Proficiency

The One-Hour Pilot Tuneup

June 1, 2006

Staying sharp when time is short

When we posed the question of proficiency to AOPA members, we asked what specific procedures and maneuvers they would practice to stay proficient if they only had an hour, or a single flight, in which to accomplish these tasks every month. Let's set aside the debate for a moment, which begs the question: Can a pilot stay proficient while flying one hour a month?

"I don't think I can stay sharp anymore. More like 'blunt,'" says Bill Hoglan, AOPA 674036. "When I do fly by myself, I practice a soft-field takeoff, commercial maneuvers, and short-field landings." Hoglan, it turns out, is very typical of the average respondent to our question. He tries to stay proficient with the limited time he has available — and he questions whether this is truly possible.

The answer? You can, perhaps, but you had better use your avgas wisely.

In fact, take a page from member Mark Hiatt's, AOPA 4551363, notebook: "When I was taking tennis lessons many years ago, my instructor taught me a lesson that holds true for flying. When practicing, always pick a target smaller than what you would normally need to hit a winning shot. In other words, don't just practice landings or touch and goes. Practice landing on a specific spot. Practice holding your headings and altitudes as if you were on a flight review.

"If we are sloppy in our practice routines, we are less likely to be proficient."

When time is short, many pilots cram as many exercises as possible into their minutes in the air. But what are the most worthwhile maneuvers? As you'll see, some come straight out of the practical test standards — but the best do not. And careful practice is key.

VFR: Landings

Landing the airplane well is elusive even to those who fly often. So it makes sense that most pilots place primary importance upon practicing landings above any other single maneuver. "Every landing is different from the last," says Jarrod Holbrook, AOPA 5660003, and each helps refine your pilot skill set. But a series of three touch and goes on the primary runway at your home airport won't leverage your time to its fullest.

To make the most of your landing practice, pick a challenging runway or approach to make it really count. Practice some landings on grass as well as some on pavement if a grass strip is available and it's feasible for your airplane, and rental or insurance setup.

In any event, mix it up like John Dale, AOPA 333501, does, and "make each landing a power-off one from a point opposite [the] touchdown point by varying flaps, slipping, and changing base and final turn points to compensate for wind."

Other maneuvers

Along with steep turns and various maneuvers you might practice for a commercial pilot checkride — such as lazy 8s and chandelles — flight at minimum controllable airspeed was a popular exercise among the members who reported on their proficiency efforts.

The slow end of the envelope bears frequent revisiting, if only for the polish it adds to our landing proficiency. Deteriorating low-speed skills have another effect: It can cause us to increase our approach speeds unwittingly. And adding 5 to 10 extra knots on final can have serious consequences (see "License to Learn Plunk and Pay: Why We Land Long and Hot," April Pilot).

Emergency procedures also get a lot of attention. Take some time during every practice session to pull back the power and remind yourself how well (or poorly) your particular mount glides. Lots of pilots combine this with landings to perfect their ability to make a power-off approach — and a couple of pilots who responded for this article credited this practice with saving their bacon when they experienced an actual aircraft problem.

Cross-country practice

Here's an exercise suggested by Tom Schoenke, AOPA 1119314, for VFR pilots to practice instrument skills: "Take off with a safety pilot [and put on a view-limiting device]. Using whatever tools you have on the panel and in the aircraft for maps, find a nearby quiet [nontowered] airport and navigate to it without any help from the safety pilot. Turn off the GPS for best results. The safety pilot will monitor your progress and monitor unicom at the field you're navigating toward.... When you are at 3,000 feet over the field, pull the power to idle and then remove the view-limiting device. Your challenge: to put it on the numbers without touching the power. That quiet touchdown is so satisfying!"

Another cross-country "event" has helped Denise Langholz, AOPA 5663102, stay proficient — even though she had to save up her flying dollars to participate. "At 8 [o'clock] one Sunday morning, I reported to Boeing Field [in Seattle] along with 20 other pilots and CFIs to brief our hop, skip, and jump that would take us to seven airports. Each airport had a different set of challenges that required us to use all our experience. After landing, we stopped and talked about the hop. At our fifth airport, we had lunch and debriefed how the day was going." Langholz highly recommends the experience: "I flew into airports I normally wouldn't have considered on my own."

Night moves

Some members combine their proficiency quest to include night flying. And for good reason. Even professional pilots get caught up in work cycles that conspire to keep them from logging night time, so this segment of flying (especially as the days get shorter each fall) deserves special attention.

"I have a method to get current at night," says David Grimm, AOPA 548911. "We have three airports that I fly to on one trip. [Starting from] Albany, New York, I fly to Saratoga for a full stop, then to Bennington, Vermont, where I do [another] full stop. Then back to Albany and I'm current."

Although some pilots choose a variety of airports to sharpen their skills, others use meaningful repetition. "I usually do a much higher number of landings [for night proficiency]," says Walter Greene, AOPA 1170860. "Typically at least six, some with the landing lights on, some with them off. Some short approach, some with the field lights turned down low and the approach lights off."

Variety is the spice

If we do the same old, same old over and over, after a while we don't gain much from the exercise. One way to get past the plateau? Try something new.

"I try to get checked out in new airplanes as often as I can," says Jory Pearson, AOPA 5559908. Pearson also has opted for a new airport checkout: Many places that rent airplanes in Southern California require a checkout for pilots to fly into airports like Big Bear City, or Catalina Island — so an airport checkout serves additional purpose.

And maybe it isn't a new airplane or airport that gets your juices flowing, but a new way of flying the airplane you know well. "Currently my flying budget allows for only one flight per month," says Roxanne Vettese, AOPA 5024804. "As a result, I have been forced to make that very determination — what would give the most 'staying proficient' bang for my buck. I have completed an emergency maneuvers training course...and am currently concentrating my efforts on the commercial practical standards, as well as keeping my tailwheel skills."

IFR

Flying on instruments requires an additional level of proficiency, one not only mandated by regulation but also by necessity. Your ability to orchestrate aircraft control, instrument procedure, and air traffic control (ATC) direction erodes even more quickly than your ability to make a survivable landing. So most instrument-rated pilots set aside extra practice time for their IFR skills.

Shooting approaches at your local airport is a good start, but, like landing over and over on the same runway, the canned practice ILS stales quickly. "Shooting the same approaches every weekend means little when you are faced with a new approach in an unfamiliar setting in IMC [instrument meteorological conditions]," notes Willie Sinsel, AOPA 4109320. "Instrument pilots should choose cross-country routes that include IFR weather evaluation." Ben Clark, AOPA 669314, concurs: He plans a short IFR cross-country for practice, and carefully compares the weather he encounters with what was forecast, honing his weather knowledge at the same time he sharpens his approach skills.

You can vary your cross-country experience to suit your environment. Frank Andre, AOPA 937906, suggests a sortie that takes you along tower en route control (TEC) routes — common in Southern California and along the East Coast, but available elsewhere. The takeaway? Practice in a busy terminal area, juggling short cross-country legs with approaches and lots of communication.

What if you don't have time to leave the general area? Then you can add to your proficiency by at least shooting approaches to different airports under the same approach control, says James Rizor, AOPA 1203992. And don't forget to make most of your practice with some kind of equipment failure: Partial-panel approaches account for a significant number of the approaches practiced by those who replied to our survey.

Glass upgrade

Advanced technology in the cockpit requires special attention when it comes to proficiency, according to several of our members.

"It's up to me to manage the technology, not for the technology to manage me," says Colleen Turner, AOPA 959401, "and that takes practice. If I had one flight a month to hone my skills, I would go up and reacquaint myself with the knobs, buttons, softkeys, and the nifty features that the [Garmin] G1000 offers."

Although refresher tools such as computer-based simulators, guides, and DVDs help you stay on top of the boxes, there's no substitute for regular practice with the real thing.

Ground maneuvers

Being ground-bound doesn't mean you're kept out of the game totally — there are lots of ways to keep your hand in during long winter or weather months, or while your airplane goes down for routine (or not so routine) maintenance.

The FAA Wings pilot proficiency program garnered support for its structured approach, with many members noting how the seminars and sessions with an instructor guided their ongoing proficiency quest. Several pilots gave credit to periodic work with a CFI, outside of the Wings program, to keep them from bad habits and expand their skills. AOPA Air Safety Foundation online courses also help you stay sharp — and most qualify for Wings credit.

Other pilots raved about joining the Civil Air Patrol, saying that the increased proficiency requirements and opportunities to fly kept their skills much sharper than they had been able to keep them before.

And more help came from another, perhaps less obvious, source: the computer.

"I do fly two or three times a week," says Fred Rodriguez, AOPA 4158715, "but on rainy or down days, I like to use Microsoft Flight Simulator and use current charts to fly to different airports. This gives me a chance to use my E6B and practice VOR navigation."

Peter Wilson, AOPA 1183516, has a custom-built computer that he uses to maintain proficiency when he can't have the real thing. "I am a member of Vatsim, a worldwide ATC sim group; here I can replicate both VFR and IFR flying with real live persons. I can attest to the fact that this is a real asset to my flying skills, demonstrated last November [when] I flawlessly flew an ILS approach into Daytona Beach International on a rainy night, with an airline pilot buddy of mine [in the] right seat just having to sit and observe."

And that's the point of practice — to make reality go so smoothly we may as well be sitting at home in an easy chair, whether we fly one hour a month or several hours a day.


E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.


Links to additional articles about maintaining proficiency may be found on AOPA Online.


Profile of a Proficiency Flight

VFR

  • Thorough preflight. Take some extra time as you do your walkaround.
  • Specialty takeoff. Practice for that time when you need to pull something short or soft.
  • High work. Do those steep turns, commercial maneuvers such as lazy 8s, and slow flight and stalls. Uncomfortable with stalls? Enlist an instructor.
  • Emergency procedures. Remember how your airplane glides — like a feather or a brick?
  • Cross-country practice. Pick out a new airport, or one you haven't visited lately. Even if it doesn't meet the 50-nm minimum for logging cross-country time toward a rating, getting out of the local area stretches your legs.
  • Crosswind landings. Or spot landings. Or any landings that hone your ability rather than eat up runway. Challenge yourself to a contest — to meet practical test standards, or simply garner style points by landing on the numbers, or fixed distance markers, or the third fence post — whatever your runway offers up.

IFR

  • File a flight plan. Even for practice. It gets you in the system and tests better your real-world ability to juggle com and nav and aircraft control.
  • Plan your departure. Look up the departure procedure for your home airport, as well as those in the area. Has it changed? Fly it — you should every time you're on instruments.
  • Practice approaches. If it has truly been a long time, practice those to your home airport. But try new ones on a regular basis. You don't want to be a one-trick pony. If you can't easily get to other airports for practice, fire some up on a flight simulator. There are several inexpensive programs on the market.
  • Partial-panel work. Whether you have all glass or all dials, something is bound to break someday. Be mean to yourself now, and thank yourself later.
  • Crosswind landings. What? You mean the wind that brought the weather isn't straight down the ILS runway? You're kidding.... — JKB