Originally published March 1997
Norm Howell and Gary Aldrich gave us an update on the EAA Flight Advisor Program during our featured presentation in last month's meeting. Norm and Gary are both flight advisors (FA's) for Chapter 1000 and Norm, in particular, was one of the driving forces behind establishing the program for EAA.
The Flight Advisor Program got started in 1992 in response to what many thought were far too many accidents during early flights of homebuilt aircraft. In looking into the cause, it turns out the build quality of the aircraft was not really the issue. What was a problem however, was the flying proficiency of the pilot. Often, builders would neglect their flying skills in getting their aircraft ready for first flight, and too often that led to problems. What the FA does is help the builder pilot to assess currency, work on developing proficiency relevant to the flights to be made, and generally to lay out a flight program that stays within the limits of both the pilot and the airplane.
Norm and Gary stressed that the program is not a rent-a-test-pilot service. In fact, the program specifically prohibits someone from being an FA and first flight pilot at the same time. The focus is on getting the pilot, whoever that might by, ready to fly through counseling and assessments using checklists developed for the program to assure proper preparation.
How far the FA goes depends in part on the experience of the pilot. In the early days of EAA, a lot of member-builders were ex-military with a considerable amount of flight time in many types of aircraft. That experience made first flights less risky. Today's builder often lacks that kind of experience, so special skill development is often recommended. In preparing to fly, the FA may suggest flying time in an already completed aircraft of the same make if that's possible, and if not, then something similar. What the FA is trying to have the pilot build is as much experience as necessary in an aircraft of the same or similar wing and power loading, ground handling (nose or tail dragger), wheel or stick control, and even throttle position in relation to the control mechanism.
The flying qualities of the aircraft are another factor. Aircraft that conform to a type certificate will have considerable test and flying quality data to use in designing a flight program. Aircraft that use an airframe design, flight controls, and propulsion that are familiar to most pilots are also relatively less risky. On the other end of the spectrum is the first article of a new design, particularly if the design is in any way a departure from common design practices. Again, the FA is going to prep the pilot relative to the risk. And as might be expected, there may be times when the prep just isn't possible and the builder may need to step aside and let someone more skilled take on the first flights. The FA isn't going to make that call, but certainly will make the case to the prospective pilot that it's better than losing a valuable airplane and chapter member.
To assist with all of the preparation, the Flight Advisor Program uses an extensive set of checklists developed in part from a student project here at TPS. (Russ Erb gets some credit here.) All relevant data is recorded and flights are planned and executed according to test cards set up based on the checklist. A first flight might consist of takeoff and climb, rudimentary control effectiveness, power effects, near stall characteristics in landing configuration, acceleration and climb, flying qualities at various flap and power settings, practice approach and go around at altitude, banks at no more than 30 degrees, return to base and generous pattern approaches, and, of course, a safe landing. Variations occur on successive flights to demonstrate the full qualities of the aircraft.
So what does all this get you? Use an FA and a technical counselor during building and AVEMCO will insure you. That's a big deal because in the past you were on your own for the first ten hours. You're also less likely to damage or destroy something you probably spent a couple thousand hours building. Finally, your significant other and any offspring might feel a little better about the whole thing if they were convinced you'd done a proper job of prepping for the first flight.
I'm sure I speak for everyone in thanking Norm and Gary for their presentation. The Flight Advisor Program is one of the more significant undertakings by EAA in the past few years and one that will undoubtedly save a lot of good hardware from ruin, not to mention save a few overstuffed egos from catastrophic deflation. One last note: Norm Howell got the (EAA) President's Award for his part in developing the program and that's quite an honor.
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Revised -- 20 September 1997