Today I went to Orlando International Airport to pick up a friend on an airline flight into town. I walked past families searching for their gates, couples stretching out a long goodbye, and flight attendants heading home after a long day of work. Most importantly of all, with uniforms of black ties and epaulettes I can spot from across the terminal, I saw some of the men and women who are privileged to fly the heavy iron for some of the greatest airlines in the world. I feel a certain euphoria when they walk by, just imagining what their day jobs are like. These are the pilots that are living the dream I have always imagined!
But what can I do, a measly college student, who can only fly every so often? How can I stay current and make sure that the next time I sit behind the yoke again, be it tomorrow or a year from now, I can be assured I’ll know what to do? Even further, how can an aspiring aviator learn the knowledge they need to operate an aircraft in today’s world?
1. Learn something new every day. All of the FAA books are published free of charge online. How often is something free in aviation? You have access to a lifetime of information at your fingertips—take advantage of being able to learn why an airplane cruises faster with an aft center of gravity or how to read an instrument approach plate.
2. Get your AGI. An Advanced Ground Instructor certificate is something I had never even heard of until recently. If you cannot get your CFI just yet, or you would like to contribute to aviation by teaching others on the ground and learn in the process, consider getting your AGI. The certificate consists of two tests, one of them being the AGI knowledge test (very similar to the private written test) and the Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI), which every CFI must take. Getting your AGI will also make getting your CFI easier down the road, since you will have proof of completing the FOI and experience in instruction. No flight time is required, which means after taking the two written tests, all you have to do is walk into your local FSDO and they will issue you an AGI certificate.
3. Refresh your memory. Keep current on the specific procedures for the airplane and area in which you fly. This way, when you do get to fly, you will have much less trouble knowing what frequency to tune, or what to do in an emergency. My personal set of review material includes the normal and emergency procedure checklist, the POH, and the A/FD publication for the airport I fly out of. This is the minimal amount of material you should review before flying after a long hiatus.
4. Renew your renter’s insurance. When my rental insurance was up for renewal, I considered letting it expire. Why pay $200 for something I am not using, especially when I have college tuition on the horizon? You don’t need to give yourself another excuse to not fly. Take the plunge and do it if you can manage it—normally you get a small discount for renewing on time as well. This way, even if you don’t fly until five months later, you won’t have to stop yourself because you have to pay another $200 for insurance on top of the cost of the airplane.
5. LiveATC.net. If you have not heard of liveatc.net, you are missing out on one of the greatest resources to today’s aviator. With live feeds of air traffic control facilities around the nation, as well as an archive of all transmissions, you have at your fingertips a free and easy way to learn the lingo of the radios. If you find yourself mic shy or unsure of how to say a certain request, tune into one of the many feeds and you may hear exactly what you have been wondering about. Try to imagine what you would say back to the transmissions. Teach yourself about approach and departure procedures, IFR approaches, and what the difference is between a non-movement area and a closed taxiway.
6. Aviate every day. I know it is natural to get discouraged if you cannot fly for a while, so it’s easy to stop focusing on aviation. Just by participating in something aviation-related every day, your mind will stay primed for flying. Whether it’s reading an aviation publication like Air Facts, listening to the radios, reading a POH, or even watching a YouTube video, give yourself “airplane time” every day to focus on aviation and keep your knowledge current. Hang posters in your office, display pictures, wear aviation t-shirts, and go to local airshows.
7. Flight sim. This may have some startup costs, but with today’s lightning fast technology and a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator (FSX), you can have yourself a personal flight simulator in your living room. Depending on how tech savvy you are (and how powerful your computer is), you can even set up an account with VATSIM and practice air traffic communication skills in a very realistic simulated environment. Don’t have the resources to buy a brand new computer or FSX? Consider FlightGear, a FREE alternative to FSX, with support on Windows and Mac. A lot of people will argue that flight simulators actually hinder your skills as a pilot. I agree that the control motions are different, but focusing on aspects like air traffic control and IFR procedures, having a flight simulator really helps in staying current.
One day in the future, I hope to write an article about something I did and learned from as an airline pilot. An experience and lesson that will reflect on my thousands of hours of experience. Until then, I hope these pieces of advice will help you stay current if you need to take a break from flying or if you cannot be a pilot just yet. Regardless of what your wallet or logbook says, if your heart is in the sky, you are an aviator. Keep it that way.
After practicing these techniques for the last year, I was finally able to fly again after an 11-month hiatus from the cockpit. I went for a check out flight in a local school’s C150, since I had moved away from my old flight school in the last year. I passed the ride with no issues, feeling like I never left the sky.