Sporty’s Pilot’s Discretion Podcast has new episodes available with guests that include adventurer, Tom Comet, on surviving a crash on a frozen lake; an update on eVTOL aircraft with veteran aviation reporter, Elan Head; and Sport pilot industry expert, Dan Johnson, on the MOSAIC proposal from FAA.
Pilot’s Discretion brings you authentic conversations with some of aviation’s most interesting people. From honest discussions about flight training to fascinating stories from pilots, this podcast is for anyone who loves to fly.
Pilot’s Discretion is hosted by Sporty’s President, John Zimmerman. Have a question or a guest suggestion? Email us: [email protected].
Home flight simulation technology has made impressive leaps forward over the past 10 years. With Microsoft’s release of the latest version of their simulator program in late 2020 and Laminar Research finalizing testing on X-Plane 12 in early 2023, we finally have at-home flight simulation real enough to provide tangible benefits to those rusty pilots who want to get current and stay current. This realism does come with a warning: unstructured or “game” flying can detract from your actual flight lessons or skill set. Here are some things to consider when using a home simulator setup.
- Hardware setup considerations – There are many choices to make to determine your home setup; Yoke, joystick, rudders, control panels, avionics, etc. The key to making this setup work is your comfort. Having a system that you feel comfortable working with is the best place to start. Keep in mind that some setups can get fairly expensive, and although this adds realism, it isn’t necessary to get the most basic learning functions out of the simulators. For those working with aircraft that use a standard yoke setup such as a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Cherokee, we encourage yoke and rudder pedals as a basic equipment package to train with. If you’re training in a Diamond DA20 or the nostalgic Piper Cub, we recommend a flight stick and pedals.
- Software choices – The Microsoft Flight Simulator program released in August of 2020 took the flight sim community by storm. In sixteen days the program logged one million unique users with over one billion (digital) miles flown. Microsoft’s user interface and ease of operation make it a phenomenal program for new simmers. If you are inclined to learn a more detailed program with added features, X-Plane 12 has a great reputation for flight simulation realism. The aerodynamics and avionics logic allow this program to run on a few Basic Aviation Training Devices (BATDs). There are many other programs available on the market that range from highly sophisticated to near game-only level. Regardless of your choice, learn what the program can and can’t do and carry that into your training. (For more, watch our MSFS 2020 overview, and X-Plane 12 overview)
- Training structure – This is the largest piece to transform your simulator into a true training machine. There are several strategies (see below), but regardless of which method you choose, make sure that each time you approach your simulator you treat it as an airplane and not a toy. Each flight should have a specific objective or purpose in mind. By adhering to this level of structure, you are able to take the lessons learned in the simulation world and translate them to the actual aircraft.
- Feedback – If you fly your simulator and then observe your performance, either with an automatic scoring/evaluation system built into some systems or with recording and replaying your flights, you can act as both student and examiner. While you are flying, it is easy to miss deviations in performance (altitude, airspeed, centerline tracking, etc.), but if you replay your flight, you can distance yourself from your performance and observe with an objective eye.
Earlier I mentioned training structure and different ideas of how to give your flying time structure while at home. Each system has its different options for reviewing your flying, but the best way to truly structure your training is to work from a syllabus designed for home simulator flying. Examples include a resource such as Scenario-Based Training with X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator by Bruce Williams, or similar books and syllabi. These products are specifically designed to give you a purpose for your lesson at home, and allow the most amount of positive transfer of learning from simulator to aircraft. For additional training tips, click here.
In addition to these training products, sometimes the best resource for your home simulator is your flight instructor. Talk to your CFI and inform them that you have a home simulator and you want to make the best use of it by practicing your lessons at home to review and prepare for your in-aircraft lessons. Although CFIs have different views on how best to use home simulators, most instructors will support its use when using the procedures and techniques taught from the aircraft. It can be difficult to make a breakthrough while learning on your own, but keeping your skills sharp and practicing your homework between lessons will definitely accelerate those breakthroughs with your instructor in the airplane.
For those pilots who already hold a license, the structure used in the simulator world can be more relaxed, provided that you continue to use your in-aircraft procedures when flying your sim. I recommend pilots stay sharp by flying their home simulators like they fly their aircraft, including full checklist usage, simulated radio calls, and airport traffic procedures. Many pilots will use home simulators to remain instrument current with procedures and scan techniques, but basic VFR skills can also be kept sharp by the same process of practicing on the ground and then using the aircraft to fill in the “experience” gap. In particular, failures or emergency procedures that are not often practiced in flight can be very beneficial when exercised in the home simulator setup. Review your POH and emergency checklist for ideas to practice at home.
Instrument currency is an obvious item to practice at home for instrument pilots. The very nature of IFR flying dictates a procedure mentality instead of a feel/look mentality. Although approaches done on a non-certified system do not count towards the required FAA 61.57 recency of experience requirements, the act of practicing approaches can still be very beneficial to keep your IFR procedures sharp and your instrument scan from getting rusty.
I encourage students to run through a simulated flight using their own navigation, as opposed to just placing the aircraft already lined up on the final approach course and completing the final approach segment to the missed approach point. By running the simulation through from beginning to end, the instrument pilot is forced to set up radios, brief the full instrument procedure and contemplate a full instrument approach, including course reversal in some cases, as opposed to the easier vectors-to-final option. Don’t forget to simulate going missed and entering that hold to maintain your skills.
Flying in your simulator will not recreate the muscle memory and “feel” of flying the real aircraft, but your practice of procedures and techniques can be just as real at home as it is in the plane, making your next flight an even better experience.
As we get older, most of us get worse at being a student—no matter what the subject. The first 20 years of life are filled with classes, tests, and homework, so we’re used to absorbing new information and occasionally stumbling on our path to mastery. The typical 45-65 year old, on the other hand, likely hasn’t been in a formal educational setting in a long time. It can feel uncomfortable or even embarrassing to make a mistake or confess, “I don’t know.” After all, you’re used to being the expert.
This difference in mindset has been reinforced for me recently, as I’ve become a student again, this time of music. After years of thinking about it, I finally took up the violin. Much like flying, this process has been exciting, challenging, occasionally frustrating, but mostly very satisfying. I’ve kept a learning journal (a trick I learned from flight training, of course), and in reviewing this, I noticed some lessons that apply to any later-in-life student.
So if you’re considering getting current as a rusty pilot after your 40th birthday (or your 60th—you really aren’t too old to start), remember these tips.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re a successful engineer, doctor, or teacher, you are used to knowing the answers and leading the discussion. This might make you nervous about asking questions of your instructor, especially if they are younger than you (which is often the case in aviation). Ignore those nerves and ask away, even if you think you’ll sound stupid.
This is easier said than done, but I found it helpful to tell my violin teacher up front: “I’m going to ask a ton of questions, some of which may sound ridiculous; I hope you’ll appreciate my willingness to learn.” This set the tone early and has yielded great results. Most instructors love a curious student.
So if you’re trying to recall what the heck a magneto is or minimum visibility for Class E airspace, don’t hold back. Don’t assume it doesn’t matter. Don’t assume every other rusty pilot knows these topics better than you do. Have the curiosity of a first grader, and keep asking questions.
Don’t get frustrated. Getting current isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be—that’s why it’s so rewarding when you’re signed off for the flight review. Acknowledge up front that you will have both good and bad days, and don’t beat yourself up after every mistake. I like to take a two week moving average of my performance, which prevents me from getting too high after a great lesson or too low after a really bad one.
If you feel like you’re in a rut, and that two week moving average isn’t good, by all means talk to your instructor. Don’t be afraid to mix things up if the current plan isn’t working, but don’t expect perfection. You may be used to success, but one of the great lessons of flight training is to remain humble and never get too comfortable. That’s not failure, that’s growth.
Invest in the instructor relationship. One-on-one learning depends on the student and instructor much more than the textbook or the technology. That doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with your CFI, but don’t be purely transactional. You should take a few moments to understand who they are as a person: what is their teaching style, their likes and dislikes, and their unique style? Do your part as the student to share your personality and your learning preferences. If you both understand each other and work on the learning process as a partnership, you’ll learn more, be more efficient, and have more fun.
Have a plan to always be studying or practicing. Here’s one I have learned time and time again with music, and it’s every bit as true for aviation. Your most important learning happens in between lessons, without an instructor there, so be diligent about carving out time for regular studying. Whether it’s watching videos online, reading the FAA textbooks, replaying your most recent flight with an app, or flying a simulator at home, you should try to do something aviation-related every 2-3 days. There are more options than ever before, so there’s no excuse for going weeks between aviation learning sessions, even if your formal flight lessons are canceled due to weather.
Getting current is really up to you as the student, and lessons are best viewed as periodic check-ins to fix mistakes and learn new skills. Self-directed learning like this takes commitment, so don’t wait for a time when nothing is going on to study; build it into your day-to-day life in a very intentional way. Get help from your spouse or friends if needed—this is a great way to have someone else keep you honest.
Remember why you’re doing it. If you’re getting current later in life, it’s probably because you want to have fun, so stay focused on your ultimate goal. Sure, everyone has to earn the flight review endorsement, but notice which parts you enjoy most and make sure you learn those skills. Is it about traveling to faraway places? Then make sure you’re really learning how to travel cross-country. Is it about fun flights in taildraggers to grass runways? Then don’t get too bogged down in the details of turbocharging systems and glass cockpits. You want to become a safe and confident pilot, but you also want to be ready for your unique mission, whatever that might be. Communicate those goals to your flight instructor early on.
The differences in mindset between younger and older students don’t have to spell doom. In fact, there are some real advantages that come with maturity. Older adults are typically highly motivated and they often know themselves better, so they understand how to achieve their goals. They have other life experiences to draw on and more refined decision-making skills. Play to those strengths by customizing your training plan to fit your personality and by working smarter with your schedule.
You can teach an old dog new tricks. We see it every month in our flight school, and there’s no reason you can’t join the club.
If you’ve held a valid medical certificate at any point after July 14, 2006, you may never have to see an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) again, thanks to the BasicMed rule. And for those just getting started, you may be able to complete just one AME medical exam at the beginning of your flying career. Then, use the simplified BasicMed process as long as your flying can be accomplished with third-class privileges.
This week’s video tip comes from Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course. We take a look at how the BasicMed program works, its limitations, and the steps you need to take to keep your BasicMed status current.
How it Works
Third-class medical flying can be thought of as recreational or personal flying. Generally, flight training and all types of flying short of commercial operations – including day and night VFR operations and even IFR flying. When flying under BasicMed, there is a maximum number of passengers that may be carried. Five is the most and the aircraft is limited to six seats and may not be certified for more than 6,000 lbs. Pilots are also altitude restricted to 18,000 feet MSL (no Class A operations) and a speed limit of 250 knots.
Third-class medical reform does not affect those already flying sport aircraft with a valid driver’s license in lieu of a third-class medical. You may continue flying LSAs.
As part of the new guidance, pilots flying under BasicMed must visit their primary care physician (or any state-licensed physician) at least once every four years. During the visit, an FAA checklist of issues must be discussed with your care provider. Both the pilot and physician need to sign the checklist stating that the items have been completed. A record of the required visit should be noted in the pilot’s logbook and pilots should save their checklist. There is no additional need to report or file anything directly with FAA.
The required checklist is provided in two parts: there are questions to be answered by the pilot before the exam and a list of items for the physician to include as part of the exam, which are typical of items found in any routine physical. The questions include a short medical history and list of current medications and, as one might expect, information about whether the pilot has had a medical denied, suspended, or revoked.
Pilots are required to complete an online training course in aeromedical factors every two years. The course is available free from AOPA or Mayo Clinic. A copy of the course completion certificate should be saved and a notation of the training made in the pilot’s logbook.
Perhaps the greatest financial and regulatory relief of the reform movement comes to those with special issuance medicals. Special issuance medicals are an option for pilots with certain medical conditions that are specifically disqualifying. Once FAA reviews the history and circumstances, the pilot may be cleared to fly under the special issuance authorization.
If you currently hold a special issuance third class medical or have held one after July 14, 2006, and do not suffer one of the specific cardiac, neurological, or mental health conditions identified as exceptions, you will never again be required to go through the special issuance process.
An important note is that third-class medical reform does not alleviate the need for pilots to continually self-certify when it comes to being fit for flight. This includes consideration for any medications that may affect physical or cognitive abilities. While it would make sense that a primary care physician would be in a better position to assess one’s overall health than the snapshot that takes place during the traditional AME exam, the process also depends on an honest and free exchange with your doctor.
BasicMed Summary – what you need to fly
- Hold a U.S. driver’s license.
- Hold or have held a medical certificate issued by the FAA at any point after July 14, 2006.
- Answer the health questions on the Comprehensive Medical Examination Checklist (CMEC) and complete your examination by any physician. Required every four years.
- Take the online medical education course (required every two years) and complete the attestations/consent to the National Driver Register (NDR) check. Keep the course completion document.
- Go fly!
Operational Restrictions under BasicMed:
- No more than five passengers
- Operate within the United States, at less than 18,000 feet MSL, not exceeding 250 knots.
- Can’t operate for compensation or hire
- Accepted in the Bahamas
Ok, so your path to currency after some time away has you flying your basic maneuvers within current standards, but that’s just the beginning. Regaining your proficiency after some time away is a special accomplishment, but also comes with the responsibility to continue learning and refining those skills through practice. Creating a plan for doing so will only enhance your aviation experiences and provide even greater personal enrichment. It also provides purpose for your next flight.
Practice landings. A wise person once told me you can’t practice anything effectively unless you have goals and a method to measure progress. In terms of making more consistent landings, this means examining your landings with a critical eye. Some things to consider:
- Speed – Have you established target pattern speeds? Is the speed and configuration correct and consistent through all legs of the pattern for departure and arrival legs?
- Aiming & Touchdown points – Are you maintaining the discipline to select an aim and touchdown point for every landing and making those touchdown points consistently. Have you established an acceptable standard by which the airplane should be comfortably on the ground?
- Flare & Touchdown – Are you appropriately trading airspeed for altitude in the form of a shallower descent rate in the flare and touching down as the wings stall in the case of a normal landing?
- Runway alignment – Are you rolling out on final approach on centerline? Are you landing with the longitudinal axis parallel to the runway?
- Crosswinds – Are you growing more confident in managing crosswind? Do you have the flight controls properly positioned for taxi and takeoff? Are your crosswind landings equally consistent with the upwind main landing gear touching down first with no side load?
- Go-Arounds – Are you following your own rules for a stable approach and executing a go-around when appropriate? And are you practicing go-arounds even in the case it’s not necessary? A go-around is a complicated maneuver with significant configuration change at low altitude and should be the top exit strategy in any undesirable situation.
Judge your improvement on the quality of your “bad” landings. And practice under a variety of conditions (wind, configuration, time of day, etc.) to better hone your visual cues and mastery of the airplane. A safety pilot or instructor may see elements not as obvious to the pilot flying.
Practice abnormal procedures. Read the wonderfully insightful section of your POH that includes an expanded discussion of abnormal and emergency procedures. On your next flight, review the table of contents for the emergency section and select an event you haven’t practiced. Follow the checklist for that item and understand the “why” behind it. This exercise will not only prepare you for real-time abnormals, but will ensure a better understanding of your aircraft’s systems.
What about an engine failure immediately after takeoff? What about a partial power loss? A blown tire? Electrical failure?
Finally, fly. There’s nothing better for proficiency than to fly more and visit new places. And if you need an additional excuse, the colors of the fall foliage are a spectacular sight from an airplane.
We get many aspiring pilots that ask us about getting current but other commitments often result in a packed schedule. The thought of taking on flight lessons while maintaining a 40+ hour work week can be daunting. Do not be deterred! There is a path to knocking the rust off while still paying the bills. We’ve seen many success stories and here is the insight on how to get it done.
Tip #1. Open up your schedule.
Obviously you need to make time for lessons. For those of us with 9 to 5 jobs, it’s a little more difficult. If you can sacrifice a little sleep or less time at the gym, fly early morning. There are even some hidden benefits to the dawn flight hours – smooth air, cool temps and better aircraft availability. Before the sun has had time to warm up the ground and cause some afternoon bumps is my favorite time to fly. It’s peaceful and quiet. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the airport to yourself too. If you’re flying in the evening, you usually can get in two to three hours before the sun goes down depending on time of year. Both early in the day and late in the evening you’re likely to have less traffic in the pattern to slow you down so better efficiency when it comes to getting more takeoffs and landings in each lesson.
Tip #2. Make the most of your weekends.
If you can free up your Saturdays and/or Sundays you’ll be much better off. The weekend is where we see students get the most training requirements knocked out. If you can fly 4-8 hours in a weekend plus a couple mornings and evenings during the week, it is possible to log 12+ hours in a week. While the minimum number of flight hours for your Private pilot is 40 hours, most pilots exceed the minimum by up to 50%. Let’s say it will take you 60 hours of training, that’s really only five weeks of calendar time to meet the requirements. Sounds a little manageable, doesn’t it?
Tip #3. Use a home study course for ground lessons.
Getting current is like any other type of school these days, you can study online at your own speed. With the Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course or Sporty’s Flight Review Course you can complete all your ground training at home or wherever you are, online or in the app. It’s a great way to save time with the instructor on ground lessons and learn the material needed for flying. This online course takes you step-by-step through all of the material you’ll need to know to be a competent pilot.
Tip #4. Find an instructor that can work with your schedule and an airplane that does too!
Finding the right flight school is one of the more difficult steps in this process. You can use our online database to locate the nearest one to you but that’s only half the battle. More than anything, a flight school needs to be a good fit for you – your schedule, your goals, and your personality. Meet with the staff and tour the facilities and airplanes. Ask any questions you may have about the flight training process, flight school policies, scheduling, rates, and instructors. Your personal opinion counts here. Do the airplanes look clean and well-maintained? Are the instructors friendly and helpful? What is your general feeling about the school as a whole?
Flight schools vary from large training facilities to one airplane flight schools with part-time instructors. But bigger doesn’t always mean better, so look for some signs of a well-run flight school.
Tip #5. Once you start, don’t stop.
If you’re tempted to take a week off, don’t. It’s too easy to let life get in the way of your currency. And it’s difficult to retain all of the knowledge if you let time pass without studying. Learning to fly is like any other skill, practice makes perfect. You’re going to have to remain dedicated to learning to fly if you want to make this dream a reality.
Set aside some time to find a flight school that will work with your schedule. Dedicate your time to this goal and have an expected timeline for completion. Having a full-time job and learning to fly is 100% possible, so what’s holding you back? You never know what doors that may open for you.