So the FAA wants us to fly more. Finally, a government-sponsored excuse to get to the airport and spend more time doing what we love – fly! They’ve said so as part of an Advisory Circular update regarding flight reviews and instrument proficiency checks. The instructional community has been asked to focus on those hands-on skills during those required training events.
And here’s the common sense, knock-you-over-the-head-obvious rationale – like any physical skill, if we don’t use it, we lose it. And there is a renewed concern that our lack-of-use when it comes to the manipulation of flight controls could present a safety issue. The optimists would conclude that by highlighting the importance of maintaining your hands-on flying abilities, we could make strides in combating the number one cause of general aviation fatalities – loss of control. Loss of control in general aviation has even garnered the unwanted attention of the National Transportation Board through its annual “most wanted” list. Whether we can or can’t will be determined, but given just the chance at improvement means we should take the recommendations seriously.
Keep in mind that when referring to lack of use, it may not simply be based on the total number of hours in your logbook. It’s quite possible, and demonstrated routinely in the professional pilot ranks, that thousands of hours can be logged without doing much more than pushing buttons and turning knobs.
While the industry is certainly guilty of mixed messages when it comes to the proper use of flight deck technology, it boils down to the basic life premise we learned in kindergarten which is everything in moderation. In other words, we should thoroughly understand the capability and effective use of our GPSs, autopilots and other resources. I’m a firm believer in the smart use of all available resources and there are plenty of examples when the use of automation is the only prudent choice. But it’s also imperative, and even more important, that we maintain those basic, hands-on flying skills as our most critical and effective insurance policy – “technology” you can truly count on.
Despite the phenomenal advancements in flight deck technology, the real possibility exists of an equipment malfunction rendering these coveted tools inoperative. An even more likely scenario is automation simply doing something unexpected. This can vary from a gentle turn toward a fix that was programmed incorrectly to a more critical trim runaway. But the response should remain the same.
When automation malfunctions or performs a certain task in an unexpected manner, the appropriate next and immediate step is to eliminate the technology from your flying equation. Too often we get lulled into the “what’s it doing now” syndrome of trouble shoot now and fly later. It’s a critical discipline to forgo the strong urges to fix and remain in our flying comfort zone, but the inherent risks in aviation do not afford us that luxury.
When these events occur our last and only resort is our ability to fly the aircraft. From a regulatory standpoint, there’s not much to rely on in terms of maintaining those skills. Of course, in order to carry passengers, we must have accomplished three takeoffs and landings in the previous 90 days. And every other year (at a minimum), we’re required to obtain a flight review (or something equivalent such as WINGS participation or a new certificate or rating). Similar to our responsibilities in FAA medical certification, that leaves a lot of time in between with responsibility to police those skills.
What can we do?
Implement proficiency exercises into your everyday flying – nearly every flight offers ample opportunity to practice those hands-on flying skills and a variety of emergency or abnormal procedures. Establish a personal point in time (altitude, airspace or whatever) at which point you’ll hand-fly the airplane as opposed to full automation. For example, on departure, elect to hand fly to your designated cruise altitude or passing through something arbitrary such as 5,000 feet. You can establish the same personal guide for approaching the airport. Select autopilot off at a specific altitude or distance from the airport. You may be surprised at a) how this will keep those skills sharp and b) how much you will enjoy it.
Instead of calling it quits after your first and only greaser, take another trip around the pattern and this time make it an accuracy approach and landing, power-off, or a performance landing such as a short or soft field. Likely these are variations that you haven’t tried in a while that will help identify areas of weakness. Now work some of those variations into your next flight.
Start a buddy system – in the New Year, more exercise and/or losing weight is our #1 resolution. One of the more effective techniques for getting through January at least, is to enlist the help and support of a friend. We all have pilot friends. Challenge your support network to specific proficiency exercises each month, quarter, etc. Perhaps it’s completing a full instrument approach (simulated or actual) or even taking the time to complete detailed performance calculations for a flight. It can be anything that keeps you working toward improvement.
Complete a WINGS phase – the FAA WINGS program presents an excellent venue to select a variety of training opportunities to broaden your knowledge base and improve your skills. Registration for the program, which can satisfy flight review requirements, is free and you can even create your own program with the assistance and validation of a CFI.
Get out of your comfort zone (safely) – you don’t necessarily have to hire a CFI to explore new skills or activities in aviation. Simply enlisting the guidance of another trusted aviator or volunteering to ride along on a flight with a friend who is instrument rating can offer a powerful learning experience. Maybe it’s the buddy who regularly operates off grass runways or the business acquaintance who flies a faster, high-flying airplane.
Fly more – sounds simple I know, but I’m all for simple fixes and let’s be honest, it’s what we all want to do. So let this be your excuse. If you’ve read this far, you’re serious about it and who could argue the benefits for your health of mind and body. But don’t just fly, fly with a critical eye. Don’t be so quick to dismiss a situation you felt uncomfortable with or a botched landing. These are the tell-tale signs of areas in need of improvement.
While we’ve appropriately focused on the benefits of maintaining those hands-on skills there is plenty we can do to improve upon our use of technology. Take the time to explore a new feature of your GPS or simulate a challenging flight and anticipate how your specific equipment can reduce your workload. You can also take advantage of the robust collection of commercial training resources, seminars, webinars, workshops, journals, etc. that allow you to take full advantage of the collective wisdom of many who have come before us and who have also made their own mistakes from which we can learn.