Going Commercial

Copyright © John Ewing

Do you find those $100 hamburger runs just aren’t as exciting as they used to be? Did your last biennial flight review leave you wishing your flying skills were sharper? Or maybe you’re one of those twisted souls that actually likes to have someone barking at you from the right seat? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, consider training for a commercial pilot’s certificate. Having just obtained a commercial certificate myself, I wanted to share my thoughts on commercial training and how it can pay off for you.

Some argue that the FAA’s commercial pilot requirements are simply a rehashing of the private pilot requirements, but done to a higher standard. There’s some truth to that claim. You must demonstrate normal, short-field, and soft-field takeoffs and landings during the commercial check ride, though the standards are more exacting. Are any of us ever really satisfied with our landing skills? There are also several new maneuvers to learn, like chandelles, lazy eights, and eights on pylons. And you’ll need to demonstrate most of these maneuvers in a complex aircraft — one with a retractable gear, a constant speed propeller, and a faster approach and landing speed than you’re probably used to.

Getting checked out in a complex airplane means you get to learn all the systems and performance specifications and then apply that knowledge behind the controls. Yes, there are more controls in a complex aircraft and the landing gear is not welded in place, so it will be up to you to keep track of it all. If you’re out of the habit of using checklists, flying a complex airplane will get you back in the habit — fast! Flying a complex airplane puts a higher workload on the pilot and that, in turn, will uncover any weaknesses that exist in your technique and cockpit management skills. As you gain proficiency at handling all the new stuff, your instructor will probably cook up simulated emergencies, like landing gear extension failures, engine failures and fires, just to keep things interesting.

As a commercial pilot, you’d never execute eights on pylons, chandelles, or lazy eights for your passengers, so what exactly is the point of learning them in the first place? Well it may sound trite, but I found learning each of these maneuvers really did deepen my understanding of the airplane, its performance limitations, and my ability to maintain coordinated flight at all times. Here’s a brief description of some of the commercial maneuvers:

The first time I saw a chandelle demonstrated, I kept thinking “Climbing turn with decreasing airspeed equals stall, oh no!” But after practicing a few, I had a newfound appreciation of the airplane’s safe operating limits. The chandelle sounds deceptively simple; turn 180 degrees while gaining as much altitude as possible. Since the airplane is climbing and slowing down, the rate of turn increases as the maneuver progresses, which requires constantly changing elevator, aileron and rudder input. The chandelle ends with airplane headed in the opposite direction with wings level, several hundred feet higher, and with the stall warning blaring away. Since you end at minimum controllable airspeed, maintaining coordinated flight throughout the maneuver is a must. And you can’t find the correct pitch attitude for a chandelle on any of the instruments. You have to discover a feel for it through practice and experience.

The lazy eight maneuver will teach you smoothness and constantly changing control inputs. Done properly, the lazy eight demonstrates the pilot’s mastery of the airplane’s performance. So what exactly is a lazy eight? It’s just a series of climbing and descending 180 degree turns, done at a cruise power setting. Sounds easy enough, right? The hard part is that your altitude and airspeed at the end of the maneuver must be essentially the same as it was when you started. Your altitude and airspeed must also be consistent each time you reach the highest points of the maneuver. And you must maintain coordinated flight during the entire maneuver. Done properly, the lazy eight really does feel lazy. I found that I had to hold back and wait for the maneuver to unfold. And with all the turning, climbing and descending, don’t be surprised if the attitude indicator starts to fall behind. You’ll have to watch the horizon to see what’s really happening. The smoothness, accuracy, and coordination required can only be attained through practice, but once you get it down, lazy eights are satisfying and almost addictive.

If you feel like you never truly grasped the effects of wind direction during your private pilot training, eights on pylons will change all that. The maneuver is based on using a pivotal altitude to maintain alignment with a series of pylons while flying a figure eight pattern. You pick two pylons that will allow you to enter the maneuver with the wind behind you, or downwind. Sound familiar? As you turn around each pylon, you must adjust your altitude to maintain alignment with the pylon. When the wind is behind you, the ground speed increases and you increase your altitude to maintain alignment. As you turn into the wind, your ground speed decreases and you must reduce your altitude. And if you try to cheat and use the rudder to keep aligned with the pylon, expect some serious abuse from the right seat!

As a commercial pilot candidate, your knowledge of aerodynamics, aviation regulations, aeromedical factors, aircraft systems, and everything else imaginable will be tested rigorously. First in a written test and then in the oral portion of the practical test. So you’ll need to set aside some time to hit the books. Hey, no one said this would be easy, right?

Holding a commercial certificate doesn’t allow you to advertise your services or use just any old plane to fly passengers or cargo for hire, but it does entitle you to work for a commercial operator to fly people or cargo. You can also be paid to tow banners or gliders and you can take paying customers for short sightseeing trips. And if you want to pursue a career in aviation, obtaining both an instrument rating and a commercial certificate will set the stage for getting a flight instructor’s certificate and teaching for hire.

Even if you don’t plan on becoming a professional pilot, attaining a commercial certificate will make you a safer pilot, sharpen your skills, and make your non-paying passengers more comfortable. And besides, it involves flying and is a heck of a lot of fun. What other reasons do you need? So if want to put some polish on your flying skills, contact your CFI and discuss the commercial training. Your private pilot training taught you how to fly, but commercial training will take you to the next level.