PROFICIENCY AND THE PRIVATE PILOT

Acknowledgements: FAA P-8740-36

The private pilot is master of his or her own destiny, but perhaps the coldest hard fact of all in our world is that proficiency can be linked directly to your financial resources. With fuel and maintenance costs continuing their upward spiral, the cost of general aviation flying grows higher and higher. Spare cash is something we seem to have less of these days, and many necessities compete for it which means much less is left over for private flying.

So does the private pilot really need to fly a lot to maintain proficiency? General aviation airplanes are relatively simple creatures, but it would be foolish to believe that an airplane can’t kill you. It can and it does, as accident statistics point out each year. So, what are we general aviators to do, faced as we are with limited funds and, in many areas of the world, limited good weather in which to fly?

What you must do is to fly smarter, and you can do several things to make the best use of the time you fly. Below are some of those things, but the list is by no means complete; feel free to expand it as you see fit.
·  Read the Aircraft Owner’s Manual (POH).  Inside you will find all sorts of good information about the aircraft. There are important sections on landing irregularities, crosswind landings, and the stall characteristics of the particular aircraft you will fly. This section will include stall speed for various aircraft configurations and angles of bank, particularly those most used when you fly traffic patterns and landing approaches. It is a good idea to commit the speeds to memory, but if yours is not so good write the speeds down on a note card for ready reference when you fly. You can review the speeds just before you enter the traffic area. Stalling can be extremely hazardous at the low altitudes of the traffic pattern and can place you in a situation from which you cannot recover before hitting the ground. You should read and thoroughly understand the emergency procedures and operating limitations of the aircraft, which are designed to help you safely recover the aircraft when it performs less than advertised. The manual allows you to ponder the manufacturer’s recommendations while you are safe and sound on the ground. If questions arise, it is much better that they arise on the ground than in the air.
·  Get out your Logbook. Having read the owner’s manual you now know things you never knew before, and you can’t wait to take off. But take a few minutes to further analyse your proficiency, which is an individual thing. When was the last time you flew? What manoeuvres did you accomplish? Are you embarking on a journey with passengers? There is nothing worse than not being in complete command of every situation when you have an audience watching. If it has been awhile since you last flew, you might consider a flight with an instructor. Nothing major - maybe just a few trips around the pattern - but it can be well worth it. The instructor will ensure that you are flying “by the book,” and if you have developed some bad habits will demonstrate the right way to do things. That is tough to do solo.
·   Proficiency Flying Practice. Maybe you decide that a solo flight is more appropriate, but instead of just droning around doing air reconnaissance, take a little time to practice a few stalls here, a steep turn there. You will be surprised at how little time it takes. When you come back to the traffic pattern for landing, practice those short and soft field patterns and landings instead. Try to get in some crosswind practice. Maybe there are some airfields in your local area where a crosswind prevails. This practice will be beneficial when that cold front moves in and the winds kick up. It is also great practice for going cross country to a strange field when you are not exactly familiar with the surroundings or wind patterns. Cross-country flying introduces more variables to go wrong, and you must be prepared. The longer it has been since you flew cross country, the more preparation you need to do. Make sure that you know everything there is to know about your aircraft, the route of flight, and the en-route weather.
·  Weather. Weather is an important factor. It is the primary cause of many GA accidents which would have been avoided if the pilot had just turned around and returned home. Often the pilot didn’t have the instrument rating to fly in bad weather, but continued anyway. Clouds make it tough to see mountains and other obstructions. They also contribute to carburettor icing and reduced aircraft performance. So take a good hard look at the weather while you are still on the ground. Consider alternative routes of flight, or delay the trip a day or two until the weather gets better. Consider the field pressure altitude of your intended destination, as a high density altitude can drastically reduce your aircraft performance. If not accomplished properly, take-off and subsequent climb out of ground effect may be impossible. The winds can do interesting things in high altitude areas - from creating turbulence on finals to gusty crosswinds in the flare. If it has been a while since you flew in a similar environment, then postpone the trip until fair weather prevails. Meanwhile, when the winds kick up at your home field call your friendly CFI and get some good crosswind experience.
· Survival. Pack a survival kit in case you have an unexpected forced landing. The items that you choose to include are up to you, but it is a good idea to include water, something energy-producing to eat and, most importantly, some type of first aid.
·  Watch for Traffic. So now you’re ready to go, but there’s one more planning factor to remember: know where the major traffic congestion will occur (that is, other airport traffic patterns, airways, navigation aids, and so on). It is great to know all that we have discussed so far, but it can mean nothing if you get too close to another aviator. Be especially watchful and courteous while in the traffic pattern at non-towered or UNICOM fields, as there is nobody else available to watch out for you.
·  Professionalism. You must decide what proficiency means to you but remember, you are a pilot-in-command, and so have total responsibility for your fellow aviators, your passengers, and yourself.

So in an era in which cost is a limiting factor in the decision to fly, the above should show you how to get the most out of the money you spend. Put them all together and you have a method for flying smarter, and therefore safer. Give it a try.

FLY SAFE!
Tony Birth