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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Multi-Engine at Night

In my last post, I wrote about "dumbing things down". This time around, I'm going to continue with a similar theme—"teaching to the test". Along with dumbing things down, teaching to the test is another tendency in flight training that is, over time, degrading the qualitiy of training. And, needless to say, it's a pet peeve of mine.

Teaching to the test wouldn't be so bad if "the test" was a better guage of quality. But the fact is, for any license/rating beyond the Private License, the knowledge and skill standards are woefully inadequate. This is a topic I could rant on for ages, but I'll try to remain a little more focussed for the sake of this post. To keep it (relatively) short, I'll look specifically at multi-engine training at night.

Flying a multi-engine aircraft at night is not required to be tested at any point in the liceinsing process (for that matter, flying a single engine at night is not formally tested either). The absense of a test is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as this doesn't lead to oversights in training. But the fact is, it does.

Typically, a pilot finishes their PPL training, moves into the night rating (on a single engine—often the same type they completed their PPL on), and then sometime afterward, completes a multi-engine rating. Nothing at all wrong with this process, except for one thing: teaching to the test. On the multi-engine rating, instructors tend to focus on passing the flight test (there is no written). The flight test doesn't include any night flying assessment. So it's not uncommon for multi-engine pilots to have zero night experience in multi-engine aircraft when they are first rated.

Ok, so what's the problem? They can fly at night, they can fly multi-engine aircraft, can't they do both at the same time? Yes, as long as nothing goes wrong. But what if we have an engine failure at night in a twin-engine aircraft? Sounds simple enough—in principle, it's the same as an engine failure during the day, but for one vital difference: visual indications of yaw.

The presence of an engine failure is identified in large part by the presence of uncommanded yaw. Uncommanded yaw, in turn, is identified by the visual cue of the aircraft nose swinging in one direction or another when it shouldn't. Initial identification of the failed engine also relies on these visual cues, as does positive control of the aircraft. But at night, the visual cues are reduced, leading to potential loss of control.

Loss of control? Yes. A large part of training for the multi-engine rating centers around aircraft control after an engine failure. This is because of the large yawing moments introduced by an engine failure and the associated control problems (i.e. - the yaw itself, and the yaw-induced roll). Dealing with engine-out control issues really isn't that difficult—which probably helps explain why the multi-engine rating doesn't usually take that long to complete. But it does rely on either good visual reference or effective use of the instruments.

Theoretically, at night we are operating visually. But the fact is that visual cues are reduced, and increased use of the instruments is necessary. If we aren't using the instruments effectively, it may not cause a serious problem until something unusual happens—like an engine failure in a twin. When a pilot is accustomed to managing an engine-out scenario visually, and is suddenly faced with an engine-out at night, the risk factor increases significantly. Not only is a loss of control more likely, but regaining control is more difficult due to the very reduction in visual cues that caused the situation in the first place.

Following this line of reasoning, it's possible for fully "qualified" pilots—who have passed "the test" with flying colors— to be completely unprepared for operations that their license/rating allows. To avoid this problem, we have to either change "the test" or include training that is not formally assessed.

So, am I just theorizing here? Nope. When training multi-engine pilots, I make it a habit to include a night lesson at the end of the course. It's amazing to watch a perfectly competent daytime pilot lose control of the machine in a matter of seconds. I've had several multi-engine candidates put me into a spiral dive requiring my control intervention for recovery. I've even had one candidate put the aircraft into a pilot-induced dutch roll that also required my control intervention for recovery. In each of these cases, I was flying with night-rated (and night-current) pilots who were beyond capable of passing the (daytime) flight test for a multi-engine rating. But an engine failure at night was enough to get them in way over their heads.

The good news? In each case, the fix was easy. Exposure to engine failures at night for a single lesson was enough to get these pilots ready for the real thing—whether or not it ever showed up on a flight test (not to be confused with the real test that a suddenly broken connecting rod might throw at you someday!).

So the takeway here should be to include a little bit of night training during multi-engine training—even if it isn't on the test. If you're an instructor, build this lesson into the late stages of your initial multi-engine syllabus (I include it as the last lesson before flight test review/recommend). If you're a student, insist that your instructor include a night lesson during you rating. Yes, it will cost you a few more bucks. But it may save your life.

Happy Flying!

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