From Cessna to CRJ: The Similarities and Differences of Large and Small Aircraft

CRJ COCKPIT

I still remember my first takeoff in a Cessna 152 in 2007. It was an amazing feeling that I will surely never forget. I had the exact same feeling almost seven years later the first time I rolled down the runway in a jet. I couldn’t believe how different of an experience hurtling down the runway in a jet was compared to a light aircraft. The speeds were nearly triple what I was used to, and the aircraft was 40 times heavier than the aircraft I was accustomed to flying. And yet, the rudder pedals still moved the plane left and right, the yoke still pulled the nose up, and the ailerons still kept the plane level. I found it very funny how these two very different machines still handled in a similar manner while performing completely different roles.

After recently building up a bit of of experience in the CRJ700, I though it would be an excellent idea to share some of the similarities and differences between piloting a large jet versus a light piston plane. I chose to focus specifically on the flying aspect of both types of aircraft rather than the obvious differences (like how one has a jet engine and goes faster while the other has a propeller). I really wanted to stay away from procedural differences and focus in on the stick and rudder type stuff as its more difficult to find this type of information on the web. Enjoy!

Takeoff: 

Small aircraft are much more difficult to control on the takeoff roll than the jet is. In fact, rolling down the runway in a jet is significantly easier than rolling down the runway in the Cessna. A 75,000 lb. aircraft doesn’t get thrown around much and requires little rudder input to keep on the centerline. Because left turning tendencies like p-factor and torque and generally nonexistent in turbine engines, there is no need to add any extra right rudder pressure to keep the centerline.

Crosswind correction on takeoff is more type dependent on jets. On the CRJ, the amount you have to turn the yoke to correct is much less than the input you would have to apply on a Cessna in crosswind. On light aircraft, you usually position the ailerons full into the crosswind and roll the correction out as the airspeed builds on the roll. This amount of deflection on the CRJ would cause the multifunction spoilers to deploy and induce a yaw. This limits the amount you can turn the yoke to correct for crosswind to about 15 degrees.

Rotation is significantly different on the jet. It takes about seven seconds from the time you start pulling back on the yoke for the aircraft reaches its climb attitude. This is significantly longer than on light aircraft. It feels like an eternity. The nose is off the ground for a few seconds before the mains even leave the ground. One handed fingertip flying is not effective in controlling the aircraft on rotation. The CRJ is fly by wire and the artificial control feel produced by the control system seems a bit excessive, but prevents you from over-controlling the aircraft. The best way to control the rotation is with two hands. This was very difficult for me to get used to at first because I’m a lazy fingertip flyer. The climb attitude is higher than normal, but wasn’t as high as I expected. Usually, the nose points up to about 16 degrees, which is similar to the normal 10 degree Cessna rotation.  Most pilots rotate on instruments by rotating into the flight director command bars. I have found a normal visual rotation to also be effective once you catch on to the new sight picture.

Turns and Maneuvering:

Despite my expectations, the roll rate on the jet seems nearly identical to the roll rate of a Cessna 172. The artificial inputs from the fly by wire system require you to use far more yoke pressure to turn than a light plane. This makes the roll rate feel smaller than it is. Unfortunately, this also means that fingertip flying is out of the question. Most turns require either a full single-handed grip on the yoke, or a two-handed grip. In general, the plane feels more lethargic than a small plane, which make sense considering the size difference. I feel this feeling is significantly exaggerated by the heavy control feel however.

One of the most disappointing aspect of making turns in the jet is that rudder is not needed (this takes the rudder out of sick and rudder ha!). Most pilots fly with their feet on the floor. The aircraft’s yaw damper automatically adds rudder in turns, negating the need for rudder usage to all but crosswind landings and engine failures. I found it very difficult to make a turn and not add rudder at first, but got used to it after a bit.

Normal turns are usually done at 30 degrees of bank. I got yelled at when I was on IOE for banking a little more than this, so 30 degrees seems to be the comfort level of most people. If you bank more than 40 degrees, the plane will yell at you. Essentially, if you bank more than 30 degrees you will get yelled at by someone or something. Rolling out exactly on a heading can be a difficult task and is more critical in the airlines.  The flight director certainly make this task easier. Pitch stability is near identical to a light aircraft. Holding an altitude within 100’ requires nearly the same amount of input in the jet as a light twin does, and requires slightly fewer inputs than a Cessna does. Of course, as altitude increases, it becomes more difficult to hold altitude without autopilot.

Climbs and Descents:

The CRJ has a FADEC system which figures out how much thrust the engines should produce to climb. There are detents that catch the thrust levers as you move them past the cruise range, the first detent being climb power. When the thrust levers click into the detent, FADEC will calculate a climb power setting and make the engines produce the amount of thrust it wants. So when climbing, you are essentially pitching for your climb airspeed and letting FADEC play with the throttle. The theory is the same as a small plane but without the need to adjust the throttle to compensate for altitude like you would have to do with a constant speed prop.

CRJ THRUST LEVERS
Thrust levers with the detents shown on the right

At low altitudes, the climb rate seems to hang around 2200 FPM. Above about FL250, it reduces to about 1200 FPM. Leveling off from a climb is more difficult than in a small plane. It would be extremely difficult to level off perfectly from a climb with a high climb rate within 100’ without guidance form the flight director. It is much harder to estimate when to start bringing the nose over at 2200FPM, especially without causing undue stress to the passengers in the back.

The FCP (Flight Control Panel) controls the autoflight system and commands the flight director… Using autopilot is a necessity but it feels weird turning knobs to fly.

CRJ FCP
The FCP (Flight Control Panel) controls the autoflight system and commands the flight director… Using autopilot is a necessity but it feels weird turning knobs to fly.

The aircraft is much more slippery than a Cessna and can be difficult to slow down. Luckily, the jet has spoilers to help. A normal descent rate ranges from 1000 FPM to 2000FPM. Sometimes, higher descent rates and needed to make altitude restrictions. 2500FPM-3000FPM descents can be done relatively comfortably with the use of spoilers. Leveling off from a high rate descent is also difficult without a flight director.

The pitch-power-trim and the power-pitch-trim concepts for climbs and descents that work excellent in light planes don’t work well in the large jet. Transitioning from a level attitude to a climb or descent attitude takes longer in the jet than it does in a small plane. As a result, power, pitch, and trim changes must happen simultaneously. For example, to transition from a level attitude to a climb, you must slowly pull back on the yoke while slowly adding power to reach the climb detent. Because the controls are heavy, you will need to add trim while the pitch is being increased. The entire transition takes about four seconds and takes a little time to get used to.

TAYLORCRAFT COCKPIT
My old FCP

Approach and Landing:

Landing the jet is strikingly similar to landing a Cessna! There are a couple key differences, but the basic concepts are the same. I would wager to bet that someone who was comfortable in a light aircraft could land the jet without breaking it after they hand flew it for a bit.

The approach speed is obviously higher on the jet but isn’t significantly faster than a light twin. A typical approach speed for the CRJ is around 140 knots. The approach is more ballistic than on a light plane. Pitching for the landing point and using power to adjust airspeed works perfectly. I keep the 1,000 foot markers in the exact same place on the window as I would in a Cessna. Because the aircraft is more stable than a light aircraft, you do not have to make as many pitch and power adjustments as compared to a small plane. This makes flying the approach much easier.

The jet is significantly less maneuverable than a small plane. This becomes critical as you near 300’ above the runway. If you are not perfectly lined up with the centerline by this point, making the runway would be difficult. This is important to keep in mind during the approach.

The flare occurs about 4 times higher than it would in a small airplane. According to the radar altimeter, I start reducing power at about 80 feet. It takes about 70 feet to make the transition from the approach attitude to the landing attitude. Im certain that this transition would require much more altitude in a larger jet than the CRJ700 does.

The attitude on landing is essentially level and is nearly identical to the Piper Seneca. you do not have to pull back on the yoke a lot to bing the nose up once the landing attitude is reached. If you tried to bring the nose up high like a Cessna, you would likely have a very scary landing. Once the airspeed decays, the mains will eventually touch. I estimate the aircraft floats about 800’ on a normal landing which is about four times the distance as a Cessna. Because the landing speed is greater however, the time spent floating is only slightly longer. After the mains touch, you need to keep back pressure on the yoke to hold the nose off. The technique is exactly the same as a soft field landing in a Cessna. On the CRJ, the nose and the mains are separated by about 60’. Failure to hold the nose back will cause the nose to slam… which I admittedly did a couple of times.

Essentially, to land the jet, at about 80’, slowly start reducing the power while transitioning to a near level attitude about 15’ above the runway and hold it there until the airspeed decays. When the mains touch, hold back pressure to gently settle the nose on the runway. In general, landing the jet is much easier than a light plane, as long as you can transition to the proper attitude and hold it.

At the end of the day, both large jets and light aircraft are flown using similar techniques. The differences are easy to overcome with some experience and anyone who can fly a Cessna could easily fly a jet. Once you get the hang of flying a jet, you will find that its much easier than flying a Cessna!

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