One of the more difficult aspects of pilot training is starting back after a lengthy break. If you have ever had to take two or more weeks away from your training, in an otherwise consistent schedule, you have experienced the “rust”. “Rust” is the term that pilots use to describe the degradation in flying skills when you haven’t flown in a while. Rust can be noticeable in as little as a few days while you are early in the training process, or maybe not noticeable for a few weeks once you are a more experienced aviator.
Small amounts of rust will be shaken after a single flight , assuming your hiatus is relatively short. But what should you do if your break in training was longer? Maybe a year or more?
Once you have decided on your flight school and instructor, you need to set a plan in motion that covers knowledge assessment, remedial flight skills, and a syllabus to your end goal – probably checkride. With a qualified instructor as your mentor, you should first begin with a knowledge assessment and study plan. Take advantage of a ground lesson with your instructor and review the major items of your flying knowledge up to where you left off. And place particular emphasis on the last few topics before you took your break.
Many students mistakenly assume to start back at the beginning with the idea that the knowledge gained earliest is the oldest and therefore, most rusty. What that theory does not account for is the law of repetition. Although the knowledge gained first dates farthest back in time, it was also the knowledge repeated most often and used frequently during your flight training. This early knowledge was also less complex. Instead, start with the more recent topics which will also have the most impact on your next flight since knowledge generally precedes the flying skills.
Once you know where your knowledge stands and have created a study plan to get back into the swing of things, you can shift your focus to flying skills and “muscle memory”. “Muscle memory” is the term we use that explains how you know what to do with your hands and feet without even having to think about it. Although flying is never without thought, certain actions come as second nature when you are current and proficient as a pilot. This skill set must be sharpened before you can begin to work on more complex items like maneuvers and landings.
Keep in mind the first flight or two after coming off of a break is not going to bring you back to the point where you left off. But you should expect to have an accurate assessment of what will be needed to get you back to that point. As with any success, it’s difficult to accomplish a goal without a plan to execute.
With your study plan in place, and firm skill assessment, you and your instructor can formalize a plan or syllabus to pave the way to the goal of completing your certificate. This plan should be documented and contain specific objectives so both you and your instructor can monitor progress and make adjustments when needed. The absence of a plan and no meaningful way to measure progress is often the source of students feeling as if no progress is being made. This can also be a contributing factor to losing the motivation and passion to complete your goal.
Now that you have all of your goals and methods in place to achieve those goals, it’s time to implement the strategy. It would be a disservice to suggest that everything was going to work out as planned, but there are additional steps to minimize set-backs and veering off course.
First, set aside the necessary time in your schedule. Don’t just show up to your lessons and expect the magic to happen, or wait for your instructor to spoon-feed information. If you create a schedule for your self-study the same way that you schedule time for your flight lesson, you will be well on your way to success. Lesson preparedness will save you money during your flight training.
Next, set a consistent schedule with your instructor. Maintaining a steady flight training schedule of at least two lessons per week is great plan to experiencing measured success week after week. When your training is more sporadic, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop routines and the necessary muscle memory. Frequency is obviously important to success in flight training, but consistency and predictability in your schedule are also very important factors not to be overlooked. If you have to cancel a lesson due to weather or other conflicts, try to reschedule a makeup lesson as soon as possible.
Last, keep track of your progress on your plan. Creating a detailed road map to completion of your certificate is only an effective tool if you keep that record current. Your records should show progress of lessons, individual notes on lesson performance, and items to improve for the next lesson. Documenting those observations allows you and your instructor to maintain the same progress plan for your training and ensure that you don’t get side tracked. Using that plan at home helps you continue to reinforce your plan and keep your preparation relevant to the items currently experiencing difficulties. The added benefit of keeping your own copy of these records is to gain confidence from your previous success when you feel like nothing is going right in your lessons.
After many months of diligent work, you have succeeded in obtaining your new certificate or rating. Now what? Your new license is not the end of your training and enjoyment; it is the beginning. There is a common expression in aviation that your license is merely a “license to learn”. No statement could be truer, but not to worry. You will not be practicing slow flight and stalls for the rest of your flying days. There are many great activities to do with your certificate, which is ultimately why you got into flying in the first place. Each time you fly you gain valuable experience and experience is the root of learning.