Questions to ask BEFORE you get on a light twin-engine aircraft.

When I lived in Hawaii, occasionally I’d lease and fly a Grumman Cougar (above), a light twin-engined propeller aircraft. The cold, hard fact with that aircraft was that if we took off with two passengers and their bags and lost an engine we were going down, period.

This I knew as a pilot–so I never flew the Cougar with any baggage, ever. But I think that many passengers might assume all is well either way–but it certainly is not.

This haunting memory always recurs every time I read of a light twin engine aircraft crashing on take-off, and sadly, that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

Cessna 401 crash after an engine failed on take-off, killing pop singer Aaliyah.

Some simple but vital questions could save your life if you’re thinking of chartering or accepting a ride on a light twin engine aircraft. But first, why do you have to ask?

The answer is simple: when you step onto my 175,000 pound twin engine jet–I have these answers specifically worked out for every flight, because the answers are crucial to all of us. You may assume that whoever is flying your light twin aircraft has answered them with specific numbers, but if you don’t ask, you’re casting your own safety to the wind. If your pilot has the answers–and provides them specifically (I’ll get to that later), step on board and have a good flight.

If your pilot says “Huh?” or even “It’ll be okay” or anything other than “here are the specific answers,” walk away immediately. Here are the Big Five:

1. What is the single engine climb gradient on this take-off, based on our projected weight and the current weather (temperature, pressure altitude and winds) conditions? Yes, I can answer that for every take-off with an exact number in two vital parameters: single engine (meaning assuming one engine quits on take-off) climb feet per nautical mile available and required.

“Required” means based on the terrain ahead, what is the minimum single engine climb gradient required for our aircraft to clear all obstacles by a minimum of 35 feet? “Available” means given our weight in fuel, passengers and bags, what is our aircraft capable of achieving on only one engine? Yes, there is a specific number to be derived from performance charts–and your pilot better have computed both. So your pilot should have a ready answer, don’t you think?

Four people were killed this week and one remains hospitalized after this Cessna twin crashed in a field in Kansas after leaving Tulsa. The cause is under investigation.

2. How much flight time does your pilot have in twin engine aircraft? Seriously, “total flight time” is not the important point here for a couple of crucial reasons. First, twin engine aircraft behave completely different from single engine planes because of the asymmetric yaw an engine failure produces. If one engine fails, the other continues to produces power and in many cases, must be pushed to an even higher power setting. Immediate rudder correction for adverse yaw–which doesn’t exist on single-engine aircraft–is a delicate operation: too much and the drag induced by the rudder kills lift; too little and the aircraft can depart controlled flight. Put in the wrong rudder, and you’ll be inverted in seconds.

If you’re paying someone to fly you somewhere, he’d better have at least 500 hours in that specific twin-engine plane–or you’d better walk away. In the above crash, the father of one of the survivors said the pilot had “flown the aircraft several times” and was “well-versed in it.” I stand by my 500 hour rule, at least when my life’s at stake. And “flight time” alone ain’t enough: proficiency, meaning hours flown within the past six months, is just as important. A few here and there? Not much recently? bad news.

Cessna -400 series interior.

3. What is our planned climb performance today? Meaning, given our gross weight in fuel, passengers and bags, at the current temperature and pressure altitude, what climb rate can we expect on a single engine? Again, this is a specific number derived from performance charts after all of the above variables are computed–and if your pilot doesn’t have the specific answer–walk away.

4. What is the engine history on this aircraft? Seriously? Yes, dead seriously: before I accept any aircraft for the day, I scan the engine history of repairs, malfunctions, oil consumption, vibration and temperature limits going back at least six months. Ditto your light twin: the pilot should be able to answer that question in detail–if the pilot checked.

5. How many pilot hours does your pilot have in this model and type of multi-engine aircraft? And when was the pilot’s last proficiency check? For example, I consider myself to be a low-time 737 pilot, having just over 1,500 hours in the aircraft–even though I have over 17,000 hours in multi-engine jets. In those 1,500 Boeing-737 pilot hours, I’ve had two complete refresher courses with FAA evaluations, plus three inflight evaluations–and I welcome that: I want to know my procedures and skills are at their peak. And I fly at least 80 hours a month, maintaining proficiency. When was your pilot’s last flight? Again, how many flight hours in the past six months?

Recurrent training and evaluation every nine months.

Not withstanding “well-versed” and having “flown it several times” as quoted above, your pilot needs to have hundreds of hours in the model and type to be flown, and preferably hundreds of hours in multi-engine aircraft. Remember the engine-out scenario on take-off I sketched out above, where the wrong rudder input can flip you inverted on take-off if an engine failure? Ditto on landing, with another set of problems, in the event of a single-engine go-around with a lighter aircraft.

Know the answers to these questions, and have your radar tuned for the following circumstances: how far are you going (short hop versus a longer point to point), and how many are on board, plus what cargo (baggage or equipment). Why? These are your cues that gross weight is going to be a critical factor in aircraft performance, making the five questions I just raised even more critical for you to ask.

Look, there are plenty of safe aircraft and pilots available to fly you around if that’s what you had in mind. Those pilots are the ones who have good answers to the above questions ready for you as soon as you ask. Be sure that you do ask, and when the answers are satisfactory–and only when they are: bon voyage.

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24 Responses to “Questions to ask BEFORE you get on a light twin-engine aircraft.”

  1. peggywillenberg Says:

    Great info. I think I’ll just avoid small aircraft althogether!

    • Me too–just too many unregulated and unmonitored but critical elements that can have a life or death impact. If people realized that their assumptions about flying need to be moderated by the reality of the high risk and marginal monitoring, which is the standard in the private or charter aviation world compared to commercial aviation, they could make safer, informed choices.

  2. Good thing no one asked me those questions way back when I was flying Grand Canyon tours in a Seneca! Though you alluded to it in part of your post, the 50 hour multiengine pilot MAY be no less safe than the 500 hour one. Maybe a better question to ask them is “How many hours do you have flying multiengine aircraft on ONE ENGINE?” You may get the same answer out of both, just what they needed to get the rating. The chances of recurrent training having been done by the 500 hour pilot are good but not guaranteed.

  3. Is it not mandatory, in FAA land, that commercial flights have weight and balance charts completed with the weights of the passengers, payload, fuel etc prior to departure?

    • Weight and balance has nothing to do with obstacle clearance or engine out performance, much less pilot proficiency or experience.

      • Sorry I mean performance charts (here M&B groups performance charts as well) and I was curious as to whether it’s law there as if they have done their M&B and performance charts then they would know the answers to basic questions such as engine out climb performance/ceiling etc.

      • That’s why you should ask.

  4. 767driver Says:

    You make a good point. Within the pilot community, aircraft vulnerability and levels of pilot competence are pretty obvious, but to non-pilots chartering a plane or going with a “real experienced” pilot for a flight, there are a lot of assumptions that are probably unfounded. Like the father of one of the victims saying the pilot was “well-versed,” probably not even knowing what the requirements are to be considered well-versed in any airplane. Caveat emptor.

    • Yup–huge difference between a pilot being *current*, meaning his minimum paperwork requirements are met, and *proficient*, meaning the pilot has flown enough total time and within the last month or so in order to be competent at those paper requirements IN THE REAL AIRPLANE. Hobbyists and the minimally qualified + complicated aircraft = a recipe for disaster. In this part of the country, it’s usually a family and their gear going on vacation, which means lots of fuel weight to get somewhere, plus all of the people and their baggage weight. The classic here is four people and their ski gear going cross country into high altitude, mountainous terrain. The tragic part is the non-pilots aboard who made the assumption that since it was “legal,” it must be safe. Not.

      Just read that Angelina Jolie just bought a helicopter for Brad Pitt because “he’s always thought they were cool” and that “he’s going to start lessons immediately.” Stand by for news . . .

  5. I’m just not a small plane person – too familiar with people who don’t pay attention to stuff. Great post

  6. AA Retired Says:

    Many many seasons ago, between airline jobs, I flew a Piper Navajo for a bank. Flight Department policy was that if you experienced an engine failure on takeoff prior to reaching 400′, you were to close the throttle on the functioning engine and land straight ahead. This was the policy for professional, current in type pilots. Fortunately, at least for the short time I was there, we didn’t have any engine failures on takeoff. The point is though, as you have said, that the single engine performance of light twins is so marginal and the technique required to get that performance so critical, that the average private pilot would be well advised to follow the procedure of the bank’s flight department.

    • Ignacio Says:

      I think that that’s a very good piece of advice, However, I must argue, that in general the flying public is in general unwilling to pay the price that would cost for a flight to be executed in that way; in general small commercial twins are battered and used to the maximum, and their pilots paid poorly with minimum experience. You cannot expect a CPL to pay for 500 Hours in a twin before applying for a job; and furthermore, it’s gonna be difficult to find a pilot that has more than 500 hours MEI, flying a small twin, they will all have probably upgraded to a bigger plane by that time.
      The hitch then, is, how can we, low time pilots, acquire experience if we are not given the opportunity to do so because we are very noob? Thanks! Keep up the good work!
      Ignacio; Regards from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

      • I see your point, but your point from the perspective of a pilot trying to build time, rather than from the perspective of a passenger wanting a safe flight. I don’t agree that the passenger has some obligation to help the new pilot gain experience by paying for a flight with an inexperienced pilot. I would say the obligation to build time might also be fulfilled flying cargo or other non-passenger operations.

        Also, there are plenty of high-time, experienced twin-engine pilots available and they are the ones passengers should seek out.

  7. capnaux Says:

    Good advice, for pilots and ground-pounders alike. It’s so easy to walk away from our nearly limitless 100+k big iron jet and strap on a Cessna, without giving much thought to the limitations of our light aircraft.

    • Honestly, and just speaking for myself, I don’t feel safe without the layers of oversight and regulation you and I deal with every day. It’s a definite safety net and although I know many pilots who can operate safely in the light aircraft area, I know my own limitations.

  8. Kenneth Says:

    You mentioned checking the maintenance history of aircraft before you accept them. On what grounds would you reject an aircraft, and have you ever rejected an aircraft at your airline?

  9. Good points mentioned here but!! Light aircraft are not designed to have to meet the climb gradient requirements of a “Transport” (airline) category aircraft. If you don’t like that, don’t get in one! Some do however and even exceed many transport category aircraft eg the B200 King Air.
    Hours are not necessarily a good indicator of a persons manipulative ability in an aircraft. 15,000 hours flown primarily on intercontinental flights, for example, is 98% flown on autopilot ie from not long after lift off until short final to land at the other end. Therefore you may be a good “systems manager” but may have nowhere near the manipulative ability of an experienced comparable hours pilot who has his/her time flying time on say King Airs or Conquests or similar covering a wide variety different routes and conditions monthly (normal for that type of flying). I do agree that regular stringent regulatory check flights make a big difference.

    • The argument of relativism you make has been part of the flying biz in all segments: used to hear it in the Air Force that the fighter guys with 1,000 hours were better pilots than the heavy pilots with 5,000 because they were more “hands on.” Actually, though, neither has an edge by category–only by individual performance.

      Speaking only for myself, in some ways it requires more diligence and effort on my part now to maintain vigilance and reserve with 17,000 flight hours than it did when I was a low-time 1,000 hour pilot, because it’s difficult to not slip into routine with experience. When you only have a couple thousand flight hours, it’s easier and more likely that you have your guard up in flight situations.

      Ultimately, it’s up to the individual: I know some smart, safe, savvy lowtime pilots with good air sense, and some lifetime flyers without a lick of sense. It’s all about the individual pilot, IMHO.

  10. Being safe requires a pilot to be exposed to the scenarios in which he will be put to the test and required to perform. Hours are largely immaterial. The quality and recency of demanding training play a large part in the successful outcome of an emergency situation, but they both take second place to a pilots natural ability to assess the situation and take appropriate action. In my military career, I have flown with 5,000 hour idiots and 400 hour rock stars. In my civilian life, I have met 18,000 hour goofballs and 1,000 hour experts. Pilot skill, pilot training, pilot experience. In that order. “You might teach an old dog new tricks, but you can’t teach a dumb one ****”.

  11. Dear Chris,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. In the post you expressed opinion that pilot needs at least 500 hours for the light twin.I was wondering how the minimum number of hours is decided – I understand that there many factors that go into this minimum requirement such as individual learning ability, frequency of flying, currency, flight conditions etc. My bigger question is that, in my unprofessional opinion, it does not matter whether it is 500 or 5000 hours and what matters is the number and range of critical situations that a pilot went into and successfully recovered. Therefore, in a simulator and/or with an instructor it is very easy to go over these critical situations and learn how to handle them maybe in 50 hours. What am I overlooking here? Why does the raw number matters so much?

  12. Debbie wilson Says:

    Recency receny, recency is they key and a fly by the rules attitude

  13. I bought a Twin Bonanza years ago for cargo trips to the Bahamas and Hatti tough bird could haul 2200 lbs useful load)NOT DOPE) I put 500 hrs on it in 5 years before 9/11 put me out of business.I learned a lot about multi engine flying night/day all kinds of weather out island short runways heavy loads Bet my life on those GO-480s kept current with self training,but in hindsight sim trainning would have been a good thing for IFR and engine out proceedures I used the ADF more than anything out in the blue back then .Had my share of glitches flap motors smoking on approach ,mag problems over overcasts,fuel smell in cabin when i thought I had a broken line that ran under the cockpit (not) .The point being by 500 hrs I could fly that plane as part of me,that is what it really takes.The sad part is I haven’t flown since i sold the plain after 9/11.I was in the construction business that crashed in2008 that really did me in.I am trying to get back just maybe, maybe one more time.

    • You say, “The point being by 500 hrs I could fly that plane as part of me,that is what it really takes,” but judging by fuel smell, smoking mags, burning flap motors, broken fuel lines you mention, you seem to have overlooked “maintenance” in “what really matters”–and it really does, maybe more than just wanting to fly.

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