So, you’re about to put yourself into an aircraft that you’ve never flown before. Maybe you’ve been flying Cessna aircraft until now, and you’re about to hop into a Cirrus for the first time. Aside from specific differences in cockpit layout and ergonomics, as well as comparative aircraft performances, there are general matters of which to be aware to ensure that transitioning to an unfamiliar aircraft is smoothly and safely accomplished.
One of the risk factors to which a pilot could be exposed relates to the notion of conflation. Simply put, conflation happens when the characteristics of two (or more) objects share enough similarities that they unify into one identity. In other words, their differences merge and become lost. In the case of aircraft, you might for example, conflate the characteristics of a Cessna 172 (with which you are intimately familiar) when you first try flying a Cessna 182. The risk, therefore, is that you’ll treat the Cessna 182 as if it’s a Cessna 172. Similar though they may be, forgetting that they’re different could lead you into the path of trouble.
Be aware of the effects of muscle memory. When you repeat a motor task often enough, its performance becomes so consolidated into your memory that you can eventually perform it without any conscious effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it’s why we repeatedly practice exercises – for example, emergency procedures in an aircraft – to ensure a spontaneous response to a given scenario. But imagine if you apply responses you’ve learned from one aircraft that you know very well, to a new aircraft that you don’t know at all. Don’t assume that those ingrained automatic responses will work in your favour, and in exactly the same way, when you’re in an aircraft to which you are unaccustomed. There’s no guarantee that conditioned responses will carry-over perfectly to the environment of a different aircraft.
Good habits are very useful to have when executing tasks in a familiar aircraft. For instance, achieving a stable approach to landing is the result of well-rehearsed habits when entering the airspace of your destination airport. However, those habits may not carry over well into an aircraft that you’ve never flown before. For example, if you’re accustomed to tight turns in your Cessna 150 when turning downwind to base, and base to final, replicating that habit in a different type of aircraft may result in extraneous and forceful manoeuvring that destabilizes your approach to land.
Stepping into a different aircraft for the first time takes preparation. If you’re doing it a lot, then the actual experience of making such transitions better prepares you in how to handle each one. Nevertheless, whether you do it frequently or not, you’re best to do your homework and make sure you study everything you can about the aircraft you’re about to fly for the first time. While flying along in cruise is pretty straight forward regardless of the aircraft you’re operating, every aircraft has its own performance numbers, its own procedures, its unique systems and its own set of peculiarities.
Study the aircraft’s Pilot Operating Handbook (POH). Commit its speeds and performance numbers to memory. Run through the aircraft’s checklists: they are sure to be substantially different from the ones with which you’ve been familiar for the aircraft you already know. Sit in the new aircraft and study it. Become familiar with its nuances and novelties. Create a flow for the controls and panel: an organized series of actions that best ensure that no step in the aircraft’s operations can be missed. Apply some common mnemonics – for example, CIGAR: Controls, Instruments, Gas, Altimeter, Run-up – if it helps you adjust to the new aircraft.
Most obviously, fly the aircraft with someone who knows it well. And fly it with that person until you can feel assured that you won’t transpose the familiar habits from one aircraft into your handling of this new one. Don’t make assumptions: the fact that the cockpit “looks just like the other ones” you know – as may very well be the case of aircraft from the same manufacturer – doesn’t mean it will fly just like the other aircraft you know.
Don’t be complacent, and don’t get confused. No matter how many hours you’ve accumulated, learn everything you can about the aircraft you’re about to fly. In a way, forgetting what you know about the airplanes you’ve flown before may save you from trouble in the aircrafts that you don’t know at all.