Picture yourself sitting in the FBO on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. A light snow is just beginning to fall, the front edge of a slow-moving system forecast to drop several inches of snow for the next couple of days. Someone comes in and asks if you have anything to do the next couple of days, and how would you like to fly in a pressurized, cabin-class plane to Jacksonville, FL? You just finished clearing your schedule for the next couple days anyway, the weather is not going to be good; you were anticipating 3 days of sitting at home. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Well, it was. I ran home, packed a bag, and was at the other airport climbing into the right seat of a Cessna 414 in about an hour. I was put in charge of communication with ATC and navigation, the other pilot flew the plane and taught me about the systems (more on this in a minute). Actually, if you notice, the back wheels are pretty far forward, and apparently this model has a reputation for tipping over backwards if you don't load it front to back. If I were going to be sarcastic, I would say that I may have been invited primarily to provide ballast in the front end of the plane. I called Clearance Delivery and obtained an IFR clearance to KCRG, Craig Municipal Airport, then got taxi instructions. We departed under a high overcast, and climbed through about 4000' of clouds before breaking out on top at 10,000'. The sun was shining and the sky was its usual remarkable blue, always a happy sight when you started out under snow flurries and grey clouds.We leveled off at 17,000' and began running the cruise checklist. Propeller RPM and engine manifold pressure, set. Cowl flaps, closed. Mixtures, leaned. Heading bug and autopilot, set. Prop sync, engaged. Pressurization, checked.
This was a really interesting flight for me because of the complexity of the aircraft's systems. This particular 414 has 6 fuel tanks (main tanks, nacelle tanks, and auxiliary tanks), 2 transfer pumps, flow meters, a totalizer, boost pumps, two selector valves, and one fuel gauge with a switch to select what tank to read from. You can't feed the engines from the nacelle tanks, which hold 20 gallons of fuel each (in cruise the engines use roughly 20 gallons per hour, each). You have to burn 20 or so gallons out of the main tanks and then use transfer pumps to move the fuel from the nacelle tanks to the mains. You can run both engines from the same tank, or from different tanks at the same time. Once I saw a schematic of the system, it made perfect sense, but it is a much more complex fuel system than I have flown before because there are two engines to feed. In addition to the fuel system, there was de-icing, propeller synchronization, and spoilers to learn about as well.
Luckily, the entire flight wasn't rapid-fire technical instruction. I got a chance to look out the window from time to time, and enjoy the sun. Here is a hole in the undercast. Not sure what made it form, probably the heat from the town below. As you can see, they thought it was night already - all the lights were on and it was dark under the clouds. We still had another hour of sunlight to go. Everything - even the end of a day - is just a matter of perspective.
We arrived in Jacksonville about 45 minutes after dark, and made a pretty turbulent arrival to runway 32. The wind was blowing hard and the last 15 minutes of the flight were very rough. While fun for me, and challenging (in a good way) to the guy flying, it would probably have spooked the nervous flyers among us. We taxied to the FBO, parked the plane, and headed to the hotel in a rented VW Jetta. I spent time wandering the roads while the guy I had flown down with conducted some business in town. You are thinking "what a jerk, bragging about skipping town, avoiding snow, and playing in Florida for 3 days." Well, it wasn't exactly like that. Jacksonville set record low temperatures every day and night we were there - it was cold and WINDY! In fact, the temperature never got above 35 degrees until the day we left.
One day, there was nothing better to do, so I decided to drive south on the A1A highway, along the coast. Even though a bit chilly, it was beautiful scenery, I walked on a beach, and saw the Spanish fort in St. Augustine. After reaching Flagler county, just north of Daytona, I decided I had traveled pretty far and still not found warmer temperatures; I turned around and went back to Jacksonville.
Its a good thing I did, because almost as soon as I got back, my friend got back and told me it was time to fly home. Grabbed our stuff, headed out to the airport, got a briefing, and departed into clear, calm, sunny skies. This time out, all the airplane systems seemed old-hat. Setup the radios, navigation, autopilot, prop sync, remember to transfer the fuel, continue to scan everything on the panel to be sure nothing is wrong and all tasks are completed. It was a beautiful flight.
After sunset, we got into some very low visibility, disorienting conditions between cloud layers. Since we were on an IFR flight plan, it didn't really matter, just gave us something unusual to see out the window between scans of the instruments. I have written before about the solitude of night flying, even in a full cockpit. Between the clouds, stars (if you can see them), lights below, and soft red glow of the panel, people tend to get somewhat reflective. I was content to monitor systems and contemplate the passing of dark spots and bright spots in the cloud layer below us. The bright spots were cities, and all we could see were the lights shining through the cloud layer like dying fires under water.
There wasn't a whole lot of conversation until it was time to start the descent and approach. There is something deeply satisfying about calling the local air traffic facility after a long trip. You get the feeling that you are home, especially if you recognize the controller's voice and he recognizes you. Sometimes there are a couple of remarks exchanged, just small talk. Other times, it seems like he can hear the weariness in your voice and helps bring you in a little sooner. Either way, we were cleared to land, and we were on the ramp in front of the hangar soon enough. The only difference around the airport was the ridiculous amount of snow that had fallen while we were gone. The power tug was sliding on the ice, and so were we - it took a few minutes to actually get the plane into the hangar. Luckily, my car started up after sitting outside for 3 days, and I didn't have to spend too terribly long digging it out.
My main thought about the flight was that it would take me a little bit of time to get comfortable flying something that big. It is heavy, has a long tail, and the sight picture is a little different than what I'm used to in light single-engine planes. Flying a Bonanza (single engine 6 seat Beechcraft) is about the top end of where I really feel comfortable behind the controls. I'm not going to be too hard on myself though, I only have 7 hours of multi-engine time total, ever.
My second recollection was that the complexity of the systems didn't bother me at all. At one point toward the end of our first flight, I remember looking at every item on the instrument panel and throttle quadrant and thinking "I know exactly what that switch/knob/button/dial/screen does, how it works, and I know how to use it effectively." I didn't before the flight began, but between asking questions and looking at the flight manual I got up to speed.
I can also remember a time when I looked at a Cessna 172's panel and thought "how will I ever remember how to use all the stuff here?" Just like anything, you learn it one piece of equipment at a time. Whether you are a student preparing to start flying away from your local practice area for the first time, a high-time private pilot trying to learn instrument approaches, or a 700-hour CFI hoping to start learning about flying with two engines soon, there is always a lot to learn. What is important for all of them is to have a good foundation of knowledge and skill to do it with, and to go back to the basics if you discover you have forgotten or missed something. There is certainly no shame in it, and it will save a lot of money, time, and frustration in the long run.