All pilots remember the good old days of flight training when every spare moment was spent thinking about flying and eagerly awaiting their next lesson. Lessons were scheduled in advance weeks at a time, the budget was accounted for, and flying was as large a priority as it would ever be for many of us. One thing that many low time pilots fail to realize is that this is also a time that, despite having little experience, many of us are at the height of our proficiency. Flying frequently, under an instructor’s critical eye, and with their heads in the books between flights explains why student pilots of all levels are generally the most proficient pilots in the sky besides the minority of pilots who continue on to a professional career in aviation.
Written by Jeff Schlichte (Gold Seal CFI, CFII, MEI)
All pilots remember the good old days of flight trainin when every spare moment was spent thinking about flying and eagerly awaiting their next lesson. Lessons were scheduled in advance weeks at a time, the budget was accounted for, and flying was as large a priority as it would ever be for many of us. One thing that many low time pilots fail to realize is that this is also a time that, despite having little experience, many of us are at the height of our proficiency. Flying frequently, under an instructor’s critical eye, and with their heads in the books between flights explains why student pilots of all levels are generally the most proficient pilots in the sky besides the minority of pilots who continue on to a professional career in aviation.
But where are those skills and that level of proficiency now? How long has it been since you have flown under the watchful eye of an instructor, much less gone for any kind of professional evaluation such as a stage check, flight test or flight review? How long has it been since you have flown, period? Unfortunately, nearly all of us will experience a period of flying inactivity at some point in our lives. Regardless of the reason for the absence, we are all eager to get back in the left seat at the first allowable opportunity. The question we must then ask ourselves before returning to the left seat is “Am I safe to fly today?” I choose my phrase carefully, using the word “safe” rather than “legal.” To myself, an experienced Commercial Pilot who has taken a lengthy absence from flying, there is a huge discrepancy between being legal according to FAA regulations and being a safe, proficient and responsible PIC.
Certification requirements and flight proficiency regulations are some of the many aeronautical knowledge areas presented by our instructors during any certificate or rating ground school. As you know, all pilots require a biennial flight review within the past twenty-four months in order to maintain certificate currency. In order to carry passengers pilots must have logged three landings in the same category, class and type (if a type rating is required) within the preceding 90 days. Nighttime currency, flying under instrument flight rules (IFR), and commercial operations fall under additional, more restrictive regulations. Most flight schools also error on the side of caution before renting, and maintain their own additional currency requirements and may require checkouts with company instructors prior to handing you the keys to their aircraft.
What do all of these minimum requirements mean? To some they mean exactly what they should – that they are the MINIMUM requirements needed to remain legal to fly in the eyes of the FAA. Some other pilots may view meeting the minimums as a confirmation that they are safe to fly, and unfortunately this is often far from the truth. For those pilots fortunate enough to own their own aircraft or have access to a fellow pilot’s aircraft outside the watchful eye of an instructor or flight school operator it can be difficult admitting a lack of proficiency. As such a pilot I recently found myself asking some questions I feel every pilot should ask prior to any flight.
The most obvious question is “when was the last time I flew?” However a responsible PIC must take that much further. Any pilot must review the conditions of their last several flights. Was there a crosswind? What kind of airport did you fly from? Did you practice any kind of navigation, radio communication, or file a flight plan? If you hold any additional ratings or certificates other than Private Pilot was the aircraft complex, multi-engine or did you enter instrument conditions? As you can see, a pilot’s last flight can range greatly in scope and difficulty, from a calm pattern flight at an uncontrolled airport to a cross-country flight ending at a busy airport environment in mixed meteorological conditions. The answers to these questions will vary greatly between pilots, so the important thing to remember is to consider whether or not your most recent experience is relevant to the flight you are about to embark on. A pilot who has recent experience planning a long flight which included opening and closing a flight plan, speaking with ATC regarding pattern operations or flight following and who spent time working on crosswind landings before departing is much better prepared for their next flight than a pilot who has not left the traffic pattern or their familiar practice area in months.
There is inevitably a time in our flying career that we will not be happy with some of our answers to the previous questions. However, that does not mean that you have allowed yourself to become a “bad” pilot. In fact, answering questions such as these truthfully and being unhappy with the answers reinforces the most important attribute of any responsible pilot; Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM). As an instructor of all FAA certificates and ratings I can attest that any instructor would rather work with a pilot that exhibits good ADM and poor aircraft control than a pilot who declares they are the best pilot that they know without hesitation. Skills such as aircraft control and training maneuvers can be reviewed and polished or, if necessary, relearned entirely as long as pilots are willing to evaluate themselves honestly. However, the all-important first step in regaining proficiency is to be willing to admit that one’s skills may need such attention.
The best option for any pilot regardless of the number of entries in their logbook is to go for a review flight with a current FAA Flight Instructor. Speaking with the instructor ahead of time and planning for some time on the ground will allow for important conversation regarding the type of flying that you are most likely to do upon returning to the air. Depending on how long it has been since your last flight it is important to ask if anything regulatory has changed. Be sure to review things such as sectional chart, instrument approach plate and publication expirations. Remember, you may not know what you don’t know, and a good instructor should be able to take into account your own experience and length of absence in order to help make sure you aren’t forgetting anything. Tailoring a review flight towards your own objectives on future flights will ensure that you get a comprehensive review from a professional regarding your specific needs to return to proficiency. Remain open to possibly needing more than a single review flight. Try to experience different conditions and situations while having the benefit of an instructor in the seat next to you. If you are accustomed to flying at an uncontrolled field plan a short trip to a busier airport requiring disciplined radio communication and pattern operations. If your home airport has a 5000’X150’ runway ask to fly to a short or soft field airport with obstructions to accurately evaluate your ability to divert to a smaller unfamiliar airport if necessary on a future cross country flight. Practice crosswind landings that you may not feel comfortable attempting without the aid of you instructor (as well as the hugely important, but often forgotten “Go Around”).
Once you and your instructor feel comfortable with your newly acquired level of proficiency there are many exercises that all pilots should do to keep the rust from coming back. One of the easiest tricks that I used during my own training and still utilize is the “chair flying” exercise. Before any flight spend some time with the aircraft checklist and emergency procedures at home, running through each several times while visualizing and reaching for the appropriate equipment in your imaginary aircraft. Upon entering the aircraft and before completing your prestart checklist run through each checklist a few more times, and be sure that memory items are second nature. This is perhaps the easiest and most cost effective means of reinforcing safe practices before the engine (and Hobbs meter) is running. Take your time, and be sure that you feel completely comfortable performing any normal and emergency procedure before leaving the ground. Be sure to complete all of the required pre-flight actions to the best of your ability prior to arriving at the airport. This includes but is not limited to checking for NOTAMs, AIRMETs and TFRs, weather conditions, runway lengths/conditions, alternate airport options, fuel requirements and takeoff and landing distances for the conditions of the day using aircraft performance charts. Avoid complacency often accompanied by flying from the same airport and under the same conditions that you are used to. It’s not just for piece of mind, it’s your legal responsibility as PIC.
Once it comes time to fly be sure to ease into your flight. On subsequent solo flights begin by remaining in the traffic pattern and performing a series of landings (or go-arounds if necessary). This will further reinforce checklist usage, wind correction, ground reference and radio communication procedures. Be sure to include a go-around on your last attempt before departing the airport environment. Once outside the airport environment climb to a safe altitude, perform some clearing turns, and complete some basic maneuvers such as slow flight in different configurations and a set of steep turns. Remember, you aren’t being evaluated for a certificate. This is purely to reinforce aircraft control within a safe environment. Aim to complete all maneuvers within practical test standards, but primary focus should be on maintaining a large margin of safety and retaining comfort with some of the more aggressive attitude maneuvers in case a situation arises that is other than straight-and-level flight. Keep your first few flights short, avoiding mental and physical fatigue that can sometimes lead to frustration. If the airport is not busy upon your return (and your pilot and aircraft limitations allow) request the option of practicing crosswind landings on a runway other than the one being used. Remember, you can always go around and rejoin the traffic pattern for the favored runway.
After shut down take time to note what you did well and what areas can still use improvement, and remember that every pilot could always have done something better on every flight. Be honest with yourself. No one is perfect, and striving to improve every flight will keep you sharp and as prepared as you can be. If your evaluation involves putting the nose wheel on the centerline next time versus being a few feet left then that’s great. If it is something more significant, such as feeling unprepared to deal with a crosswind or being hazy on emergency procedures then it may be time to consider another review flight. No instructor will ever look unfavorably on a pilot’s decision to go for another dual flight. I personally know that by continuing to safely challenge myself to get better with every flight has been huge in maintaining my own level of proficiency and confidence. Knowing that I am prepared to the best of my ability to deal with unforeseen circumstances while airborne makes flying that much more enjoyable to me. Now that I am back to being a safe, proficient (and in turn legal) pilot I am ultimately more comfortable, confident and able to enjoy flying much more than when I returned to the air after my initial absence.
Remember, for the vast majority of us flying is intended to be a fun, challenging and rewarding experience. However, it is one of the very few hobbies that can have disastrous results if not continually respected. By asking yourself the right questions and seeking help when necessary you can ensure safe and enjoyable flights for years to come.
Jeff Schlichte is a 2000+ hour Commercial AMEL Pilot, FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor and FAA Part 141 Check Instructor