The Ups and Downs of First Flights

The Ups and Downs of First Flights

By Justin Inman, EAA 1057655

Flying the first flight in an experimental airplane is unlike anything else in the world. The mix of emotions, physical senses, extreme focus, and heightened awareness create a combination that is downright addicting.

My love for aviation started as a child and matured through the usual plastic models and remote control airplanes as I could afford them. I started in the world of experimental airplanes when I was 14 with a youth build program called TeenFlight near my home in the Portland, Oregon, area. I had the amazing opportunity to work with other high school students under the supervision of experienced adult homebuilders over the course of my first two years of high school.

Richard Graves’ RV-12

Opportunities at TeenFlight led to opportunities outside of TeenFlight, and I found myself working as a mentor on successive TeenFlight build projects as well as assisting local homebuilder Richard Graves with the completion of his own RV-12. Because I had more experience in the RV-12, Richard agreed to let me perform the first flight and phase one flight testing on his airplane. I was an 18-year-old private pilot with just over 100 hours at that time.

Preparation is incredibly important for a first flight in a new airplane. With the RV-12, some of the risks associated with a first flight are somewhat less than a new airplane design or a modified experimental amateur-built aircraft because  of its proven standard configuration. However, while high-level risks such as stability and controllability may be less, the whole airplane cannot be considered flight capable until every aspect of it, including engine, systems, avionics, and handling qualities, have been proven flight capable.

Before I flew the first flight in Richard’s RV-12 I went flying with one of my primary flight instructors, Jerry VanGrunsven, in his RV-12 for some first-flight preparation flying (and also to give my mother some peace of mind). Throughout the flight, he failed different systems in the airplane, pulled the power back and made me glide into small airstrips several times, covered the EFIS and made me land, and simulated a heavy wing and had me fly maneuvers to very exacting tolerances along with many more possible issues one might experience on a first flight.

Justin stands with Ken Day’s RV-12 project during the build.

Flash forward two years to fall 2016 when I was 19 years old and in my second year of engineering school at Oregon State University. I started helping an area homebuilder, Ken Day, finish his RV-12 project. The airplane earned its airworthiness certificate in February 2017 and because of my enthusiasm for flight testing and my experience in RV-12s, he agreed to let me do the first flight and phase one in his airplane as well.

While first flights are a ton of fun, they should be taken seriously. Because of the heightened senses and awareness on a first flight, it is easy to become quickly overwhelmed with tasks. It can be very complicated to simultaneously fly the airplane, look for other airplanes, monitor flight instruments and engine instruments, and scribble notes on a kneeboard all at the same time. Add to this the possible distraction of an inoperable airspeed indicator, a heavy wing, a rough running engine, or an overheating engine and focusing on the task of flying becomes increasingly difficult.

Again, preparation is important. Preparing ahead of time with any ground crew or chase aircraft exactly what the plan is for the flight and what everyone’s roles will be, and personally preparing mentally on the ground what the best plan of attack would be for different issues that might arise, will pay off. 

Flying first flights and phase one test flights are fun and exciting challenges. I am very fortunate to have become a part of the homebuilding and flying community at a young age and I look forward to the adventures ahead.

Read more about Justin’s accomplishments in Lauran Paine Jr.’s column in the March issue of Sport Aviation.

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