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Very light jets could be very heavy risks for their non-professional pilots. Can the industry give them adequate training and will insurers cover them?

The emergence of very light jets (VLJ) is presenting training and insurance issues, given that these high-performance aircraft will more than likely to be flown by non-professional pilots. "To prove insurability, the manufacturer of any new-generation aircraft has to do its homework to address a package of issues," says Tom Chappell, president of CS&A Aviation Insurance, a Nashville, Tennessee-based broker. "This includes repair costs, spare-parts availability, customer support facilities and training. In the case of a VLJ, we are talking about transitioning a pilot to a very complex aircraft."

Chappell adds that this leads to questions about where training will be given and what devices will be used. "For example, will a simulator be available when the first aircraft are delivered, or will a training company be reluctant to invest in a simulator until there is evidence that the aircraft is selling well?"

Mike Sweeney, president of New York-based United States Aviation Underwriters, says the insurance industry believes VLJs will be flown within three operational models, which the insurance industry will have to address. The first of these he says is as air taxis, deploying heavily used fleets. By insurance-underwriter mandate, each aircraft would be dispatched with two professional pilots who would undergo initial as well as recurrent training.

The second model, says Sweeney, includes the relatively experienced but non- professional pilot. "The pilots in this group will probably be upgrading from a twin piston or turboprop, and this creates an underwriting challenge. The training programme and number of hours of mentoring will need defining before the pilot can be qualified for single-pilot VLJ operation."

The third model includes the "lesser experienced," non-professional pilot, transitioning to the VLJ directly from a single-engine piston. "This pilot would be making a double jump to jet equipment because he is bypassing the twin piston or turboprop," Sweeney says. "In this case, the mentoring portion of the training will be even more significant."

Along this line, Sweeney stresses the importance of using mentors as a component of the VLJ pilot training programmes, especially for the non-professional pilot.

"That group presents the biggest challenge, which is why the insurers are going to require extensive mentoring, specifically tailored to the experience of the pilot being trained, the development of the pilot during training, and the mission to be flown."A carefully prepared mentoring programme, he explains, offers the new VLJ pilot the advantage of working with an experienced instructor for the specific aircraft. The mentors will have the task of evaluating the skill level for each individual pilot they work with to design a programme based on the pilot's needs.

Mission context

"For the non-professional pilot, this is important, because he will usually look at a VLJ within the context of two missions - business flying, and recreational travel. The mentor, therefore, will be helpful with flight planning, dispatch and even maintenance planning," Sweeney says.

In addition to extensive training programmes, novice VLJ pilots should not expect to purchase high liability-limit insurance. CS&A's Chappell points out that for the just-transitioned pilot, basic hull coverage of $1.5-3 million will be typical. That would be a complete package covering hull loss, with a liability limit of $1 million, restricted to $100,000 per passenger. Increased liability limits, possibly up to $5 million, could become available, but only as the pilot gains experience.

"It will probably be more difficult for lower-time pilots transitioning to jets to get insurance," Chappell says. "With VLJs, an underwriter will be asked to gamble$1-2million on a private pilot with no previous experience on an aircraft, which has yet to be proven."

Chappell predicts there will be pilots who will have an easier time acquiring coverage, especially those with turboprop experience. "Those pilots will be able to show that they have high-quality flight time in sophisticated aircraft."

What may help relatively inexperienced pilots is the fact that training methodologies are being re-evaluated, largely as a result of the emergence of VLJs, plus the introduction of electronic flightdecks that are becoming increasingly common even on single-engined piston aircraft. The US Federal Aviation Administration, aircraft builders and academia have jointly developed a series of guidelines known as FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS). Formally launched in 2003, FITS specifically addresses training concerns with the new-technology piston and single-pilot certificated VLJ aircraft.

Airspace complexity

Robert Wright, manager of the FAA's General Aviation and Commercial Division, Flight Standards Service in Washington, says that when devising FITS, the FAA examined past training methods to see how they might apply to future, single-piloted aircraft operating within more complex airspace environments.

"Non-professional pilots are usually trained using very constrained methods just to pass tests," Wright says. "We concluded that is no longer appropriate for the new-technology aircraft, which will require more scenario-based training, incorporating risk management, situational awareness, aeronautical decision making and single-pilot resource management to assure their safe operation."

Structured as a consortium, the FITS programme members include Adam Aircraft, Cessna Aircraft, Cirrus Design, Eclipse Aviation, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Lancair and the University of North Dakota (UND) in addition to the FAA. Diamond Aircraft Industries is about to join. To date, four generic templates for transition, recurrent, instructor and ab initio training have been devised. These templates are available on the FAA's web site and can be downloaded at no charge to design a custom training programme. "The goal is to see all manufacturers and general aviation instructors use elements of the FITS programme, even in ab initio training," says Wright.

But he also stresses the urgent need to apply FITS-based training, especially to owner-flown jets. "That will be the biggest challenge, because we want to see [non-professional] turbine pilots trained to the same standards as corporate and airline pilots."

Wright points out that the FITS templates are strictly advisory, and do not represent a first step towards regulatory changes. "We believe there will be strong incentives for pilots to train this way, because of reduced training time, and increased accessibility, since much of the training will be web based. It could also result in lower insurance rates," he says.

FITS-based training may or may not be a factor in insurability, according to Timothy McSwain, United States Aviation Insurance Underwriters senior vice-president for claims. "Even if a training programme model is based on FITS guidelines, it will not be the sole determining factor with respect to the aircraft's insurability. We still have the question of how the aircraft will perform when operated by a non-professional pilot for the first time."

Alan Klapmeier, chief executive of FITS consortium member Cirrus Design, confirms that FITS is the basis for the training programme designed by the Duluth, Minnesota-based builder of the SRV, SR20 and SR22. These three new-generation, four-seat, single-engined pistons are equipped with digital avionics, including the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra primary flight display, and the Avidyne FlightMax multifunction display.

"A glass-cockpit-equipped aircraft has a different pilot-to-aircraft interface," says Klapmeier. "Pilots who can build flight time on piston aircraft with digital flightdecks will be taking a different pathway to jets, because the cockpits are similar."

Multi-step path

As Klapmeier explains, pilots normally follow a multi-step path to jets, starting with single-engined pistons, progressing to twin pistons and turboprops, before jet training. "New pilots that learn to fly light pistons equipped with glass cockpits will be in a better position to eliminate the [interim] steps," he says. "We believe that since the pilot-to-aircraft interface is more intuitive [with glass cockpits], we will be able to spend more time training pilots in the decision-making process, and less time gathering data."

Cirrus, says Klapmeier, has designed a training programme specific to the three aircraft it builds. Known as the Cirrus Standardised Instructor Programme (CSIP), it is operated under contract with the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation, which employs the instructors. Currently, 123 instructors have been trained under CSIP. In addition to training Cirrus customers at the factory, they are training other instructors to teach the Cirrus course elsewhere. Because of its aircraft specific nature, it is tantamount to training a type rating, even though in the USA type ratings are only required for pilots flying anything over 5,700kg (12,500lb) take-off weight, and all jets.

For Eclipse Aviation, builder of the Eclipse 500, customer training will set a new precedent for training with, starting with first deliveries of the seven-seat VLJ in March 2006. Training will include the use a combination of computer based training, flight training devices and actual time in the aircraft.

Eclipse chief executive Vern Raburn says Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Eclipse will still have the final say in approving the customer for the aircraft. "We will not sell an aircraft to anybody who fails the training programme," he says.

Raburn says that Eclipse will not insist on a minimum number of flight hours before training, but will require at least a private licence with multi-engine and instrument ratings as a prerequisite. All pilots wishing to purchase the aircraft will go through an initial evaluation comprised of a written and oral exam and check ride to determine if they can start training. Those who fail the evaluation will be advised to enroll in supplemental qualifications training to improve their level of proficiency.

"That could be offered by UND, or we might recommend that pilots contact their local fixed-based operator for the training," says Raburn. "Recurrent training will also be offered, and mentoring will be provided on a case-by-case basis, with the number of mentoring hours to be determined for the individual pilot."

Raburn says Eclipse will market the factory training programme as the preferred one, especially as the Eclipse 500 makes its way into the resale market. "Although anybody can design and get FAA approval for a type-rating course on any aircraft, we will continue to offer a programme that will entice people to train with us," he says.

In-house training

Denver-based Adam Aircraft, builder of the A700 AdamJet, will offer FITS-based, in-house training for pilots of that aircraft, now set for certification in 2005. Adam is requiring candidates for training to possess a private pilot's licence with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and at least 500h total flight time. The training methodology will follow one of three paths, based upon the pilot's experience, and an instructor interview.

"A highly proficient pilot with jet experience will go directly on to the A700 for training, while an average pilot, who does not have previous jet experience, will begin in the Adam A500 twin piston," says Adam president Joe Walker. "Because the A500 uses a similar Avidyne FlightMax cockpit, the pilot will be able to transition directly into the A700. To get the jet type rating, all pilots will spend one week in ground school, and get 20h of flight time in the aircraft."

Walker says that the third training path - for the least experienced pilots - will include initial training in the Cirrus SR22, then the A500, followed by the jet.

Adam will include a post-delivery training component, involving mentor pilots. Walker estimates that this will add between 50h and 125h of training time, depending upon the pilot's experience.

"The A700 training is unique, because the A500 is a very compatible transition aircraft. The primary difference between it and the A700 avionics is the engine displays. Both aircraft have centreline thrust and similar handling qualities," Walker says.

He adds that the manufacturer has educated the insurance underwriters on all parts of the programme. "The major underwriters have agreed to provide coverage, including hull and liability," he says. "While the FITS-based training has helped, they also take note of the avionics, repairability, damage resistance, parts availability and pricing, and that we start with six factory-authorised service centres. We expect that number to grow."