Safety Publications/Articles

The endless quest

Practice to maintain proficiency

This thoughtful treatise was written for Instructor Report by Capt. Bob Buck, who started flying with the airlines in DC-2 days (that's right--before the DC-3) and retired from TWA in 1972 as one of the first Boeing 747 captains. Captain Buck is author of the classic texts Weather Flying and North Star Over My Shoulder, as well as several other books.

In aviation, no one knows it all. If a person thinks he does, doom is close by.

Aviation is a learning task, from first solo to last flight. Of course life itself is a learning process. Each of us pursues a trade, hobby, or some sort of career that demands constant learning, and flying requires this in high order. We learn skills; we learn new aircraft, traffic regulations, and complexities; new instruments; and other things. And one thing that no one knows all about--the weather. Forecasting is not a perfect science, so why should a pilot expect weather to be as advertised before takeoff? Take note, study, learn, observe, and be wary.

We start with flying lessons, and an instructor teaches us enough so we can take off, circle, and land alone without killing ourselves. Now a vast universe of knowledge and skill stretches before us, asking to be known and recognized.

After that first solo we practice to become proficient. It starts with takeoffs and landings, circuits of the field, but not in a grooved, repetitive manner. With each circuit we learn, for example, the wind is somewhat cross, and our turn from base to final doesn't line up because that wind has pushed us. We learn to watch the wind and prepare for its effect on turning into final.

The task ahead is to be proficient. To do what we practice. Nowhere is this more important than in instrument flying. An instrument rating is only a license to learn. "Get it quick" is a theme repeated over and over--a guarantee to pass the FAA exam, which itself is inadequate. The object seems to be to get an instrument rating on one's certificate. But then what? Once that rating is obtained, it is then time to learn what it is really for and how to use it. An instrument rating isn't simply to get out of an airport reporting instrument conditions. It is not an adjunct to contact flying.

Instrument flying is safe flying. We fly an airway minding the published minimum altitudes. Doing that we are safe from terrain, safely above it. To approach and land, on instruments, is to be in a protected environment; the altitudes of procedure are safe altitudes and should not be deviated from until either the runway is in view, clearly and unrestricted, or is not and the missed approach procedure is followed.

The natural desire is to see the ground, and that is where trouble starts. A pilot is following an instrument procedure but gets a peek at the ground and abandons instruments to fly VFR. Dead wrong.

In my early days of being a copilot I flew with captains who had been open-cockpit mail pilots when they flew contact (pilotage), lighted beacon to lighted beacon, close over terrain. They still had some of the contact character, and I witnessed more than one example of my captain abandoning the instruments and going down to contact flying. The accident rate reflected this, but these old-timers learned, and recognized, that staying with instruments was the way to go--the accident rate went down.

I feel secure on instruments, protected with no concerns except checking on the weather at destination, watching it en route. On instruments, one serious factor has been eliminated--flying into the ground from trying to sneak under scud hanging on a hillside, or snow starting.

The rating is only a start. The challenge is to become proficient. How?

First is to improve one's instrument-flying skill. Having a rating doesn't mean one is proficient. For example, in a recent six-year period, as reported by the FAA, 86 accidents occurred in weather, and 41 of those were labeled loss of control--these pilots had instrument ratings! This says to me that their instrument proficiency was lacking. They did not know how to do an instruments-only steep turn or recover from an unusual attitude.

How do we improve? Fly under the hood, safety pilot along, and practice steep turns until a 45-degree banked turn on instruments is easy. Feel able to recover from an unusual situation, with airspeed building up, a descending turn increasing in bank and speed. Ability to handle these things is necessary for a competent instrument pilot. Practice until proficient, until feeling comfortable making a steep turn, well under control, no speed exceeded, no altitude gained or lost. Recovery from unusual attitudes was a big item in all airline instrument checks, and I remember getting a DC-3 back to normal from one steep turn, nose-high, almost-stalled position during instrument checks. To some extent, unusual maneuvers are still done in airline simulators.

The airways system is complicated. To learn it, we should use it, practicing and learning by filing and following the ins and outs of IFR flying. File even on a clear day; learn the clearances, communication, jargon, and ways of ATC. Then while trying VFR under low stuff, if it goes sour, the proficient pilot can forget contact, go to instruments, and fly, not bewildered by radio communication coming in firehose fashion, clearances and all the confusing stuff, because keeping control and replying to the system will be familiar and easy.

To emphasize, a pilot is not an instrument pilot just because the certificate says so--that person must be proficient, able to shift eyes from outside to inside, and fly safely, at a safe altitude and forget outside completely.

Night flying goes with instrument proficiency. Flying at night around an airport with light is easy, but out where it is all black, it becomes instrument flying.

Some countries do not allow night flying without an instrument rating, or as in our neighbor, Canada, a special night flying rating is required, obtained after night flight training with an instructor plus a certain amount of instrument ability.

It's interesting to note that in half of the accidents mentioned, the pilot did not obtain a weather briefing. Now that is downright stupid. Weather is the key factor, and one should obtain all the information possible: current weather, ceilings, ice, thunderstorms, winds, tops, forecast, and so on. Then think how one can fly to best cope with the weather out there, and most important, check the forecast and think what to do should the forecast go sour. Checking weather while en route, one can easily see whether the forecast is working out, and if deviation is needed, start to plan what to do if things get worse.

Our glass-cockpit airplanes and the weather pictures they show are fine indeed, but it is very necessary to realize the picture is just a current snapshot. It's up to the pilot to determine what the movement of that weather may be and what to do about it. Weather is rarely static; it is always on the move toward good or bad, and a pilot's task is to recognize even subtle change and be ready for whatever it does.

If we obtain the skills and become proficient in them, then there is a task to keep that proficiency by practice and frequent flying. Too many own an airplane that sits tied down and unused for long periods. Then a family weekend trip comes up, and the pilot takes off with skill diminished, proficiency rotted away, trying to fly contact in sketchy weather. It's a recipe for disaster.

Flying demands many decisions, and decisions require judgment, which is a nebulous thing, difficult to teach; but the more knowledge one has, the better chance for correct judgment. Practice, attaining and maintaining proficiency, creates knowledge that reflects in judgment and decision.

But back to where we started--that this is a never-ending learning game. Recently I was flying a glider on a day when thermals were providing lift. Working thermals is kind of a blind man's bluff because, of course, you cannot see them. The task, after locating one, is to find and move into the center for the maximum lift. But that day, as I was working a thermal, I discovered a new little move to do it better. I learned something, and that after 70 years of flying--lots of it in gliders.

Yes, it is a constant quest to do better, have a mind open to learning, and remain proficient.

ASF's newest safety seminar, Do the Right Thing: Decision Making for Pilots, began its nationwide tour in January. Using innovative DVD-branching technology, the seminar presents interactive scenarios that allow audience members to improve their decision-making skills. The schedule for Do the Right Thing is available on AOPA Online.

By Robert N. Buck

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