One of the reasons people attend airshows and fly-ins is to shop for airplanes.
Because so many aircraft manufacturers and distributors attend these events, airshows provide prime opportunities to comparison shop. Of course the shopping experience isn’t complete without test flying the aircraft, but you need to be prepared to get the best experience.
THE ART OF THEDEMO FLIGHT
Realize you will have limited time in the aircraft, sometimes no more than 20 minutes, if that.
Most of the manufacturers and distributors that offer demonstration flights ask that you sign up for them in advance. Most often these flights are done early in the morning before the event opens or later in the evening after the airshow has concluded and most of the departures have taken place. Be flexible. Sometimes demo flights will be conducted at an airport away from the show grounds. It’s important to find out if that is the case so you can arrange transportation.
Sometimes the flight will involve a salesperson, a pilot and a passenger or two in the back of the aircraft. Be prepared for this. Sometimes the manufacturer will have a rule about not performing certain maneuvers, such as a full power-on stall, if the aircraft is fully loaded or there is a density altitude situation. Ask about this in advance so that there are no surprises.
Do your homework: Although it is probably impossible for you to memorize all the V speeds of each aircraft you intend to fly, try to familiarize yourself with as much technical information as possible before you step into the cockpit. Before the flight — such as when the aircraft is on static display — try to get into the cockpit so you can get a look at the panel layout. Don’t get caught up in the avionics or play “find the instrument” during the flight. Instead, focus on how the aircraft feels and responds.
Fly the mission: Make sure the demo flight is done so that it conforms to the mission of the aircraft. If you are evaluating an airplane to be used for a flight school, check its slow flight and stall characteristics. If you are evaluating it for your go-visit-the-grandkids-in-another-state airplane, check its cruise capabilities.
After the flight: Most sales people won’t let you get away without giving you marketing material about the aircraft’s specifications. Hang on to these so that when you are away from the show and out of the heat of the moment you can review the information and compare it with other aircraft. Also try to get a business card from the sales person so that you remember who you dealt with if you have a question later.
Make notes immediately after each flight on the marketing materials you were given. It’s a lot easier to do it right then than later when you are trying to remember which aircraft felt like what.
If you can, seek out pilots who fly the same make and model of aircraft you are considering. You can leave notes for them on their airplanes at the show or when you get home go on the Internet and look for chat rooms they frequent. Most pilots will be very flattered that you are asking their opinions and will be happy to share.