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Proficiency: Like a pro

Commercial training beyond the ACS

Continuing education is important in all my pursuits so, after I earned my instrument rating, I decided to move my flying to the next level by going for a commercial certificate.
P&E December 2019
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Illustration by John Sauer

All my training to date had been in a Cessna 150 and Piper Cherokee 140, so I was eager for the challenge of learning the systems of a complex aircraft. The Piper Arrow on the line at the Tullahoma Regional Airport in Tennessee provided that challenge. In particular, I would need to understand the controllable pitch propeller and the retractable landing gear, as well as remembering to put the landing gear down before each landing back at the airport. The practical test standards (now the airman certification standards) would provide a blueprint for my commercial pilot training, or so I thought.

In addition to reading the FAA test standards, I scoured the aircraft operating handbook and memorized critical parts of the checklists before meeting up with my new instructor, Frank Passarello. On the downwind leg of our first pattern back at the airport, I set the appropriate manifold pressure, put the landing gear handle in the down position, and left my hand there until I saw three green lights that ensured the gear configuration was safe for landing. Abeam the middle of the runway, I pushed the propeller lever forward, heard the attendant surge in engine rpm, and felt a sudden deceleration. Frank chided, “Your passengers do not want to hear or feel that! Wait until you reduce the manifold pressure abeam the numbers to advance the propeller lever forward.” Becoming a commercial pilot, it turned out, was more than memorizing checklists and performing maneuvers to FAA standards.

While the ACS provides a good start, considering the passenger experience is important.The ACS details the tasks required and completion standards for the commercial certificate, and advice on how to perform each of the maneuvers abounds in the aviation literature. (See, for example, “Technique: On Target,” July 2019 AOPA Pilot, for advice on the power-off one-eighty.) These maneuvers show the examiner that the candidate is capable of executing authoritative but smooth command of the aircraft. But Frank expected me to go beyond the testing standards. After all, if I expected to be paid for piloting services, flying the airplane well is necessary but not sufficient. I would need to inspire confidence in my passengers. My first lesson with Frank showed me that I still had a lot to learn.

It’s tough to define professionalism, but you know it when you see it. There is more than one way to fly an airplane well, but professional pilots are knowledgeable and fly skillfully and smoothly to ensure safety and a good passenger experience. As both a flight instructor and a designated examiner myself now, I get a front-row seat as I watch others fly. Sometimes, I see signs that a pilot just isn’t thinking about the passenger experience or is still caught in the minutiae and perhaps isn’t able to. Are you guilty of any of the following gaffes that make passengers uncomfortable?

Brake check

Testing the brakes after start-up should not also test the integrity of the passenger restraint system and leave passengers assessing their necks for damage. We bring a car to a stop by smoothly applying brakes and gently releasing them as the car comes to a halt. Braking an airplane should be no different.

Flight controls—free and correct

My frequently bruised legs testify to the gusto with which the yoke of a general aviation airplane can be rotated left then right to test aileron movement. Warn your passenger you’re about to perform this check and do so gently in case he or she is in the way.

Magneto check

If you hear a loud engine bang or grinding of the starter during your magneto check, you need to ask yourself, “What is my rush?” Turn the key slowly and gently—two clicks left, two right, one left, one right—to check the rpm drop. Turning the key too quickly, and thus too far, can easily result in turning off the magneto switch. Turning the switch back to Both is often followed by a large bang, which can necessitate writing a large check to the exhaust repair shop. Avoid costly damage by slowly feeling the key fall into each detent.

Sometimes, I see signs that a pilot just isn’t thinking about the passenger experience or is still caught in the minutiae and perhaps isn’t able to.Applying throttle on takeoff

An engine that coughs can’t be efficient and certainly doesn’t inspire passenger confidence. Instead of jamming the throttle control forward on the takeoff roll, take a few seconds to move it from idle to the setting appropriate for takeoff. Use the same technique for all throttle movements.

Clear the area before maneuvers

I have seen practical exam candidates clear the area and then dutifully follow with a premaneuver checklist that addresses the mixture, fuel pump, lights, and other items—so that a couple of minutes elapse before commencing the maneuver. Realize there is a statute of limitations on a cleared area. Always look again before making any turns and keep scanning during the maneuver. It’s better to get off a little on the assigned altitude if it means ensuring that the area stays clear.

Increase propeller rpm before landing

Before landing we should always be ready for the need to go around, so placing the propeller in high rpm position in the pattern is part of the typical approach checklist. Since my first flight with Frank, I have always made it a point to know the governing range of the propeller. In my Beechcraft Bonanza, for example, I advance the propeller lever forward only when the manifold pressure is below 13 inches so my passengers don’t hear or feel a thing.

Crosswind landing technique

Touching down with a side load on the landing gear is uncomfortable and potentially harmful to the airplane. Sharpen your crosswind landing skills by using ailerons to keep the airplane above the extended runway centerline and the rudder to keep the longitudinal axis of the airplane aligned with it. It’s a skill we all need to practice regularly.

Slowing after landing and exiting the runway

Flat spotting the tires after locking up the brakes, or hearing the tires screech while turning off on a taxiway, isn’t a good way to end a flight. Each of these problems likely began in the air by using too high an airspeed on approach. Nail the proper airspeed on final and you’ll touch down with minimal energy to dissipate after landing. It’s part of any stabilized approach.

If you’re due for a flight review, you might consider adding commercial privileges to your pilot certificate as there hasn’t been a better time to do so. At one time this required 10 hours of training in a complex aircraft, but the rules now allow time training in a technically advanced aircraft to qualify for all or part of that. Even some Cessna 172s meet the requirement. Just remember that while the ACS provides a good start, considering the passenger experience is important. Whether or not you plan to fly for hire, flying like a professional will improve your skills and the confidence passengers place in you.

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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