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Q-talk 120 - Planning Your Flights

The First Flight

"It is critical imponemt that a test pi Jot never succumb to the temptation to do too much too soon, for

that path lends bur w The gi are.'' Richard Haitian (1987}

Believe it or not, there are many homebuilders who just fly their plane in a circle for the 25 or 40 required hours and never methodically investigate the flying qualities of their plane. While you are flying the plane, why not do something meaningful with your time? I have even heard of guys who have taken passengers on their first flights! The FAA does not look kindly on that sort of behavior, especially since the operating limitations from the FAA specifically state that only required crew are permitted. Do not try and kid anybody that these planes require two people to operate.

Test flying your aircraft can be one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences you may ever have in your life. A properly built Q is a joy to fly and well worth the many hours of work that led up to your flight testing.

When I was installing and centering my "EXPERIMENTAL" placard inside my cockpit, it occurred to me that the second half of the word is "MENTAL". Avoiding the obvious jokes about being a "mental" case for flying a plane that you built, it occurred to me how important the mental part of test flying would be. Your attitude, and as Aretha Franklin put it, "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." for the unknown can make all the difference. Famed Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes knew about respect. He was quoted as saying "When you pass the ball, three things can happen and two of them are bad." While test flying your plane, remember many more than just two things can go bad. Pushing the plane to do advanced flight behaviors before you understand how it performs on the basics can lead to disaster. You must crawl before you walk and walk before you run.

Your attitude is probably one of the biggest factors in safely flight testing your plane and I am not talking about pitch and roll here. There are those who would look at the former collection of bits and pieces and declare "I am your CREATOR. OBEY ME!" (The God Syndrome) There are also those out there who say "If it has wings on it, I can fly it!" (The Chuck Yeager Syndrome) Sadly, there are also those who just received their pilot's license in a Cessna and say "The FAA says I can legally fly any single engine land airplane; Let me at it!" (The Wishful Thinker's Syndrome) Do not be like these guys who let their attitudes and egos get in the way of what first flights and test flying is really about.

These attitudes, along with others, lack one very important component. They do not show the appropriate respect for the fact that an unproven airplane is taking to the skies for the first time. Just think of the various subsystems on your plane from the power plant, to the electronics, to the flight controls, to the fuel delivery, to the general structure of the flying surfaces that have never been tested together or stressed like they will be on that first flight. It is best to start out small and work your way up slowly.


Meeting the 25 to 40 hours assigned to you by the FAA could simply be done as a constant corkscrew flight around the airport while converting cash to noise. Or you could use that time to your advantage and really learn about your new plane.

The best method to do this is to follow in the footsteps of those who have already successfully tested their aircraft.

The FAA has grouped together several Advisory Circulars (AC's) that will help you through the registration, certification and flight testing as you transition from the workshop to the flight line. Get your hands on a copy of the "Amateur Built Aircraft Reference Manual" with the AC 90-89A "Amateur-Built Aircraft and Ultralight Flight Testing Handbook" being relevant to our topic. You could also download this section by following this link:

http://www.faa.gov/library/manuals/aircraft/media /ac90-89a.pdf

It will answer many questions on the entire process. The flight testing section gives you background and goals for various hour ranges. They are logically sequenced to build upon each other. You can also read their suggestions on how to achieve these goals or how to collect the data points needed for the goals. I followed their suggestions fairly closely and felt confident as I moved from section to section, expanding the test envelope.

The last section involved doing climb and glide tests to help calculate the Vx and Vy speeds at different weight configurations. Their instructions contained a real gem for me. They suggested that you calculate the total amount of additional weight that you will need to carry to reach gross. Then you fly the first series of climb and glides with just your weight in the plane plus fuel, of course, as a starting point. Next you divide the weight you need to add to get to your gross weight by 5. For me, I needed 200 pounds to reach my gross. 200 divided by 5 is 40 pounds. I began with 40 pounds of kitty litter in the right seat for my first series of tests.

To keep the material manageable, I transferred the kitty litter into a plastic garbage bag closed with a knot. That bag was then placed inside a second garbage bag for safety against punctures. A strong canvas duffle bag with handles was used to hold the bagged litter as a final step. The duffle bag was positioned in the well between the seatback and the gas tank of the right seat, passing the seat belts through the handles. That position was pretty close to the CG station of the pilot and passenger in my plane.

When I flew the plane with the 40 pounds of litter, I could tell it was there but it was not difficult to correct for and adjust to while doing the climb and glide testing. I then filled two more duffle bags, this time using 80 pounds of dry concrete mix each instead of the kitty litter. The concrete was about twice as dense as the litter so the 80 pound duffle bags were about the dimension as the 40 pound litter bags. (As a hint after trying this method, I would suggest using the concrete mix or something similar from the start because the kitty litter just took up too much volume in the cockpit.) By using these three duffle bags, I could achieve from 40 to 200 pounds in 40 pound increments.

When I flew with the 80 pound bag, I could again tell it was there but it was not that noticeable. Once I reached to the 120 pound combination, I could really begin to tell the difference. The 160 and 200 pound flights were impacted by the additional weight the most. Adding the weight gradually like that really paid off for me. I was interested in learning the approximate positions of my reflexor upon takeoff in the Tri-Q2 and my roll trim settings. What you learn here will become part of your pre-take off checklists.

Evidence that the process really worked was when I took Susie up as my first passenger and the plane reacted and felt just like it did with the "Passenger Substitute". If you are flying your plane now but have not taken any passengers yet, this process can give you a predictable way to experience the weight difference from solo to gross without putting someone else at risk.

While researching flight test cards on the internet, I located a sample used by the EAA Flight Advisor program that became the basis for my first flight cards. They laid out a flight that would last about an hour, if all goes well. The great thing about following their outline was that you would slowly build confidence in the plane. Each step prepared you for the next and ultimately for the landing. You can download the list yourself at


The major points or topics include:

Low & High Speed Taxi Tests Takeoff Strategies Control Effectiveness Power Effectiveness Near Stall Characteristics Practice Approach Landing

When creating flight test cards, you actually prepare two versions. The first is a descriptive outline of the objectives and the way they will be achieved. The second version is just a simple summary of the objectives. The example given by EAA was prepared to fit onto a knee board. They used an 8 M by 11 in. sheet of paper with the long side placed at the top. It was then divided into two vertical sections. The left pane held the descriptive version of the objective while the right pane held a simple summary.

Why two versions? There are a couple of reasons. For your first flight, you will want to have a ground crew working with you. One member of the crew could be designated as the "mission monitor." They will be given a duplicate copy of the flight test cards. I gave my monitor a clipboard to hold all the papers. He was aware, at all times, of my planned maneuvers. He was able to see both the descriptive and summary sides of the document at the same time. He was chosen for the job because he was well versed in fast glass and first flights. I had heard it said that if there is a problem during test flights, 90% of the remaining brain power will be on the ground. I wanted to know I had a strong support team to help me work through any situation.

I folded my test cards so only the summarized pane was facing up. This simplified my steps. If, however, I needed more details for the next step, I simply unfolded the paper and reviewed the expanded description on the left side.

A sample copy of Dave's Flight Card can be found at the QBA web site along with the newsletter photos in the "Members Only" section.

I also had a pilot with a handheld radio on the ground acting as the "communications officer." After doing some research in this area, I found it was best if this person would let me, the test pilot, "drive" the communications. This would help prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by questions. They were also instructed to be ready to relay temperature readings or any other data I noted to the mission monitor.

In addition, I had a "safety officer" who had access to fire extinguishers, a cell phone, a large axe and a vehicle capable of traveling cross country in case of an off-field landing. Notifying the local fire department of your flight test program would also be a good idea.

I briefed the whole crew on safety concerns. I made sure they knew the locations of the header and main fuel tanks. I did not want someone to accidentally swing an axe into one of the fuel cells while trying to help and add to the problem. I also described what to do if the plane was positioned upside down on the canopy. I told them to lift up on the tail and walk it up until the plane could be rolled over on the leading edge of the canard. I knew of this solution because of an experience Jim Masal had when a Quickie he was testing had engine trouble. His off-field landing resulted in the plane coming to rest upside down. They lifted the tail as described above to get him out.

Here are some other random thoughts and suggestions:

What to Wear? Fire was my biggest concern so I purchased a Nomex full body Air Force flight suit and Nomex gloves with leather palms. Under the flight suit, I wore clothing made of natural fibers because they are harder to ignite or melt. I also wore leather tennis shoes for the same reasons. I removed all the coins from my pockets. Prior to my first flight, I practiced flying other planes while wearing the gloves to feel comfortable on the big day. I learned while attending an EAA safety seminar that the leather palms on the gloves are important as they reduce burns on your hands when trying to get out of a burning airplane.

Fuel On Board. If everything is going well and you are having a great time flying, it seems like you can never have enough fuel on board. If you have a mechanical problem, you cannot get to the runway or if you have had a really bad landing, then even a little fuel can be too much. I did not fill my main tank. My header was full but I planned for an hour flight so I only had about 5 gallons in my main tank. What do you do if you are ready to do your first flight and there is too much fuel in your main tank? Don't even try to use the quick drain on the bottom of the fuselage found below the main tank. It takes forever to drain and you are guaranteed to get fuel down your arm. I found the easiest way to drain fuel from the system is to remove the cowling and disconnect the fuel line at the carburetor. I let it drain via gravity from the header tank. Then I use the Facet pump to replace any needed fuel until the header tank is full and the main tank is at the desired level.

Controlling Your Airspeed. Flying and especially landing a Q requires precise airspeed control since there are no flaps to rely upon. There are several schools of thought on how this can be done. I was shown how elevators could be used to "lock in" your airspeed. Think about it. If you leave the power setting alone and you pull the stick back, you are going to slow down. If you push the stick forward, you are going to speed up in a hurry. This is similar to how you pull back on the reins of a horse to slow down and loosen or lean forward to speed up. The reason I mention this is because as a Cessna driver, I never really had to think seriously about airspeed control. It was a skill I had to develop. I practiced by using Microsoft Flight Simulator and a joystick controller until it felt more natural. I practiced descents by starting from any airspeed and raising the nose to reduce the speed to 1.3 times the stall speed. I then adjusted the throttle until I could also establish and maintain a 500 foot per minute descent rate while still maintaining the same airspeed, just like you would on an approach for landing. Once I felt comfortable with that, I added turns to simulate the turns to base and final. This affects the airspeed so keeping an eye on the airspeed indicator and adjusting the elevator to compensate is an important skill. I cannot stress enough how important this was in the preparation for my first flight. I have found I have used it in every flight since. It has probably made the biggest difference in producing consistent approaches.

Who to Invite. Flight testing your plane is a huge event in your life. Like weddings and graduations, you are tempted to invite all your friends and family. As strange as it may sound, this is not a good idea. The presence of a crowd can impact how you make decisions. If something is not 100% right, you will be more willing to discount its importance when a crowd is waiting for a performance. After all, Aunt Martha drove 5 hours just to see you fly and how can you disappoint her? Test flights are stressful enough without the extra psychological pressure of hoards of onlookers. You do not need cheerleaders. What you do need are experienced pilots who can offer sound advice, record important data, or help you in the case of an emergency.

To Sum it All Up

Everyone hopes their first flight and the remaining test flights will go smoothly. The reality is that you need to treat the plane like it was a wild animal with big teeth ready to bite you without warning. You will need to find out what makes it snarl and what makes its ears go back. Work to obtain all the available information by getting the right people involved from the EAA and the QBA. They have been where you want to go. Get your head on straight and respect what is unknown. Do not trivialize it. Prepare yourself and get the appropriate flight experience in type, if possible. Make an effort to learn the skills needed for success. Fly safely and tame your beast so you can brag about it for the rest of your life!

You can order a printed copy of Q-talk #120 by using the Q-talk Back Issue Order Page.