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A Professional Student -

So Many Airplanes, So Little Time

By Jason Catanzariti, CFI

Originally published in AOPA Flight Training Magazine – February 2005


A private pilot with a few logbook endorsements can legally fly most any piston-powered airplane weighing less than 12,500 pounds. But when moving up to turbojets, or any airplane over that 12,500-pound mark, a type rating is required. The pilot must be trained in the specific aircraft -- or an approved simulator -- and pass a checkride. Each type rating is listed on the pilot's certificate, which explains why Robert Briggs carries around a three-page credential.

A FedEx MD-11 pilot by day, Briggs' hobby is collecting type ratings and aircraft authorizations. In October 2004 he took a checkride in an L-29 Delphin to achieve number 100 -- far more than any other active pilot, according to the FAA, and perhaps the most in history.

Briggs earned his first type rating in 1975 in the Bell 47 helicopter. Then came a Lear jet, many more helicopters, a few airliners, assorted business jets, and some warbirds. Most recently he trained in his first jet fighters, including a MiG-15. In this case he earned an experimental aircraft authorization, which is essentially a type rating for an aircraft with no U.S. type certificate. A few of Briggs' type ratings, such as the DC-8, 727, and MD-11 airliners, were earned for professional purposes, although most were for his personal enjoyment.

But hasn't he gone a bit overboard? For Pete's sake, the guy is even qualified to fly blimps! Why spend a small fortune chasing types he'll probably never fly again? "Because they're there," he says. And, like a father with many children, Briggs is hesitant to praise one over the others. "My favorite airplane is the last one I flew."

But when assured that the airplanes aren't listening, he talks fondly of rare and unusual birds he has known. There was the one-of-a-kind Boeing Vertol BV-44, as well as the World War II-era North American B-25 Mitchell and Douglas A-26 Invader bombers, the Lockheed Constellation, Boeing's Stratocruiser, the Beech Starship...the list goes on.

The scarcity of certain aircraft and examiners qualified to issue type ratings in them mean that the logistics are often more difficult than the actual flying. "It was a five-year process to get typed in the Constellation," Briggs says. "There are only a few flying, and it took a lot of convincing for them to let me do it."

One of his methods is to locate a company that uses an aircraft he wants to fly and persuade them to conduct his training during test hops or ferry flights. He explains, "Many times, the plane has to fly anyway. So I end up paying for their shakedown flights, and I get my training." This is how he acquired a Lockheed C-130 Hercules type rating. But it was a bargain, because in the process he also picked up a "Flight Engineer -- Turboprop" rating.

Although Briggs flies big iron for a living, his hobby also makes him something of a professional flight student. He's seen the whole range of instructors, and he has developed strategies to attain his ratings as quickly as possible. When learning a new airplane he reads the aircraft manual and asks a lot of questions before flying. He appreciates it when instructors teach on the ground and then demonstrate in the air, which saves time and money.

And of course, some airplanes are easier than others. "The [Cessna] CitationJet fit me like a pair of gloves," he says wistfully. But the Douglas C-46 Commando's ground handling gave him fits. The Embraer Brasillia 120 was tough because it was under-automated -- trimming was required for each and every change of power, airspeed, or configuration. And the venerable Connie that took five years to climb into: "The most complex hydraulic system I've ever seen," says Briggs.

So are 100 airplanes enough for Bob Briggs? Well, he might need just one more. He notes that Airbus is preparing to roll out its gigantic new A-380, and FedEx has expressed serious interest in the airplane. Briggs has flown most of the world's big birds throughout his career. His next airplane may very well be the biggest ride in the sky.


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