The Pilot's Lounge #50:
Roll Your Own Flight Review
Time for your biennial flight review? The FAA isn't terribly specific about what you and your CFI should do during a BFR, so why not make it really worthwhile? AVweb's Rick Durden is back in The Pilot's Lounge, discussing why we need to do flight reviews more often and more personalized.
I just finished giving my favorite curmudgeon here at the virtual airport, Old Hack, his flight review. He had the windows of his Super Cruiser open, so the pleasant breeze was a nice bonus to a flight that went well. After we flew, we went back to the big chairs in the pilot's lounge to write out our evaluations and then hash them over and take care of the rest of the paperwork. Hack takes a flight review with me every six months. We schedule it for half a day, either 8-12 or 1-5, and he's talked me into flat-rating it at $100 rather than my usual $40 per hour, which somehow gives him great pleasure. I haven't told him I often get nearly as much out of recurrent training sessions with him as he does from me. He comes to every one of our lessons with an interesting list of things to talk about and do. In fact, he sometimes gets the list to me ahead of time so I have to do some homework (which pleases him even more to know I'm putting in extra time for the money he's paying me). Hack has been around the block and has stayed healthy in aviation for a long time. He bought his Super Cruiser nearly new, and the years he's been flying have convinced him that, to stay sharp, he's got to take recurrent training at least a couple times a year. In his mind, if those airborne bus drivers take training every six months, he should, too, because those jets are a heck of lot easier to fly than little piston-pounders. The fact that he has given his recurrent training a lot of thought, and insists on tailoring it to his needs, is something that has impressed me, and it has caused me to change how I give flight reviews.
FAR Part 61.56 advises us that, as pilots, we have to take some extremely basic recurrent training if we wish to continue to act as pilot in command of aircraft. As regulations go, it doesn't demand a great deal of a pilot, just that we jump through some sort of hoop to meet the flight review every 24 months. That makes it a biennial flight review, not biannual, which happens to mean twice a year. Every time I see "biannual flight review" written somewhere I wonder whether the author really is able to "read, speak, and understand English," as required by FARs, or secretly wishes the regulation required six-month recurrent training.
I'm still amazed at the number of pilots who gnash their teeth over the flight review requirement of the FARs. They get all sweaty and mutter things about the darned "gummit" interfering in their lives and making them miserable. The problem is, being one who looks at a heck of a lot of general-aviation accident reports, I've long believed we really need the recurrent training. We're awful. We stall airplanes turning final, we run off the sides of runways, we blithely fly into crummy weather until hitting something painful, and we land airplanes with the landing gear retracted. On good days. Sometimes, we're even worse. We pay for our lack of recurrent training in constantly climbing insurance premiums, yet we continue to whine about having to take any training. Then we proceed to stuff our kids and grandkids into airplanes and kill them because we only did the bare-minimum recurrent training the regs required (and, sadly, many haven't even had the minimum).
Maybe it's time for us to accept the ugly reality that one ride with an instructor every two years just isn't enough to keep us up to snuff and take charge of making sure our skills and judgment are adequate for the flying we want to do. After all, we do operate as pilot in command, isn't it time we make a conscious decision as to what sort of skill set we should bring to the airplane and our passengers each time we fly?
I'll make it very clear right here, recurrent training every 24 months isn't adequate for any of us. My recommendation is every six months. The accident data is clear: The pilots who take frequent recurrent training, no matter what kind, have far fewer accidents. If you want to cut your accident risk, the best thing you can do is set up a standing appointment with your favorite CFI every six months.
Passive Versus Active Flight Review
Most of us show up for recurrent training, no matter whether it is the most advanced, simulator-based program or a couple hours with the local CFI at the grass strip, as if we were empty vessels, waiting to be put under the knowledge spigot and filled to the designated line, so that we can go on to other things in life. It's just the way we tend to be — we're busy and we've got to put the check in the box of the flight review and then go make the money it takes to keep flying. It's part of the aviation dilemma. However, we can do better. Over the years, I've observed that the better pilots with whom I fly raise particular areas they want to cover when we first get together for a flight review. They have done some thinking about the instruction they are going to take, the flying they do, their strengths and weaknesses, and they want to tailor the session to get the most out of the money they are about to spend. They make my job infinitely easier, and, I strongly feel, they get far more out of the half a day we spend together than those who come in cold. Anytime I give recurrent training, I want to know about the type of flying a pilot is doing, the type of airplanes he or she is routinely flying, and the amount of flying being done, so that I can try to make our review session as useful as possible. So the pilot who has thought about those topics ahead of time makes the process go faster.
It's Not a Checkride
The good pilots come to recurrent training with the attitude that it is just that, training, not a checkride. They don't have butterflies about failing a checkride or worries about doing well on a test, they know that this is the chance to learn some more about what they like doing and hope to find ways of getting better at it. I agree with that approach completely. For the pilot who comes to me all worried about "passing" a flight review, I try to make very clear that we are going to be flying together for the purpose of scraping off accumulated rust from the areas that haven't been getting attention, and seeing if we can put a little polish on the other areas. It's the old concept of training to proficiency. We'll discuss what the pilot feels he or she needs to be able to do in terms of measurable stuff, like how closely altitude, heading, and speed are held, and we'll agree that, so long as a satisfactory level of proficiency is shown, the flight review will be signed off; otherwise, the session will be written up as dual instruction and we'll go at it again. One doesn't "flunk" a flight review; it just may not be finished in one session. After all, there are lots of things that can stop us from completing a flight review. On my last one, an engine decided it didn't want to run after I shut off the aux pump following takeoff, so we had to bring the airplane back and complain. Things happen.
You, as PIC, Have a Say In The Review
You've been flying for a while. You know what you like to do in an airplane, what you don't like to do, what you almost never do, and what scares the bejabbers out of you. Therefore, you are fully capable of having a lot of input into the conduct of your flight review. So start thinking about it, and tell the instructor ahead of time that you want to work out a plan for the session you are going to have. He or she should be very receptive. If not, maybe it's time to schedule with a different instructor.
The flight review requires an hour of ground time. Once the FAA mandated stuff is done, it's a great time to catch up on what's new in the aviation world that the CFI might know about and you don't. It's also a good time to play stump-the-chump with the CFI by asking questions for which he or she has to scramble to find the answer. With the current paranoia over little airplanes and the resultant TFRs being erected as if litter over the national landscape, plus the plethora of general-aviation pilots who have managed to gain us wonderful publicity by flying into them, it might be a good time to spend some time with the CFI going over how to find out where the TFRs are on a particular day and how to stay out of them. An instructor will probably pass along the areas in which the FAA is currently getting excited, such as the hubris over runway incursions.
So, What If Something Breaks?
One area that always needs attention is emergency procedures. I'm constantly fascinated by the pilots who tell me they don't need any recurrent training because they fly a thousand hours a year. When we sit down to look at their flying it becomes obvious that they actually fly one hour a thousand times. If I ask them the procedure for dealing with an electrical glitch on the airplane they supposedly know so well, or whether the air vents are supposed to be open or closed in the event of a fire in that airplane, they often can't answer. It's the stuff we don't practice that bites us. Few of us practice emergencies when we are taking the family to grandmother's house. Spending time on emergencies and walking through the memory items on each emergency checklist is ground time well spent.
Fun On The Preflight
As an instructor, it's sometimes a good idea to toss a few curves to the pilot on a flight review. A bit of minor sabotage to the airplane ahead of time is usually effective in helping get rid of complacency. I keep thinking of the story of the check pilot who would slip a quarter into a tailpipe of a turboprop and then raise the roof if the pilot didn't find it. Naturally, one pilot was briefed ahead of time and acted. When the check pilot got upset about the failure to find the quarter, the pilot looked innocent and said there wasn't a quarter in the tailpipe. The check pilot raced over, put his hand in and pulled out two dimes and a nickel. Some events are worth the price of admission.
As PIC, what should you insist that the CFI cover during the flight portion of recurrent training? One of the best places to start the thought process is with accident statistics. Landing accidents are a constant for general aviation pilots. Seemingly simple things such as not paying attention to the correct aileron position for the wind when taxiing bite us. Not positioning ailerons on the ground, all of the time, carries over into our unacceptably high rate of accidents when landing ... or taking off ... in crosswinds. How about the challenge that most of us have with flying an airplane slowly? When I look at aviation newsgroups, one consistent topic I see is that pilots are very uncomfortable flying their airplanes slowly. They seem convinced they are going to stall if they slow down from cruise even a little bit, and once they stall the airplane, it is going to spin all the way to ground impact no matter what the pilot does. A lot of time in slow flight might be a good idea. If stalls bother you, this time with a CFI is a good time to walk that tightrope when there is someone to catch you if you slip.
How about steep turns? Have you been skidding your turns to base and final because you have some vague idea that stall speed goes up in a steep turn? Okay, sit down with the instructor and look at the POH and see just how much stall speed goes up. You may be surprised that you can wrap that puppy up to a 45-degree bank and only have the stall speed go up by about 20%. That's not bad at all. I suspect you don't make that steep of a bank except when practicing at altitude. I also suspect you rarely even lay the airplane over beyond 30 degrees much at all. In the pattern, slowed to normal approach speed, you aren't going to hurt yourself in a 30-degree bank; you are far more likely to get into a jam if you try to rudder a turn around. So, at altitude, practice some 30-, 45-, and 60-degree banks so that you internalize what they look like, and chat with your instructor about the minimum speeds you should hold in the pattern for each. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that on the 30- and 45-degree banked turns you have an adequate margin above stall, and can remind yourself that once past that point the margin goes away quickly.
Consider doing stalls in different configurations and starting the recovery at different points. First, try recovering as soon as you hear the stall horn. Do the recovery into a full power, wings level climb. How did it feel? How long did it take to show a positive rate of climb? Then start the recovery when you feel the prestall buffet ... you're going to have to relax that death grip on the yoke to sense the buffet. Next, let the stall break before you recover. If the airplane won't break, at least get the wheel all the way aft. Finally, start up high, hold the wheel aft, and keep the airplane going straight with the rudders while you lose a few hundred feet (yes the sink rate is high, that's why you start up high), and see how the airplane behaves in the stall and see just what kind of control you have. Then fly the recovery and see what you need to do, how fast the airflow reattaches to the wing, and how long it takes to get a positive rate of climb. If you've started high, you can take your time in this exercise and see what you can learn about the way your airplane behaves.
Lots Of Landings
Practice the things that we so often screw up. Do a lot of landings with the instructor. Not touch-and-goes — full-stop landings and taxiing back, taking the time to think over each one before launching back into the sky. Crosswind landings in gusty winds keep causing us to bend airplanes, so do several of them. Do one or two as you normally do and see how they go. Then, if you were using partial or no flaps, do several with full flaps, keeping your speed much lower. You have to work harder on final, but you touch down more slowly, thus reducing your risk of a landing accident. The problem with crosswind landings is almost invariably due to coming in with too much speed and losing control after touchdown, not with loss of control while still in the air. Make sure you have the ailerons all the way to the stop when you touch down, or shortly thereafter, and allow yourself to see and feel how they help keep the airplane going straight. The downwind aileron generates more drag so it has the effect of rudder, helping you keep the airplane from weathervaning into the wind on rollout. Try using it. If you normally land with full flaps but make a change to partial or no flaps in a crosswind, practice no-flap landings. If this is your "abnormal" procedure, practice it so that it doesn't feel so abnormal, and you are less likely to bend metal when doing it. (Often it's when we change our normal procedures that we mess up.) Try flying the airplane at the recommended speed on final, rather than with the extra 15 knots you've been using. It will work better.
Why Be Normal?
Remember the first time you made a downwind landing? You hadn't realized you were doing it, and, on final, everything just plain felt wrong, but you couldn't put your finger on the cause, could you? If you have the runway length for it, and an unobstructed traffic pattern, talk the procedure over with your CFI and make a couple of downwind takeoffs and landings under controlled circumstances. They are eye openers. That way, if you ever find yourself in circumstances where you have to make the decision as to whether or not to try a downwind takeoff, you have a personal point of reference that makes those very large numbers in the takeoff distance chart quite real. Let's just say the quality of that decision will probably improve over the one made without any personal experience.
Think as PIC
No, I can't suggest all the things you may want to do on your recurrent training session. I'm not nearly creative enough to do so. You are an intelligent, thinking individual, and you probably have things you want to do or are just curious about. So, talk them over with your instructor, because there may be a way to do them safely and learn something. Can you fly the airplane back to the pattern with just the trim tabs and doors? Okay, can you get it lined up on final? What happens if the elevator jams? Does the elevator trim then work backwards? Try a forced landing all the way to touchdown on a grass strip from six or seven thousand feet. (No, don't shut the engine off, keep it at slightly above idle to simulate the reduced drag of a stopped prop ... yes, when the prop stops, the drag is less than for a windmilling prop.) On a long runway, abort a takeoff from about 15 feet up and see how fast the airplane decelerates, how fast you have to lower the nose, then raise it again to flare, and how much runway you used in coming to a stop.
Take a look at the Nall Report, NTSB stats, or Aviation Consumer, and see what at the most common accidents in the type of airplane you fly, then think what sort of practice you might do with a CFI to help you avoid that sort of mishap.
The FAA says you have to do recurrent training biennially, so, make lemonade if you think the FAA has handed you lemons. You are going to fly with an instructor, so get the most out of it. It's your money, why not spend it in a way that is most valuable to you as an individual pilot? Why not really learn something, in spite of those bureaucrats?
See you next month.