What Is It We Forget About Flying?

Safety experts of all stripes agree that recent experience and frequent training make pilots safer. But why? What is it we forget how to do if we don’t fly for an extended period, or don’t undergo recurrent training?

I can see how activities that demand fine motor skills require frequent practice. Think of the golf swing. There are so many moving parts of a swing that we must consciously and subconsciously control it’s easy for me to see how practice is necessary to make a good swing. The term “muscle memory” is overused, but if there is such a thing it certainly must apply to swinging a golf club.

But does flying an airplane require a fine motor skill? Not really. Certainly proper and prompt control inputs are necessary to land on a gusty day, but compared to other physical activities such as shooting a basketball or launching a bowling ball, the physical control movements we make in an airplane are limited. Riding a bike seems to demand more physical skill than making control movements to fly an airplane, but they say we never forget how to ride a bike.

When you examine most serious or fatal accidents the root cause is not usually improper control movements but bad decision making. For example, when a pilot unintentionally stalls an airplane is the cause pulling back too hard, banking too steeply, not adding enough power? Or is the cause the decision to try to glide or climb over an obstruction without enough energy? Or to bank too steeply to try to save a late turn to final? Or to zoom too far after buzzing a friend’s house?

Do we forget the basics of minimum airspeed, maximum bank angles, glide range and so on if we don’t fly frequently? I don’t see how because we don’t practice flying the airplane beyond its limits through frequent flying.

My theory of why regular flying makes us safer is that it forces us to divide our attention in the cockpit. I think the really big pilot mistakes come when we tunnel in on a single objective and forget how multifaceted controlling an airplane can be.

When I don’t fly as often as usual I notice my instrument scan is the first to degrade. A well practiced instrument scan is automatic, even subconscious. You don’t look at one instrument and think about it. You just add that instrument’s data into the whole mental picture of your flight status.

Well, you say, you fly only VFR so an instrument scan doesn’t matter. Wrong. Totally wrong. There is not a single reliable way to know your airspeed by looking out the window. If you don’t continuously monitor your airspeed when maneuvering you have no way of knowing your margin above stall, or of landing long and fast. The instrument pilot scans the instruments in the panel to maintain situational awareness, but the VFR pilot must divide his scan between the windshield and at least the airspeed indicator, and to a lesser degree the altimeter.

I think the accident record shows clearly that many pilots are not maintaining a good scan, whether flying VFR or IFR. The evidence is there in the record of jet pilots who virtually never unintentionally stall the airplane. The reason is that airspeed awareness and control is beat into every jet pilot before they can get a type rating. The tolerance for flying below the target airspeed is zero and the price of going too slow is failure of the checkride and more training. In all phases of flight jet pilots continuously know the airspeed and know how much margin they have over the minimum.

The only way a jet pilot, just like any pilot, remains aware of airspeed is to scan the instrument and note the airspeed relation to the target. If the ability to scan instruments is the first pilot skill to degrade from infrequent flying, as I believe, then that explains why recent flight experience and training makes pilots safer. It’s really as fundamental as being able to scan and understand the key instruments that makes us safer, and that’s a skill that requires regular practice.

Why do you think a pilot who flies regularly is safer?

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29 Responses to What Is It We Forget About Flying?

  1. Roger Halstead says:

    I agree with the lack of scan ability. After earning the instrument rating “the scan” became automatic. but you only pointed to the pilot as the reason for unintentional stalls. In my flying career I had 3 unintentional stalls. Two were on final in gusty conditions and yes I was carrying half the gust factor (plus a little), but these were caused by gusts that far exceeded what was forecast and what I had been experiencing. One was as a student flying with an instructor in a 150 where a shot of power and we were flying again and one was in a Cherokee 180. The airspeed dropped from 80 to “off the scale” abruptly. Full power and it started flying in ground effect. The third was at 5000 feet on a beautiful clear day when I hit a pretty hard bump. When I hit a second and harder bump I pulled the power back to maneuvering and a few seconds later hit one hard enough to jar my teeth and found myself looking at the ground. Power to idle and eased the nose back up to level flight where I maintained maneuvering speed for a few minutes, expecting another series of “bumps” that didn’t materialize.

    As far as currency, some pilots never get beyond what I call, flying mechanically and never gain “a feel” for the airplane. To them, flying is just a rote refresher and the quality of their flight time is not very high.

    I was away from flying a couple years due to a health issue. When I was checked out (in my plane) everything seemed the same with no awkward moments. However when I went out to practice I worked my way up to maneuvers “on the edge” such as accelerated stalls in a turn, or maximum effort climbs, and other maneuvers that could end up in unusual attitudes. Once I felt proficient that I could keep the plane out of trouble, I’d let these maneuvers end up in unusual attitudes on purpose. The pilot who never experiences an unusual attitude is likely to be in deep trouble the first time he/she experiences one.

    There can be a huge difference between currency, and proficient.

    So I would add that recent experience needs to be “quality flight time” not just a ride around the patch.

  2. Greg says:

    I am a “freshly minted” pilot and consider this issue often, partly because I forget but partly because it it all still pretty new. I am trying to fly frequently. At this stage, even three weeks is too long of a delay. It would be interesting to check the relationship between accident and frequency of flight. If the average pilot flies 20 hrs per year can he remain proficient? How well would you play the piano if you played 20 hours per year? If cost becomes an issue then it might be too expesive of a hobby. Can a pilot afford to hit the pattern for a half hour per week? I’ve got friends who play the piano. They practice several times a week. I was told that I’d need to fly frequently or I shouldn’t fly at all. I found out what it would cost to fly before I started my lessons.
    Great article.
    Greg

    • Roger Halstead says:

      Keep it up and make those hours “quality time”. Even at several thousand hours, if I had no where to go, I’d go out and practice doing maneuvers as well as I could. Eventually I developed “a feel” for just what the plane was doing and needed. Over those hours I had 3 engine failures which were all on departure. One at 100 feet and a 100 mph, and two before reaching pattern and included “the impossible turn” with one gliding all the way around to land on the same runway. I was actually a bit high and fast as a normal final is 80 mph and best glide is 120. Being able to reduce the drag with the gear retracted really makes a difference in the glide. Thing is, I believe that
      practicing and striving for perfection( which you never reach) saved my life several times. I’ve been greasy side up, way too close to the ground from running into severe wind shear and localized turbulence and past 90 degrees a few times. I also had to do 3 go-arounds in a row due to wind shift creating a cross wind beyond what the Deb could handle. Don’t be afraid to cancel if the weather would push you out of your comfort zone. If you are uncomfortable about a flight, ask yourself why and listen to the answer.

  3. Keith Bumsted says:

    It was the Polish pianist and politician Ignacy Paderewski who said that “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, critics notice, and if I miss three days, the audience notices.” It is the same with pilots and surgeons and NBA players, anyone really who must assemble a complex set of neuromuscular responses to rapidly changing circumstances with precision and skill. Neuroscientists explain this in terms of the functionality of various parts of the brain and neuromuscular system that govern all our activities.

    The important point here is the disminished performance is real and affirmative steps must be taken to regain previous proficiency after a time away. Reviewing checklists, visualizing steps to be taken and briefing procedures to be utilized are helpful in this process.

    • Peter Francis says:

      It was actually Vladimir Horowitz who made that comment , not Paderewski. he might have made a similar comment but Horowitz was the man who stated if he missed once day of practice etc, Paderewski might have used a similar phrase – but at the end of the day, lack of practice and keeping ones hand in can make for dangerous flying.

  4. Thomas Boyle says:

    For VFR pilots, it’s not really the instrument scan. How do I know this? Because I am also a hang glider pilot, and I’ve found – to my surprise – that in those times when I stopped flying airplanes for a year or two, but was flying hang gliders, I really didn’t have much “rust accumulation” when I got back in the airplane. But, if I stopped both, the deterioration was severe. Instructors – and I – were surprised by how much hang gliding helped preserve my power flying skills, more than once. And, of course, hang gliders don’t have instruments to scan (not really). What did become rusty was radio work (not surprisingly).

    I came to believe that there is a basic sort of “airborne situational awareness” in flying, an ability to have a mental picture at all times of where you are and what’s going on, that was well-preserved by the hang glider (gliders do demand continuous situational awareness) and translated well into power flying under VFR.

    Separately, Greg, we’re all pleased that you are affluent enough to fly more than 20 hours per year. Many of us are not so fortunate, for various reasons. We know it. We don’t fly instrument approaches, or at night, or in a lot of other conditions that would be legal, but foolish (my personal wind limit is 10kt). But please don’t join the all-too-common ex-airline/military arrogant crowd who would like us to leave aviation altogether, just because we don’t meet the level of practice that you believe is necessary for the kind of flying you do, with your skill level.

    • Greg says:

      Thanks for the reply Thomas,
      As somewhat of a newbie at this, only time will tell if I can keep up with the cost. After a couple of years my wife may put her foot down and demand some serious home improvements. Then we’ll find out just how affluent I really am. I am assuming that my desire to fly frequenly is due to the fact that my hours are low and much of this is not yet second nature.

      I have recently began using two very helpful tool to keep the flying process more current in my brain. The first is “chairflying” at my desk at home. I pasted up a to-scale photo of my panel on a piece of cardboard and I go through every step as though it were the real thing on an imaginary flight. I try to make is as real as possible and it’s free and fun. This is very helpful, especially with the checklist and the radio work. The second tool is to record all of my audio when I do fly. I use a pocket recorder (microcassette and an adapter cable), then review it after I get home. I try to get the best bang for the buck by planning every flight and then reviewing every flight when I get home.
      Again, thanks for the reply.

      • Thomas Boyle says:

        Greg,

        You’re gonna have a blast!

        One tip for the “lean” days when too many other demands on time and money kick in: stay in touch with your flying community. Make some flying friends, and hang with them once in a while when you’re not flying, trade flying links via email, and so on. It helps you to feel that “I’ll be back”, and it’s fun, and there’ll be people there waiting for you when you do get back. I’ve dropped out several times – grad school, starting a business, bad geographic location – and this has always been a big help.

        I hope you understand my sensitivity: there are far too many people out there who picked up 10,000 hours courtesy of Uncle Sam or the airlines, who like to go on about on how awful it is that there are low-time pilots in the world, and that we weekend losers just keep on flying as if we belonged in their club (the same arrogance gets directed at, variously, ultralights, LSA, fixed gear, aircraft with nosewheels, airplanes with only a single engine…). We do belong, we have fun, and we’re emphatically NOT the ones having all the fatal accidents.

        Making flying second nature – which I’ve never really accomplished, although there are times when I’ve been close – is a matter of intense practice. Boring holes in straight lines – accruing cross-country hours – will not do it. If you want maneuvering to be second nature, take up gliding or aerobatics or precision flying. If you want instrument flying to be second nature… well, you get the idea.

        Great to have you with us!

  5. Scott says:

    This is a great subject. People thinking about this discussion could actually save a life or two.

    Of all the accident reports I have read, very few if any involve student pilots. If there was a lack of knowledge or a “forgetting” of knowledge, it seems students should account for a large number of accidents.

    Accident reports seem to involve pilots with a substantial amount of flight time. If I think back to my paraglider days I remember that statistically the most dangerous time for a pilot was right around the 100 flight mark. That is when a pilot had become comfortable flying, but had not yet had enough terrifying experiences to regain respect for the activity.

    When I read about airplane incidents, it seems the pilots are either in this range, or they more experienced and have forgotten their terrifying experiences. They do things like taking off with too little fuel, flying into unsuitable weather conditions, or taking of with an airplane that is not airworthy. These are actions of people who are comfortable (maybe too comfortable), not necessarily people who have forgotten.

    • Nicholas says:

      Incidentally that approximately 100hr mark your talking about, is also the most dangerous time when learning (or first getting back into) riding a motorcycle, and I imagine the same number holds fairly true to most any learned skill/motorsport.

  6. Dan Vandermeer says:

    “Most but not all tricycle-configured aircraft allow for maintaining forward visibility throughout the descent, level off, flare, and touch down. Two mistakes frequently occur in the early phase of learning landings: Fixating or staring at the airspeed indicator, and trying to look at the runway too close to the airplane. Both errors result in the same bounced landing. ” …. From the EAA Learn to Fly Newsletter: Reach for the Sky
    I believe that fixating on the air speed indicator is a significant problem in making a safe landing in conventional gear aircraft. And to some degree in tricycle gear small GA planes. I generally agree with your premise but suggest that the example given in this case is not very good

  7. Guy says:

    I think that Greg stumbled on the explanation, “much of this is not yet second nature” , because little, if any of this ever becomes second nature for most pilots in the same way that riding a bicycle, driving a car, etc., becomes. Those of us under the “10,000 hours” to become a true expert at anything will experience radical drops in performance with even a short layoff because very little of what we do in flying is intuitive, and requires active memory of all the parameters of flying, scans of the panel that require discreet information pickup from each of at least 6 instruments, simultaneous fine motor coordination of hands and feet, and observation of exterior environment, all at more or less the same time ! It is a complex activity, and will require constant practice until it does become truly intuitive and ingrained at that 10,000 hour point as science is telling us occurs. At age 57 I conservatively have driven a car 40,000 hours, I only wish to have flown a tenth of that. Because we take our lives in our hands so much more in flying, the pressure is only greater. If it were simple and easy to remember, it might not be so special

  8. Cary Alburn says:

    “If you don’t continuously monitor your airspeed when maneuvering you have no way of knowing your margin above stall, or of landing long and fast.” Mac, no offense intended, but you’ve been flying big iron too long (and that includes your Baron). You really need to go back to the basics. When I instructed, one of my “tools” was a dishtowel, to put over the panel when a student spent too much time looking at the panel and not enough time looking outside. Airplanes “tell” you when they’re doing things, like approaching stalls, like landing at the appropriate airspeed, without the need for the pilot to stare at the gauges. Granted, I wouldn’t be likely to go into a short mountain airstrip without a working ASI (or in my case, an AOA indicator), but for normal flying and normal landing on normal airports, there’s no need to “continuously monitor your airspeed”.

    As for where you are if you lay off, it doesn’t take 10,000 accumulated hours to get to the point where a lay off causes few problems. I’ve had several lay offs (the longest was 2 years) in the almost 41 years I’ve been flying, and within hours after resuming (and getting the equivalent of a decent BFR), I was back in the saddle each time.

    I do agree that instrument scan is one of the things that deteriorates quickest–but that kind of scan can be rejuvenated with just a little work. This last year, I went a whole year from one IPC to the next IPC, without so much as one tenth of hood or actual time in between–but I passed the latest IPC. It wasn’t smooth, and I wasn’t proud of myself, but I was safe.

    So I don’t know what we “forget” which makes any of us unsafe. But I think one of the things we retain that makes some of us unsafe is an attitude that needs to be readjusted. Some pilots just take too many chances–and we all know some who do that. Some like to bend the rules–and we all know some of them, too. Some have reached the point, whether they have a couple hundred hours or thousands of hours, where they think they know all there is to know about flying–although most of us know that we’re all students, no matter the number of hours, no matter the number of certificates or ratings or type ratings we might have.

    Unfortunately, the ones with the attitude which needs adjusting are the ones likely to take others with them. But I really doubt it is because they forgot something.

    Cary

    • Peter Francis says:

      When I was an ab initio student back in 1967, my late instructor drilled into me the need to watch the ASI. His favourite comment was :” Watch thy airspeed, lest the earth come up and smite thee ” All to famous words, which were, and still etched in my memory, some 46 years later. Doing 100 hours on a C150 one became part and parcel of that model aircraft, and I gained invaluable experience from that. Approach speed was 75 Knots, with 10 – 30 degrees of flap and hand on the throttle – on case of sudden abort and go around. On calm days, zero flaps ( 3500 ft runway ) 75 Kts and when over the threshold throttle back to idle, raise the nose so that the top of the engine cowling was in line with the end of the runway and a perfect landing every time -. even after going on to fly bigger and faster ships.

  9. James Crocker says:

    “Bugger” my airspeed just stopped working! and Mac said I am going to die “Bull****” regular practice means you have a feel for your aircraft and it’s talking to you through your eyes and the seat of your pants. The horizon is the key to flying safely. Learn the visual attitude and airspeeds relative to the horizon for your aircraft, scan the instruments to confirm what you see and if the instruments go missing don’t panic you will instinctively know what to do. That is what quality practice is all about for VFR pilots, if the horizon disappears you better make sure the instruments are working and the autopilot is on as it will probably do a better job than you. IFR just means more practice. Use it or loose it as the saying goes. It’s not what you forget it’s what you have not learned properly yet that counts.

  10. Bill Tomlinson says:

    “There is not a single reliable way to know your airspeed by looking out the window. If you don’t continuously monitor your airspeed when maneuvering you have no way of knowing your margin above stall, or of landing long and fast.”

    If you believe that, you need to do a course in aerobatics – preferably in an open-cockpit biplane.

  11. brett hawkins says:

    Interesting range of comments here. I fly a medium-hot experimental that stalls at 70mph clean and believe me I carefully monitor airspeed on final. Pilots flying aircraft that stall or mush in the 40-50 mph range probably have more leeway when flying the pattern.

    While I love to read about the need to practice in order to avoid the stall/spin scenario when overshooting the base to final turn, how does one practice safely? Doing a variety of accellerated stalls at 3000 ft AGL is fine, but is it really the same up there without the mountain, tower, building, forest or whatever that forces the too sharp turn to final? And, how do pilots flying non-aerobatic planes legally practice the yank and bank maneuvers required to stay sharp?

    After 20 years of recreational flying I still think the most valuable procedures taught are the go-around and the stable approach. Judgment is also important. I don’t even try to fit into the pattern with trainers flying 65 mph on downwind.

    Just my opinion: YMMV.

  12. Chris H-B says:

    Here’s a thought that could be verified experimentally.

    If safety is affected by practice at instrument scanning, then regular practice on a flight simulator at home (not talking about the professional grade training machines here, I’m thinking of something running on a PC with a couple of decently big monitors, or a large HDTV up close, to provide the right sort of scale and field of view) it ought to measurably help maintain skills.

    If it’s seat of the pants flying, where the ‘feel’ of what’s going on, or some other cause related to the actual experience of flying is more significant, then using a basic static simulator should not make any difference at all.

    To keep it simple, this is a one-tailed, one factor hypothesis.

    There must be plenty in the research literature on the effectiveness of sims to give an insight on this, bearing in mind that flight simulator research is paid for by people who sell flight simulators, and probably less so by the people who sell avgas.

    • Chris H-B says:

      - of course, to follow Keith B’s comment about Paderewski, and apply it to simulators, if you’re away from your Steinway grand piano and only practice on an electronic keyboard, then it’s not going to be quite the same as the real thing, so there is some chance it will interfere to make your technique deviate.

  13. unclelar says:

    To Thomas Boyle: I used to see that superior attitude a lot more than nowdays. The Ole Airline Captain who thought he knew everything about everything and was almost always wrong about most everything except sitting in an airliner and staring at guages. If you encounter these people just find someone else to associate with and ignore them as best you can. And you are right. It’s these people who get into accidents far more often than the newbies. Have fun! Good luck!

  14. Greg says:

    Not to get too far off track but I just re-read Mac’s article from Sept 11 2013 “Is Safety the Problem w/ GA”. As it relates to this article; it is understandable how non-pilots view this hobby with discomfort. One factor? No, three! It’s dangerous, expensive, and demanding.
    The part I can’t figure out is how I could have justified riding motorcycles for forty five years. But come to think of it, the answer is easy; motorcyles are easy to ride and cheap. Danger is always something we see as conceptual and easy to ignore. To fly you’ve got to put up the bucks and do the homework. You can’t fake those and you can’t ignore them. Then you have to stay current to stay safe! It’s becoming apparent that most folks these days just want to find easier ways have fun.
    Greg
    PS. I’ve got five bikes. They’re all for sale.

  15. vernon fueston says:

    I know that if I do not fly a 172 for a month or two it does not make much difference, of course I have over 3,000 hours in them. If I skip a week in my Citabria I can feel it, it requires more skill and I am low time in tailwheel (around 500 hours). I didn’t do any aerobatics for two months and it was obvious that I was rusty when I resumed. I do not believe instrument scan applies much to VFR flying although I do know it is the first thing to deteriorate in the IFR realm. On flight reviews I often use a sectional to cover all the instruments and ask the pilot to return to the airport and land. Most pilots can do this with no problem. Even without an airspeed indicator you can sense the speed by the sound of the airplane and the feel of the controls. In gliders we use the nose position on the horizon to control airspeed and the angle to the destination to judge the glide situation. The more experienced a pilot is the less deterioration he finds in his skills as time passes and the quicker they return with some practice.

    Vern fueston

  16. Michael says:

    Makes sense to me. Why not use an app to help with this? Any modern phone or tablet has GPS and can display airspeed, just feed in the stall speed of the aircraft and you can display a simple bar graph of margin above stall. Better yet, you can add in an audio component that begins beeping slowly at a user programmed point above the stall horn and beeps faster as you erode your safety margin.

    Generically speaking, old steam gauge instruments and the required instrument scan are a poor fit for the human mind. Having taken courses on UI (user interface) design, it’s easy to see why NASA did so much research into glass panels and essentially pioneered the field.
    In the industrial safety field, training people is an essential part of the job, but like PPE (personal protective equipment) it’s supposed to be a last resort used only when you can’t reasonably design out the hazards.
    You don’t tell the machine operator to keep away from the unguarded cogs and drive shafts, you guard them and bolt on the guards.
    You don’t tell the nuclear power plant operators to walk faster as they criss-cross the room trying to monitor the reactor using instruments spread out over twenty feet (Case study, three mile island), you built a station for each operator that displays everything they need in simple terms and all in one place. And whenever you can, you automate mindless repetitive tasks because humans stink at these tasks.

    It’s not an accident that the commercial airlines have done so amazingly well improving their safety ratings, and while training has helped, I believe they do so well because they have automated almost everything they possibly can. Instead of offering the human an opportunity to screw up every single mundane task of the flight, the automation handles most of it, and you no longer need Monk (the obsessive compulsive TV detective) to continuously and flawlessly monitor every technical detail of the flight.

    • wolfeairwolfe says:

      Sorry, but it is exactly this disengagement from the activity of flying that causes so many accidents. The recent airline accidents bear this out, since the detachment of the pilots from the actual task of managing a flight gets easier and easier as automation usurps their command. The Korean pilots who botched their landing at SFA recently had virtually no experience hand flying an aircraft. Flight simulators and apps are tools, not the thing itself!

      According to your arguments, there should be a guard built around the yoke to keep the pilot away because he/she could make a mistake. This thread of disengagement of responsibility seems to have taken over our whole society. “I might make a mistake, so someone must protect me from myself” has become the mantra for every activity. Football players get injured, so it would be best to send a surrogate machine onto the field instead. PPE is not a substitute for training people about the dangers of machinery. It is the close proximity of man and machine which requires guarding of the moving parts, not the stupidity of humans. I’m getting tired of this justification for eliminating humans from every activity.

      Automation should never substitute for human decision making, only assist. It’s fine to automate so-called boring tasks, but if you read the accident reports you’ll find more mid-air collisions occur with an autopilot on than without, because the situational awareness of the pilot degrades rapidly when not participating in the flight (especially if the pilot is engaged with an app). I have purposely flown over 6000 hours without an autopilot for that reason. The autopilot is three for when we need to take our hands off the airplane long enough check a chart or debug a system, not to check our email. Fly the plane more. It’s fun. The autopilot can fly more precisely than I can, but I won’t fly into a mountain and it will.

  17. James says:

    As a fresh student pilot who started training later in life, I remember having a great deal of difficulty disengaging my hand from the steering process when taking off. learning to steer precisely down the center line with my feet at 70 MPH while the plane was reacting to torque and P-factor was initially terrifying. My CFI observed (correctly) that I had been driving a car with my hands for many decades and it would take me awhile to disengage that muscle memory. I got through that and did fine, but had to take a training hiatus at about 30 hours. When I came back to flying about 6 months later, I was dismayed to find I had the same problem all over again – hand wanted to help steer down the runway! Retraining my muscles was quicker the second time, but it did make me wonder if some of the unexplained take off accidents I have read about in the NTSB reports might have been the result of a pilot being away from flying for awhile and experiencing this muscle coordination problem upon returning to the cockpit. Specifically, I can tell you that if you unconciously try to engage your hand in the steering process while traveling down the runway, you will instinctively push the stick to the right to correct for the aircraft’s strong tendency to go left. If you manage to get off the runway with that deflection, the results will be prompt and disastrous.
    Fortunately, I don’t encounter that tendency any more since I now drive (er, fly!) an Ercoupe with all the controls (including steering) integrated into the yoke. The ‘Coupe also doesn’t suffer from P-factor or other left pulling tendencies. I do, however, wonder if I would have the same old muscle confusion problem again if I went back to an aircraft with a stick and rudder pedals.

  18. wolfeairwolfe says:

    As a professional pilot and instructor I find this to be a very important subject for dialogue, and I have often wondered about it myself. Personally, I have found that after a certain number of hours, my proficiency degraded at a much lower rate. While I found that my best stick and rudder skills seemed to be during my student pilot days, my judgement is the critical factor. Learning from reading accident reports is the best way to expand our experience from the mistakes of others—much better than having to make all those crashes ourselves.
    Psychologists have determined that regardless of one’s natural proclivities, intelligence, or talents, it takes ten years of constant EFFORTFULL practice to become an expert at any complex skill (Hence, the Paderewski/Horowitz observations). Even prodigies like Mozart and Bobby Fischer needed those ten years to achieve mastery of their talent. Stick and rudder skills are minor compared to the other skills a pilot must develop.
    I believe part of the erosion of skills is due to the associations, or lack of them, that we make during any activity. It takes me very little time to reacquaint myself with each aircraft I fly, because I have flown over forty different types. Once I’m in the cockpit, have run the checklist, and started the engine, the familiarity seems to creep in fairly quickly. Recently, as an ISR pilot in Iraq, my deployments required a relatively long break, then a return to service. I often felt like I had forgotten everything as my first mission approached, but by using a very standardized pre-flight mission and weather briefing and aircraft inspection process that I was back up to normal by the time of my first taxi. This pre-flight preparation seemed to get my mind in gear and make the associations I needed in order to recover my “game head”.

    I agree that just flying around the pattern is not the answer, unless flying around the pattern is your problem, but it doesn’t do any harm either, considering the number of pattern accidents.

    I would like to make two observations here: Checklists have been created as a means of defeating probability by interrupting the error chain. Nevertheless, one thing I have noticed with students and co-pilots is a lack of task priority—everything on the checklist is NOT equal. Also, trying to jump ahead on the checklist by starting it too early defeats the purpose. Before reaching for a switch or lever, you need to know why you are doing it, not just because it’s on the check list. For every airplane I fly, I take a long while to develop a good “flow check” of the most important items, so that even after the check list has been completed, I can quickly do a flow and reassure myself that all is well. That is one of the associations I am referring to. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I haven’t crashed lately.

    The surprising frequency of crashes in light planes by ATP’s seems to support my view.

  19. Gary Nelson says:

    My logbook shows 3800+ hours. I find that time away from the cockpit does not degrade our safe flights. Perhaps make them less smooth, but not unsafe. As to jet pilots having air speed control wired into their psyche, consider Air France’s plane with 3 pilots stalling into the ocean from 30,000+ feet. Or Asiana’s airplane 30 knots slow on the approach. Both these crews fly a lot. They hardly seem not current.

    I also fly with some pilots that practice a lot. And some of them are still not “safe” in my opinion. (poor airspeed control, bad tolerances on instrument approaches, lack of situational awareness or similar issues is what I am referring to ).

    I don’t really know why some I fly with leave me “really comfortable” and others “concerned”, but there is a difference. In my experience it is something more than “currency”.

    • KW says:

      You’re absolute right Gary. It’s a individual or “people” thing. There are good pilots that can go months without flying and get right back up in the air without a hitch. And other pilots that fly regularly that are quirky and questionable. Just like drivers on the road. There are many aspects to flying safely. Motor skills, one’s individual concentration ability, health, mental sharpness, hand-eye coordination, etc…
      I’ve gone months before without a flight, and gone up and performed an aerobatic routine perfectly safe and of decent quality. And then other times when flying a lot, some days just suck. Sometimes it just depends on your apptitude that day (including emotions). But in general, the more you practice, the better you get with lower required mental processing.

  20. Jack Swift says:

    The reference to understanding every step in the checklist while also using checklist dicipline is something I have found very valuable in my reentry to flying after a six year break. The idea of a creating flow and re-enforcing those mental associations is also key to keeping yourself honest. Pilots if nothing else are human. All of us make mistakes these are great techniques for pilots at ALL LEVELS. Thanks Wolfeairwolfe.

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