My trip to Australia, which is still not a certain go, is coming up fast in July. As a result, in addition to struggling with the paperwork and bookings required (dealing with a national aviation administration in a foreign country is just about as bureaucratically complex as one might imagine) I'm also overdue to start training on the aircraft type I've put down a bunch of money to reserve.
The airplane I've reserved is both high-performance (over 200 HP) and has a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. I learned to fly (and have done all my flying to date) on old-fashioned 'six-pack' airplanes - so named for the standard six analog instruments on the panel. From left to right, three across in two rows: airspeed indicator, attitude indicator (artificial horizon), altimeter, turn coordinator, heading indicator, vertical speed indicator. These, plus engine instruments and two radio navigation (VOR) indicators, are what I use when horsing N12732 (a Cessna 172 Skyhawk) around the Massachusetts sky. Old-fashioned, but simple and easy to read - a quick glance at the panel, a scan from instrument to instrument, will tell me what I need to know without the need even to read numbers - just the alignment of the needles, when I'm keeping track of things, will keep me oriented and doing the right thing.
Airplanes have gotten a whole ton more capable and complex since those instruments were popularized.
Now, it's relatively cheap to install a glass cockpit - basically a set of computers with large, bright flat-panel displays which provide you with all the information you might want, and then some. They also have a metric assload of controls and buttons. The G1000 is the 'general aviation standard' glass cockpit - it's only available in new-built airplanes, so you can't retrofit it. But it consists (visibly) of two displays, the PFD or Primary Flight Display, which is on the left side, and the MFD or Multi Function Display on the right. Each has a set of controls down each side (knobs and buttons) as well as a row of buttons along the bottom. Many of the buttons are soft buttons, which means that they change functions depending on the context and state of the system. There are three or four character labels for them at the edges of the screen. In between these two screens is a two-column set of buttons for controlling the communications system. This is in addition to the mandatory backup analog instruments, as well as circuit breakers, flight controls, engine instruments, system controls, etc. etc.
The glass cockpit was designed to make flying instrument procedures easier. I'm sure it's great at that. For a baby VFR pilot, it basically comes across as OH GOD TOO MANY BUTTONS WHERE DID THEY ALL COME FROM AAAAARRRGH.
So you need to be checked out on one - read, trained and tested. I engaged the services of Heritage Flight Academy at KISP (Long Island's Macarthur airport - it used to be called Islip, hence its code). Saturday turned out bright and warm, with a bit of distance haze. I spent ten minutes or so with the chief pilot, giving me a basic rudimentary intro to the controls I'd need - then he said "So the best way to learn to use this damn thing is to get in the airplane, so let's go do that and when we get to altitude I'll take the airplane and you can play around with the system."
He also gave me a few tips about the Skylane. "This airplane is a beast. 230HP, three-blade Macauley constant speed propeller. It climbs like a homesick angel. Well, compared to the Skyhawk you've been flying, anyway."
"Does it feel very different from the 172?" (asks the n00b who is going to have to fly and more importantly land it)
"Nope, that's the beauty. It's basically a bigger, solider, steadier 172."
We got in the plane. I did the walk-around, then learned the new checklist procedures by doing. Many more steps. Master switch *and* Avionics 1/2; fuel boost pump, cowl flaps, emergency battery to ARM/STANDBY, etc. etc. Luckily the flaps and throttle and yoke are in the same place. There's a 'PROP' control in between the throttle and mixture - that's for propeller pitch control - but I'm used to that from flying the Piper Warrior several times. That one has retractable gear as well, which makes it a full 'complex' aircraft in US FAA terminology. The Skylane has fixed gear, so it technically isn't complex (which requires controllable flaps, retractable undercart, and constant-speed prop). The instructor, as when I did my New York City tour with him a few months ago, reassures me that I shouldn't worry about the radio calls for now - he'll take care of that - and should instead just worry about flying the airplane. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. So I do.
We are given taxi instructions to take taxiway Whisky to the left, turn right onto runway 15, and then hold short of the intersection with 24, the active runway. I do the runup, working through more unfamiliar checklist steps - and the left magneto drop is over 150 RPM. Not good. Right is normal, around a 40-50 RPM drop, but left is too high. "Burn it off?"
"Yep," says the instructor. "Crap on the plug, no doubt."
I lean the mixture, watching the EGT climb. The G1000 engine systems display has a color-coded bargraph; I let the EGT climb to the top of the bargraph and then stop leaning. Then I bring the RPMs up with the throttle, and let it sit for 15 seconds or so. It takes a couple tries, but eventually the left mag drop is 50 RPM, indicating that whatever gunk was on the left plug is probably burnt off.
Runup complete, we check in with the Tower. "Long Island Tower, One One Two Niner Yankee is holding on One Five at the Two Four intersection, ready to depart."
"Two Niner Yankee, hold short for landing traffic."
Whoop. Looking out the left window, yep, there's another Cessna floating down on short final. Wait for him to touch down and then turn off, then "Two Niner Yankee, you're cleared to depart Two Four, fly runway heading until I hand you off to Approach."
"Two Niner Yankee, cleared to depart Two Four." I key the mike reflexively, forgetting that my instructor is handling radio, but he just waves for me to go.
Throttle in, prop full fast, feet on the floor. The acceleration is noticeably greater, even in this larger, more comfortable airplane (leather seats, bliss). We're rolling. Full power (check), airspeed is alive (check)- but instead of looking for the bouncing of a white needle, I'm now looking for numbers scrolling down on the left side of the video game that is my PFD. "Airspeed's alive, thirty, forty...rotating at sixty-five...rotate." Pull back a bit, and the airplane jumps off the runway. "Best climb is eight five knots, going to hold nine zero to nine five."
And we're off. Long Island looks green and clean from up here, and to the south the immediately visible Atlantic Ocean is improbably blue before disappearing into haze prior to a defined horizon. We climb out, contact New York Approach, and make a right turn to the north towards the north practice area (basically the north coast, about 15 miles east of the Northport Stacks). One thing I notice immediately - the TIS (Traffic Infomation System, which works using ADS-B information from ground transmitters and other aircraft transponders) is showing seven aircraft within a ten mile radius (!) of my position, some only a couple of hundred feet below me. I can't see any of them, despite the display telling me that a couple are less than a couple of miles away, maybe five hundred feet above or below me, and definitely in my arc of vision. Nope, nothing.
We flew around Long Island for an hour or so. I avoided hitting anybody, despite there being a fleet of airplanes up there. While we were heading south, flying over the airfield at 3000 feet, Southwest Airlines flight 2095 was landing ahead and below us, but a sudden scrum of light aircraft caused the captain to decide to go around. At a couple of thousand bucks worth of time and jet fuel. He didn't sound happy. As we continued over midfield, he climbed back into view off the right front, and began to turn left to cross ahead of us, preparatory to following the left traffic pattern for another shot at the runway. I have to tell you, I knew the damn 737 was a thousand feet below me, at minimum - but even though it was 3 miles ahead of me, as well, it felt like I was going to ram it. Those things are big, especially when you're in a Cessna.
We didn't do emergency procedures, or maneuvers - we just flew around, letting me muck about with the G1000. Eventually, though, it was time to go home, so we slid back into the pattern (following a Gulfstream, watching for and practicing wake turbulence avoidance, and landed. I'm proud to say that despite my usual slight confusion when landing on a really big runway - I'm used to a small narrow strip at my training airport but the runways at KISP are massive, stately acres of concrete - I managed to not only land it first try, but a full greaser - I wasn't certain of the exact moment of landing, I just became aware that the wheels were spinning.
I bought a C182 Skylane Pilot's Operating Handbook and scheduled another lesson.
If this trip comes off, I'm going to go to Australia and they're going to hand me the keys to a G1000 C182 for two or three weeks. I'll be flying myself and a friend of mine. No backsies, no handholding.
Am I nervous?