Why Pilots Lose Their Edge


This article originally appeared in IFR Refresher, Oct. 2007.

Aviation magazines that talk to instrument pilots seem to focus on the importance of currency as the critical element of a safe flight in the clouds. Here’s a look at some of the building blocks to currency and what happens when they’re ignored.

Loss of Scanning Proficiency

Scan proficiency becomes rusty the fastest of all the skills an instrument pilot must possess. Losing the scan translates into an increased workload for any pilot’s brain, which leads to less time to deal with the additional, pressing parts of flying in the clouds.Being able to handle more than one thing at a time is often the next skill to go after too much inactivity. For example, learning to tune radios, checking a chart for the correct frequency and setting the prop/mixture while keeping up the scan are all part of the balancing act.

Yanking and Banking

Forgetting how little control input is required tends to be a factor that many instrument pilots fail to keep on top of as the rust starts to form. It only takes a light touch on the controls to keep the primary altitude and heading instruments glued. I twiddle the fingers on my left hand every once in awhile to force myself to relax. A death grip on the yoke is sure to cause over-controlling.Like a chess game, the pilot should be thinking three moves ahead of what is going to happen next to stay sharp. If a pilot is only staying up to speed with the next expected task, they are already two steps behind the airplane.

Position Awareness

Maintaining a mental picture of where you are at all times is important. Before GPS, that grey matter in our brain gave most of us a fairly accurate picture of the aircraft’s position. Technology presents a prettier picture, but be ready if it fails. This is one of the vital skill-sets that must be continually nurtured by either frequent flights or by use of a simulator.Instrument pilots must develop good habits. With that knowledge, a pilot can more easily recall the steps it takes to stay IFR current. I can tell in the first hour of training an instrument pilot if organization is going to be a problem.

Radio Nots

Knowing what to say on the radio and when, in the least amount of words, is a primary skill usually perfected during initial instrument training. It’s also a skill that’s often underestimated until a pilot is dormant for awhile, so think before pushing the mike button.

Understanding Technology

Today’s glass-cockpit technology requires skills not necessary five years ago. Due to the complexity of learning the knobs and buttons on newer avionics, as well as the input commands to the software, a pilot must be constantly training on them. It pays to spend a little time with any of the desktop flight simulators between flights to stay sharp.Pilots who understand their own weather limitations should always raise their personal minimums when not having flown in real IMC for some time. The “warm and fuzzy” test is one of a pilot’s best defenses against making a wrong judgment call after getting a marginal weather forecast. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.Your life is worth much more than the need to become a test pilot.

Holding Pattern Know How

The FAA had a reason for making instrument pilots demonstrate at least one holding pattern every six months for currency. Some pilots have not flown an actual hold since their checkride. That’s the reason there are probably more instructional articles written on holding patterns than any other subject. Have one of your flying buddies sit in the right seat as safety pilot while you run a few circuits on your next flight.

Reality Check

A good technique for every instrument driver, either while the training or after winning their rating, is to make an honest self-assessment after every flight.After shutdown, grab the pad of paper and, with the information still fresh in your mind, start making notes about what worked well and what did not. Begin with the IFR planning process, for example: How close did your received route match what you filed? If the answer is, not close at all, perhaps your planning needs a little work.Then try the same technique with weather and air traffic procedures, yours versus how well it might have gone. It’s the only way to improve.

More articles to help you become a better pilot are available in AVweb’s Airmanship section. And for monthly articles about IFR flying, subscribe to AVweb’s sister publication, IFR Refresher.