Currency and proficiency aren't the same thing. The FAA sets minimum standards for currency—which has a lot to do with staying legal, but not much to do with being a competent pilot. Bottom line? Flying is not "just like riding a bicycle." Individual needs vary, but for the vast majority of us, meeting FAA requirements (and nothing more) is simply not enough. The obvious solution to the proficiency problem is to do more flying. But when it comes to proficiency—being prepared to handle any situation with which you might reasonably be presented—quality beats quantity. Push yourself. 100 hours of pattern work in the past year (all of it on windless days) might make for smooth calm-wind landings, but it won't count for much the first time you're faced with a 15-knot crosswind.
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Currency and proficiency have similar definitions and they do complement each other, but neither one is a replacement for the other. Being current under the Federal Aviation Regulations means that you have met the requirements to act as a pilot in command of an aircraft within a certain time period. Being proficient means, according to Webster's College Dictionary, "fully competent in any art, science, or subject." You can be current without being a proficient pilot, but if you are proficient, most likely you have also met the currency requirements to get to that point.
Learning how to become current is as easy as reading the FARs for the type of flying that you are going to do. To act as pilot in command of an aircraft, you need to have accomplished a flight review or one of the exceptions within the preceding 24 calendar months. To be able to carry passengers, you need at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days. For night flights with passengers, the landings need to be full stop at night, not touch and go. When the IFR environment is considered, then at least six approaches need to have been performed and logged within the preceding six calendar months. There might be further requirements and exceptions to each of these situations, and we strongly recommend a thorough reading of the regulations to verify your requirements.
Many of the articles and studies that have been collected on this subject stress that one can meet the above currency requirements without becoming proficient in the operation of an aircraft. Proficiency in an aircraft includes normal operations as well as knowledge of the emergency procedures for the aircraft that you fly, as well as type of flying. Maintaining proficiency in aircraft of different categories and classes can be more of a challenge due to the different skill sets that are required.
The main similarity is practice. To become proficient, you should practice your skills in an aircraft. It is best to do this with an instructor to make sure that you are practicing correctly, but you can also achieve this on your own. There are many ways to become a proficient pilot. One way is to become current and then practice more on your own until you feel you are fully competent in the aircraft. You can solicit assistance from many sources, including a safety pilot, an instructor, a computer software program, and even the FAA.
Practicing performance maneuvers by yourself is not as rewarding as challenging another pilot to a skills contest, with each pilot judging the other on how close to the minimums described in the Practical Test Standards the other can perform. You do not have to test yourself under the watchful eyes of an instructor, but a fellow pilot can still suggest ways to perform a smooth short-field landing that may have been taught to him or her differently. If you want to practice a maneuver that you do not normally perform, such as soft-field landings, or landing on snow, then an hour or two of instruction from a CFI may accomplish much more than a few hours of practicing on your own.
One of the newest areas of training that you can use to your advantage is the use of computer simulator programs. From an inexpensive VFR or IFR sim to the expensive training systems in use by many FBOs and training centers, the programs can provide valuable insight into procedures and checklists. The feel of the "aircraft" may not be what you are used to, but the programs are getting better as the technology improves. Training companies and aircraft manufacturers alike endorse the latest version of Microsoft's Flight Simulator. Offering simulated flight in a variety of aircraft, Microsoft can accommodate a wide range of users with one package.
Of the flying programs that exist for pilots, one of the official FAA recommendations is the FAA's Pilot Proficiency Program. Newly redesigned, this program has been in service since 1977 and is known as the Wings program. Benefits include lower insurance rates and a lower accident rate. A 1985 FAA report showed one accident for every 555 pilots participating in the Wings program, versus one accident for every 247 pilots not participating. More information can be obtained at www.faasafety.gov.
A man's got to know his limitations
Many pilot-error crashes could have been avoided if people better knew their limitations, and stuck to safe minimums. A proficient pilot will constantly be reviewing his/her personal minimums, and limitations.
It's not entirely unreasonable to get our default minimums from sources other than instinct— the federal aviation regulations, our FBO, the insurance company, our charts, the company we fly for. Hopefully these default minimums are at least as restrictive or more so than our personal minimums. But do we even think about that, or do we simply look at our Jeppesen chart minimums and say — "works for me...." I mean, if we meet the published minimums, we must be safe, right? Plus, are minimums really minimums? After all, we're a culture that usually looks at the speed limit as a lower limit, not an upper limit — a place to start, not a boundary.
Where's the line?
We all have a limit. But do we know where the line is before we cross it, or do we only have some vague recollection later of where the line probably should have been?
The first question is probably the most obvious: Is it legal for me to do it? The second is, "Is it within my personal and/or professional capabilities?" If the answer to either question is no, then the decision should be easy, even though the application of said decision may not be. The third question is a matter of perception and is usually the one that gets us into trouble. "Is it something I have to do?" The answer to this one is almost always no, but we often think it is yes. All this and we still haven't even gotten to the most important question yet — "Should I do it?"
Personal minimums involve setting the parameters for what we will accept as safe — before we go flying. Personal minimums, like personal values, must be internalized to be effective. That means they must be created without the pressure of the Aviation Moment — that time when all we want to do is aviate. They must be thought about and refined before emotions and egos get involved.
Equivalent level of safety
The FAA talks a great deal about "equivalent levels of safety." In broad strokes, it would like to see an equivalent level of safety for every operation across the board, which can end up meaning some things are allowed for some people and airplanes, but not for others.
To try to achieve this equivalent level of safety, sometimes personal minimums are forced upon us by someone else, like the high-minimums programs that airlines have. Pilots who are new to the airline, an airplane, or a seat (captain vs. first officer) have higher minimums placed on their operations than other, more experienced pilots (at least in that new position) at the airline. "High Mins" involves adding a margin to both ceiling and visibility values on approaches and takeoffs (sometimes extensive), as well as outright prohibiting some actions for the first few hours in a new position. For example, a "High Mins" captain is required to add 100 feet and a half-mile to the ceiling and visibility minimums on an ILS approach, while new first officers are not allowed to make takeoffs or landings at certain airports, like Burbank, California, Reno, Nevada, and Juneau, Alaska, during their first 100 hours in the airplane. It's just the company saying, "You're new, and we don't think it's a good idea for you to do this until you get some experience." It's also why at an airline you almost always start at the bottom and work your way up.
High minimums address experience and proficiency, but levels of safety also can change dramatically depending upon the airplane, weather, pilot competence, and physical condition, just to name a few variables. How does the fact that we often fly different airplanes during our flying careers affect us?
What would you do?
On the other hand, there may be situations that warrant accepting a lower level of safety. You're on the ILS at minimums and you don't see anything. What do you do? Most would go around. Opinions might vary as to what to do next — divert, hold, try it again — all reasonable options depending on the circumstances.
Same situation with one minor twist. The airplane is on fire and filling with smoke. Now what do you do? Opinions will continue to vary, but many would consider continuing the approach. I would.
Same situation with yet another twist. You have six people on board, and one of your passengers is going into labor. Do you continue? If you do, what about the comparative safety of the other five occupants, including yourself? You are putting their lives in danger, for one. If you don't elect to continue, how do you justify putting the mother and baby in peril?
Choices are not always as easy as black and white; they are often imperceptibly colored with shades of gray. And gray is not a good color when it comes to determining our personal minimums. We can't anticipate everything that may happen in an airplane, and certainly not all situations will have equivalent levels of safety. But the more we can contemplate situations and what we're willing to accept in advance, the more comprehensive and current our personal minimums will be when the time comes.
You and your crew?
What about the people in our airplane? We often consider our comfort level with another pilot, but what if there is a passenger that affects our ability to fly safely?
It's probably no secret that the airline industry is in complete disarray — jobs cut, pay reduced, pensions lost, promises broken, airlines bankrupt. It's a sad time. The one airline, even though relatively healthy, had the opportunity to reduce the wages of its pilots last year. It took the pilots to arbitration, where the pilots lost badly. Several weeks later one of the pilots who was heavily involved in this process was the captain on a flight where the chief executive officer of the airline was a passenger. The pilot, though a fairly calm and levelheaded guy, realized that having the chief executive officer on board agitated him to the point that he wasn't safe to fly — it was a situation that was beyond his personal minimums.
He called crew scheduling and asked for a replacement, but was turned down. The captain went to the CEO, explained the situation to him, and said that in the interest of safety, one of them had to get off. So as not to delay the flight further, the CEO ended up getting off the airplane and the flight left. Unfortunately, when the airplane got to the next stop, the captain was suspended for several months. For better or worse, he made a decision for safety — even though he knew it would cost him dearly — and it did.
I want to, but...
So, what if it's you on the hot seat? If there's pressure to do something that is beyond your personal minimums, how do you treat it? Is it a sliding scale, where it depends on "how bad it is" or "what's in it for me"? How do you approach it? For me, while I make good choices now, I know that not every choice I've made in the past has been a good one.
Someone just handed you the keys to an airplane that you have never flown before and said, "Have a good time?" What do you do? Do you want to go fly? Absolutely. Who doesn't? Should you go fly? Maybe. Any time in that make? Any time in that model? How current are you? Where are you going flying? Is anyone coming with you? If you go, will you be insured? Who's the inquisitive little bugger asking all the questions? If he'd just shut up for a minute I could go flying.
What was I thinking?
Things ain't what they used to be — today's GA airplanes and avionics ain't your daddy's 172 with a King Silver Crown radio stack. As GA singles get faster and personal jets happen onto the scene, there are a whole lot of pilots making a whole lot of decisions a whole lot faster than they had to in the past.
So, while the world gets faster around us, what can we do to slow things down and help keep bad things from happening to us? Clint Eastwood said it best: "A man's got to know his limitations." That's where personal minimums come in. Personal minimums are something we should know by heart (or by gut), and should be no different whether we are sitting at home on the deck reading AOPA Pilot or at the FBO getting ready to fly.
Learning from our mistakes is how we become better pilots. I'm still learning, and as I gain experience my personal minimums are continually evolving. Remember, those who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them — until they become fatal, that is. Just like the sign says at the FBO: "I don't mind flying in weather that makes me earn my pay. But I flatly refuse to fly in any situation that may prevent me from spending it."
Pilot Proficiency and the Flight Review, Safety Hot Spot, AOPA Air Safety Foundation, 2009
Proficiency: Doing the Right Thing, A man's got to know his limitations, AOPA Pilot, July 2006
Waypoints: Proficient Flight, AOPA Pilot, July 2002
Proficiency: The One-Hour Pilot Tuneup, Staying sharp when time is short, AOPA Pilot, June 2006
Never Again: The CFI learns a lesson, AOPA Pilot, June 2006
Proficiency: Oops, Wrong Airport, Is dependence on GPS steering you wrong?, AOPA Pilot, April 2006
Pilotage: The cost of not flying, AOPA Pilot, March 2005
President's Position: 'Professional' pilots, AOPA Pilot, February 2005
Weekend Currency: 10 easy tips when time and money are tight, AOPA Pilot, May 2004
Where's the Throttle?, Oh, the difference a year can make!, AOPA Pilot, April 2004
Knocking Off the Rust: Time to fly again, AOPA Pilot, October 2003
Practice Training: What league are you in?, AOPA Pilot, October 2003
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Ounce of Prevention: Preventive Medicine — Safety strategies for 2002, AOPA Pilot, December 2001
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Infrequent Flyer Points: Strategies for Staying Current, AOPA Pilot, November 1998
Current vs. Proficient, FAA Aviation News, October 1998
Pilot Counsel: Recent experience requirements, AOPA Pilot, August 1997
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Touchdown, AOPA Pilot, March 1993
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VFR Brushup, AOPA Pilot, July 1990
New Routing: Changes to instrument standards could affect you, AOPA Pilot, October 2004
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Beyond the Flat Earth: Turning IFR paper into a 3-D world, AOPA Pilot, October 2003
Tiptoeing into IFR: Know your personal minimums, AOPA Pilot, August 2003
IFR and Out of Date, Returning to instrument proficiency, AOPA Pilot, March 2003
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A Currency Confession, Making an IFR comeback at Comair Flight Academy, AOPA Pilot, April 2002
Instrument Insights: Is Currency Any Easier?, How to work with the new regulations, AOPA Pilot, February 1998
Departments: IFR Reincarnation, Part II, Flight Training, July 1993
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