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AOPA Online Members Only -- Pilot Skills: Currency vs. Proficiency -- Practice Makes Perfect: Proficiency For Flight Training

Practice Makes Perfect

Proficiency For Flight Training

BY DOUGLAS S. RITTER (From Flight Training, February 1995)

Proficiency is so often associated with dedicated recurrent training that we might forget what it really means and what it really takes. Being proficient implies a thorough competence derived from training and practice. All too often, even those who receive plenty of the former forget that it takes regular practice to maintain proficiency and hone the skills learned in training, "Use 'em or lose 'em," as the familiar axiom goes.

To many pilots, flying is divided into training and flying, or using the skills learned while training to do something practical with the airplane. The thinking seems to be that if I am practicing, I must be training, and that flying isn't really practice at all. Down this road lies lack of proficiency, to some degree or another.

Maintaining proficiency doesn't mean the same thing as recurrent training. It also doesn't necessarily require an instructor or special training flights. It does mean honing your skills and practicing different techniques every time you fly.

My favorite example of proficiency training is crosswind landings. The trouble is that many of us don't get enough practice making crosswind landings. The evidence is all too plain to see anytime the windsock isn't more or less aligned with the runway.

Many pilots avoid crosswinds like the plague. I've spoken to numerous pilots, some with a lot of hours, who haven't made a real crosswind landing in years. A couple knots of crosswind component hardly counts. When I ask what they would do if they had to do it, if there were no other options, most say they would "manage."

Would they? Perhaps, but we are supposed to do better than just manage to get by. Don't I remember something from the Practical Test Standards (PTS), under the heading of "Satisfactory Performance," about "the successful outcome of a procedure or maneuver never seriously in doubt"? That ought not change once the desired certificate is in hand.

Nevertheless, for many pilots, crosswind landings were uncomfortable and a cause for much distress when they were learning to fly. Once they had that magic ticket to fly, once they didn't have to do them, once there was no instructor forcing them to do it, they didn't.

In many areas, you can do a fair amount of flying and never have to worry much about a significant crosswind. But sooner or later, it's going to happen. Like it or not, you are going to have to perform. It would be bad enough on a normal approach. What happens if it's an emergency? That's not the time to try to remember correct procedures. You say it's not that difficult. Then why do so many avoid it or do such a poor job of it when they have no other choice?

What is ironic is that if pilots wouldn't avoid crosswind landings, or even better, if they would seek them out, such landings would cease being a worry. Practice does make perfect, or at least it makes you proficient, and the pucker factor goes down a great deal as a result.

Proficiency Practice

How do you tell if you're out of practice, if you aren't proficient? If you have to give any maneuver or procedure too much thought, you're likely already in trouble. If you are giving it too much thought, you know it, don't you? Worried whether it will all come out OK? If you weren't out of practice, you wouldn't be worried about the outcome. If your palms are sweating, if the sweat is beading up on your forehead, if your shirt is soaked, these are all signs you aren't prepared or proficient. If you breathe a sigh of relief instead of just feeling good about successfully completing any maneuver or procedure, then you probably need to get to work.

Too many pilots lapse into complacency, always taking the easy way out. They rarely, if ever, make a crosswind, short- or soft-field takeoff or landing, for example. This can turn around and bite you later on when you need those skills you have allowed to get rusty. Let's look at ways to maintain proficiency in areas that are often overlooked.

But first, a reality check. If you are out of practice, it is easy to get into bad habits - and you don't want that. If you are rusty, get some help from an instructor first in order to get back in the groove. This is also the time to safely expand your own limits and test the limits of the aircraft you fly. Once you're safely back in control, don't allow yourself to get rusty again. It is a whole lot easier, and a lot less expensive, to stay proficient than it is to regain proficiency.

Accidents during the landing and takeoff phase, caused by faulty pilot technique leading to loss of control, are a major source of fatalities, injuries, destroyed and pranged aircraft, and wounded pride, to say nothing of life-shortening stress. On virtually every takeoff or landing, you have a chance to practice the skills you need to safely complete the flight if conditions aren't perfect. Don't waste the opportunity.

At many airports, you can ask for the crosswind runway without creating any problems or wasting time. In many instances, you can actually save time if it puts you closer to wherever you are headed to or from the airport. Just because everyone else is using the other runway doesn't mean you must do so.

There is also no rule that says you must perform a normal takeoff or landing. Just because you have 10,000 feet of concrete ahead, or even just a couple thousand feet of cracked and bumpy asphalt, doesn't mean you can't make do with the absolute minimum and practice your short- and soft-field technique. For that matter, with enough runway and permission, you might get in half a dozen takeoffs and landings before you either climb out or return to the tiedown or hangar.

When was the last time you practiced a downwind landing or takeoff? There are noise abatement procedures, one-way strips, and potential emergency landing sites that necessitate such operations. "No big deal," you say? Then why do we continue to have overrun accidents, with tailwinds as a contributing cause, year after year? It's best to practice this with an instructor, on a long runway with clear approach and departure areas, and when the wind is below 10 knots or the value specified by the pilot operating handbook.

Pilots' perceptions easily become attuned to a familiar picture on landings and takeoffs. Change the picture and accidents happen. Get used to dealing with different pictures and you can prevent those accidents. When the opportunity arises - and it is safe to do so - request a downwind landing or takeoff.

In most cases, these efforts hardly cost you any time, particularly compared to a dedicated training flight. If you do not remain proficient in what you have learned, a training flight may not do you any good when you need the skills most. It wouldn't be hard to argue that a normal takeoff or landing ought to be the exception, not the rule. Then, when the chips are down, you're prepared, not wondering whether you can pull it off. That is what proficiency is all about.

Flight Review

Flight reviews often show us just how rusty many pilots get at basic airmanship. Those who primarily fly under visual flight rules (VFR) seem especially susceptible to an insidious lack of precision that seems to worm its way into their flying. Are they safe? Probably so, in most situations.

On the other hand, when it's crunch time, the sloppiness might catch up with them. While there is no requirement that pilots be able to perform to the same standards they did when they passed the checkride for the certificates and ratings they hold, it's a poor reflection on their capabilities and attitude if they cannot.

It's rare that a pilot can't be signed off for a flight review, although sometimes it does take a bit of extra airwork, which it ought not. If you had to meet the Practical Test Standards for airmanship and maneuvers right now, could you? Perhaps, but it wouldn't be surprising to find your efforts wanting in some respects.

Admittedly, the private pilot PTS is pretty lenient, yet I've often watched as pilots work to stay within even those liberal standards, such as plus or minus 200 feet of the selected altitude and plus or minus 10 degrees of the desired heading required by the cross-country PTS task. Even worse are steep turns, a basic flight skill. Yet pilots often exceed the 100-foot PTS variance on their first try, or concentrating on altitude, spend too much time with their head in the cockpit, or miss the roll-out heading. It is only by extraordinary efforts they stay within bounds, when it ought to be virtually automatic. This isn't being proficient.

Part of the trick is to set tighter standards for yourself, say half the allowable variance. This isn't a new idea, and many are first introduced to it during training, but often pilots later forget and become complacent. If, on the other hand, you aim for that sort of precision as a matter of course, then you won't get sloppy at all, and precision eventually becomes ingrained.

Flying to tighter standards is only half of the solution. The other half is the self-discipline needed to adhere to those self-imposed standards. Flying regularly, in and of itself, doesn't guarantee you will stay sharp. You must make a dedicated effort to fly with precision every time you fly in order to stay proficient. It is that simple.

Basic Practice

To stay proficient, you need to commit yourself to practicing the basic skills. How much time does it take to perform a 360-degree steep turn? Not much, so do it on a whim from time to time. When I fly, it is rare that I don't do some airwork along the way, the manner of which depends in part on with whom I'm flying. Slow flight, turns around a point, what have you, all can be done regularly and simply in the course of flying from one place to another.

The payoff for flying precisely comes not only in a greater feeling of self-confidence and pride, but also in reduced stress in today's tightly regulated flying environment. Together with the better flying skills, this translates into a higher level of safety. Not a bad payoff for what is essentially free, or nearly so.

Instrument pilots generally do better in maintaining altitude and heading if they regularly file under instrument flight rules (IFR) and hand fly the airplane, because Big Brother is watching all the time. They also tend to be more experienced pilots and fly more often. The extra hours are an advantage.

But if instrument pilots let the autopilot do all the flying, as some do, they may be even worse at hand flying the airplane. Without regular instrument competency checks (ICCs), this degradation of skills can go unnoticed for a long time. It is always shocking to see the degree to which some pilots come to depend upon good old George, as autopilots are often called. When use of an autopilot becomes a crutch rather than just another tool, you can be sure proficiency is no longer even remotely in the picture.

When it comes to dealing with unusual or emergency situations, some instrument-rated pilots have allowed themselves to become so far removed from anything but a standard-rate turn or standard ILS approach that at times they can perform just as poorly as any other nonproficient pilot.

The solution is pretty obvious. Hand fly the aircraft more often. Sure, there are times when George can do a better job than you, and there are times when you need the respite the automation offers. But don't fall into the trap of rationalizing away the need to fly hands-on. Letting the electronic co-pilot do the job all or most of the time can be a particularly insidious and nasty habit. You'll not improve by letting someone, or more to the point, something, else do the job. Commit yourself to flying most approaches by hand. It's the only way to stay on top.

Two-Minute Drill

One pilot I know has developed an excellent method for maintaining his proficiency at hand flying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). He refers to this as his "two-minute drill." Periodically, when flying either actual or simulated IFR, he hits the stopwatch and makes a concerted effort to fly plus or minus 1 degree of his assigned heading and plus or minus 10 feet of his desired altitude for 2 minutes. Then he will relax and take a break.

Few pilots could keep this up for any length of time without becoming fatigued, but it is excellent practice for instrument scan. Done on a consistent basis, it will keep you sharp as a tack. You can set this up for any precision with which you are comfortable, but the more exacting the standards you aim for, the better you will get and stay.

As a matter of course, many IFR-rated pilots file IFR all the time, IMC or not, and rarely perform anything other than the standard ILS approach offered by air traffic control (ATC), even in visual meteorological conditions (VMC). It doesn't take too long to become less than proficient at performing the more difficult approaches.

Many times we fly with an appropriately rated pilot in the right seat, so when the occasion arises to practice something a bit more challenging, don't hesitate to ask for a more difficult practice approach when in VMC. This may add a few minutes to the flight, but it costs a lot less than going up for dedicated instrument practice.

If you aren't flying regularly, at least 100 hours a year, it is much more difficult to maintain a keen edge, particularly with fewer than about 300 hours in your logbook. Under these circumstances, you must try even harder to stay proficient. The tips here should help.

Pilots with more hours often fall victim to that well-known enemy of good piloting, complacency, with equally poor results. Only a commitment to practice your skills every time you fly will keep you prepared. Proficiency requires practice every time you fly.

Practice is...

Practice is the best of all instructors.
Maxim 439, Publilius Syrus, c. 1st century B.C.

Practice is everything.M
Attributed to Periander of Corinth c. 600 B.C. by Diogenes Laertius c. 200 A.D.

Whatever you would make habitual, practice it; and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it,...
Epictetus c. 50-120 A.D.

Practice is nine-tenths.
R.W. Emerson: The Conduct of Life, 1860

Many have the will to win; few have the will to prepare to win.

Proficiency requires practice every time you fly.
Doug Ritter, 1994

Posted Wednesday, March 26, 2003 10:34:50 AM