CONTROL COLUMN: Tips and Tricks for Safely Flying Your Twin Commander

DSC02926A well-trained pilot should have a strong foundation of knowledge of the systems of the aircraft and a good understanding of the normal and emergency checklists described in the Pilot Operating Handbook. In addition, the pilot should hand-fly the aircraft frequently and understand time management. Those are givens. What else should the skilled, proficient, and competent pilot know about the aircraft and how best to fly it? Over the years, through talking with other pilots and flight instructing in the Twin Commander, I have developed some tips and tricks that should enhance your pilot skills, procedures and techniques from before the preflight to post flight.

The first has to do not with the operation or condition of the airplane, but rather the pilot. As the pilot, you should make a risk-management decision as to whether you are physically fit to fly that day. Many of our pilot organizations and the FAA have collaborated to develop the acronym “I AM SAFE,” which represents:

  •  I for Illness: Do I have an illness or any symptoms of an illness?
  • M for Medication: Have I been taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs?
  • S for Stress: Am I under psychological pressure from the job? Worried about financial matters, health problems or family discord?
  • A for Alcohol: Have I been drinking within the last eight hours? Within 24 hours?
  • F for Fatigue: Am I tired and not adequately rested?
  • E for Eating: Am I hungry?

Answering “Yes” to any of these should be a warning flag, possibly leading to a decision to reschedule your flight.

PLANNING THE FLIGHT

Flight planning has come a long way in the last 20 years with so many computer and app programs to do the hard work and greatly reduce the time required to plan and file. Here are just a few:

When using technology, one caution to remember is to do a double or logic check of the selected route. For example, it would be easy to overlook filing a route to MIA (Miami, Florida, International) rather than MAI (Marianna, Florida, Municipal). Another caution would be to remember that the online flight planning program’s stated fuel estimate for an essentially direct flight might not be sufficient if the flight is rerouted due to ATC flow or weather situations. In addition, fuel burn calculations for high-altitude cruise flight might not be the same for a diversionary flight at low altitude.

PREFLIGHTING

Preflighting the aircraft should start at a distance as you walk towards the plane. Overall general condition, proper tire inflation and any fluid leaks should be observed. Before turning the battery switch on and activating the electric hydraulic pump, check the hydraulic system fluid level for accurate indication.

Checking the nitrogen pressure on the gauge located in the left wheel well is of such importance that it should be listed as a warning statement in the POH. The required pressure is 425 to 525 psi. I remember the limitation by calling it “Oklahoma City Happy Hour.”  Operating the aircraft with the pressure below 425 might not allow for full extension of the main landing gear if the aircraft has experienced a hydraulic failure.

The 690 series and some later JetProp Commanders have a pilot-friendly way to check the environmental system oil level. This check should be completed before the first flight of the day. Low oil level may result in an environmental turbine failure and smoke in the cockpit.

The Twin Commander’s unique fuel cap design, which uses a quarter-turn locking fastener, combined with refuelers typically not having a screwdriver in their possession, can and has resulted in fuel caps departing the aircraft in flight, leading to extensive porting of fuel from the affected tank. A good and simple tip is to have a screwdriver readily available to use during refueling. Also, always recheck the refueler’s work to ensure the fuel stays where you want it—in the tank.

One of the most ignored preflight checklist items is the oxygen system. Bottle pressure should be sufficient for payload and flight duration. Within the POH is a chart that details the amount of oxygen available, expressed in time, based on passenger load and flight altitude. The pilot’s oxygen mask should be preflighted to ensure proper hands-free fit (the elastic should be functional); that the selector switch is in the 100-percent delivery position; and that oxygen flows normally. And here’s something to consider: Many pilots carry a set of clear swimming goggles in the event they encounter smoke in the cockpit.

Check the deice extractor pump output port on the right side of the fuselage to ensure that a mud-dauber (insect) has not nested and blocked the output. If not cleared, the deice boots will inflate after engine start.

The final preflight tip is to remove the gust lock and check all flight controls for freedom of movement before engine start. This will prevent an embarrassing moment and possibly an engine shutdown and restart.

IN FLIGHT

During flight operations always be ready for the EMERGENCY. Hot and hung starts, fire on the ground, evacuation procedures, rejected takeoffs, engine failures in flight and landing gear failures are uncommon due to the well-designed Twin Commander. However, they do happen. Your recurrent training provider will review all of the above events, but a good tip is to periodically devote a few minutes of cruise flight to reviewing the emergency checklist so the steps, especially for the memory items, are fresh in your mind in case any of these abnormals occurs.

While in the cruise phase, checking the destination and alternate weather has been made easier with the aid of NEXRAD or ADS-B weather broadcast. If your aircraft does not have either of those capabilities, there is always Flight Watch. The proper frequency is located on the enroute chart.

As of August 2015, the Flight Watch frequency 122.0 was eliminated in many areas. Flight service stations will continue to monitor the universal frequency of 122.2. The use of 122.2 should be your new standard no matter your area of flight.

Scanning the flight instruments should be a normal and timely event during all phases of flight. However, some of the indicators are ignored, such as the electrical load meters on the overhead panel, or engine and system indicators not within direct eyesight. One way to correct that is to scan these often-overlooked indicators after completing a frequency change or an altimeter change.

Passengers get concerned when the aircraft encounters turbulent air, ice, or even a change in destination due to an aircraft abnormal or weather. When time permits use your Crew Resource Management and communication skills to provide your passengers with updates of the flight situation when things change.

HIGH-RISK PHASE

The majority of aircraft accidents happen at some point from top of descent to the landing phase. This is where you, as the pilot in command, will be tasked to use superior time management skills to complete the flight without incident. Receiving the weather via ATIS or AWOS is just the beginning of the lateral and vertical plan. Reviewing the STAR will give you required crossing altitudes. Placing those altitude restrictions into the GPS navigator will help in the vertical plan. If the avionics system is without VNAV capability, compute a planned descent by multiplying the required altitude loss (divided by 1000) by three (3), which will give you the distance prior to the waypoint to start the 1500-fpm descent. For example, if you have to descend 15,000 feet, multiply 15 times 3 to compute top-of-descent distance at 45 miles.

While you are creating your lateral and vertical approach plan, remember to Build It, Bug It, and Brief It. After determining which approach you’ll be flying at the destination airport, select the procedure in the GPS receiver and “Build It” by setting frequencies, inbound course, minimums, and all other values you’ll be using on the approach procedure.

Review the MDA/DA on the approach plate and “Bug It” on a slip of paper—a sticky note such as a Post-It is preferable—and also on the altimeter, if possible. Also draw a simple stick map depicting the missed approach procedure and altitude requirements, and stick the slip of paper on the panel near the altimeter.

Finally, “Brief It”—the full approach and missed approach procedures—out loud, even if you are flying single pilot. This tip allows you to concentrate on your flight guidance and eliminates the need to review the approach plate during the final critical phase of the instrument approach.

CRITICAL PHASE

The critical phase of flight is similar to finding yourself racing to the bus stop before the bus leaves. This can be a stressful encounter.  Arriving at the Final Approach Fix or critical phase of flight not prepared to begin the descent in the landing configuration can be equally stressful. A trick to a successful approach and landing is to be at 150 KIAS in clean configuration in the initial phase of the approach, then complete the landing configuration and checklist 1-to-2 miles prior to the Final Approach Fix. With these tasks completed all you will need to do is fly the aircraft on a successful approach to an uneventful (and, hopefully, smooth) landing.

Upon engine shutdown exit the Commander and immediately install the external rudder gust lock, thus reducing the possibility of any damage to the rudder cable attachment point at the base of the rudder post. At this time you also should check the engine oil reservoir levels for proper indication, as per the POH.

A safe pilot with proficient knowledge of the aircraft who uses good CRM and time management is akin to a well-built watch. Maintaining all the parts of the watch will give the owner years of reliable use. However, if any one part fails the watch will stop working. Integrating these tips and tricks into your normal training scenarios and using them regularly when you fly should make for safer operation of your Twin Commander.

Hugh David began his flying career in 1968, and in 1972 became a dual-rated Aviator, Instrument Flight Instructor and Flight Examiner in the U.S. Army. After a 21-year career with Continental Airlines he retired in 2005. He then worked as a corporate pilot flying a Twin Commander, and joined FlightSafety as a ground, simulator, and aircraft flight instructor in all models of the Twin Commander. He is a frequent contributor to Flight Levels magazine, and has been a featured speaker at the bi-annual Twin Commander University. He currently serves as an instructor and mentor pilot in Twin Commanders. Contact Hugh at hughdavis@earthlink.net.