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All Aircraft Are Not Created Equal

By TC FREEMAN

 

     I had spent the last week reading over the Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) for the Piper Dakota. It was impressive that this aircraft was capable of hauling four 200-pound people and full fuel.

After flying aircraft that had four seats, with one seat that played more of a decorative role than functional, it was great to see an aircraft that was a literal “four seater.” The Dakota is what I would call “idiot proof.” If you had four people under 200 pounds each and full fuel you were good to go weight-and-balance wise.* Getting checked out in a different type of aircraft can remind pilots that all small aircraft are not created equal despite their similar shape and size. Every aircraft, even of the same type, has their own unique traits that can “bite you in the butt” if you are not careful.

     With a few hours in the right seat of the Dakota I knew that it was a heavy flying aircraft, compounded by a huge 235 horsepower engine under the cowl. Landing required a good amount of back pressure in order to earn the coveted full-stall landing.

     This particular aircraft had been modified with directly-connected control rods for the nose wheel steering. While this greatly helped ground taxiing it could come back to bite you on crosswind landings. For example, landing in a right crosswind the pilot pushes left rudder while banking the aircraft into the wind (to the right) in an effort to keep the longitudinal axis of the aircraft aligned with the runway centerline. Due to the direct connection as the left rudder is applied the nose gear is deflected to the left. Do you see the problem? The pilot’s objective is to keep the aircraft tracking down the centerline of the runway and with the nose wheel deflected to the left the aircraft will turn left, contrary to tracking the centerline of the runway. The flight instructor that checked me out in the aircraft suggested neutralizing the rudder once the nose gear contacts the ground.  Good tip.

     Once in the air the Dakota performed wonderfully. With a little tweaking of the electric elevator the aircraft would almost fly itself. After the obligatory stalls and slow-flight it was time to switch to the other fuel tank. There is nothing worse than having a large fuel imbalance that requires the pilot to compensate with constant aileron input.  There are some aircraft that will become uncontrollable, like the Cessna Conquest, if the fuel imbalance becomes too great. But for most aircraft it is simply good operating procedure to switch tanks periodically, such as every hour.** The fuel selector for the Dakota was to the left of my right shin. Without a second thought I switched from the left tank to what I thought was the right. The observant check-out instructor calmly said, “You just turned off the fuel.” Startled, I moved my leg to clearly see the dial and it read, from left to right, “left – right – off.” I quickly moved the selector switch from “off” to “right” and stated, “Sorry about that, good catch.” I further explained that the fuel selector in the Beechcraft I had been flying was, left – off – right. The moral of the story is to never assume standard design and to visually verify selector switch positions.

     On a related note regarding switch positions, there is a general rule of thumb that pilots should consider. If the instructor had not picked up on the fact the fuel was turned off and the engine started to sputter remember to ask the question, “What was the last thing I touched?” While going through the appropriate emergency checklist is important the problem might be identified quicker by first asking this simple question.

     It can be easy for pilots transitioning to different aircraft, not just advanced aircraft, to assume there won’t be any major differences between small, single-engine aircraft. Even the same make of aircraft can vary widely between model designations. Take the Cessna 172 for example. For this reason it is important to become familiar with the POH of each aircraft you fly and refresh your memory if there is a time lapse between flights. Flight instructors that teach in a variety of flight school and customer aircraft can be subjected to this issue more than a recreational pilot that flies just a couple types of aircraft. Study the POH and search out fellow pilots that can offer tips on flying the specific aircraft you want to get checked out in.


 

About the author:

 

TC Freeman has been flying since he was a teenager and is now an aviation speaker and author. Being employed as an Aviation Safety Specialist for state government, he has a passion for spreading the thrill of flying just for the fun of it via the website, www.WingsOfun.com.

 

*If you happen to fly a Dakota do your own weight and balance for your aircrafts specific model via the POH.

*Check your POH for fuel management recommendations.

 

 

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