Propellers are for boats .... That is all I could think of as I stood the throttles up for my first takeoff from the left seat of a jet, with an ear to ear grin on my face. Coming from piston twins, the performance was breathtaking. My demo flight on an Eclipse 500 made me realize I'd never be satisfied flying a piston again. This flight began mostly out of innate curiosity. With no serious interest of owning or flying a jet, I presumed there was also no way I could afford it. Determined to make it work after an exhilarating first flight, I ran the numbers and figured it might not be impossible to pull this off. Though the hourly costs would be much higher than my Baron and Cessna 414, I had to look at the cost per nautical mile. 500 hours per year in a Baron is roughly 275 in an Eclipse. With this math it justified to me that the Eclipse would be only slightly more expensive per NM than my Baron, and significantly less per NM than my 414!
This was when my enthusiasm really started to set in; but of course there are hurdles, there are always hurdles. Is it realistic for a relatively low time pilot with ZERO turbine experience to transition into a jet? Flying around with a mentor pilot for 3 months wasn't my style, so I made some calls and did my homework. I learned that to be successful in the Type Rating program was dependent on several things; first, already having some other jet type rating was necessary, but unfortunately I didn't meet this requirement. Second, at least having prior glass cockpit experience was helpful, but I had none. Furthermore, being a competent instrument pilot with lots of recent instrument time was essential. Yes, finally things were starting to look up for me! I flew my 414 single pilot with an inop autopilot for a year, with regular approaches to minimums. My flying had me in IMC a lot, and I always hand flew approaches. Lastly, AGE! All of the Eclipse instructors informed me that the younger guys usually take to it much faster than our gray-haired counterparts. I was 27 at the time, so that was another mark in my favor. There are several companies offering Eclipse type ratings, but after interviewing all of them, I made the decision to go with EJet500. My instructor was Casey Jones, Naval Aviator, Vietnam Combat A4 pilot, and former Commander of the Blue Angels.
Casey flew in on SouthWest Airlines to my home in Houston where we jumped in the Eclipse and flew to a friends rural lake house in Alabama. This got me far enough away from my work routine and let me devote myself fully to the training. This airport had the perfect setting: a sleepy town with a newly refinished runway, new buildings with a great conference room, and a very accommodating airport manager sealed the deal! Casey filed our IFR flight plan at FL350 for the 650NM flight and I climbed into the left seat. The weather was 1,000 feet overcast and we were in the clouds for the first 20 minutes of the flight. I was a little behind the airplane on this flight, but not as far behind as I expected to be! It was uneventful and Casey talked me through a visual approach into our new home base for the next 12 days. This is where I made a perfect first landing with a beautiful sunset on the horizon.
Casey and I spent two days covering ground school, learning about the systems, many unique to the Eclipse, and of course it's idiosyncrasies. It is a wonderful aircraft, but like all aircraft, it had it's shortcomings. Ours is what is referred to as version 1.0, meaning it is in the same configuration as it was delivered from the old (now bankrupt) Eclipse Aviation. Casey explained to me that while this aircraft may have been bargain priced, there was a reason for it. The pilot has to be on top of it at all times. No daydreaming allowed. He would know, for he was one of the original Eclipse test pilots! Our particular aircraft had no De-Icing systems, no DME, no approved GPS, no traffic, no weather, no radar, no moving map, no FMS, and an autopilot which was little more than a wing leveler (and would often kick off at the most inopportune times). All of these shortcomings made the little jet a handful to fly, especially when flying single pilot in very busy airspace/airports on low IFR days!
I found the actual type training extremely easy. The airplane was a dream to fly. I remember my first single-engine missed approach, we were climbing out at 1300 FPM on one engine! Eclipse wrote AFM training into the type certificate, which requires pilots to log 16 hours in the jet (or simulator) on an approved syllabus from approved instructors. I was comfortably ready for the check-ride somewhere around 8 hours in the jet, but still had to fly off the full 16. While Casey made sure every box was checked on the syllabus, he also threw in a few things of his own. We flew in all types of weather. Much of my training was done in actual and low IFR. Casey was certainly not easy on me and I feel very privileged to have had the former Blue Angel's Commander sign off in my logbook.
We originally planned to do my check-ride with an FAA employee, but due to a last minute scheduling conflict, we hired DPE Tom Norton instead to fly up and examine me. Tom flew his RV in (which he built himself) on a Thursday and I did the oral portion of the exam that evening, with the plan to do the flight portion the next morning. Though Tom is a great guy, at dinner he made it very clear to me that there would be no shortcuts or 'breaks.' He once failed a guy for dropping 20 feet below minimums on a circling approach!
The following day, Tom, a 6'4” solid framed guy climbed into the right seat of the jet, I closed the door and then joined him in the cockpit. I went through the checklist and had answers for every question he asked. It was a cold December morning in Alabama, but not quite cold enough to use the GPU, or so I thought! The book says a GPU must be used at oil temperatures colder than 5 degrees C, but the computer was telling me the oil temp was 7, so I attempted a battery start. Well, the computer decided to abort the start and I got several pages of CAS (warning) messages. After all, this is an Eclipse! Tom jokingly told me that I would indeed need to figure out how start the engines if I intended to pass the checkride! We hooked up the GPU and gave it another try, this time with two successful lightoffs. We flew for just over 2 hours, mostly doing approaches, holds, etc. It was a standard ATP checkride. I must say, it was the easiest checkride of my life. I almost exclusively hand flew the airplane, and never missed an altitude or heading. The needles on approaches were rock solid. I had a great feeling while making a visual approach and final landing back at home base knowing that I had nailed the checkride.
We shut down and Tom walked into print me a new ATP certificate, this one being a EA-50S (S meaning approved to fly single pilot). Casey shook my hand and then we immediately launched off to pick up a friend in Atlanta. We flew the ILS into Atlanta at night and ATC asked me to maintain 170 knots to the final approach fix. This was excellent (and fun) real world flying and it was great to have my mentor pilot in the right seat. Just a couple more flights and I was signed off to fly without a mentor. Since then, I have logged about 200 Eclipse hours. I have flown the little jet not only all over the US, but also across the Atlantic and all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, all in smooth, quiet, air conditioned, pressurized, turbine comfort.
So, if you are piston pilots are wondering if it is possible to easily transition into a jet, the answer is yes! And for those of you readers out there who are not familiar with my sense of humor, please note that the title of this article is tongue in cheek. In fact, some of my all time favorite airplanes have propellers. At the end of the day, it does not matter what type of aircraft we are flying, and given the choice between a Beaver on floats or a jet for a pleasure flight, you would find this pilot happily spinning a propeller ;)