Knocking the Rust Off

By: Jason Blair, Designated Pilot Examiner | April 2013

Most of us don't get to fly a lot in the winter, and we get rusty. We fly more in the spring and summer because the weather is conducive; we have more time off, take vacations, etc. Unfortunately, it is also when we have more incidents, more accidents, and sadly, more deaths in aviation.

As a Designated Pilot Examiner, when I see pilots during practical tests, they are usually at their best. They have practiced, studied, gotten current, and have done everything they can to be sure they demonstrate the qualities of the absolute best pilot they can be. But most don't stay at this level of proficiency. Pilots fall back into their normal life pattern, flying when it is convenient or when they want to make a personal or business trip. This isn’t necessarily enough flying to keep them proficient.

As an examiner, an instructor and a pilot who flies regularly, I've collected a few practices that can help all pilots keep their skills sharp.

  • Flying Isn’t Just for Holidays. Pilots’ lives are busy and many only get a chance to use their aircraft for trips when they have time off. This irregular flying doesn't keep their skills up. Long trips also don't help build repetitive practice for things such as landings, planning flights in consideration of weather, or even familiarity with the cockpit. The answer is simple, yet sometimes tough to do: Fly more often. These don't have to be long flights, a half hour with 3 landings on a Saturday morning twice a month will go far to keeping you proficient between those longer trips that sometimes come months apart.
  • Fly With an Instructor or Another Pilot. Nobody likes criticism, but receiving some qualified feedback will increase your skill development and competence as a pilot. Taking a qualified instructor with you periodically to obtain outside feedback is a good idea. Find a local instructor, ask them to take a ride with you and take to heart what they indicate you should work on. If an instructor isn't available, take an experienced, qualified pilot who will provide you with some straight feedback. In both cases, be honest and challenge yourself to practice the things you really need work on, not what you think will make the instructor or your friend think you are a good pilot.
  • Stop Before Programming Anything. A new iPad, a new portable GPS, a new panel mounted GPS or glass panel is fun to engage with, but it can also be overwhelming. In some cases, it can be confusing and cause our attention to shift to the system rather than our aircraft. It can lead to problems if we are trying to taxi or takeoff at the same time. When our attention diverts from aircraft control, it’s easy to end up taxiing where we shouldn't. The result can be a runway incursion, or causing damage to the aircraft by taxiing off a taxiway, running over a runway light, or bumping a wing on a hangar. When you are programming or setting up equipment, stop the aircraft. This simple tip can help pilots avoid potential aircraft damage or violations of regulations.
  • Be Willing to Say It's a "No-Go.”Be Willing to Say It's a "No-Go.” The pressure of a planned family trip can be hard to overcome, but it's always better to be able to take a trip in the future than to have one end in tragedy because of a bad decision to fly in conditions beyond the capability of the pilot or the aircraft. Set good personal minimums and stick to them. Practice this even on days when you aren't flying by "simulating" planning for a flight.

I regularly look at weather on days when I am not flying. It takes just a few minutes to pick a location, get the weather in the way that you normally do, and analyze it. Imagine you were really planning to fly that day and make a decision if it would be a "go" or a "no-go." What I find in most cases is we are more conservative when there isn't real-world pressure to make the flight taking into account our own personal minimums. If we practice this process when it "doesn't matter" we build a habit. The hope is that this habit will matter when it is the real deal.

Last year, the Memorial Day weekend saw a significant increase in fatal accidents. We saw the same thing on the Fourth of July weekend. Pilots who weren't keeping their skills sharp flew on those weekends for fun and for travel with a tragic end. Help us make sure this spring and summer keeps pilots and the friends and families who ride with them safe by making good decisions and staying proficient.

Jason Blair is an active single and multi-engine instructor and FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with 4,600 hours total time and 2,600 hours instruction given. He serves on several FAA/Industry aviation committees and is the past Executive Director of the National Association of Flight Instructors. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for the general aviation industry.

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