May 1, 2004
By Elizabeth A Tennyson
In a perfect world, we'd never have to worry about staying proficient because we would fly — a lot. Money would be no object. Neither would time. We'd pilot the aircraft of our dreams, and it would never go down for maintenance. Every day would be CAVU. (And, while we're at it, we'd have the bodies of athletes without ever setting foot in a gym, angelic children who never talk back, and lush green lawns that never need to be mowed. Yes, I have a rich fantasy life.)
Of course it's not a perfect world. Many of us are weekend fliers in the truest sense — we save our pennies and carve out time to spend in the air, mostly on weekends. Jobs, families, mortgages, and a million other commitments mean that flying often comes somewhere near the bottom of our long list of priorities. But however much, or little, we manage to fly, we want to feel comfortable and we need to be safe. For most of us, that means doing more than the minimum number of takeoffs and landings every 90 days. It means squeezing as much as possible from every trip to the airport.
Here's a countdown of tips garnered from flight instructors, examiners, and, yes, weekend pilots that can help you stay proficient, fly safely, and have fun even when time and money are tight.
Being a weekend flier is not like being a Sunday driver. Jumping into an airplane and wandering the skies to see where the wind takes you may be a romantic notion, but it's hardly ever a good idea. And it's a lousy way to stay proficient. Instead, make a plan for proficiency and implement it whenever you go flying.
Start with the Aeronautical Information Manual and the practical test standards for the certificates and ratings you hold. Taken together these documents give you the regulatory minimums plus the proficiency level you should be maintaining for a variety of flight conditions (nighttime or carrying passengers, for example) and skills (steep turns, slow flight, and stalls, among others).
Armed with this information, make a checklist of all the things you need to do to live up to the PTS and AIM standards.
No, you're not finished, but the boring part is over. Now all you have to do is look at your checklist before you head to the airport and decide what one or two items you will check off on your next flight. (Be sure to include the date so you know when you last performed any task on your list.)
Just having a plan — knowing what you need to do and when you need to do it — is the first step toward staying proficient on a budget. Now, that didn't hurt a bit.
Estimated cost: Free. Estimated time: Two hours to make the initial checklist; 10 minutes per flight after that.
Whether it's a new rating, a landing at every airport in your state, a tailwheel sign-off, or reaching the next level in the FAA Wings program (more on that later), set a goal and give yourself a deadline for accomplishing it. Not every goal needs to be a major undertaking — maybe your goal is simply to fly at least once a month — but it does need to be something that motivates you. And to keep that motivation high, make sure that achieving the goal comes with a reward for you and for anyone who has sacrificed so you could do it.
Imagine that you've decided to devote at least one weekend day per month to flying for a period of six months. When you've kept your commitment faithfully, treat yourself to something you want — a new kneeboard or flight bag, perhaps. And treat your spouse, significant other, or kids to something they want — maybe a special evening out or a trip to the beach (by air or otherwise). After all, these people had to give up precious time with you in order for you to reach your goal. Tell them about their reward up front and let them have a say in what it will be — now they've got a stake in seeing you achieve the goal you've set.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, let me point out that this is not the time to coerce your sky-shy spouse into the airplane so you can whisk him or her off for a weekend at your favorite fishing spot. Instead, it's your turn to make the sacrifice and give your spouse something he or she will enjoy — even if it means leaving the airplane in the hangar and smiling through an evening at the ballet or a shoot-'em-up movie.
Estimated time: One hour to set some goals, choose one to pursue, and let your loved ones in on your reward scheme. Estimated cost: That depends entirely on the magnitude of the goal and of the rewards that go with it.
You went to the airport, spent an hour punching holes in the sky, and returned safely to Earth. It was fun, but now it's time to get back to business, right? Almost.
Do yourself a favor and spend five minutes making detailed notes about your flight. Include juicy tidbits such as sky conditions, visibility, wind speed and direction, where you went, how you felt about the flight, and what you might do differently if you were to make the same flight again.
Be honest. This is for you, and six months from now when you see that you made a landing in a 30-knot wind 45 degrees off runway heading, you may not remember that you scared yourself silly and vowed never to do it again. In fact, you might just take it as evidence that you can handle today's 25-knot direct crosswind with impunity.
Some people like to keep this information in their logbooks; others prefer to keep a separate flight journal. Where you keep your notes isn't really important as long as you keep them consistently and honestly.
Of course, writing down your thoughts is only part of the equation. You have to go back and review them once in a while so the lessons of any given flight stay fresh. The good news is that this is a great way to get yourself thinking about flying when you can't get to the airport. The bad news? There isn't any.
Estimated cost: $15 for a flight journal if you don't want to use your logbook. Estimated time: 10 minutes per flight (five to review old notes and five to write new ones).
All of this segues rather nicely to the next suggestion — the easiest one of all. When you can't fly, read about flying. The very fact that you've come across this article in your AOPA Pilot magazine means that you've got this one nailed.
The kind of reading that will do us some good doesn't have to be drudgery — like settling in with a software user's manual. Almost any aviation-related reading you do can help you to keep your brain in the game. Best of all, reading can get you thinking about flying. When you read about aviation, try to tie it to your own flying experience — even when that experience seems meager by comparison. Just because you've never flown a next-generation business jet or landed on a lake at a remote Alaskan outpost doesn't mean you can't relate to such experiences. Think about the importance of understanding your avionics when you look at that dreamy glass cockpit. Contemplate the ways that terrain can affect wind when you see that floatplane slipping through a gap in the trees on approach to landing.
Estimated cost: Free; the magazine comes with the membership. Estimated time: As long as you care to spend.
When it comes to making a trip via general aviation, getting there is (at least) half the fun. It's also the obvious time to slip in some proficiency practice.
Why not do a couple of steep turns in a quiet spot on the way to your next $100 hamburger? Or you could practice slow flight over a particularly picturesque piece of property. Maybe it's been a while since you've done stalls — point the nose toward your destination and go for it (after you've done your clearing turns, of course). None of these things takes much time or fuel, and you don't even need to stray from your course; but each of them needs to be practiced if you're going to stay up to practical test standards.
Now, I've heard more than one pilot say that slowing down in the pattern is all the slow-flight practice you'll ever need or that a well-executed landing flare counts as stall practice. Personally I don't buy it. Perfecting and practicing these critical maneuvers independently and at altitude lets you explore your aircraft's flight envelope more thoroughly and safely than you can ever hope to do in the pattern. Lecture over.
Estimated cost: 0.2 on the Hobbs (about $16 for the Cessna 172 I rent) and a gallon of avgas (call it $3). Estimated time: 12 minutes per flight.
No need to fly around the patch at your home strip until you've worn a groove in the sky. Next time you're flying somewhere, whether it's a long cross-country or to the next county, plan to make approaches to one or more intermediate airports along the way. Challenge yourself even more by selecting fields you haven't been to in the past and choosing landing and takeoff techniques you rarely use. Pick an airport with a long runway and do a short-field landing for a touch and go. Try a soft-field takeoff or do a go-around with a best-angle-airspeed climbout.
One caveat: Don't do this without a little forethought. Review your airplane's performance specs and make sure you know the airport's recommended procedures, communications frequencies, and anything unusual about the field, like the fact that the runway slopes uphill.
How much time and expense this adds to your trip depends on how you approach it. On a long trip with several fuel stops you might simply try using a different landing and takeoff technique for each leg — you have to land and take off anyway so the extra practice is free. On a short trip, choosing an airport aligned with your route means you may be able to do a touch and go or missed approach in a single click of the Hobbs. A couple of extra landings will cost you more time, but they're probably worth it.
While you're at it, think about visiting a mix of towered and nontowered fields. Landing at a towered airport may take a little longer, but it pays dividends in other ways by letting you practice those radio (and sometimes negotiation) skills as you talk to approach, tower, and ground controllers.
Estimated cost: If you don't rush, call it 0.2 on the Hobbs plus a gallon of avgas for each landing and takeoff (again, that's about $19 in my usual ride). Estimated time: 12 minutes for every extra landing, taxi, and takeoff on the take-your-time plan at a nontowered field.
While you're busy visiting new-to-you airports, why not try getting there the old-fashioned way? In today's world of GPS, you may have forgotten the joys of calculating the wind-correction angle or magnetic deviation. Just keep the little airplane symbol on the pretty pink line, and you get where you're going.
That's nice but it's by no means the only way to get from here to there. Practice for the day the display goes dark by using a different navigation tool to get you from point A to point B. If you're really daring, use a different method for each leg of your trip — airway to here, VOR radial to there, dead reckoning to the next one. If the airplane you fly has rarer gadgets like an ADF or loran, use those too.
Estimated cost: Free; you've already got the gear and you're staying on course to your destination. Estimated time: None if you don't need to deviate.
You can gain government-sanctioned proficiency points for free just about anytime you want. Not only can you get credit for attending no-cost aviation safety seminars at your local airport, including those conducted by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, but also you can get credit for staying at home. Many of ASF's online courses — including "Say Intentions: When You Need ATC's Help," "Know Before You Go: Navigating Today's Airspace," and the "ASF Runway Safety Program" — count for credit in the FAA Wings program and you can complete them anytime you want. For a complete list of ASF live safety seminars, Seminar-in-a-Box programs, and online training courses, visit the Web site.
Estimated cost: Free. Estimated time: 30 to 45 minutes to download and complete each program.
When you go to the airport for a safety seminar or next time you're hanging around your local FBO or flight school, make an effort to get to know some of your fellow pilots. Not only is it fun to meet new people who share your interests, but also it's a great way to add to your proficiency toolkit.
Almost without exception, pilots love to hangar fly. And while you're sure to hear the occasional whopper of the "there I was" variety, you can also learn a lot from the experiences of others — and even from the retelling of your own aviation tales. Sometimes, of course, what you'll learn is what not to do or who not to fly with. Other times you'll learn about ways to handle a situation that you may not have thought about.
And while you're getting to know these folks, identify a few you'd like to fly with. Sharing flight time with another pilot (more experienced or otherwise) is a great way to observe someone else's technique, get a safety pilot who can be an extra set of eyes while you perform maneuvers, and keep costs low. If there's a trip you'd like to make, bring the significant others and make a weekend of it — twice the fun at half the price.
Estimated cost: Free. Estimated time: That's entirely up to you.
When you have no extra time, no extra money, and you just can't get to the airport, fake it. Turn off the TV, climb into your favorite armchair, close your eyes, and take flight. Don't just daydream — though that has its place. Instead, work your way through a realistic flight profile, including a preflight, taxi, takeoff, maneuvers, and landings. Go through the motions and try to remember all the steps from draining fuel sumps to checking the mags, from leaning the mixture to putting in the flaps. Even better, practice your emergency checklists.
Yes, it's decidedly low-tech, but it's also remarkably effective. You'll develop a mental image of everything from your airplane's panel to the sight picture on short final, all of which has the added benefit of giving you an intuitive sense of when something just doesn't look right in the actual airplane. The best part: When you bounce a landing while you're armchair flying, no one but you will ever know.
Of course, if you have a little money in your pocket or you just want to look busy as you sit in front of your computer at work (oops, did I give myself away?), get an off-the-shelf flight simulator and go flying. Many of these programs are remarkably realistic in terms of both the view out the window and the aircraft handling. With even the most primitive sims you can practice procedures and instrument scans; with really good ones you can fly the airplane of your choice with a panel to match and fly real approaches to real airports complete with identifiable landmarks and FAA-approved charts, all while talking to a simulated air traffic control. And if you don't like your clearance, do something you'd never do in a real airplane — hit the mute button, declare your radio inoperative, and do as you darned-well please.
Estimated cost: Free to chair fly, $50 for a PC-based sim. Estimated time: As little as five minutes is valuable, or you can while away a rainy day.
E-mail the author at [email protected].
AOPA Senior Director of Communications Elizabeth Tennyson is an instrument-rated private pilot who first joined AOPA in 1998.
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