Is that all there is?

March 1, 1993

As the solo private pilot concentrated on a bounce recovery, the crosswind took hold, gently at first and then swiftly, drifting the Cessna 150 into a rendezvous with a runway light. Damage to the Cessna was minor, but the pilot's ego was headed for intensive care. It had been about three months since the pilot last flew, and painstakingly developed motor skills had atrophied. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation database shows a marked increase, on average, in accidents during the second quarter of each year, due in part to the winter hibernation.

The National Transportation Safety Board assigns probable causes to aviation accidents. For example, loss of directional control, as in this 150 mishap, is the leading cause of minor landing accidents, according to the NTSB-but the hidden cause just may be rusted pilot skills.

The saddest things that can happen to a pilot are to lose interest in flying and to have an accident, not necessarily in that order. Conversely, some of the most satisfying times for most pilots are when they are learning something new or even anew.

You can see the enthusiasm in pilots when they are working on certificate and ratings. I've had the wonderful experience of instructing some pilots who were dedicated to their quest for the next ticket.

After the check ride, though, some of them "lost the way." They continued to fly, but the intensity just wasn't there any more. The pressure from the check ride was gone, and while the occasional hamburger run to a nearby airport continued, somehow it wasn't the same. Like the old song, they'd look around and wonder if that was all there was to flying. The unfortunate ones drifted out of aviation over the next several years. The exceptionally unlucky flew only enough to become rusty, and a very few wound up having accidents.

The incident mentioned above occurred to one of the former regulars at the flight school where I once instructed, and the school's owner suggested that it might be good for business, not to mention insurance rates, if we drummed up some recurrency training with past students. Rekindle the old flame that had once fired up those pilots.

Starting right then, the school's new private pilots were told to go enjoy their newfound freedom but that we'd call in about three or four months to see how things were going. It was time for a bit of sizzle to reignite their passion for flying. We would suggest an adventurous proficiency flight with an instructor, invite them to take the "big airplane," a Cessna 172, and bring along a friend to sample the wonders of Right.

Our little airport was nestled into a notch of the then-Washington (D.C.) TCA, and in primary training, most pilots made a concerted effort to avoid the high-density airspace. One objective of our brushup flight was to put that apprehension to rest. The flight plan took us through an airport traffic area, around the south end of the TCA, and into Dulles International. There was lots of radio work and navigation. To liven things up, the trip was always launched after dark, and frequently, the visibility was between 5 and 7 miles in haze. It was good for the new pilots to experience less than severe clear VFR at night with an instructor on board.

After landing at Dulles, we took a prearranged tour of the radar approach control facility and tower. It was a revelation to meet the controllers who had just vectored us into the airport. The pilots began to appreciate the humanity on the other side of the mike.

We departed Dulles to an intersection up north and then made a right turn to fly the localizer into Runway 10 at Baltimore. Sometimes, it was an introduction to the back course to Runway 28. After a touch and go in Baltimore, we'd fly through the TCA, back down to the south side where, having gotten used to lots of lights and miles of concrete, there was a readjustment to a short runway, small-airport approach speeds, and few visual cues.

The trip was frequently a magical elixir that brought proficiency, confidence, and enthusiasm back to their previous levels. Quite a number of VFR pilots could envision an instrument rating in their futures and started a climb to the next rung. The instrument- rated aviators we invited on those attitude-adjustment flights who were willing to get down and dirty got an instrument competency check that meant something.

It was a time for honing and polishing. There was serious talk about the weather, preflights, flashlights, extra fuses, fuel reserves, and alternate airports along the way. Most of us have relatively few hours of flying after dark, and the accident rate reflects that. This trip provided experiences that few pilots get under the tutelage of an instructor and helped to show that night and IFR can be fun, if done right.

If you feel you may have lost the edge or would like to move up in the ranks, call your favorite instructor, and try something other than a hamburger run. Bring a friend along for the ride because it will be an evening to remember. Flight schools and instructors, check your files, stay in touch with your customers, and if you haven't seen them flying lately, give 'em a call. Most will be pleased that you showed an interest and will be happy to get back in the game.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.