Written in 2000

P51 Mustang
N951MJohn Dibbs

In the world of display flying there are subtle differences between the military and civilian approaches.  In the Military a reasonably senior pilot is chosen (normally on his second tour on the aircraft with 1000 hours plus on type) to go through an extensive work up to allow him to display the aircraft with a set routine.  In the civil display world the story is very different.  The CAA takes the very sensible approach of 'clearing' a new display pilot to display down to a set height (normally one height for 'straight and level' flypasts and one height for aerobatics).  The pilot will still have to perform a set routine in front of an evaluator to confirm his ability to organize and fly a set display safely but once cleared he is able to vary his routine depending on outside factors.  However, the CAA does encourage a pilot to start off with a set routine until experience is gained, and then to decide which method suits the individual best.  In a new display pilot's first year the cleared heights will be very restrictive, normally 200 feet for flypasts and possibly no clearance for aerobatics, this coming in the second season (normally with a 500 foot base height).  As the display pilot's experience increases he will then be allowed to display to lower limits; however, at each stage, like in the military, the clearance will be given by a display evaluator.  The main difference between the two regimes is that the civil pilot, if fortunate enough, can display more than one type if he has proven himself competent to do so.  Both systems seem to work well for the two different types of flying, and neither can be described as better than the other.  However, they do require different approaches and, I believe, the civil system gives the display pilot more options to allow for his present flying currency, aircraft type being flown, weather conditions and the display venue.

In the article below I try to describe the way I personally approach displaying multiple types with the main aim of keeping all my flying as safe as possible while still keeping the display routine interesting for the watching public.



Having come from the military test pilot world my starting point is the rigorous way that a flight test programme is conducted.  This has many parallels with displaying several different aircraft because you quite often will be flying an aircraft that you are not totally familiar with, in a very specific way to get the most out of it.  This is done in a measured, well thought out way.  What always accompanies such test flights is a detailed set of 'test cards' that need to be referred to in flight to ensure that limits are not exceeded and that a particular test point is flown as required.  I use a simpler version of this methodology for all aircraft that I fly as well as those I display.

On top of this rather methodical upbringing there are many experienced people in the display world, that in varying ways have helped me formulate my approach to 'keeping it safe'.  When you start out display flying it is always helpful if somebody is willing to take you under their wing and tell you the basics.  I was lucky enough to meet such a person when I started, and he still gives me advice to this day!  There have been several other individuals that have influenced my attitude and I firmly believe that you are never experienced enough to give up listening.  The CAA CAPs, 632 and 403, also include some good advice.  These documents are regularly being updated as more knowledge and experience becomes known.


Don't Just Rely On Memory  (back to top)

My first task for any new type is to produce a 'knee-pad' guide for the aircraft.  This guide is laid out in a standard format (so I always know where to look in a hurry) and covers all aspects of flying the aircraft, including all the important numbers (rotate speed, climb speed, configuration limitation speeds, landing speed and so on) and emergency procedures.  It is very much a 'living' document that I amend as I fly the aircraft more and might include such things as fuel consumption, how much fuel is required for a display, any interesting characteristics that might catch me out, etc.

At the top of each aircraft's guide is a diagram of the circuit pattern.  This works on the principle that one picture is worth a thousand words.  The speeds required in the circuit are all detailed at the appropriate place on the diagram, as are the required power settings.  In one corner of the diagram I put the maximum allowable speed (Vne) for the aircraft, in another the flap and gear limit speeds, and in the third corner I have the minimum speeds required for aerobatic manœuvres.  In the centre of the diagram, in large bold type, I put the GLIDE speed or the 'full-power', single-engine SAFETY speed, you never know when they may be needed in a hurry!  Below the diagram I put the before landing, after landing and shutdown checks.  If there is any further room I put the operational notes that I have accumulated.  The reverse side of the guide will have all the other checklist items (prelims, starting, engine checking, etc) and any other information.  I try to keep the guides to two sides so they can fit in one plastic wallet and be carried on my knee in flight.  This 'aid mémoiré' is then used to refresh myself on each different aircraft before flight.  However, I also use the guide as my sole reference to the key speeds while flying.  I deliberately do not try to memorize the speeds needed to operate the aircraft; if you attempt to memorize all the speeds for all the aircraft it is only a matter of time before the wrong speed is used for the wrong aircraft.  The knee-pad guide is similarly used to perform the checks required up to take-off and from the after-landing checks.  Again, it is the only sure way to remember to do all the necessary actions.


Explore The Aircraft  (back to top)

Once a good knee-pad guide has been produced, my next phase is to get some experience in the aircraft.  As ever with the civil world financial aspects come in to play and you might not get as much familiarization as you would like.  Therefore, I use the time in a display oriented way.  The minimum time required is enough to be able to run through my repertoire of display manœuvres at a safe height and to have a general exploration of the aircraft's flying qualities.  The important bits of information to be gained are:  the minimum speed that is needed to start a vertical manœuvre, what the aircraft feels like at slow speed and at high speed and does the aircraft 'talk' to you when performing your display manœuvres and general flying?  Any more flying is a bonus and should be used to build up more knowledge of the aircraft.  My display routine on the day is shaped by my knowledge and experience of the aircraft.


Phases Of A Display  (back to top)

Everyone gets a buzz out of display flying, the adrenaline flows and it's fun (otherwise why do it!).  Unfortunately, adrenaline can be a dangerous thing if not controlled, particularly after your finest performance yet and you still have to land the beast!  Again, some measured safety procedure, that works for you, has to be established.  I have found that the best way for me is to split the flight into three distinct phases:  take-off, display and landing.  For the take-off and landing phases I religiously use my knee-pad guide to be sure that I have the best chance of getting it right.  I also have a 'final' memorized set of checks for take-off and for landing, which is the minimum required for safety in all aircraft.  By that I mean that I perform the normal take-off or landing checks written in my guide for the specific aircraft type and then for all types I repeat a standard set of items as an extra safety measure.  I keep these 'last check' items deliberately brief:  for take-off they are - fuel, flaps, trims, prop (fully fine), mixture and pins (for ejection seats); for landing they are flaps and gear, followed by gear again at 50 feet.  Obviously, not all the checks are appropriate for each individual aircraft, but by saying them all every time the important one, hopefully, won't be missed.  The final thing to do before the take-off is the briefing.  This is the time to refresh on the gliding speed or single engine speed, the ejection seat limits and what your options are for the display venue should an engine fail mid-display.  This gets all the information into the short-term memory.

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