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VSL Aviation

If you ask Wikipedia, the Beechcraft Travel Air was, “designed to fill the gap between the single engine Model 35 Bonanza and the much larger Model 50 Twin Bonanza, and ultimately served as the basis for its replacement, the Baron.” This is clearly a lie. What really happened was a Beechcraft engineer stole a rivet gun, wings and a couple of IO-360-A1As from the factory and went to town on his family’s vintage station wagon. Just like those plodding wood-paneled road yachts of old, the BE-95 is easy to fall in love with. And that’s just what I did over the three flying days I spent at VSL Aviation. If I have one criticism of the Travel Air it’s that it should have shag carpeting and fuzzy dice.

But this article isn’t a love letter to the Travel Air. This article is a writeup and honest review of VSL Aviation’s accelerated multiengine class rating course which just so happens to be held in one of their many Travel Airs. I’ll tell you up front they get five stars out of five and I highly recommend them. I’m not sure it’s for everyone but from the moment you get to their office at Russellville Regional Airport (KRUE) you can tell they’ve got it down pat. They try to get people finished in two days, but budget for three. I budgeted four and one more for travel and boy am I glad that I did. My connecting flight got iced out, the class was grounded two days from the very same storm but we still finished in two full (and I mean full) days of flying, including the checkride. That was 5.7 on the hobbs for the sign off and 1.3 for the checkride. Most CFIs say to expect 7 to 10 hours for the rating, many schools tell you 10-15. My CFI, Ethan, took Seth’s (VSL’s co-owner) curriculum and turned this average but dedicated airman into a two-engine-wonder under their already ambitious expectations. Soon you’ll understand why that’s such a testimony to their program and hard work.

I decided on VSL, all the way in what any self respecting NYC Metro resident would call the middle of goddamn nowhere, for a few reasons. The first was their reputation and the many recommendations that came flooding in on social media. But why was I seeking social media recommendations when we have so many schools around here? In two words: weather and maintenance. Three out of the four schools I considered locally had no planes flying and the fourth … well, I felt they were a little lackadaisical in their program control.

Looking at the weather predictions I felt confident Arkansas, which I recently learned is a real state and not just a desert movie set used for epic westerns, would recover from the many winter storms that were blowing through most of the country long before the east coast would and I was in a pretty good hurry. A friend had just informed me that if I were multi rated I could fly right seat in his company 310, do all the flying myself, log the PIC and even get trained up to work with him. There’s only one response to that and it looks like a pilot shaped hole in the wall with a dust trail leading in the direction of the first available accelerated course.

And that’s how I found myself turning my carry on bag into a pillow at Charlotte, North Carolina airport and abandoning my diet for a day. Speaking of which, don’t get the chinese food at CLT. It was cooked in a well used moccasin by a weasel with a Dali mustache. The next morning I was on my way to soon-to-be-sunny Russelville and my first ground lesson focusing on multi engine operations, aircraft systems, flight planning considerations and aerodynamics. They do not waste time. I met my classmates there, all fine southern and western guys, and we became friends over the course of the… course.

Pro tip: Rent a comfortable but quick car for the ride from Little Rock to Russelville. It’s an hour, hour and a half but the speed limit goes up to 75mph.

After the class ended just around five we were told to meet back at the airport at eight AM and be ready to roll. I felt like my veins were full of pop rocks and red bull. I had dinner with Jeff, a trucking company owner with a Twin Bonanza; a trend that would continue. It might seem superfluous but socializing with my classmates really did help all of us absorb the information and grow. Every little bit helps, and a study buddy is more than just a little bit.

Here’s where my special difficulties came in. First off there’s no easily discovered healthy food in Russelville, Arkansas. I was very excited to see a Waffle House down the road a half mile from the hotel but it sat pretty heavy in my stomach when I was trying to get to sleep. And when I did get to sleep I was awoken by a troop of clog dancing sumo wrestlers door slamming, partying high school swim team who moved into the floor above my own. This, like social study dinners, would become a trend.

Nevertheless I was bright eyed and caffeine-fueled at the airport at eight AM the next morning just in time to wait for the weather to clear up until the afternoon. We got an intro to the plane, including an intro flight, but not much more that day. Now here’s where their program’s brilliance shines: You get a co-student and the two of you trade backseating each others’ lessons. And let me tell you, by and large, we all watch each other make a mistake, note it, hear the correction and instructions on how to avoid it and then make the exact same mistake when it’s our turn. Humans are an interesting bunch.

Brandon and I should have flipped a coin but we didn’t have one so when it came time to decide who came first neither of us wanted to be rude and elect to get the initial stick time. Either that or neither of us wanted to be the first to make a fool of themselves. Either way, I eventually ended the stand off by volunteering and away we went. The flight consisted of a preflight, safety brief, run-up, normal take-off and basic multiengine operations. Syncing the props, letting your right leg relax a little, that sort of thing. Then the basic maneuvers: stalls, steep turns, slow flight. And then Ethan failed an engine on me.

Listen: I was prepared. I had studied the memory items, flows and everything else before I got there and I had it all down. Pitch, power, drag. Identify, verify, feather. And before I had my motorcycle accident I’d studied Judo my entire youth. When I went flying through my own windshield I landed like a sack of sand on my face. When Ethan pulled the prop I stared like a dumb squirrel out the windshield with my leg jammed on the rudder until Ethan walked me through it. Then it was back to base to switch it up and watch Brandon do exactly the same as I did. Now, we did differentiate our screwups somewhat on future flights. My steep turns were ace and his were a little overcontrolled but he never forgot to raise the landing gear on takeoff while wondering why that mountain at 12 o’clock high wouldn’t descend.

My intro to the travel air left with the impression that it is a solid and sedate baby rhinoceros of a plane until you pull back on the yoke, at which point it believes it is a rocket ship. Be forewarned.

The second day was entirely ground. We just couldn’t get the weather to fly. But the ground was not wasted, and I give Seth who is also a DPE kudos for a very good ground lesson. We really dug into concepts like service ceilings and why we should think of them as drift-down altitude. Why the accelerate go distance isn’t really very useful for a lot of planes. We were presented with interesting problems and planning considerations (What do you do if your single engine service ceiling is lower than prevailing terrain and you have 1 mile leeway to get to the nearest airport? Why might you shut down an engine in flight on a long cross country?) and I genuinely do feel that others who don’t get an extra ground day might be missing out. I would encourage Seth to put these lessons on video and post them to his website.

Again, we were instructed to be back and ready to go at 8am. But time and weather wait for no man and I got a text just before sundown saying I could backseat a flight right then as the weather was just good enough to go. I declined, I was tired and hungry, and I found out later that they barely got a lap in the pattern but it just goes to show you they really are good to go at all times there. That night I got a call at 2am from a tenant. They thought the boiler was broken. It took me an hour to calm them down and I discovered, from the handyman the next morning, that the thermostat was just set low. At 5 I was again awoken by the olympic rifle competition swim team upstairs and abandoned all hope of rest.

Next day. 8 am, go time. And go we most assuredly did. It is because of this day and the next that I can confidently say Ethan is the hardest working CFI I’ve ever met. Two flights, lunch. Two flights, break. Another flight. All the maneuvers, engine failures, single engine instrument approaches, single engine landings. Specialization really does breed expertise and it shows. Ethan was ready for every error, ready to punish any memory lapse or mistake with a practical lesson and iron any wrinkle with good advice. He’s at around 1200 hours now and I am sure he’s got a good future ahead of him. At the beginning of the day I was all thumbs and elbows. At the end of the day I could see myself shaping up.

Before dinner I went to WalMart and bought gel earplugs. I slept like a baby, but woke early because the heater in the room quit. So here’s protip number two:

Protip: Eliminate distraction before you go. Set your bills to autopay, organize a dog walker, murder your tenants with extreme prejudice, set up an email autoresponder. And for the love of god bring a sleep mask and earplugs.

Next day, same drill: 8 am and let’s rock. That day’s first flight was ferrying another CFI and student so they could ferry another BE95 home. The return flight was very, very fun. Random engine failures galore, single engine operations, all the issues and everything I could expect to be tested on during my check ride. And this is the second ingredient in VSL’s secret sauce. I guess you could call it the icy plunge method. It’s not sink or swim as you’ve got plenty of support but there is just no coddling. You learn the technique, you practice the technique and you get it or you do it again. And if you do get it you do it again anyway. By the end of that flight I was so ready for an engine failure I was almost disappointed when it didn’t happen. I also learned that singing the chorus to Hold On Loosely by 38special just low enough so the mic doesn’t pick it up helps hold a glide slope on a one engine inop approach.

Dinner that night was Taco Bell. Protip: Do not have Taco Bell the night before a checkride.

Final day. More 0800 rock and roll. One more flight, this one a mock checkride. One more observation. Then self study until the checkride go time. Turned out to be a lot of self study as my checkride didn’t get started until sundown, but that’s just fine. Had plenty of time to play student to an aspiring MEI, go over aerodynamics and flows and so on.

My DPE was Nick Adcock, B2 pilot and Timothy Oliphant look alike. The checkride was pretty straightforward. The oral portion started with the paperwork and qualifying questions then right into aerodynamics and performance, then systems where I explained the mechanics and functions of the landing gear, props and engines. I felt a bit of a surge of pride when (brag alert) Nick asked me if I was an instructor. As an aside, I could tell he had great confidence in the VSL course and wanted me to succeed. Ethan had previously told me out of 67 checkrides he’d endorsed only two had failed. I believe it.

The practical portion of the checkride was almost exactly the profile we’d flown in every lesson after the first one. Normal takeoff, simulated engine failure during the climb. Up to altitude for steep turns, slow flight, stalls. The power-on stall was fun because Nick directed a 20° bank which I’d never practiced before, so I just did it. The accelerated stall was a bit of a mental fortitude exercise after repeatedly learning how poorly multiengine aircraft handle recover from spins, so I did it as gently as I could. I was most concerned with my short field landing in what was only beginning to become a familiar airplane but I am proud to say I got it on the first shot.

Aside from how to fly a multiengine airplane with one engine inoperative, the most important thing I learned from this course is the confidence that I can learn an entire new plane with unfamiliar systems and be ready to master it in a short amount of time. It really makes me feel that I’ve matured as an aviator. I highly encourage anyone who hasn’t done so to take any accelerated course in a totally new type in order to gain this sort of confidence. I went from a CSEL rookie with relatively few hours and virtually no complex time to a complex endorsed, CMEL pilot with all due haste and no discernible waste. This really has allayed my concerns about earning new typeratings in the future.

So there you have it, my enthusiastic endorsement of VSL aviation and the fine people who run it. If any of my fellow JAC aviators are planning on getting their multiengine rating I cannot more highly recommend heading out to Arkansas for it. Especially in the winter - while I was flying, NJ and NYC were unflyable. Total cost for the course, including the checkride, worked out to just under $4,000 and lunches were taken care of. They’ve got a deal with the comfort in which I would recommend whenever there isn’t a swim team in town for $75 a night.

This article is long enough but here are some worthwhile observations:

  1. Having study buddies made all the difference. My class of four was constantly encouraging and educating each other.

  2. We all had our little demons to contend with. Jeff took a while to wrap his head around glass. Brandon took some time to get used to the light-as-a-feather elevator. Colin, going for his MEI, was just super high energy and therefore nervous but he’s 18 what do you expect? As for me, fixating on one memory item at the cost of another. It’s a short time to defeat demons so just do it. You get more time if you need it, but it’ll be a lot of work.

  3. Attitude is everything. Have an enthusiastic go go go mentality and plenty of optimism and you’ll do fine.

  4. Finally, if you have a beard, shave it. The good people of Arkansas accept two types of beards: An almost undetectable goatee or a mountain-man-mile. My full black beard had every eye (and a few dirty looks) trained on me everywhere I went. When I shaved it I ended up being greeted with that famous southern hospitality even after they heard my accent.

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