Practice Training

What league are you in?

October 1, 2003

Growing up in Maryland, I was raised to be a die-hard fan of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. From the time I was 8 years old, I went to several games each summer, and I always badgered my father to get us there early enough to watch the teams take infield and batting practice. It was a chance to watch Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, and the rest of the Boys of Summer practice and perfect their craft. They would take grounders, work on bunting, turn double plays, and shag fly balls in the outfield.

Never did it dawn on me as a youngster that the argument might be made that these guys, perennial all-stars, needed to practice. After all, they had made it to the big leagues. They were the best of the best, each one a future Hall of Famer. Besides, as much as I enjoyed playing baseball, I hated grounders. On top of that, these guys would show up in Florida six weeks before the season started and do nothing but practice.

Only later did I fully understand what was going on, and how it also applies to pilots. If you take the time to read the practical test standards (PTS) for each of the various pilot ratings from private to ATP, you will see that certain skills and tasks are common to all. Some are obvious, such as the candidate's knowledge of the applicable federal aviation regulations, weather, and preflight procedures. But some, at first glance, are not.

Stalls, specifically stall recognition and recovery, for instance, are an obvious task for the student pilot for two reasons. The first is that the student must be introduced to the aerodynamic concepts and theories of low-speed flight. The second is that a student or low-time private pilot is more likely to allow flight in the low-speed regime to deteriorate into a stall, so it is critical to have the skills, training, and experience to recognize and recover from an impending stall.

For the instrument pilot, knowledge of holding patterns permeates all of the PTS rules from private to ATP. Again, it makes sense for the private pilot to demonstrate an ability to navigate into the proper holding pattern, especially one that is not published. But why should a seasoned ATP, especially one who flies for a living with the latest and greatest in avionics, be forced to do a holding pattern?

The answer is practice. Like a major league ballplayer, a pilot needs to constantly work at keeping certain skills up to par, some more than others. If you ask an instructor to give you a flight review, or if you apply for a checkride, the CFI or examiner has the right to ask you to perform any, or all, of the maneuvers or tasks in the appropriate PTS.

For a flight review, this is not likely. Instead, the CFI normally asks you to demonstrate those tasks or skills that you use the least, and therefore will be the weakest in your arsenal of plays: power-on and power-off stalls, recovery from an unusual attitude, short-field landings, and simulated engine failures. If you are flying a twin-engine airplane, you can expect a lot of single-engine practice. As the flight review progresses, the instructor is discreetly observing all the other normal aspects of flying, such as your ability to hold airspeed, altitude, and heading; radio technique; awareness of the local airspace; noise-abatement procedures; aircraft limitations; and general flying skill.

Each flight review or checkout in a new airplane is almost guaranteed to cover some of these basic maneuvers, no matter what your experience. It is critical to know and be familiar with the full operating envelope of whatever airplane you are flying. Every year, my airline puts me through three days of simulator training, and every year, without fail, there are certain maneuvers that I can count on doing. Stalls, steep turns, normal takeoffs and landings, go-arounds, holding patterns, and instrument approaches all show up on the itinerary. Some of these are normal maneuvers performed every day (normal takeoffs and landings, and almost every flight ends with an instrument approach, even in VFR conditions). Others are rare for us, such as go-arounds. You'd be surprised to see how much a professional flight crew can stumble through that procedure.

Just like baseball players, we practice, every day, doing the basics. Flight and athletics both involve a lot of hand-eye coordination, and in both cases the skills that are learned are not always natural. As a result, once the brain and the body have learned to do something, be it hitting a 90-mile-per-hour fastball or flaring to a landing at more than 100 knots, the skill must be practiced. Without practice, skills erode, and fairly quickly. In sports, preseason camps are designed to retrain the body to quickly bring it back up to speed, and daily practice keeps the skills razor sharp. In flying, a newly minted instrument pilot will never again be as good as on the day of the checkride without flying continuously in a demanding environment or going through a refresher course.

You may be able to physically fly the airplane after an extended layoff, but you almost certainly won't be able to fly in instrument meteorological conditions and maintain control, and your landings may be little more than controlled crashes. Some sort of dual instruction is needed.

In the day-to-day environment, it is important to practice — continually train — the skills you don't always use. For the baseball player it might be practicing bunts. For pilots it might be practicing soft-field landings. At the airlines, it isn't possible to practice a go-around with a plane full of passengers, but a crew might take advantage of a slow day at an uncongested airport to fly a localizer-only approach instead of flying a full ILS.

The airlines are often considered the major leagues of flying, and the money spent on training is indicative of that. But at the core of what airline pilots practice and review is the same set of skills a single-engine private pilot has to know. Stalls, go-arounds, steep turns, normal landings, and basic instrument flying skills are the backbone of almost any flight-training program, and with good reason. Even Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray had to start spring training with ground balls and long-toss throwing sessions before getting to the double play.


Chip Wright, AOPA 1086994, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a commercial airline pilot with more than 5,700 flight hours.