had a CG problem. I grabbed that
bag of lead and threw it up underneath the co-pilot’s rudder pedals, and it
dramatically made a difference! I am lucky to be here to share that experience
Another best practice I would encourage you to do is to make that
first flight without a lot of fanfare. It will take the pressure off you to
meet a schedule. Plus, on the off chance there is an incident or accident, you
really don’t need a bunch of people to see it. Have only the necessary people
present, and make sure to inform those who are there what to do in case of an
accident. When I do test flights at towered fields, I always place a call to
the tower to let controllers know it is a first flight and to ask when is the
best time for them to accommodate it. By the way, I am against having chase
planes on first flights. I know it’s done in other facets of aviation, but most
of them are professionals and familiar with formation flights and the added
risks of being in close proximity to other aircraft. In our amateur-built world,
it is not a best practice.
The last thing I will recommend is that the cowling should come
off after the first flight and everything should be inspected closely. Of
course, you used a torque seal indicator on all of the nuts and fittings, so you
should be able to quickly identify any loose fittings.
Now it’s time to go have more fun! Use the EAA Flight Test Manual, and the rest of the flights in
Phase I should be controlled testing.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848 and chair of EAA’s Homebuilt Advisory Council, is a commercial pilot and A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more than 9,500 hours in 72 different types. Vic also founded Base Leg Aviation and volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot and an Angel Flight pilot.