I have received quite a few requests from VAF members to share the first flight plan that we built for the RV-3 that we put into Phase 1 a couple of weeks ago. I have no problem sharing it, so long as people understand that it is a very specific plan, written for a very specific airplane, at a specific location, etc, etc. It’s usefulness to others is not in content, but in form – it could be useful as a guideline for those building planes for their own first flights (regardless of whether or not the builder is going to be the test pilot or not). If you look at it as an EXAMPLE, and not a bible, it might help you build your own plan.
As I started writing a few notes to go along with it, I realized that there are more than a few things that can be said about the way in which I conduct flight testing. The organization that I have been a part of for over thirty years has a simple motto…”Plan, Train, Fly!” That is what we do – we plan missions, we train for missions, and we fly those missions. The last part should be easy if you spend your time on the first two. I am currently writing a series of articles on the topic, but I would like to share a few of the key points here for those who are interested. Don’t worry folks – I am not a policeman, I am not going to try and “make” everyone go out and use this system – in fact, I will tell you right now that there are many ways to do flight testing “right”. These examples are not, in fact, for the experienced among us, but for those who are still looking for a model on which to learn about, and build, their own upcoming test program.
For the benefit of those folks who are looking for guidance, I would point you at the VERY excellent Advisory Circular – 90-89A – that can be downloaded for free from the FAA web site. I would also point you towards the EAA Flight Advisor Program for one-on-one help, advice, and instruction on tailoring a plan that works in your situation. With those two guides in place, let me add just a couple of observations on Plan, Train, Fly:
Planning the Flight
Take a look at the example posted HERE
. This is what we used for our RV-3’s flight, and it proved to be very effective. At the end of the day, even after a forced landing on the second flight (which did no damage), everyone on the team agreed that we hadn’t been “lucky” about anything. Our plan accommodated both nominal and contingency situations, and provided guidance for everyone involved every step of the way. The document served as the agenda for our pre-brief, and everyone had a copy to take notes as we talked on the morning of the flight. Everyone on the team had a job, and we intentionally kept the date and time from anyone that wasn’t on the team – that takes care of additional distractions right from the start. Let me emphasize again – this is an EXAMPLE of a plan – you might be able to re-use the format and the topic headings, but make sure to write your own that fits your situation. Half the value is in the preparation, not the use, of a plan like this.
Training for the Flight
This is the part of first flight preparation that is often overlooked. Flight testing does not take superhuman skill – in fact, it is mostly just simple maneuvers executable by a private pilot. We have to assume that before you start preparations for the actual test flight, you are current and have received some sort of transition training in the type. After that, it is vitally important to brush up on a few things if you want to be fully prepared for anything. At the top of the list is emergency landings. I started out, of course, very current in RV’s. I fly every day the weather allows – last year it was about 250 days in Houston. Then about two weeks before our first flight, I began trying to fly almost every day. Short flights – nothing long…I would throw in a mix of my usual aerobatics or avionics practice, but mostly, I concentrated on setting up emergency landings, and flying them until I honestly knew that the field was assured, or that I had blown it. I also flew a lot of tight, power-off patterns to a touchdown on the runway. I did this in my RV-8, because even though I had never flown a -3, I had done enough homework to know that al the short-winged RV’s fly pretty much the same when it comes to power-off sink rate.
In addition to emergencies, I practiced slow flight and stalls – brushing up on all that stuff we don’t do when we get into cross-countries, IFR currency, and hundred dollar hamburgers. It is amazing how, even if you fly acro all the time, you sometimes need to brush up on the basics.
Finally, with all the basics at their peak, we flew the test flight a couple of times in the -8, with our chase plane (the -6) doing their part. By the time we cranked up the RV-3 for it’s first flight, we had already rehearsed everything we were going to do. We were trained for both the nominal, and the off-nominal. And everyone had a chance to work the kinks out of their part before the actual event. Think of it as the “warm-up” for the “big game”.
Flying the Mission
If you have done sufficient planning and training, the actual flight can be sort of an anti-climax. Even if something goes wrong, it should be covered in the plan, you execute the proper response using your well-honed skills, and you press on. Make the day of the flight as low-key as you can, especially for the pilot of the test airplane. Keep the crowds down – in fact, don’t have anyone that isn’t part of the plan involved. Don’t advertise the date until it’s over. No pressure is the motto – remember that take-offs are optional, but landings are mandatory.
If you have rehearsed the flight according to the plan, then all you have to do is fly it “again” – this time in the test airplane. Don’t get creative – stick to the plan. You’ll have this airplane for a long time – you can get creative later. Take extra time to review your take-off abort options before pushing that throttle forward – know where you are going to go at each point in the profile. Have a safe landing site available at all times. Fly smooth, and don’t do ANYTHING you have never done before with an airplane. At no time, should you “hope” that things will turn out…Hope is not a plan.
These fairly simple guidelines are one way to ensure a safe first landing, which should lead to a great post-flight celebration! Make sure that someone has a camera – and that someone else thinks about refreshments and rewards for the team. First Flights are truly milestone events in the builder’s life –regardless of if it is the airplane’s first flight, or their first flight in the airplane. Plan for it, train for it – and then go for it. Enjoy the ride!