Although becoming less and less common, a checkout on an ag aircraft can often be: “Well, it’s behind the hangar, go fly it.” No flight manual, no in-type experienced pilot to offer some words of wisdom, and of course no second seat for a check pilot to occupy. It can be argued that by and large all ag aircraft fly more or less the same, but when it comes to a large financial investment, you don’t want to find things out the hard way.
Many years ago a very experienced Kiwi ag pilot told me that it took him about 100 hours flight time to feel truly proficient when converting to a new aircraft. He called it ‘educating the hands’. I was young (and inexperienced) at the time and figured it took him that long because he was well on his years. (He was in his early forties and had flown ag aircraft of all types.) Fast forward a couple of decades and I had to agree with him. For me, around 100 hours on type seems just about right to feel truly proficient, so that when things don’t go exactly as planned, the hands do the right thing while the brain is on fire trying to sort things out.
Here is one example of ‘educated hands’ saving the bacon. A while back, I received a phone call from a graduate of an ag pilot course we had run a few months before. He was pretty excited, but related to me what had happened that day. He had been flying an AgTruck off a farmer’s narrow grass strip, and just as he was getting airborne near the end of the runway slipped off to one side and his right wing had caught in the wheat crop, pulling the aircraft to that side and slowing its acceleration.
Things could have ended up badly, but he said his left hand went to the dump lever “on its own” and pushed full forward to jettison the load. “It climbed up like a homesick angel,” he said. “It was like you were sitting beside me going over the emergency jettison procedure.”
During the course we had participants do a “last chance check” just before takeoff, which consisted of throttle quadrant set, trim set, flaps set, fuel checked, and abort. The last item meant you actually touched the jettison handle as the last item before moving the throttle forward. You don’t want to be searching for that handle when you need it most.
That proactive approach can be expanded to all areas of the flight envelope. It is critically important for pilots in general – and ag pilots specifically – to develop a solid theoretical and practical knowledge of an aircraft’s flight characteristics from square one.
Any initial checkout starts with the aircraft flight manual. Take the time to go over this in detail. It has been put together specifically to improve your ability to fly the aircraft safely and effectively. Once that is done, it’s time to go flying. Here is one suggested profile that can be used as a standard checkout when converting to a new aircraft.
Start with an empty hopper. On takeoff, advance the throttle prudently, being aware of any tendency to pull left or right on the takeoff roll. Climb to a safe altitude that will permit recovery from the manoeuvres no lower than 1500 feet AGL.
Start with a series of Lazy-8s. This will give you a good feel as to the aileron and elevator response over a wide range of airspeeds, and the rudder effectiveness and trim required at various airspeeds. It will also simulate the exit and entry you would use during actual application runs.
Next, reduce power and set up for slow flight, reducing speed to approximately 10 knots above the flaps up stall speed. Make sure the aircraft is trimmed so you don’t have to manhandle the stick. Additional power will be required to maintain airspeed and altitude.
Continue to fly in that configuration for a bit, getting a good handle on how the controls feel at that speed. Be particularly aware of the feel of the flight controls, and how ‘mushy’ they feel as you make gentle banks left and right. With some of the larger aircraft you may notice how torque, slipstream effect and P-factor may produce a strong left yaw, requiring rudder input to keep in coordinated flight.
Next, perform a clean stall straight ahead by reducing the throttle to idle. As you approach the stall airspeed, continue to raise the nose to maintain altitude. Just before the stall occurs, buffeting, uncommanded rolling, or vibrations may occur. Put these in the memory bank as warning signs that, at low altitude, you need to do something RIGHT NOW to prevent a serious mishap.
Once stalled, complete a full recovery straight ahead, reconfigure with full flaps, and continue with slow flight and a dirty stall as with the clean configuration.
Once you are satisfied with the upper air work with an empty hopper, return to base and add a half load of water. Climb back to the same altitude and repeat the sequences as with the empty aircraft. Once completed, in straight and level cruise, perform a full jettison of the load (making sure all is clear below), being especially careful of the significant nose-up pitch that will require considerable forward stick pressure to counteract.
Perform the same thing with a full load at altitude as before. Again, with a full jettison, be ready to counteract the resulting heavy pitch up moment with firm forward stick. While performing all these manoeuvres, try to link them to real life scenarios such as abrupt pullups avoiding birds or obstacles, normal turn procedures during application runs, and the like.
The key here is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Being aware of your aircraft’s handling characteristics in all phases of flight will go a long way towards building that all important pound of cure.