One of the never-ending conversations in aviation starts with, “How does a person become a better pilot?” Getting better can actually be inexpensive, and is a perfect do-it-yourself project that doesn’t always require the help of a flight instructor. All we have to do is develop a mind-set in which we approach each hour we fly as an opportunity to build our skills and make ourselves better.
Aha, someone says. So, the more we fly, the better we’ll get, right? Not necessarily. Go back and reread the last paragraph. We said we become better pilots by making every hour flown contribute to our skill. We say that because it’s entirely possible to fly thousands of hours and not improve. In fact, it’s possible to fly our brains out and get worse. It’s also possible to fly very little yet improve significantly. It’s not the number of hours flown that count. It’s “how” those hours are flown that makes us better, and that’s a mind-set, not a skill.
So, exactly how will this work? We can’t just say, “Okay, my new mind-set is to get better,” and suddenly find ourselves turning into super pilots. We need a plan. We need goals. And we need techniques. More important, we need to apply all of these to every single hour we spend in an airplane.
The “Be A Better Pilot” Plan
The skill-related aspect of every flight begins with cranking the engine, and ends with turning off the runway, parking and tying the airplane down. In between are dozens of judgment calls and the movements they command. The sum of these judgment calls and the way in which they’re executed are what we label “skill,” and that’s the focus of our get-better plan.
|Taking The Rating Challenge|
Aviation is so huge that we can always find something that’s outside of our comfort and skill zones that can challenge us to our very core. Surprisingly enough, some of the most affordable outside-your-comfort-zone training will teach you the most. Most important, in the process of learning, we’re having a huge amount of fun, and our interest in aviation, which can dull over time, gets a real shot in the arm.
The plan is to develop an awareness of each judgment and movement we make in the cockpit. Then, we’re going to assign parameters that will allow us to accurately quantify both the judgments and their execution. In other words: We’ll look at everything we do, measure it against a goal, and assign ourselves a grade when completed. For instance, we’re on final and looking at the runway in the windshield. Our goal is to land abeam the third light (you do pick out a spot on which to land, don’t you?), and we make a judgment that we’re low and need power to correct glideslope. After we’ve landed, we look back and ask ourselves whether we made the judgment call for more power early enough and accurate enough. And, how close did we come to hitting our spot on the runway?
Our plan will assign goals, measure ourselves against those goals, and then we’ll mentally debrief each and every flight after we land, and judge our performance.
Setting The Goals
The goals we’re going to set for ourselves can be as lax or as tight as the individual wants them to be. They’re a personal representation of how good he/she wants to be. The FAA has set performance minimums in the Practical Test Standards, but they’re just that—minimums. And they’re more than just a little “loose” in some areas, e.g., pattern altitude being measured +/-100 feet. That’s entirely too approximate for a pilot who wants to improve.
The way in which we can approach the task of judging our performance is to make up an actual checklist, which calls out the specifics of each of the major tasks. If we want to be anal about it, we can actually print the checklist, and have it out where we can see it. However, just the act of making up the list is likely to emblazon the appropriate parameters on our brains. There aren’t that many of them. Besides, what we’re trying to do is create a mind-set, a way of thinking about flying, in which every time we do something, we’re conscious of whether we did it better than we did the last time.
Additional “Getting Better” Tricks
Once we’ve started flying, there’s a tendency to do everything the same on each flight. Especially hamburger runs. We’ll take off, head over to our favorite burger locale, land and come home, not taking advantage of what we can do to add to our skill/proficiency package.
The More Runways, The Better
The more often we land on strange runways, the better our ability to adapt to new situations will get. As we hone our adaptability, we’ll get better at everything we do, because our ability to see differences will get better. New runways challenge us to see and adapt. Our home runway is like an old shoe: We know all its personality quirks.
When we’re on burger runs, try to change it up by going to different destinations every time. If we can’t find more burger places, we can certainly find other airports on the way, and dog-leg out of our way to shoot at least one touch-and-go at each. The simple process of flying the pattern and setting up an approach to a seldom-visited runway challenges us every step of the way, and every time we’re challenged, we get better.
Look for unusual runways. There’s even the possibility that there’s a runway in your area that you avoid because of its length or location. As long as it isn’t actually dangerous (bad surface, too short for your airplane type, etc.), shoot a couple of landings on it from time to time, and develop the finesse and confidence required. Avoiding a runway that’s well within your talent and aircraft capabilities is a sure way to let your skill go downhill.
The More Landings, The Better
Knowing the skill-building possibilities bundled into every landing, we should make a minimum of two, preferably three, landings on every flight. When we get to a seldom-visited airport, make at least two landings. Take advantage of the situation. When we come home, make a couple of touch-and-goes. It only takes a few minutes each.
When making multiple landings, raise the bar on each one, and do different styles. Make a short-field landing, and see how short we actually can land. Follow that up with a soft field. Mix at least one totally power-off landing in there to sharpen the judgment skills you’ll need if you ever have an engine failure.
The More Critical, The Better
Regardless of how good we’re doing in any flight regime, we should never be satisfied with our performance. In fact, the mark of good pilots—those who continue to improve—is dissatisfaction with themselves. They’re constantly shaking their heads at their performance because their performance is never what they know it can be. That’s not being picky. That’s being determined to get better.
|Getting Better By Going Bigger|
| There are several different sides to the concept of improving as a pilot. On one side is the purely physical part of handling the controls and the situations better. On the other is the largely mental part of running the various systems that are on board a given airplane. As we move up in airplane size, most often, the flying basics still apply, but the load of managing the systems increases to the point that it becomes as much of a challenge as is flying the airplane.
Steam Gauges to Glass
The best advice for those resisting glass cockpits is, “Don’t resist.” Most systems have been designed to be user friendly, but read the pilot’s manual several times before strapping in with a CFI. Note: If your instructor has some gray in his hair, he’ll know where you’re coming from and will speak English, rather than the digital dialect that’s borne of a lifetime playing video games.
The Complex Airplane
Saddling Up A Bigger Twin
Recip to Turbine