Pushing It For Practice
Every year, just before Christmas joy descends upon on us like the shallow, weak excuse to buy yet more useless crap that the season has become, our sister publication, IFR, publishes its annual Stupid Pilot Tricks report. This is a summary of the most boneheaded, incomprehensible accidents and incidents that the skill-challenged among us manage to commit, despite all the good intentions of regulations and flight instructors. Here’s last year’s edition.
The new version is going to press this month and as I was reviewing it, I was struck dumber than even my default condition by one of the accidents. The pilot of a taildragger demanded that the runway repair crew move their trucks from the NOTAM’d closed runway so he could take off, which he did. Downwind. When he returned to land—again, downwind—he scattered the workers from the runway, lost control of the airplane and plowed into one of the vehicles that had pulled clear.
I don’t think you can learn this level of cluelessness. It has to be burned into the DNA. The NTSB found that this was the pilot’s fourth accident in three years. Yet, the pilot was a CFI and claimed nearly 9000 hours of flight time. So what gives? Maybe the fact that the pilot was 78 years old was a factor. Then again, maybe not.
The specter of age-related decline and what to do about it has been much on my mind because many AVweb readers fit the profile and I’m getting there myself, despite a regular, doctor-prescribed regimen of denial. While you can’t cheat the calendar indefinitely, I think giving up entirely only hastens the inevitable and it makes the trip less pleasant than it already might be.
Specifically, I have in mind stretching the envelope in training, practicing and regular flying. I have always thought it to be a potential mistake to triage the days and conditions you’ll fly in to the point of removing all challenge and risk. If you fly only on days where little skill is required, you’ll sure enough have little skill. Might as well stay home on the couch and let physical atrophy keep pace with your mental decline.
For most GA flying, I’m not sure what age has to do with it. I’ve skimmed several research reports on age and reaction time and accident rate. These are, in my view, indeterminate. Some show higher accident involvement with age, some show lower, reasoning that experienced decision making gathered over a lifetime gives a pilot an edge in avoiding the accident scenario in the first place.
I just don’t have an opinion on it, so I try to focus on training and/or proficiency that stretches me personally. I’ve been gathering up some footage for a video on the one-wheel trick and its usefulness for proficiency. You may or may not know about this. Some instructors still teach it, but you don’t see it much.
The one-wheel trick is a crosswind exercise in which you plant the upwind wheel on the runway and keep the downwind wheel from contact the length of the runway. It works best in high-wing taildraggers but it can be done in tricycle-gear airplanes. Every time I do it, the results are the same. The first try is a mess. I usually carry too much speed, can’t keep the wheel grounded and end up bouncing. The next try is smoother and attempt three and four are keepers.
What it teaches is the ability to coordinate bank angle and yaw to precisely track the centerline; a little more bank, a little more rudder and you can use either as primary to get the tracking accuracy. It vastly improves crosswind landing skill but because it’s also just showing off, it does something else: It grows confidence.
A little bit of doubt is healthy, but too much of it, in my view, serves as a preview to the impending crash. Real skill grows from confidence and confidence breeds further skill. And sometimes you have to push it a little to get that equation to work. Of course, there's risk here, too. As you edge out closer to the envelope of your own comfort and abilities, there's always the chance that you suffer the very thing you're practicing to avoid. But then you didn't sign up to be a pilot because you're afraid of risk.
After I had my ankle mod installed, I didn’t ride a motorcycle for more than three months. The muscle memory of riding snaps back like a steel trap, but I noticed one thing: a lack of confidence in slow-speed handling. So a friend who’s a rider coach suggested some parking lot exercises, just like a newbie rider does. I did several hours' worth and now really relish low-speed maneuvers. I plan to do these exercises monthly.
What any of this has to do with age either escapes me or I refuse to admit. But it’s clear that what you don’t exercise, you lose, physically and mentally. That’s just another way of saying what we all know: There’s no better way to stay good at flying than staying good at flying. And remember, if you find yourself on thin ice, you might as well dance.