At Charlie Bravo Aviation, we often deal with clients that are both owners and operators, most of which seek single-pilot planes in order to make their trips more affordable and convenient. For all of the conveniences single-pilot planes offer, however, there are some risks worth considering.
Following a blog we wrote about single-pilot planes with the furthest range, a comment was made along the lines of, “Maybe the plane can fly that far, but as a single pilot, should you fly it that far?” With that question in mind, we reached out to some local pilots that explained to us the risks they face while flying long-range trips without a copilot.
A local Bonanza pilot said that for him, a three-hour flight is business as usual and requires no second thought. After that, however, Pynes said he notices he has to consciously pay attention to his checklist and his normal routine, all the while making sure he remains alert.
“With autopilot, tip tanks, and A.C., it is easy to settle,” he said.
At four hours, the same pilot said he starts doing mental exercises during the flight in order to make sure he remains alert. Those exercises include math problems and preemptive preparation for the next phase of his flight. At the four-hour mark, hunger typically starts to set in, as well, so he packs plenty of protein bars and fluids to increase his energy level.
At five hours, the Bonanza pilot said it becomes clear that his level of alertness has dropped. To compensate, he takes a more conservative approach to every aspect of his flight, including fuel management, approaches, and decisions based on weather.
“I just fly assuming I need more margin,” he said regarding his habits at the five-hour mark.
Another local pilot said at his age, simply having to use the restroom limits his range as the lone pilot on a plane. Other pilots, however, have creatively solved the restroom issue, allowing them to fly longer stretches. One pilot said he installed a relief tube that should allow him to fly for seven hours straight, no problem. Another simply asked, “How many Gatorade bottles do you have?”
One pilot explained to us that he has often flown legs in excess of 14 hours, but in order to do so, it requires preparation days beforehand. In addition to setting up a relief tube in the cockpit and using high-quality seats and comfortable shoes, he makes sure he sandwiches those demanding flights between two off days. One before to rest and prepare, and one after to catch his breath.
The most common answer, however, seemed to fit with our Bonanza pilot’s timeline.
“I follow a rule I learned at the Fort Eustice Flying Club,” one pilot said. “Fill the tanks and don’t fly over three hours. In three hours, someone needs to pee and for our fleet, you would not run out of fuel.”
It’s also worth mentioning, however, that every pilot and aircraft has its own unique limits. As one pilot said, Part 91 and Part 135 operations have their own different requirements and limits. While some pilots may have their own rules that they abide by, the terrain of a flight can affect the length of the leg, as well.
“The other aspect is the terrain,” one pilot said. “Water, mountains, different parts of the would, you don’t have a lot of choices and have to stretch the leg.”
Although three hours seems to be a common limit for pilots flying single-pilot planes, a break in between legs can allow those same pilots to complete multiple three-hour legs in a day, giving them the opportunity to fly more than six hours. Another pilot said he’d flown up to nine hours in a single day, but was “pretty fatigued by the end.”
All in all, it seems the most common risks when flying legs that are longer than three hours include alertness, comfort, hunger, and the need for a bathroom break, although each of those can be solved with modern-day technology and creative solutions, if necessary.