Staying Current as a Pilot

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Before I started flight training, I thought it’s going to be just like getting driver’s license – do a bunch of driving/flying with an instructor, practice a bunch of manoeuvres, pass a written test and a practical test, and you’ll be good to drive/fly more or less for life.

While that is, to some degree, true with driving (as long as you don’ t quit driving for 10 years or something), I’ve found it to be very far from the truth for flying.

There’s so much procedure, so many things to remember, so much muscle memory, and so many potential emergencies to think about that, if a pilot doesn’t fly more or less regularly, s/he will quickly lose the ability to fly proficiently.

Licensing authorities obviously thought about this, too, and wrote a bunch of recency rules pilots have to follow to be able to exercise licensed privileges (eg. acting as pilot in command in certain classes of aircrafts). Interesting to note that, pilots are required to adhere to higher recency standards if they want to carry passengers – so if you are marginally current, you are only allowed to risk your own life.

But of course, being legal does not mean being proficient, and I believe the legal standards are way too low.

About a year ago, I passed my flight test with flying colours (pun intended) with the examiner calling my flying “gorgeous” and suggesting that I should go on to become a flight instructor. I believe I flew all the manoeuvres to commercial pilot testing standards (within 50 ft of assigned altitude, 5 degrees heading, 5 knots airspeed), which are much stricter than private pilot testing standards.

Got my temporary licence, moved back to Vancouver 2 days later, and, thanks to Vancouver weather and the highly efficient Transport Canada Licensing department, did not get to fly for about 3 months.

Eventually, I started flying again at Boundary Bay airport last winter, getting a checkout on an airplane I have never flown before (the Diamond DA20), and… the first few flights went quite a bit worse than I had expected. I was having trouble holding altitude, getting overwhelmed with all the busy airspaces, and forgetting checklists, etc. At one point, the instructor had to take over talking to ATC so I could focus on flying the airplane. That has not happened for a VERY long time.

Some of that can be blamed on an unfamiliar airplane together with an unfamiliar airspace, but I believe most of it was due to my degraded proficiency. I was surprised how fast that happened, and how everything became so unfamiliar. That first flight after 3 months was really an eye-opening experience.

Afterwards, I did a few more flights with instructors, over couple months, and eventually felt confident enough to fly by myself again in this crazy airspace and the now-familiar airplane, and started carrying passengers again.

I’m really glad that I could, fairly easily, regain proficiency, but at the same time, I am now well aware that it will go away equally quickly if I don’t actively try to maintain it.

So I’ve came up with a plan to keep myself proficient –

1. Try to fly every other week – often impossible due to Vancouver weather.

2. If I haven’t flown for more than a month, I’ll do a short flight review with an instructor first (3 touch-and-go landings). They would be short and cheap, and remind me of all the airplane procedures, and allow the instructor to point out things that I might have missed, or bad habits I have picked up, etc.

3. Once every 3 months, I’ll do one flight without passengers, to practice emergency procedures – engine failures, forced approaches, emergency descents, stalls. I REALLY enjoy flying passengers on fun flights checking out places, etc, but I can’t really do any of that emergency stuff with non-pilot passengers (“so uh, how about we do some controlled spiral dive emergency descents now with a simulated engine failure?” – probably won’t end well). I haven’t really practiced those things since passing the flight test, and they are kind of important. Airline pilots do them once every year, and I think I should do them more often since I don’t have 20000 hours in my logbook.

4. Every 2 years, do a full flight review. This one is mandated by Transport Canada and FAA. Basically an informal flight test with an instructor to make sure I am still up to speed on everything tested on the private pilot flight test.

Conclusion: Maintaining a pilot license for couple years may cost as much as the training!

About 90% of general aviation incidents are due to pilot error, and most of them committed by pilots way out of currency (“I haven’t flown for years, but it looks nice today… let’s go do some solo flying!”) – some accidents caused by something as simple as forgetting to refuel the airplane, and deciding to not follow checklists which would have the pilot check fuel level 3 times before take-off.

Hopefully, with my keeping-current plan, I won’t become part of the statistics. Eventually, I also want to obtain an instrument rating, which requires much more precise flying.