Editor's Note: This week we introduce a new columnist to AVweb readers. Thomas Turner is a NAFI Master CFI who also has a Master's Degree in Aviation Safety. His monthly Leading Edge column will address pilot training and proficiency issues culled from his extensive experience as a flight instructor.
Congratulations! You've just earned your first pilot certificate, be it Private or Sport. You've worked very hard and invested a lot of time and money to join the ranks of Those Who Fly.
Case History: I took an Air Force squadron-mate of mine flying in the Cessna 120 I owned at the time, and he got excited about learning to fly himself. It was before I held an instructor certificate so I referred him to a CFI who had instructed Navy cadets in Waco biplanes during WWII. My friend studied hard and flew as often as he could, and after about 13 hours of dual soloed a Cessna 150 from a short, grass strip. Despite my urging after a second solo he never flew again. Why? He told me he always wanted to fly an airplane, and now he knew he could. But he didn't have any specific goals for what to do with an airplane, so he lost interest.
Pilots by nature are results-oriented, goal-driven people. The structure of training for a pilot certificate may be tedious and frustrating at times, but it does fulfill the need of many pilots to know where they are and what they need to do next to meet a goal. Once the checkride is passed and you're removed from this structured environment, it's up to you to keep flying interesting and exciting while being safe and developing new skills.
Unfortunately most pilots get handed the proverbial "license to learn" by a well-meaning pilot examiner, then don't really know what to do except "go out and fly." Without specific guidelines for advancement there may be less and less incentive to schedule flights. For many, the lack of obvious progress after meeting the initial goal or passing the checkride combined with a sort-of aerial aimlessness with the freedoms they've learned causes them to drift and eventually fade away from flying altogether.
The Next 100 Hours
To avoid aimlessness or atrophy of your flying skills, first ask yourself honestly what type of flying -- local, cross-country, professional, etc. -- you plan to do. Then map out a program for the next 100 flight hours to develop and hone the necessary skills. Emphasis should be on safety, aimed toward what you want to do with airplanes. Keep it interesting, and fun.
Whatever your personal goals for the next 100 flight hours, they should include specific actions toward:
- Retention of those skills you learned and demonstrated for your checkride.
- Customization of your flying repertoire to the sort of flying you plan to do.
- Enhancement to the next level of skill and proficiency, whether or not this includes work toward a pilot rating or advanced certificate.
Retention of flying skills is critical to safety, but often receives little attention between passing a checkride and the next required Flight Review. The stick-and-rudder skills you learn in Private or Sport training must be instinctive, however, to protect you when faced with unusual situations, gusty winds or distractions. Include occasional practice of airwork maneuvers (stalls, steep turns, and slow flight), takeoffs and landings (including crosswinds and short/soft-field techniques), various types of navigation (not just "GPS direct") and simulated emergencies to retain these skills as you add to your overall experience.
Customization: Every pilot has an idea of what he or she wants to do in airplanes. Some pilots like nothing more than to fly circles around a grass strip at dusk. Others want cross-country utility for recreational and business trips. Yet more are aiming toward a professional flying career, or headed for a niche activity like aerobatics. As you put together your plan for the next 100 flying hours include skills that will make you better at the type of flying you plan to do ... it'll be fun because it helps you achieve your ultimate goal.
Enhancement: In addition to better preparing for the specific type of flying you desire, include skills enhancement in your next 100 hours plan. It might be a new pilot certificate or rating. You might try a different type of flying -- a tailwheel checkout or a little time in sailplanes, for instance -- to add skills like rudder coordination and engine-out glidepath control to your mastery of more "ordinary" airplanes. Enhancement might involve spending time with a mentor pilot, learning from his or her years of experience. Enhancement includes developing judgment and no/go-go decision-making skills, work specifically toward a new certificate or rating, and anything else that will make you a more "well-rounded" pilot.
Back when I was running an FBO I noticed that a number of my students would earn their certificate, engage in a flurry of flying starting with the obligatory sightseeing hops with family and friends, then taper back until they were never seen again. To keep new pilots interested and flying, as well as helping them learn about real-world aviating (and not just the "do-list" of the Practical Test Standards), I put together a series of short courses I marketed as "post-graduate flying." The additional depth of experience post-graduate flying provided made for safer, more confident pilots -- and once again gave them goals to shoot for, educational experiences to keep them learning. It was good for the pilots, and incidentally good for the FBO business as well.
Some of the courses I offered in post-graduate flying were:
- Class B Operations: (At the time it was still Terminal Control Area operations.) A short ground school syllabus for flying in this airspace included rules and procedures for flight in and out of the primary airport, flight into satellite airports, transitions through the airspace, and trips beneath overhanging airspace with special emphasis on pilotage and obstacle clearance. After ground training we'd fly into the primary and one satellite airport. Pilots who had expressed great fear in getting any closer to metropolitan areas than the home-field traffic pattern gained confidence in -- and access to -- this large block of airspace. The training also reinforced radio communications procedures that would help in future in-flight information gathering as well as lead some pilots toward the instrument rating.
- Low-Altitude Navigation: By "low altitude" I meant cruising flight at 1000 to 1500 feet above ground level. Ground school covered applicable regulations, preflight planning, obstacle detection and avoidance, reading the sectional chart and memory items of the airplane's emergency checklists ... a problem at these altitudes leaves little time to act. And of course we'd get out and fly, especially if conditions were visual meteorological conditions (VMC), but not optimal -- the intent of this experience was to teach decision-making for flight under a cloud deck. The goals of this module were to:
- Increase the pilot's ability to navigate and find unfamiliar airports with and without GPS;
- Demonstrate the unusual cues associated with flight at low altitudes, when compared to cruising higher up, and to show how hard it is to see towers and landmarks;
- Reinforce the requirement to maintain adequate altitude above the ground, obstacles and populated areas;
- Review the need to always keep an emergency landing site within reach, even if your best option won't assure an intact airplane after a forced landing; and
- Highlight the extreme danger of combining low-level flight with other risk factors like low visibility, night flight or flight in unfamiliar airplanes and unfamiliar areas.
- Night Flight: Most night flying for the Private certificate is done in optimal conditions and in the airport traffic pattern. In this module we'd:
- Review the night-flying rules;
- Assemble a proper night-flight kit (extra flashlights, fuses, batteries, etc.);
- Talk about night weather briefings and the inability to see clouds and fog in the dark;
- Discuss lighted facilities and items like "pilot controlled lighting" and operations at airports with closed towers; and
- Cover the hazards of nighttime visual illusions such as "dark hole" takeoffs and landings
Then we'd plot out a short cross-country and fly in the dark.
- Emergency Instrument Flight: Attempting visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) was then -- and is now -- one of the biggest killers in general aviation. The instrument time required to earn your Private certificate serves as a mere introduction to instrument flight. So a post-graduate option included:
- Review of instrument rules and regulations;
- Scan techniques and normal and emergency operation of the flight instruments including partial-panel flight;
- Techniques for escaping IMC;
- Unusual-attitude recoveries; and
- Emergency radio communications.
The goal was not to encourage non-instrument pilots to fly in less-than-visual conditions. The purpose was to teach instrument flight as an emergency procedure -- just like those we learn for crises like engine failures and stalls. It served to allow pilots to consider what they would do, who they would contact for help (how to reach Air Traffic Control); and how they would communicate with controllers to get assistance flying back to visual-rules weather. Lastly, this instruction was designed to encourage pilots wanting cross-country utility from airplanes to continue to work toward an instrument rating.
- Commercial Flight Maneuvers: You don't have to have 250 total hours or be working toward your Commercial certificate to enjoy flying chandelles and lazy eights. Mastering such maneuvers injects some fun into flying. We'd review the maneuvers in ground school, talk about how they teach coordination and judgment applicable to more everyday flying, and then go lazy-eight the afternoon away. If a student decided to continue to work toward the certificate or maneuver down the path toward aerobatics, it was good for them and for the aviation industry.
Just like completing your certificate in the first place, moving forward with your flying works best if you map out a strategy to meet your goals. The fun part is that, unlike training to this point, you get to decide what you want to do. Intersperse recurrent training and new experiences with your regular flying and you'll keep it exciting and fresh -- and be much more likely to keep flying, and fly more often. Further, you'll gain confidence and capability while becoming safer and safer doing the type of flying you want to do.
Here's a sample of what a personalized strategy might look like for a newly minted Private Pilot whose goal is to use airplanes for recreational and business trips. Experience goals are color-coded to show Retention (green), Customization (brown) and Enhancement (yellow) objectives for the next 100 hours.
Admittedly your schedule, weather and/or finances may require you be less ambitious with the pace of your experience-building, but like planning and executing a cross-country flight, setting down your goals and adjusting as needed along the way will help you more efficiently improve your skills and get the most safety and utility from the airplanes you fly. It will help set a pace for you to match to prevent skills atrophy.
Keep a spreadsheet or a printed checklist and check off achieving each goal. Use your schedule to keep pace toward retaining, customizing and advancing your skills. If you feel after any flight you could stand some improvement, add additional practice -- with an instructor if you feel the need. There's a prevailing attitude in personal aviation that once we've passed a checkride we don't need flight instructors until the next Flight Review two years down the road. Especially in the first 100 hours after primary training, however, the opportunity exists for great gains in safety and capability with judicious use of flight instruction.
Designing and completing a timetable for the next 100 hours after your first checkride will make you a safer, more competent pilot. It will help keep flying new, interesting and fun by encouraging experiences and developing skills that may otherwise be lacking once you've completed primary training.
Fly safe, and have fun!
Thomas Turner's Leading Edge columns are collected here.