Have It Your Way

Managing your training effort

May 1, 2005

How many of us show up to our flight review, plop down in front of our instructor, and stare at him, waiting for him to tell us what the plan is? For a long time that was me. The only plan I had was making sure I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to do. I just wanted to do the stuff I liked. And anything I liked, I had probably already done a fair amount of, and revisiting it might not be the best use of my training time.

Everyone loves an excuse to goof off in an airplane. Practicing what we enjoy doing gives us a reason to do just that. Most of us, if we're feeling a little rust encroaching upon our skills, will take an airplane up for a day and do a bunch of ILS, VOR, or GPS approaches until we're comfortable again. On the other hand, how many of us go up and spend time doing things we don't like doing — which for me is usually some combination of stalls, spins, and NDB approaches? I would point out that my lack of enthusiasm for stalls is mainly because my first stall unexpectedly turned into my first spin, which turned into my first, well, you get the picture. The NDB issue is wholly unrelated and seemed to be because I could never manage to break out near an airport. Shopping malls, vacant fields, and open water, you bet. But an airport? I don't think so.

So, back to what to do for our flight review. A great way to start is by sitting down a few weeks before the big day and giving some serious thought to what we want to accomplish. When we go for training, there are regulatory issues to be sure, but probably less than you thought. FAR 61.56 provides a lot of open ground and simply requires "a review of those maneuvers and procedures that, at the discretion of the person giving the review, are necessary for the pilot to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of the pilot certificate." Seems simple enough.

Where do we start?

Talk to your instructor about what you feel your weaknesses are, where you're most uncomfortable in the airplane, and things you want to learn about. Try to make sure you have time for everything you want to do, and try not to rush things. If you need another session, or have time leftover, take it. During our annual recurrent training at the airline we usually finish early and the question is almost always the same from the instructor: "We've got some time left; is there anything you want to see?" Absolutely, training is our time; let's use it. This is perhaps our one objective opportunity to compare how we think we fly with how we actually fly. You know, subjective vs. objective, as in the difference between what we think is cool vs. what actually is....

When you're finished with your training session and the screaming has stopped, take the time to buy your instructor lunch and debrief. There's nothing another pilot likes better than free food. Talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what you still have questions about. Lunch outside at In-'n-Out Burger always worked wonders for me.

What can we train for?

Many times our training dwells on the "if everything went wrong" scenario. How often does the entire world come apart in the airplane? Not very darn often, thank goodness. If it did, flying probably wouldn't be nearly as popular as it is.

Beyond takeoffs and landings, where is your largest exposure in the airplane? Often it's not the worst-case scenarios, but everyday stuff such as normal approaches, checklist usage, and the like. Maybe we're better off learning how to get the most out of the avionics and instruments every day rather than dwelling on the worst-case scenario. After all, how many times do we shoot an approach to minimums through a simple fog bank vs. "there I was, inverted, blind, all my instruments gone except my ADF and my compass...."

For example, think of how much time you spent learning to use the VOR and ADF when you first started flying. All that time spent in ground school, discussing VOR navigation and trying to understand each little deflection of the ADF. Now, how much time did you spend learning the subtle nuances of your GPS, the thing you probably spend most of your time using now? These days, unless we've spent a lot of quality time with all of our new cockpit systems and widgets, it's tough to use them beyond the most basic of features, if at all.

Being stubborn doesn't help

Using the tools that God, or at least your avionics manufacturer, gave you can be a saving grace. When I was getting my Bombardier Challenger type rating, I stubbornly insisted on hand-flying the first several sim sessions instead of using the autopilot. In retrospect, that was not very bright. I figured that I had to learn how to hand-fly the airplane first, and that autopilots were for wimps (which I was, but I just didn't know it yet). Well, the reality was, I needed to use all the tools I had to help me learn the airplane. Being stubborn and not using the autopilot meant trying to learn how to hand-fly and manage the airplane at the same time — making it much harder than it had to be. All this in a simulator, which, for me at least, is usually a lot harder to learn to fly than the airplane.

What are you thinking?

Learning to fly is the first thing we do as new pilots. Somewhere down the line, however, we also learn to think. Sometimes we don't even feel it happening, as it comes with experience. You know, like when your flight summary includes the words, "Holy %&$*! I'm not doing that again!"

Often the most important part of training is learning to think like pilots. We usually already know how to fly, but learning to think can take a lot longer. A quick way to find out what you're thinking about is to simply ask yourself. Just after the next time you are at minimums, or just after takeoff, reflect on what you were thinking. At minimums, were you spring loaded to go around, with the altitude and the first couple of turns of the missed approach in your head? Or were you thinking about where to park? If you're not sure what you should be thinking, ask others what they're thinking. The responses will either enlighten you or frighten you.

After a takeoff one day a while back I was startled to realize that I had been thinking like Homer Simpson — blankly wondering where the doughnuts were. It was a good reminder that my head wasn't where it needed to be. As in thinking about what I'm going to do if I have a problem on takeoff. Before and during my takeoff roll, I work hard to make sure I'm saying to myself, "Until 80 knots I'm stopping for anything" and after 80 knots "I'm only stopping for...." And as soon as I hear "V1," (the go/no-go speed), I know I am committed to going and transition to thinking about what my profile is if I blow an engine. If I do lose one, depending upon what airplane I'm flying and how many engines I have left, I'm either looking for a flat spot to cushion the impact or continuing to fly. If I fly, am I just coming back around the pattern to land, or is the weather such that I am going to have to shoot an approach to get back in? Am I even coming back to my departure point, or is it safer to go somewhere else? These are decisions I should have already made; I'm just mentally reminding myself of what they are as we go. I am (desperately, in my case) trying to think like a pilot.

An example would be taking off from Fullerton Municipal Airport in Orange County, California, in a light twin. The runway is less than 3,000 feet long with obstacles at both ends and not much in the way of instrument guidance back in. If something goes wrong, I'm probably not going back to Fullerton — no fire equipment on the field and a short runway. I'm probably making the turn and going to either Long Beach or Orange County, both air-carrier airports that have much longer runways, no obstacles, and rescue equipment available to pull me from the wreckage if need be.

What you do and where you go are relative to what you're flying. From the airline point of view, if we take off from Orange County, chances are slim we would go back if there was a problem. I usually brief Long Beach or Los Angeles International Airport, each nearby with a runway nearly twice as long, and few obstacles. The point is, I already know where I'm going and what my options are. Quite often, depending upon the situation, we already have the plate out for whatever emergency approach we plan to shoot. In my case, since I learned to fly in Orange County and got the majority of my ratings at Long Beach, I just mentally dial up 110.3 for the ILS Runway 30 at Long Beach in my head as we are on the roll.

It's not necessarily about knowing the memory items or limitations for a particular airplane. It's good if you know them, but it's great if you know what to do with them when the time comes. I've seen tons of people who can recite a litany of limitations, but when they are in the airplane in the middle of a bad turbine engine start, nothing comes out of their mouth and no action is taken. It's one thing to do it in the training environment — it's another to do it with the health of your airplane on the line. It's more than just knowledge; it's use of knowledge.

My best experiences in training now come from simple relative learning. No, not where you learn that your relatives barely walk upright, but where you spend time relating to others who are experts on your airplane and the kind of flying you do. People who can take the cold, hard facts and relate them to you in a way that has context and real meaning. For me, at times the actual flight training becomes secondary.

Real-world reality

Push forward, trees get bigger, pull back, trees get smaller. Some things, even if they've moved from a control column to a stick, haven't really changed. On the other hand, where we used to be reasonably confident that we could operate just about any airplane with a VOR or ILS, we can't get away with that anymore with today's avionics and systems.

We're not entering a new age in training; we've already entered it. The days when a Bendix/King KNS 80 RNAV was the most elaborate thing in the airplane are long gone. And things are only going to get more complex and more diverse in the future. This changes our needs when it comes to training. It isn't just about airplane systems and emergencies anymore. The more we can spend time learning about our existing cockpit tools and how to better manage them and the airplane, the better we will feel about our flying.

So the next time you need training, talk to your CFI and get involved in managing your training effort. Make sure you get out of it what you want and need. Think of your instructor as a trainer at the gym. Tell him about your weaknesses and what you want to improve on and let him mold you into the best pilot you can be. Like working out, we may not be that excited about it in the beginning, but we'll sure like the results.

Marc K. Henegar of Bend, Oregon, is a captain for Alaska Airlines.