The Mystic Art of Being a Low-Time Pilot
by Bill Belanger and Al Schnur
In this article, we'll be talking about proficiency, not legal currency. The currency requirements are bare minimums. Being current does not mean the same as being proficient. We'll start with the assumption that being proficient means exceeding the legal currency requirements for most pilots. Let's try a word association test. What word comes to mind when you hear "low-time pilot?" How about "inexperienced" or "unskilled?" "Unsophisticated," "unworldly," and "green" probably fit in there, too. Did we hear anyone say "incompetent?" Now here are a few words that might not have come to mind. How about "sharp" or "up-to-date?"
How about "flight instructor?" Or perhaps even the word (heaven forbid) "me" crossed your mind. If it did, this article is for We hope to offer some tips to keep or improve your proficiency. you. First, let's decide whom we're talking about when we speak of a "low-time pilot." Are we talking about someone with fewer than 400 hours? To a recently certificated private pilot, 400 hours is a lot. How about 1,000 hours? Well, to a 400-hour pilot, 1,000 hours is a lot. How about a 10,000 hour jet pilot who is doing an initial checkout in an ultralight? Very experienced pilots have gotten themselves killed doing this.
What about the person who has a couple thousand hours but hasn't flown since 1988 (or kept up with the changes in aviation)? Yes, there's a tendency to try to put it in terms of hours, but this might not tell the whole story. There are differences among pilots that can't be described in terms of total hours. Recency counts. So does variety of experience--you get a whole lot more out of flying 100 hours under differing conditions than you do by flying the same hour 100 times. And don't forget that most flight instructors begin teaching with only a few hundred hours, and instructional flying has one of the best safety records.
If it begins to look like we're going to dodge the issue of hours, you're right. But this isn't just because we don't want to define a low-time pilot as anybody who has fewer hours than we do. It's because we don't know of a good breakpoint that would be meaningful in all situations. Sure there are minimum hours written into the Federal Aviation Regulations: 35 hours (FAR Part 141) or 40 hours (FAR Part 61) for a private certificate, 250 for commercial, and 1500 for ATP. But those minima are carefully selected for pilots who are immersed in the learning process. In this article we're not only addressing the pilot who has low hours, but also the pilot with a really fat logbook but not much recent activity. Or the pilot with all his or her experience in a different environment that may not be totally relevant to the kind of flying he or she is doing now.
So why would anyone want to be a low-time pilot in the first place? Odds are that nobody deliberately sets out to be a low-time pilot or wants the label when they have earned it. Nobody awards a lapel pin for fewest hours flown. People become pilots in the first place because they love to fly, but flying is an expensive hobby. So what makes a low-time pilot? You either have all the time in the world and not much money, or you have enough money for a high performance aircraft and not much time. Or maybe you have neither the time nor the money--a sorry state indeed for one addicted to the joy of flight. But there's a big difference between pilots limited by time and those limited by money. If you have a lot of money and not much time, you might own a high performance single or a twin. Your problem in staying proficient is probably not very much like the problems of a person with lots of time and not much money, who can only afford to occasionally rent a basic airplane. There's a huge difference between staying proficient in a high-performance single or a twin versus a basic single.
Perhaps we're hitting on one of the keys to proficiency--what kind of flying do you do? Whether you lack the time or lack the money, the kind of flying you do will have a lot to do with what you need to do to stay proficient. We'll focus here on the pilot whose flying time is limited by some external factor, not the pilot who is just plain new to flying and is rapidly accumulating hours. This fortunate soul doesn't have the problems we're here to address.
If you look at it this way, there seems to be no single problem that results in a low-time pilot. And if the reasons for being low-time are different, then perhaps their proficiency needs might also be different. So let's look at those differences and see what we can conclude.
The time-limited pilot with lots of money probably has the most difficult (and dangerous) problem. This is the guy or gal we'd all like to be, with enough money to buy a high-performance single or maybe even a twin. At the upper end of this range is the person who buys and flies a business jet. The excuse is usually to save time getting to the work that makes the money, but nobody really believes that story--except maybe the tax accountant. The problem is that the lack of time is real, and the problem is compounded because the high performance aircraft demands a higher skill level.
So let's look at this person who regularly flies a complex airplane on business. Maybe there's even a few thousand hours in the logbook. But is this person proficient? When was the last time he or she was up with an instructor to practice engine-out procedures? How much of the recent IFR time was partial-panel or involved other simulated emergencies such as communications failure? More simply, how much flight instruction has this person had since the last rating was earned? If it's only a flight review every two years, it's probably not enough. Emergency management skills get rusty when the last couple hundred hours is uneventful flight along the airways. That's why we'll call this pilot a low-timer; because he or she is low-time in the skills that can save your neck when things get weird.
The only real option for this person is to devote some time to staying proficient, and that means taking some dual whether or not it fits in well with the schedule. A twin owner needs engine out practice, preferably about twice a year, regardless of the legal requirements for currency. A person who flies a high performance airplane needs regular practice on the emergency procedures peculiar to that airplane, such as emergency gear extension, electrical failure, etc. This pilot is much more likely to depend on electronic navigation at the expense of practice in good old pilotage and dead reckoning and therefore more likely to be in trouble when all those expensive electronic aids suddenly decide to pack it in.
Fortunately, returning to a previous skill level is a great deal easier than building the skill in the first place. Regaining proficiency doesn't have to be a time consuming enterprise. A few hours of dual every six months might be all that's needed. Participation in the "Wings" program can also help, and counts as the required flight review in the bargain. It might be possible to charter a flight instructor to go along on a trip. This way, the dual could be given as a part of the trip with little or no extra investment of time. It's worthwhile remembering that flight instruction is probably one of the best bargains in the United States today. Where else could you pay so little for instruction in such a complex skill that might save your life someday? Just compare it with the cost of a golf pro, and a good golf swing won't save your life (though some golfers would say otherwise).
The money-limited pilot seems to have the opposite problem in many ways. He or she will probably fly a basic single with forgiving manners. If the airplane is rented from the local FBO, there might be a few different types involved, but the rental fleet is not well-stocked with high performance aircraft with quirky handling traits. These aircraft would be quickly removed from the rental market. Of course, this pilot might fly a complex airplane only very occasionally, and this could lead to trouble, but in general the aircraft flown will be quite forgiving. This suggests a somewhat different approach to proficiency.
For this person, we'll repeat the ancient adage, "flight instruction is probably one of the best bargains in the United States today." It doesn't cost a whole lot more to rent an airplane with an instructor than it does to rent just the airplane. An even better bargain are the FAA safety seminars, which are even cheaper--they're free. So if money is the limiting factor, then put it to the best possible use. This might mean flying a few less hours but with an instructor, even when it's not legally required. When flying alone, practice flying to the practical test standards to keep yourself sharp. (If you don't know the practical test standards, they are often available at pilot shops and local FBO's, and are also on the FAA's Internet site--these are the standards you must satisfy to get your pilot certificate.) Occasionally try a turn around a point or some slow flight or practice the commercial maneuvers if you have a commercial ticket. If you find yourself getting sloppy, maybe it's time for some dual. Spend time with as many different instructors as you can. Each will have his or her own strong points and weak points, just like everybody else. Seek variety and quality in instruction. It's a lot like seeking variety in your flying--the number of hours isn't as important as the quality of the hours. In the same way, the quality and variety of the instruction is more important than the number of hours, even though they all count the same in the logbook.
There are a lot of other opportunities to reduce the cost of staying proficient. One of the easiest is simply to do a couple of takeoffs and landings at the beginning of each flight. This takes only a few minutes and can bring you up to speed while you're still fresh. After a long, tiring flight, it's not a very good time to discover your landing skills have gotten rusty, especially at a strange airport where you don't know the local landmarks, aren't used to the runway width, and are generally just too tired to concentrate on anything but a trip to the rest room.
Some ground training devices (those now designated as level 1 flight training devices) also offer a low cost means of staying proficient in instrument flight. If you have access to such a training device and an instrument flight instructor or instrument ground instructor, you may log the instruction given in the device toward meeting instrument currency requirements (FAR Part 61) without ever burning a drop of avgas. The value of these devices is recognized by the FAA because you can credit up to 15 (Part 141) or 20 hours (Part 61) of instrument instruction given toward an instrument rating. Personal computer-based aviation training devices, which have been qualified by the FAA as PCATD, may be used to acquire 10 hours of instrument training creditable toward an instrument rating under Parts 61 or 141 when that training meets specific conditions and is given by an authorized instructor. Although PCATD's are not authorized for use in meeting the FAR currency requirements and may not be logged as creditable pilot time, their use may be helpful to a pilot in maintaining currency in procedural aspects of instrument flying. This is especially true when the PCATD significantly replicates a specific model airplane. But that doesn't reduce its value in staying sharp. If anything, it at least makes you think about flying a real airplane, and this kind of "visualization" has been shown to improve learning skills. The point is to do some meaningful practice, preferably involving situations you don't normally encounter, whether or not it can be used for legal currency or even entered in the logbook. The objective is to make you think.
Another option is to join an aviation organization such as the Civil Air Patrol. This provides an opportunity for additional free instruction in specialty flying skills and can provide low-cost access to airplanes. Sorry, the flying's not free, even in the Civil Air Patrol, and there is a certain amount of discipline required. However, if you want to be proficient it might be worth the investment of time and a little money.
If you're a renter pilot, you might want to avoid renting the complex airplane until there's more time and money to stay proficient in that airplane. It takes a lot less time and money to stay current in a simple single. Perhaps it would also be good to limit your flying to less demanding situations. For example, if you have an instrument rating and don't have the time or money to stay proficient in instrument flight, it might be time to limit the flying to VMC. If you're legally current but don't feel up to actual IMC, there's nothing wrong with getting a clearance just to get above a ceiling--as long as you're sure you won't get stuck in a situation you can't handle. If the time and money situation suddenly improves, it's surprisingly painless to recover the instrument skills, and you don't have to take another check ride. All you need is an instrument proficiency check from a CFII.
In other words, limit your flying to the skills you can comfortably maintain, or decide on a favorite type of flying and concentrate on it. It might be cross country to visit the relatives or to find a really great hamburger, it might be local sightseeing, or it might even be something a little more exotic like aerobatics. The less-used skills can be quickly rebuilt when the time and money become available. This can take a lot of the burden out of staying proficient. If possible, do some flying with others who have more experience to further develop your skills, even if it's only watching from the right seat.
Another option is to become a professional student of aviation. Read every aviation book you can, and subscribe to serious aviation magazines like FAA Aviation News. Spend all your available flying time and money, however limited, toward learning a new skill or getting a new certificate or rating. This will always place you with an instructor, and it can be a heck of a lot of fun. And isn't that what flying is all about in the first place?
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