Flying Seasons

Emerging From Hibernation

May 1, 2007

The weather says fly! Are you ready?

The weather is great, the temperature is just right, and a light breeze wafts the familiar scent of avgas across the tarmac. This is a perfect day to fly. Your logbook confirms that you are current and legal to meet the minimum requirements of "recent flight experience" specified in FAR 61.57. But it has been a while since your last flight, and hesitation nags, just a tiny bit. That last flight three weeks ago should have bolstered your confidence. But it didn't. Instead, the comfortable hour aloft topped off with an adequate landing missed its mark entirely. Now what?

What's your situation?

If you harbor that speck of concern and feel slightly uncertain about your ability to safely aviate, it is time to acknowledge that you may be current by the book but not in practice. 'Fess up and do something about it! Here's a thought: Add a flight instructor to the cockpit to help you regain confidence and bring you beyond minimum currency levels.

9 steps on the proficiency path

1. Evaluate your situation.

Be honest with yourself about your flying skills.

2. Enlist help.

Find a flight instructor to work with on your weak areas.

3. Prepare yourself.

Take time to review the flight plan or lesson before you get to the airport.

4. Study the POH.

Work a performance problem or a weight and balance on the airplane.

5. Recognize limitations.

Stay conservative with both your own abilities and your airplane's capabilities.

6. Chair fly.

If a flight gets cancelled, fly the lesson in your mind.

7. Go beyond the edge.

Use that time with an instructor to practice techniques that expand your envelope.

8. Seek a new rating.

A new airplane checkout or a new ticket challenges you to fly your best.

9. Read and take courses.

Knowledge is power: It can be invaluable at a critical time in flight.

Turning to an instructor for a refresher is a sign of good airmanship. Some folks are hanging on to a mistaken belief that the flight review or instrument proficiency check is the only time to hit the books and get dual time with a flight instructor.

Wrong! Why? Because a carefree, instructor-free flying period can foster bad flying habits that are reinforced with each subsequent flight. Inviting an instructor into your flying realm quickly irons out the wrinkles that by now may have undermined your previously stellar skills.

Reports culled from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's accident database encompass pilots from all walks of flight. Contemplate this unfortunate encounter between a Cessna 210 and a block wall. The 210 pilot, who had an airline transport pilot certificate, was conducting a personal flight during daylight hours on July 14, 2005. Before takeoff from his departure airport the pilot verified with the destination airstrip's owner that the wind was calm. That was his last wind check before landing. He made a straight-in approach and landed downwind. The airplane overran the runway's end and skidded into the wall. Witnesses reported winds at the accident time from the west at 15 knots. The NTSB concluded that the pilot failed to verify current local wind conditions, resulting in the wrong runway selection. A factor in the accident was the short runway's dirt surface, which reduced brake effectiveness. Ironically, windsocks were installed at each runway end. A dual flight with an instructor could have revealed the pilot's complacency and deteriorating skills. The instructor might have suggested he verify the wind direction upon arrival at the field using the tools available. Luckily the pilot escaped injury, although his ego may have crumpled a bit.

Prepare yourself

Once you've scheduled an instructor and airplane, take the time to prepare for your upcoming flight. Talk to the instructor about your skills, weaknesses, and confidence level, and discuss the plan to get you up to snuff again. Embrace the thought of having professional eyes evaluate your performance and encourage yourself to push for the best outcome. Don't limit yourself to one dual flight lesson to knock off considerable rust. It may take more than one try.

While you're at it, why not get as good as your instructor? You can show off and demonstrate your best skill by being ahead of the airplane at all times.

One way to excel is to study the pilot's operating handbook (POH). Delving into the POH is especially important if you rent different aircraft makes and models. When was the last time you took a close look at V-speeds, performance tables, and the airplane's inner workings? How often have you practiced weight and balance calculations or reviewed engine-out procedures?

If you answer, "Duh, I knew and did all that during my review last year," then don't count on being able to save your bacon when the bells go off during a real emergency. You may have been getting away with approximate power settings and airplane configurations instead of adhering to those recommended. But a quick glance through the ASF accident database reports says your number could come up soon unless you change that mindset.

Recognize limitations

A disheartening number of takeoff and landing accidents show that many pilots lack adequate understanding of the potentially adverse effects of wind direction, wind velocity, and runway surface conditions. Throw improper pilot reaction and decision making into this equation and the result often turns into a botched takeoff, landing, or go-around with an unsettling return to Earth. You need only look at the earlier mentioned Cessna 210 accident for a good example of this phenomenon.

From among 260 reports generated by an ASF accident database search for "go around" accidents in the past five years it becomes clear that pilots are ill prepared for this phase of flight.

During a bounced landing in a Cessna 152, the 140-hour pilot elected to abort the landing. She panicked when she saw trees located off the runway end and inadvertently raised all the flaps at once. This reduced the airplane's climb angle, such that it landed in the trees, nosed over and impacted terrain.

Another pilot reported that he made a normal crosswind landing, but the runway was wet and the Cessna 182RG did not decelerate as expected. He added full power and the airplane crossed the runway end at an altitude of 5 feet agl. The landing gear struck a road located 15 feet above the runway elevation, and the pilot then raised the landing gear. The aircraft slid to a stop in a cornfield. The NTSB distilled causal factors to the following: tailwind, poor runway selection, wet runway surface, and the presence of the roadway. Dual flight lessons might have sharpened these pilots' skills and helped them develop better judgment.

Chair fly

Here is something you can take away from aerobatic pilots — they visualize every maneuver in sequence before a performance.

ASF to the rescue

Whether you're a novice or seasoned pilot, your personal online safety portal is just a few keystrokes away. A plethora of online safety materials — such as courses, videos, numerous booklets and pamphlets, and challenging safety quizzes — is yours any time you need a brush up.

Take one of the minicourses for a quick and easy way to stay up to speed. Or delve into a full-length self-paced online course and earn an FAA Wings certificate. New course selections include: SkySpotter: Pireps Made Easy; GPS for VFR Operations; GPS for IFR Operations; Weather Wise: Ceiling and Visibility; Weather Wise: Thunderstorms and ATC; Runway Safety; Mountain Flying; and Engine and Propeller.

If you have been away from flying for a while, you will want to brush up on airspace requirements. Know Before You Go keeps you abreast of the latest regulations and shows you how to deal with pesky temporary flight restrictions that are popping up all over the landscape.

Don't have time to search out specific courses? ASF is one step ahead. The ASF Safety Hot Spots cleverly deliver current issues of importance. Each Hot Spot is packaged on one page to make it a snap to go to relevant courses or to download and print handy advisories and checklists.

Now that you are on your way to getting proficient, take a tour online to benefit from the broad inventory it has to offer. — MAS

For example, how in tune are you with performing a go-around when the picture on final suggests you better not land? As you transition from the landing configuration to a climb, with gear and full flaps hanging out in the wind, do you need to raise flaps before raising the gear or was it the other way around? Different aircraft have different procedures. Think quick! Was it one or two notches of flaps before the gear is retracted?

With gas prices today, it is nice to "fly dry" at your own leisure and in the comfort of sitting in a chair at home: No need to plunk down any money before launching into a dual lesson. It is equally useful to rehash a completed flight lesson once you return home. Sit in a chair and go over the maneuvers as if you were in the air. Think of correct control inputs and power settings and picture the outcome of each change you make.

Go beyond

With an instructor at your side, explore the aeronautical elements beyond your personal comfort zone. See what it is like to recover from a spin or tackle crosswinds and gusty conditions that normally would churn your stomach. Throw in some precision spot landings and mix it up with landing at unfamiliar airport locations such as a mountaintop airport or maybe a grass strip.

If you have been flying high-performance aircraft and cannot remember why rudder pedals are installed, you should definitely explore a tailwheel endorsement. You will be reacquainted with these old friends quickly and marvel at how good it feels to not fly crooked any longer. One excellent way to sharpen your skills is to take on the challenge of obtaining a new rating or certificate. It quickly brings back the basics — bookwork, provoking questions about airplane performance, and new stimulating skill demonstrations. It opens up an entire new spectrum of flying that once mastered will bring you renewed confidence and joy of flying.

But, like anything else, you need to keep up your skills — no matter what experience level or rating you have in your pocket. A sobering accident report from ASF's database illustrates this important point. The pilot was IFR rated and flying a complex aircraft, yet all the endorsements on paper became meaningless when he failed to heed a basic, simple rule in flying: Maintain sufficient airspeed specified for the phase of flight. The airplane stalled low to the ground during climbout, made an uncontrolled descent, and impacted terrain. The pilot and passenger were uninjured.

Read and take courses

If you are serious about beefing up your aviation knowledge and finding out which of your flying skills need more work, take a look at your personal online safety portal a few keystrokes away. Online safety materials — such as courses, videos, booklets and pamphlets, and safety quizzes — are yours any time you need a brush up.

E-mail the author at machteld.smith@aopa.org.