Infrequent Flyer Points

Strategies for staying current

November 1, 1998

Been flying? Been up lately?

Unless we are burning up the airways, most of us tend to answer these questions with studied vagueness — "A little, here and there" or "always looking for the $100 hamburger" are casual code words that betray our relative inactivity. None of us wants to admit to our buddies at the airport that we aren't flying much; to do so would subject us to pity or ridicule. But, we also harbor a greater concern about our proficiency, or lack thereof.

Back when we were active in the flying club, getting the additional rating, or sharing a rental with a friend, we felt good about flying and our ability to cope with the vagaries of the atmosphere or the intricate mechanism that we chose to fly. But, with inactivity comes doubt: Can I still put it down in a gusty crosswind? Will I sound amateurish when talking to the tower controller? Will my passengers detect my indecision and uncertainty? What if I miss a checklist item?

For whatever reason — lack of money, time, or interest — less flying reduces confidence in our ability to cope with even simple sunny-day flying. However, there are ways to get the most out of our meager time aloft. With careful planning and timing, fewer flight hours can allow us to remain as proficient as time and money allow. Here's how.

Plan your activity. With limited time and budget it is important to have a plan to stay active and at the proper intervals. Flying a six-hour cross-country every three months is not as good as flying two hours every month, or one hour every two weeks. Most infrequent flyers find that the first 20 minutes of flight can be the most challenging; plan to encounter these challenging periods at frequent intervals. Devise a plan to fit your schedule and budget, then fly the plan.

Make every minute count. Too many pilots seeking proficiency stay in the pattern for touch-and-goes, engage in local area surveillance (sightseeing), or fly 50 miles to indulge in the pricey hamburger ritual. Don't neglect navigation, instrument flying, and basic airmanship skills, too. Before you go, always devise a detailed plan for what you want to accomplish.

A potential scenario might include 15 minutes of pilotage to reach a small airfield for short-field takeoffs and landing practice, followed by contact with a Class B or C airspace control facility prior to VOR radial interception and tracking leading to a touch-and-go at the terminal airport. Pick out an unknown or little-known airport for a full-stop precision landing on the way home. Then, the 15 minutes home can be spent sightseeing. Total time: 1.3 hours; virtually every minute was spent actively refreshing your knowledge of the aeronautical environment and honing important flying skills. The FAA Practical Test Standard for your level of pilot certificate will provide ample ideas for practice items.

Find a partner. It's always more enjoyable to share the flying experience with someone who shares similar interests and intent. Because other pilots have similar proficiency problems, find one or two who share your need to fly for frequent short periods while practicing their skills in a disciplined manner. Flying clubs and aircraft owners wishing to share expenses are good hunting grounds for these kindred spirits, although those found consuming the FBO's coffee on a Saturday morning are also good bets.

One word of caution, however: Make sure that you both know who the pilot-in-command is during any phase or leg of the flight. Not knowing who is in charge of the safety of the aircraft and its occupants can prove unsettling and potentially dangerous.

Duality. Once certificated, most pilots don't fly with an instructor on occasions other than the flight reviews or instrument proficiency checks. While money is often cited in this avoidance, the primary reluctance may be to subjecting one's decaying skills to the scrutiny of a pro. If this is the case, rest easy in the knowledge that most airline, charter, and corporate pilots fly under the watchful eye of a check airman or simulator instructor every six months. Talk to the pros about the experience — most relate that they learn from every recurrent training period. And realize that your ego will probably be boosted after the experience; you may have forgotten how good you really are.

Better still, participate in the FAA Pilot Proficiency (Wings) Program; this will provide specific goals and objectives to achieve in a short, structured, and skills-oriented program.

Paper flight. You are reading this article, so you are probably open to the idea of staying abreast of the regulations and learning piloting techniques and other necessary skills. Reading about flying is a good way to keep your mind immersed in things aeronautical. Doing so keeps you aware of the aviation environment and actively thinking about past, present, and future flying episodes and techniques. Periodicals, technique and upgrade books, and training courses and videos are all sources of the right stuff.

Purchasing a copy of the pilot's operating handbook (POH) for the aircraft that you fly is a good investment. Prior to every flight, review procedures, limitations, and performance factors listed in the POH for the aircraft that you are about to fly. This will do wonders for raising your level of confidence about flying after a hiatus.

Cyberplanes. Many scoff at the value of computer-based training devices, but regular practice on them keeps you familiar with procedures and staying ahead of the aircraft (computer?). This is valuable experience because the events happen in real-time, forcing you to think of the demands of the aircraft and the environment in which it operates. If done correctly, planning, navigation, communication, and judgment skills come into play. The real payoff comes when you practice your planned flight the night before it happens — there is an excellent transfer of skills and procedures from training device to aircraft.

Talk it up. Hangar flying is a time-honored means of sharing experiences, exploits, and, perhaps, flights of fancy with one's peers. While some hangar flying rivals the tall tales often found in fish or war stories, such an interchange can prove beneficial when well-directed. None of us knows everything there is to know about flying, nor do we want to make the same mistakes as others have. Therefore, sharing real-world, relevant experiences can make us better pilots.

Think about it. Take a few minutes prior to the trip to the airport to visualize your way through the entire flight step by step. This will create in your mind an agenda to be used as a script of the upcoming "aviation play." Knowing what comes next and what the options are will provide peace of mind and confidence in your abilities about the upcoming adventure.

Is there a time when insufficient flight time may make it prudent to cease flying altogether? Probably. Then, how much flying is enough? Unfortunately, that becomes a very personal decision based on experience, type of flying, aircraft flown, and flying environment. However, the amount can be surprisingly little if careful planning and attention to detail are used in the quest for the "right stuff" to be practiced for the few hours of flying possible.

Having doubts? Ask an instructor for an opinion of your capabilities following a flight review.


John Sheehan, an ATP and CFI infrequent flyer living in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a consultant who works with corporate flight departments. He also serves as the secretary general of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations.