Flying on the ground – 7 tips on staying current

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!

Cessna 150 in hangar
Parked in the hangar – can you still “aviate?”

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.

Cessna POH
You don’t have to sit in the left seat to fly the POH.

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.

X-Plane flight simulator
The latest generation of flight simulators can be valuable for currency.

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.

22 Comments

  • Michael,

    You are so on the money with your advice.

    I gained my PPL in 1969 and flew regularly until family grew with the addition of kids and a job in the middle east taking me away from GA facilities for 20+ years.

    Last week after a gap of over 20 years I did an evaluation flight and we went through most of the PPL syllabus in an hour and a half and if not the first time I was able to nail the required standard at the second attempt on each exercise. My third landing included squeaking the tyres as the stall warning sounded, which was cool.

    In the intervening years I flew FSX whenever the opportunity arose and in recent years switched to X-Plane which I really enjoy. I never stopped flying!!

    Keep up the writing – you have something to say and do it very well.

    • Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you were able to fly again after a 20 year hiatus–I know it feels good to be in the cockpit again. I wish you the best on your future flights.

  • How about model airplanes? It’s not ever mentioned much, but I wonder if participation in that venue does not keep the embers glowing.

    • I’m assuming you mean RC airplanes, rather than the model kits you can buy to build a replica of a flying airplane. As far as RC, I dabbed a bit with model helicopters in years past, and I remember somebody telling me that students who are pursuing a helicopter rating can actually save a lot of money by using an RC helicopter to learn how to hover and maneuver first. Obviously the helicopter should be of sufficient size to fly similar to a real helicopter. As far as this carrying over to airplanes, I would assume similar rules apply, if not just for the thrill of flying a model airplane. Personally I think the RC pilots that can do some amazing aerobatics with their machines are especially skilled.

  • Michael, just keep on keepin’ on, as the saying goes. I remember fretting over such things, too: multi-engine time, actual IMC, night time…. But if you don’t give up you’ll get to where you want to be. The airlines will be hiring thousands of pilots over the next several years. It’s not the job it used to be fifty years ago (maybe it’s better overall, I don’t know…), but I still look forward to going to work every week, and I’ll be forced to retire from the company in four years. If I couldn’t do it anymore I’d be very depressed for a while until something else came along to fill the void. I wanted to be an airline pilot when I was three years old. In some ways I’m not much older than three right now…. Just ask my wife. You’ll make it. Just keep going.

    • Thank you for the kind words and encouragement, I appreciate your advice. I’ve been chasing the dream since I was a young kid as well, so I understand the feeling completely.

  • I strongly urge the use of Microsoft Flight Simulator X with add-ons like the MD-81/82 and Condor Flight Simulator. Why? No, the control motions are not the same, especially on the MD-80 series aircraft. However, MS Flight Simulator X will help get your mental processes and your procedures right. You can put the aircraft in reverse AFTER you plant the nose wheel on the ground, you can run all the overhead switches in an airline-type flow prior to using your checklist (the checklist is absolutely NOT a do-list on ANY airline, instead, pilots use a memorized flow established by their airline and then pick up the checklist to check that all has been done. The one time I tried to mix flow followed by checklist with do-list procedures, it was a total disaster, glad it was on the ground!)

    You can practice cruise descents in an airliner. If your groundspeed is 450 knots and you limit yourself to 2000 feet per minute, you multiply the altitude being lost to a reference point divided by 1,000 times 3.75 nautical miles per thousand feet. This is exact trigonometry, NOT rule of thumb. Then you add 1 nautical mile per 10 knots deceleration distance. But if you are descending at 3 nautical miles per thousand feet, you descend at 2,500 feet per minute for 450 knots ground speed, or 500 feet per minute for every 90 knots ground speed; again, add 1 nautical mile per 10 knots deceleration speed.

  • I have a Commercial Single engine with instument rating license & have flown in NYC/ DC airspace. I been “on the ground” for 20 years. I am amazed at the advances in avionics now in GA. I just invested in an extensive Flight simulator set up running X-planes 10. The addition of http://www.liveatc.net will allow me to “pre-train” for multi & type ratings. It also has allowed me to get familiar with LA airspace. But the real gem in this airticle is to get the AGI. I can hit the books for htis and get up to speed on current regs at the same time. THANKS!!!

    • Avionics have advanced quite a lot but the basic principles of pitot/static and vacuum systems still remain. I still prefer the old birds for GA over the newest G1000 cockpits. I’m glad you found the AGI tip useful, I wish you the best in pursuing it!

  • Michael,
    You never cease to amaze me. You have progressed way beyond your years. I hope I live long enough to be sitting back in the cabin while you are captain of the airline of your dreams. An upgrade to first class would be nice.

    • I appreciate the continued support and kind words from you, Uncle Butch. I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near this involved with aviation if it wasn’t for your advice and direction over the years. And yes, maybe even a ride in the jump seat!

  • The desktop simulators are okay for procedural stuff, but they lack two very important natural aspects – background noise and distractions. I would suggest for realism that you set up a couple of AM/FM radios to different commercial broadcast stations – maybe one in Spanish if you’re not fluent in it – and have them going behind you at loud volumes. If you really want authenticity, have someone kick your chair from time to time while you’re concentrating on a difficult approach.

    • I never thought of that, good tips! It reminds me of a chapter in Ernest Gann’s book, Fate is the Hunter, when he is conducting an approach and his instructor lights a cigarette lighter under his nose. Perhaps not to the same extreme, but I definitely agree distractions are a valuable thing to prepare for.

      • Yes, they are. Get to where you can fly precision and non-precision approaches with steady and accurate speeds, altitudes, and rates of descent while concentrating on up to four different things (conversations) at one time. Then go back and do them over and over with no gyros – all with the background distractions. You need to get to where you can process information without really listening and concentrating exclusively to it; just ask any woman who’s been married more than seven years.

        • I’ll definitely keep this in mind as I pursue my instrument rating in the future. Thank you for the advice!

  • I think your article is well written and on target. I’ve only been licensed 2.5 years, licensed at 64 after a lifetime waiting for the free time and nickels to align. I did the AGI long before I saw a certificate. It was good advice while I waited for my CFI to regain his medical from surgery. I’ve never taught but I take a FIRC every year to maintain currency. I’m not young anymore, but medically fit and current. Due to dimished income and some unexpected expenses I’m having to set aside, maybe finally, my dream and love of flying. My concern is if things turn for the better I might not be able to regain proficiency and fly safely again. I going to follow your advice and stay in the books, maybe a IGI because the academics come much easier than the flight training did. Keep encouraging pilots, in every circumstance, as few of us leave the left seat because we lost the thrill and responsibility of flying.

    • Thank you. I’m happy to hear that you were able to pursue your licenses. I would only like to say that I don’t think anybody ever HAS to put away their dream of flying. I know for sure that money can get in the way but you should never give up what you’re passionate about. I’m personally a member of EAA, and the chance to go to monthly chapter meetings, young eagles, and airshows keeps my thirst for flying at least somewhat filled. I’m lucky enough to be young and have an entire life ahead of me to get into flying, own an airplane, and hopefully have a job doing it. I know that life can get in the way, but never give up that dream.
      The IGI is a good bet, and maybe you could even set up some ground school lessons for other pilots! It can’t hurt to put up a few flyers.
      As a final note, last week I met an older man who was part of a club called the UFO–United Flying Octogenarians. They are all pilots that are over the age of 80. He told me a new member just got his instrument rating at the age of 80. It’s never too late. I wish you the best.

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