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A waste? Not at all

Uncovering the real benefits of advanced ratings

One could easily conclude that earning a seaplane rating was a waste of time and money. It was not.

A hundred yards offshore, the perfect reflection of the setting sun became just a little rippled, an evening zephyr making its presence known. There was a time when I wouldn’t have noticed such an event, or thought about why there is that line between the smooth surface and the ripples. However, ever since I got a seaplane rating several years ago, I can’t help but pay attention to such things. This evening, I can tell the very slight breeze is coming from behind us, the trees along the shoreline blocking its impact on the mirrored surface until a football field’s distance out onto the lake.

This definitely would be an evening to use a glassy water landing technique.

I’ve only had the chance to fly seaplanes a dozen or so times since I earned the rating and, therefore, one could easily conclude that it was a waste of time and money. It was not. On every flight I’m more cognizant of wind speed and direction—watching for the movement of trees and crops at low altitude for hints; up high, looking for smokestacks and water surfaces for clues. There are no neatly defined runways on the water, so while every landing could be into the wind, given a big enough body of water, most of the time you have to discern the wind and understand how that will impact you in whatever landing lane you may have available. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the current.

So, while my seaplane rating is seldom exercised, the knowledge I gained from earning it has raised my awareness to many other things.

Similarly, earning an instrument rating so many years ago has made me a better pilot on many levels—many of which have nothing to do with flying in the clouds. My day-to-day hand flying is more precise. My weather knowledge is greater. My flight planning is more in-depth—regardless of the weather conditions. My interactions with air traffic control are more precise. I have better situational awareness on each flight, and can more quickly relate the location of other traffic in the terminal area because I have a sense of where certain fixes might be when they are reporting in.

I have never been paid a dollar for my flying skills—even several years after earning a commercial pilot certificate. I went to the trouble to earn the commercial certificate because I felt the need to challenge myself and advance my skills after several years with no new certificates or ratings. I’m not a fan of the maneuvers that must be mastered to earn a single-engine commercial certificate—and not even sure how relevant they are—but learning them gave me new respect for what you can do with an airplane.

And, as with the seaplane rating, I seldom have the opportunity to fly light twins, even after having earned a multiengine rating 30 years ago. But the training taught me more about aerodynamics than any other rating I’ve ever earned. When an engine quits, the aerodynamic effect on the airplane is significant and complicated, which is the reason that most of the time working on a multi rating is, ironically, spent flying around on one engine.

Jets are not difficult to fly. In fact, they are significantly easier to fly than light twins and many turboprops. A fistful of thrust can get you out of all sorts of trouble where you could seriously stumble in a light twin. Because jets are relatively easy to fly, most of the training is spent on understanding the complex systems and their interworkings. Understanding and knowing how to troubleshoot complicated fuel, pressurization, hydraulic, bleed air, and anti-icing systems, for example, is a necessary skill in order to earn a jet type rating. That training has led me to want to know more about the relatively simple fuel and electrical systems in the single-engine piston airplanes I typically fly.

As winter descends upon us, consider making a plan to advance your aviation experience by earning a new certificate or rating. It will count as a flight review and possibly as an instrument proficiency check. And you will gain a new set of skills that will help you on every flight.

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Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines

Editor in Chief
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.

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