The Pilot's Lounge #74: Getting The Rust Off Without Declaring Bankruptcy
If it has a been a winter without much flying, you're probably itching to jump into the plane. But if you want to do it safely, you'd better do some work to get back in the game. AVweb's Rick Durden has found ways to keep the cost of refresher training down, and to put fun back in your practice.
To the delight of the multitudes, spring has arrived in the higher latitudes. Here in the pilot's lounge at the virtual airport, Old Hack showed up and growled proudly to the assemblage that he had survived another winter and only fired up the furnace seven times. He then made scurrilous comments about some of our favorite snowbirds who had returned from warmer climes sporting what Hack claimed were pre-cancerous tans and generally spread his brand of joy among those present.
Having insulted most of us, Hack cheerfully headed out to his hangar to see if his Super Cruiser would start; for he -- as with a pretty healthy collection of us -- did not do any flying during the winter. Then, even once the snow melted, other parts of life just got in the way, and Hack and a lot of us are coming into the good flying weather season having not tickled a starter in some months.
Barb happened to be here; she said her twins had insisted on an airport fix, although her single-mom budget wasn't going to allow a flight today. She adds a lot of life to any gathering, so it is always good to have her around. I found myself chatting with her and playing a little stump the chump with the twins as they quizzed me about popular culture and took great delight in the depths of my ignorance of the current teen heart-throbs.
In the midst of learning that Britney Spears is hopelessly over the hill because she is in her 20s, I heard Barb gasp, "What in the world is that nut doing now? He's going to wreck that nice little airplane."
I snapped my head up and looked out the window in the direction she was pointing. It seems Old Hack was taxing the Super Cruiser with the tail up and S-turning on the taxiway so that each wheel would have its turn caressing the edge of the pavement before he steamed back across the center line.
Having seen Hack do his taxiway dance routine before, I watched, but didn't expect anything more spectacular to evolve. I do admit -- his gyrations can be a bit unnerving to the first-time observer. Sure enough, about 50 yards from the end of the taxiway the tail dropped and Hack came to a stop in a position to do his runup. A few moments later his distinctive rasp came over the Unicom announcing his departure. We then saw the airplane do a quick 360 on the runup pad as he checked for traffic, and before long he was aloft and heading for the horizon.
I explained to Barb that Hack had a very set routine, which he followed if he felt he hadn't been flying in a while and might be rusty. One of the things he did was to taxi the Super Cruiser with the tail up and practice his rudder work by going back and forth across the taxiway while using the ailerons to help handle any crosswind. Sadly, a certain bit of panache had gone out of Hack's routine when he dropped one item from his repertoire: He no longer kept adding power while applying the brakes when he approached the end of the taxiway and then, once nearly stopped with the tail still in the air, he would pivot on one wheel, then smoothly reduce power and lower the tail gently to the ground in position to do his pre-takeoff check. He'd said that when he turned 80 he felt his reflexes weren't as good as they'd been and he was worried he might slip up and ding the prop against the pavement, so he no longer did the tail-up, pivot bit.
Barb got very interested in Hack's procedure for the first flight after being on the ground for a few months, because grounded was precisely the situation she was facing. With the twins becoming junior-high students, there just wasn't as much in the flying budget as there had been, and it had been tight before. She was kind enough to remind me of the recent jump in fuel prices and asked me just how someone on a budget can efficiently get current and reasonably comfortable after a layoff from flying.
The question intrigued me, as Barb had done some reading about the research that showed just frighteningly fast our pilot skills deteriorate when not used regularly. The use-it-or-lose-it syndrome applies to aviation as it does to other human undertaking, although the skills we use most often atrophy the slowest. As we talked about the fact that the basic takeoff and landing skills more or less hang in there, the ones having to do with precision operations, instrument flying and dealing with things that happen only rarely in flight, emergencies, can drop to shockingly low levels ... to the point we may be so sloppy when called upon to perform that we are not going to be able to do what needs to be done in the time or altitude available to us. Barb pointed out that it's lucky we humans have very strong, psychological defense mechanisms, because if we ever were able to truly admit to ourselves just how horrible some of our skills are, we'd probably want to find the nearest oven, stick our heads in and turn on the gas.
It is a sad fact of life that the economic realities (and some psychological ones) mean we in general aviation do not take recurrent training at meaningful intervals and we can't afford to fly enough to keep our aeronautical brains fully primed. Therefore, we struggle along with a distressingly bad accident rate and high insurance costs ... which makes it more expensive to fly, so we don't fly as much. And around and around it goes.
So, when we have lain off for a while, what can we do to get current -- to get our skills up to a level that meets our personal requirements -- without running up a bill that approximates the national debt?
Do the Cheap and Free Stuff
One of the things that most instructors agree on is that the pilots who spend some time at least thinking about flying in between flights do a lot better than those who don't. Most of us spent much of the time we were in school looking out of the windows wishing we could be in the airplanes flying over rather than in the classroom, so the idea of not thinking about flying when not flying seems pretty strange. Nevertheless, to help keep your aeronautical brain primed, spend some time thinking about the flights you have made. That means enumerating what you did well, what you would improve, and what things happened that you didn't fully understand, so you can start making a list of questions for the next time you fly with an instructor or run across someone who might know the answer.
Read. Read all you can in aviation publications. Read all the stuff in AVweb -- it's free and there is a tremendous amount of good information. If you can afford to subscribe to aviation how-to magazines such as Aviation Safety and IFR, do so, as information is power when flying. Go to the library and read the aviation magazines and books -- it doesn't cost a cent.
Whether you fly VFR or IFR, if you have access to a computer flight simulator, take advantage of its capabilities.
Go out to the airport when the airplane you want to fly isn't scheduled to fly, or when the weather is lousy. Sit in the airplane, pull out the POH and start reading it while sitting in the left seat. It's amazing, but the POH seems to read differently when you are sitting inside the airplane than it does when you are elsewhere.
Use the POH to cleanse yourself of old wives tales such as the nonsense of not leaning below 3,000 feet. Read what the book actually says. The power charts for cruise power at all altitudes state clearly that it is with the mixture leaned. The leaning procedures in the POH do not set a minimum altitude for leaning, so lean anytime you are flying level. Take a look at the power charts on constant-speed-prop airplanes and note that it is perfectly acceptable to operate "oversquare" -- in fact, you do it on every takeoff and the book says it is fine in cruise. It is actually more efficient and quieter to run the manifold pressure as high as the book allows and to turn the prop as slowly as the book allows.
Read the emergency procedures section and touch each of the controls as you do so. Then read and do it again. And one more time. I don't know how many recurrent sessions I've given where the pilot takes three or four or five times to get an emergency procedure correct. In the real world you may only get one chance, so sit there in the airplane and practice. Again, it doesn't cost you anything and it significantly increases your chances of getting it right when it matters.
At home, create "what if?" scenarios. You've been around the block enough to know many of the things that can go wrong on a flight. Imagine you are flying to visit someone about 150 miles away, on a route you fly from time to time, and that the weather rapidly drops below forecast, to the point where the ceiling is about 800 feet and visibility about 2 miles. Okay, what will you do? Come up with as many scenarios as you can imagine. First, write them down without saying what you will do. Then, when you have a bunch, take the time and outline what you will do. Then, compare what you said with the emergency checklists in the POH. It's cheap recurrent training, and it allows you to do one of the most important things you can do when you aren't in an airplane: Think about flying and what to do when things go wrong.
Want to make it more enjoyable? Team up with a friend or three and go over airplane systems and emergency procedures over a cup of coffee or a beer. The last time I went for a type rating, Doc Walt and I stopped at a stationery store and bought a package of 3 x 5 cards and made about 100 flash cards on the airplane systems and procedures. Each evening, over dinner, we used the cards to quiz each other. As a result, we knew the material cold when it came checkride time. The nice thing is that all it cost was the price of the cards. Even the most dedicated tightwad pilot can't complain about that kind of outlay.
Plan the Flight
The moment the Hobbs meter starts running in the airplane, clicking away the dollars you are spending for the flight, is probably not the moment you start deciding what to do on that first flight after a layoff. Unless, of course, you really want to spend a lot of money and not get much out of the flight.
Whether you are going solo or dual, decide what you want to do before you get to the airport. Do a little thinking and decide on the minimum ceiling and visibility and maximum wind that you are willing to put up with for the flight, so you can cancel if it doesn't meet your needs for the flight. That way you don't go through the "maybe so, maybe not" exercise; or, worse yet, launch and realize that the weather just won't cut it and you get one takeoff and one landing, for which you get to pay, and nothing else of much benefit.
Then sit down and think about what it is that will help you nudge those skills up as rapidly as possible, which generally means that you are doing something all the time except when you must be flying around straight and level to get to the place where you can do what comes next. Write down the maneuvers you want to do, so you can go from one to another with a minimum delay, and resolve to keep your head outside looking for other aircraft. Consider the risks you face in the type of flying you do, such as crosswind landings, weather problems leading to possible low flight, terrain issues, short runways, low-performance airplanes and high terrain, low-speed handling of the airplane either in flight or on the approach to landing, and maneuvering flight, to name a few. Spend a little time on how you would handle weather deterioration and how low you are willing to fly, especially nowadays when the proliferation of towers of all sizes has made scud running far too dangerous in most areas of the country. (If you haven't done so, maybe it's time to schedule a little dual when the visibility is 3-4 miles and the ceiling 1,000 feet -- legal VFR, but marginal -- so that you can see just how lousy it is and make a decision as to what weather you are willing to accept in the flying you do.)
If you are going to fly with an instructor, call him or her up some days prior to the flight, discuss what you want to do and come to an agreement on what you will do on the flight so that it can be done as efficiently as possible. Then, put those things into order so that you aren't wasting time climbing and descending; so you do the high stuff together and the low stuff together. Think about what kind of flying you do most often, what risks you face on a regular basis, and tailor the session (or sessions) accordingly. The CFI is probably going to have some suggestions, so incorporate them into the plan you intend to follow.
If you are going with a CFI, ask up front whether the plan you have set up with him or her is satisfactory to be considered a flight review. Most will be, either as they are, or with some minor modification. It never hurts to take a flight review more frequently than every 24 months, and setting a pattern of doing so may just allow you to get a break on your insurance. If you are instrument rated, see if the plan you've outlined with your instructor will also count as an instrument proficiency check. Again, it can't hurt and may help.
To get you started with the process, here are some suggestions as to what you might want to do during that session when you scrape off the rust.
On the Ground
Review the information on TFRs. The silly things are about as "temporary" as the World War II "temporary" buildings that graced college campuses into the late 1970s. Yes, we don't like them and it's obvious TFRs are nothing more than long-term political band-aids, but we have to live with them. So, get to know as much as you can about them because there is a very nasty penalty for violating them and every pilot who violates a TFR gives the paranoid crowd another reason to point and whine about how important they are and how dangerous little airplanes and their pilots are.
If you are going dual, you might have your instructor sabotage the airplane and see if you can find everything that was done when you do your preflight. It's amazing how much more carefully you do a preflight when you known you are going to find something. Some instructors have been known to put clear tape over the static source(s), so touch them to be certain they are open. The best trick I've heard about was the instructor who put a quarter in the exhaust pipe. Of course, the student was expected to find it (but not necessarily give it back). One student heard about it, finished the preflight and when asked about the quarter, was adamant that there was not a quarter in the exhaust pipe. The instructor angrily reached inside to demonstrate and pulled out two dimes and a nickel.
Go over emergencies and emergency procedures for everything in the POH, plus anything else you can imagine. For obvious reasons, this is a high priority item. It's the one area we never practice in normal operations, so our skills and memory as to what to do atrophies here first and worst. Keep in mind that some emergency procedures are pretty generic, but some are airplane specific, such as whether you close the cabin air vents in the event of a fire.
Resolve that you will do nothing to make an emergency worse. While a gear up landing is considered an emergency, it is as benign an emergency as there is. I have been unable to find any reports of gear up incidents (by definition, a gear up landing is very, very rarely an "accident") in civilian airplanes since World War II in which someone was hurt, so long as the pilot didn't add to the problem by trying to stop the propeller. There were serious injuries and fatalities in gear up landings where the pilot decided to practice bleeding (to add a second emergency to the mix -- that of landing with a shut down engine). Why in the world a person would try a brand-new maneuver -- one that he has never, ever practiced, and involves the creation of a true emergency -- when he already has one, is worth a long study in abnormal psychology. ("Have an emergency?" "No, thanks, just had one.") Unfortunately some of those we would desire to study killed themselves and their passengers.
Make sure you know the avionics in the airplane cold. They are increasingly becoming the most complex of the airplane systems, requiring the most study to operate. So, get to know them on the ground, and confirm that you can do so in the air, with a minimum of head-down time.
Finally, before you go out to the airplane write down or tell your instructor what you will consider to be acceptable altitude, heading and airspeed tolerances. Challenge yourself. If you get into the habit of flying precisely, the less likely it is that you will ever ding an airplane.
On the flight itself, why not do a precision takeoff, tracking right down the centerline, rotate at the book speed and perform the initial climb at Vx, with a transition to Vy? At altitude, level off but immediately transition to slow flight on the way to the practice area. Select the speed ahead of time, but the stall warning should be on all the time. Spend lots of time in slow flight, get comfortable, make turns, and change the airplane configuration a few times. Get the feel for how the airplane behaves and get comfortable enough that you know you can control the airplane precisely, even though it may take some large inputs.
Transition to cruise flight within the altitude limits you have set for yourself and get to an appropriate practice area. Then do clearing turns and start right into steep turns, with 45 degrees of bank and hold the turn for at least a 360 in each direction, better still, a 720. Do a few until you can reliably hold the bank angle and your altitude as well as roll out on heading. Then, while still at altitude, do a few power-off, full-flap stalls and some full-power stalls. Do them in a shallow turn to simulate approaching to land or climbing after takeoff. Make a solid effort to feel the airplane as you do the stalls, listen to the airplane and the messages it gives you as you approach the stall, and work on burning the information into your psyche with the goal of never stalling the airplane unless you desire to do so.
Now review the emergencies that you can while up high: electrical fire, engine fire, and jammed controls and any other ones you have outlined. Can you steer the airplane with the rudder and door(s) if the yoke locks up on you? Can you fly it with the trim tabs? Give it a shot. Remember, if the elevator is jammed, the trim tab will work backwards. With an instructor, do some unusual attitude recovery; it's not just an IFR exercise. Pilots have lost control of airplanes in VFR conditions. Starting near an airport, do a simulated engine failure, with the power at idle, to a forced landing from at least 2,000 feet AGL. It's an exercise in planning and it also means that you may want to be making this flight fairly early in the morning so that you reduce the chance of traffic showing up at the wrong time at the airport where you are practicing a forced landing. Starting the forced landing high is more of a real world challenge and it's something most folks haven't practiced for a while. It's a good exercise in thinking and planning in the third dimension.
Now do crosswind takeoffs and landings to a full stop, so that you get the full benefit of dealing with the wind at all speeds. Remember that the most common problem and cause of accidents in crosswinds is coming in too fast. Work on flying the airplane on speed, even if it does feel mushy.
Taxi in and shut down, and then -- whether you are with an instructor or not -- write up an evaluation of the flight (have the instructor do so as well) and write down your opinion as to what is the minimum runway length you would accept for that type of airplane, with and without obstructions, what is the maximum direct crosswind you would tolerate in it without an instructor and what is the minimum ceiling and visibility in which you would fly in a 200-mile radius of home base. Then compare the evaluation with your instructor's and see if they are a reasonable match. If they aren't, it's time for a long heart-to-heart talk with him or her, as someone has a perception problem. The written evaluation is a judgment-enhancing tool for you. It takes those general ideas you have had floating around and forces you to reach some conclusions and make a somewhat public statement about the parameters under which you feel you can safely make a flight. It may also give you a very good reason to cancel a flight when someone is applying pressure for you to go, even if that someone is you.
If your review session includes IFR work, you might consider folding in some things such as reviewing how to read approach plates and en route charts. As part of the concept of keeping the review as inexpensive as possible and getting the most for your effort, sit down and read the first part of the Jepp charts where it explains all of the stuff on the charts. Reality check -- how long has it been since you reviewed that stuff? Do you really know what everything on an approach plate or en route chart means? In our business, ignorance can be fatal.
Review IFR-specific emergencies: loss of communications or navigation radios, instrument failures, electrical and vacuum failures and other horribles you and your instructor can come up with appropriately nefarious imaginations. Review the capabilities and shortcomings of the avionics in the airplane; talk about how to brief an approach, a useful tool for single-pilot IFR that too often is only used in two-pilot cockpits; and the process of establishing a missed-approach climb, something that seems to kill a few people each year when they fly level and get fooled by the effect of acceleration into believing they are climbing.
Once in the air, you can do most of the VFR stuff we talked about above while under the hood: slow flight, steep turns, stalls, unusual attitudes and some emergencies. Try some or all of it partial panel. Make sure you hold the altitude within the parameters you decided on before launch. The FARs for instrument currency now call for VOR holds and intercepts, so do them (and log them). Interestingly, if you are doing this on an IFR day and cannot get a block of airspace in which to practice your airwork in actual conditions, you can do a great deal of it while in a holding pattern. It's an old trick used by Part 135 chief pilots giving 6-month checks. You can do a fair bit of maneuvering and still work your way around a holding pattern although you might not have exactly one-minute legs.
Do the tough approaches first -- the ones you don't often do. Yes, if you have an ADF, do an NDB approach. Do VOR approaches and intersection holding single radio for practice. Fly the published missed approach completely at least one time. Shoot the ILS to landing, and practice making no changes at decision altitude, leave the flaps and power setting you have until you cross the threshold. The most common accident is crashing short of the runway, so why make a change until you cross the threshold? After all, the power and flap settings you had got you all the way down the funnel; why not leave them a little while longer and not risk an optical illusion or lower clouds sucking you into the approach lights. There are no rewards for the shortest landing from an ILS, and the runways are all long enough for you to cross the threshold at 50 feet AGL at 120 knots and still land and stop well before the end.
Just as with the VFR flight, after you finish, write out an evaluation but include personal decisions as to the minimum ceiling and visibility under which you would shoot precision and non-precision approaches, straight-in and circle-to-land, day and night. It's an interesting exercise that pays nice dividends when you least expect it.
Be creative. Take advantage of free stuff: Go to the FAA safety seminars, use computers, the library and Internet to stimulate your aviator's brain. Then plan your flight to get the most out of every moment. You'll land pretty pooped from the intensity of it all, but you will be able to feel the rust coming off and your skills will love you for it.
See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.