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Instant Rust

What Happens After The Checkride?

While waiting for a primary student to show up for a flight lesson, I noted that he hadn't flown for about a month. His training records showed that the last time he flew he was close to being signed off for his checkride. I thought, Just a little polish and buffing and he will be ready.

The instructional flight that day was disappointing. The student had difficulty holding altitude and heading, was flaring too high on landing, and even got lost. I had seen this happen to other students - flying skills and judgment deteriorate after several weeks out of the cockpit. I reasoned it would take several lessons, spaced closely together, to get this student back to a level sufficient to pass the checkride. But a real concern lingered. Am I supposed to be training students to become highly skilled aviators who may even eventually become professional airline pilots, or am I training students just to pass a practical test?

This rapid deterioration of flying skill makes one worry about the welfare of students. What will happen after they get their private tickets and take their families up after being out of the cockpit for a few months? To carry passengers, all the FAA requires is for a pilot to have completed three takeoffs and landings within the last 90 days.

The FAA examiner has no way of determining during the practical test how quickly the applicant's skill and judgment will decline between flights. All the examiner sees is a snapshot of the applicant on the day of the practical test. Instructors who fly with these students, and hopefully the students themselves, are the only ones who know that the applicant may not be safe after an extended period of time out of the cockpit.

I heard the comment the other day that if you don't fly at least two hours per week, you don't have any business in an airplane. This is a good rule of thumb, but certainly not practical for most GA pilots. If it were enforced, general aviation would be much smaller than it is today.

So, how should one handle the situation with a student who forms instant rust as soon as he or she steps out of the cockpit? One solution would be to tell the student that he or she should take up another avocation like boating. But, this isn't a popular approach with most flight schools. Determined students would just shop around for another instructor and eventually pass a checkride anyway.

Having faced this dilemma several times, I would certainly like to hear from other instructors about how they have coped with this phenomenon. The following list includes some things I do to try and minimize the loss of skill between flights:

  1. Provide more dual and solo training than normal. This is based on the assumption that the more training and instructional experience that a student has, the more aptitude will stick between flights.
  2. Have a candid conversation with the student to make certain he or she understands your concern and that this is a safety issue.
  3. Encourage the student to fly often after getting the private ticket. Suggest he or she immediately begin instrument training, get a seaplane or glider rating, or pursue any other training that will keep him or her in the air frequently.
  4. Encourage the student to join a flying club that demands regular checkouts and promotes group flying activities.
  5. Help the student find a buddy to fly with. If your student makes an appointment to fly with someone else, chances are he or she will go.
  6. Remain in contact with the new pilot and provide him or her with encouragement to fly often.

Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. You can e-mail the author at richard.hiner@aopa.org .

By Richard Hiner

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