7 min read

There are only two things pilots like more than flying: eating and talking. So it was no surprise when I recently found myself eating lunch and talking about airplanes with two fellow flyers. One of them was recounting the semi-regular proficiency exercise he had just completed, which consisted of some time in a tailwheel airplane (focus on stick and rudder) followed by some time in a simulator (focus on instrument scan). He was positively giddy: “That type of training is so good for you; I don’t know why every pilot doesn’t do it!”

My answer was simple: “Because pilots hate recurrent training.”

CFI with student

Admit it – you hate recurrent training.

This pilot is right, of course – regular training increases safety and confidence. It’s good for you, right up there with eating more vegetables and exercising daily. But while all pilots know these facts, very few of us practice what we preach. Instead, we treat proficiency flights like a trip to the dentist: something we do only as often as we’re required to, and even then we dread it. I’m guilty of it myself more than I would like to admit.

This reluctance isn’t just a sign of laziness. Most aviation enthusiasts will go to great lengths if something is rewarding – just think about how many pilots move heaven and earth to fly to Wisconsin in the summer. It’s also not about the cost, at least not primarily. A flight review isn’t exactly expensive (maybe $250 every two years), and a lot of proficiency work can be accomplished during normal flights if you plan ahead. Simulators, too, offer an easier and less expensive way than ever before to stay current.

The real reasons have a lot more to do with emotion, particularly fun and pride. Flying to Oshkosh may be a lot of work and cost a lot of money, but it’s also a lot of fun. Practicing crosswind landings or completing an instrument proficiency check just doesn’t measure up. Since most of us are in aviation for the fun, if it’s not fun why do it?

The pride part is even more powerful, because most pilots are successful people. Whether flying attracts this type of person or you become this type of person because you fly is debatable, but the airport isn’t exactly a haven for work-shy hippies. That’s not a bad thing, it just means that a session with a flight instructor is often a nerve-wracking affair. For an accomplished businessman or doctor to subject himself to judgment and possible embarrassment at the hands of a flight instructor (who could be 25 years younger) is no small task. If you’re used to excelling at life, it’s hard to admit it when you fall short.

Any solution to our proficiency paranoia, then, would need to address both the element of fun and concerns about “failure.” One obvious way to combat this mindset is to make it less exotic, and turn recurrent training into an ongoing process. Continue the dentist analogy for a moment: most adults don’t dread brushing their teeth every day, because it’s both familiar and not subject to someone else’s judgment. It’s just part of life.

We can approach flying in much the same way. If “recurrent” means a single event every two years, it’s much more likely to be stressful; it feels like a test. But if we view currency – or better yet, proficiency – as a normal part of every flight, it becomes a habit. A good goal is to deliberately do something on every flight to maintain your flying skills. It could be as simple as carefully tracking the centerline on the runway, or using short field technique on that next landing. The point is, on even the shortest and most relaxed flight, there is an opportunity to knock the rust off.

It can even be a bit of fun. Instead of doing the boring three takeoffs and landings routine to “get current,” make up a short cross country that accomplishes the same thing. Fly to a nearby airport for lunch, but practice an en route diversion along the way, do a no-flap landing when you get there and throw in some steep turns on the way home. Do it with a friend and add a little friendly competition if you like, or review your performance over a burger.

CloudAhoy screenshot

Some iPad apps and even a GoPro can make it easier for you to track proficiency.

It’s also worth remembering that you don’t have to hire a CFI in order to evaluate your flying skills, a mistake far too many of us make. There are plenty of ways to self-critique and avoid the pain of public embarrassment – if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves. This has always been true, but some new technology makes it easier than ever.

I’ve recently been using the CloudAhoy app, in conjunction with a Stratus 2 ADS-B receiver, to track my performance and I’ve found it to be very helpful. The Stratus includes an automatic flight data recorder, logging GPS position and aircraft attitude for every flight. Importing that track log into CloudAhoy allows me to play back the flight overlaid on charts or even in a 3D Google Earth environment. Did I track the localizer accurately? How were my holding patterns? Was my altitude control solid? It’s all easy to see in the app, and you can track your performance over time to see when you’re sharp and when you need more practice.

Another option, used to great effect by a colleague of mine, is to use a GoPro video camera. These are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, yet they record high quality video and audio. It’s a good way to play back your flight in the comfort of your home and see how you did – a VFR pilot might focus outside the airplane, an IFR pilot might focus on the instruments, and both can listen to ATC communications. There’s a lot to learn here, and you can do it all on your own.

Of course we all have to eventually schedule that flight review or instrument proficiency check. Like so many things in life, how we approach recurrent training determines what we get out of it. If we approach it as a chance to learn something new, we’re a lot more likely to have a positive experience than if we view it as a test (which it’s not – you can’t fail a flight review!). Besides, if we’ve been regularly working on proficiency this will just be a formality, and a chance to get another person’s perspective. Hopefully that other person isn’t just a random choice, either. Find an instructor that can be a resource and a mentor for you, someone you can talk to year-round.

I do an annual flight review in both of aircraft I fly most often (insurance companies long ago realized that the FAA currency minimums are insufficient). After flying the same equipment for a few years, this can get repetitive, so I decided make it into a challenge. My new goal is to write down five new things I learn from each year’s session. As a result, I’m much more engaged in the training, and I spend a lot more time probing certain topics instead of trying to rush through it. Is this a cheesy way to trick myself into paying attention? Maybe, but it works.

Overall, we have nothing to complain about when it comes to the legal requirements. In contrast to so many other FAA rules, the currency standards for private pilots are almost ridiculously light: get an hour of ground and an hour of flight instruction every two years, no testing required. That gives us wide latitude to make up our own proficiency plan, which is a good thing. But it’s incumbent upon us to do that, and not just pencil whip a flight review after 24 months.

It all comes down to attitude. Perhaps the most important difference between a professional and an amateur is whether you embrace continuous learning. Be a pro, even if you fly 40 hours a year.

John Zimmerman
15 replies
  1. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    All good. Just wondering though; we constantly seem to admonish each other to “fly like a pro”, “be a pro”, “train like a professional” etc.

    Why? Most GA pilots do not aspire to be airline pilots and it is not clear that airline pilots are particularly any safer in the GA environment than the rest of us. As a system, the airlines have us beat hands down, but as individuals, I’m not so sure. I guess it is easier to say “fly like a pro” rather than something like “fly and train to the best of your ability and recognize your limitations”.

    Just an odd thought/observation.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      A very good observation. There are certainly many things I don’t like about the pro system – I love the flexibility we have in Part 91 for example. But we do have to admit that their safety record is incredible. If there are a few things we can steal from them in that department, we really should.

      I also cringe when some pilots say something like, “Oh, I’m just a fair weather flyer.” No. You’re a pilot and you can have the same professional attitude as an airline captain. Nobody is “just” a pilot. It’s a big deal.

  2. John Doe
    John Doe says:

    Getting recurrent training is not always easy. Flight instructors tend to be in it for hour building, once they get enough hours they move on. Finding good instructors is difficult in any case. I am fortunate in that I fly at least once every two weeks (my mechanic said my engine will deteriorate if I don’t, not that I need an excuse) and since most pilots I know fly less than that they are not really in a position to help me improve my flying. I do try to challenge myself a little each flight, and that does help me get better. A lot of pilots fear getting out of their comfort zone, you can’t grow if you’re doing the same things over and over. Also there is often a clash of styles with instructors, for example while I am a firm believer of being very thorough with checklists on the ground, I am not a fan of not using checklists in the air, as I believe reading and fumbling with checklists is more dangerous than remembering mnemonics like “GUMPS” and paying attention to your instruments and surroundings during critical phases of flight. Instructors will chew you out like you’re a child if they don’t agree. And that’s usually the only feedback they have for me. Why bother? Funny you mention professional pilots, I recently flew with a Delta captain who said he doesn’t use checklists at all during his GA flights, which really shocked me.

  3. Robert Morrow
    Robert Morrow says:

    My answer was simple: “Because pilots hate recurrent training.”

    Really? No, they hate having to shell out 3-500 bucks. Try this sometime. Take your 172 to the another airport and offer FREE BFR’s and see how many pilots line up. And I don’t mean just your time, I mean the airplane and gas too.

    Do I think the BFR is a bad idea? No. It is however, unrealistic for the Feds to expect that everyone who flys has deep pockets and will be happy about having to shell out the cash to do a BFR.

    Don’t get wrong, I’m all for enhancing safety any time you can, but forced training at my expense is not the way to do it.

    Another idea; have the government set aside a fund to give all pilots a $500 credit on their taxes for doing the BFR and make it so they can go to their local fed and get his time for free too.

    I know none of these things will happen, so we are stuck with what it is. A trip to the dentist. Too bad. I’d rather spend the money on an angle of attack indicator and an ipad with a good gps…..well you see where I’m going with this.

    Fly safe, Bob

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I’m not so sure. I’ve been around some flying clubs that offer a free flight review every year, and getting pilots to take advantage of that is really hard. I’ve also seen some flight schools that offer free simulator time to stay sharp and these schools have had very few people take advantage of it.

      I just don’t believe the cost is the primary driver for most pilots. We’ll spend $200/mo. on a cell phone but we won’t spend $10/mo. on recurrent training ($250 every two years is a whopping $10/mo.)??? Seems like a relatively good investment to me.

    • Richard Warner
      Richard Warner says:

      How many remember when the BFR first came out? We were told its just a review and you can’t fail. Now, they REQUIRE ground instruction and a pretty lengthy flight. Then the flight instructor wants to give you more dual because you FAILED the review. This hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard tales of guys having to rent an airplane with IFR capabilities, although they only fly their 2 seat Cub or Champ local in VFR, because the instructor won’t sign off the biennial in his VFR plane unless he demonstrates he can fly under the hood also. Just another good idea(flight review) that has “gone South”.

      • Duane
        Duane says:

        Richard – the CFI’s you’ve heard others complain of … why on earth would anybody ever go to a CFI on such a basis? They work for you the pilot, not the other way around.

        Just like any other business or occupation in life, some are much better than others. Only use the better ones.

  4. Duane
    Duane says:

    This post seems to be tackling two different subjects – maintaining and improving proficiency as pilots, and doing the required biennial flight review. I agree that a lot of pilots I’ve known hate doing either of the above. Me? I love flying and I want to get better at it, so no problem with either.

    The cost of a BFR is a silly argument – it’s two hours of an instructor’s time once every two years. The airplane – whether rented or owned – is not an additional cost if you love to fly .. who needs an excuse to fly, and why on earth would flying an extra hour per two years be any kind of burden? Reminds me of a friend who told me that flying faster in GA aircraft is highly overrated, because what pilot thinks he’s/she’s “flying too much”? Really!

    A number of the pilots I’ve known are afraid to be challenged, to move out of their respective comfort zones. To the point that they won’t practice touch ‘n go landings, or practice stalls, or practice steep turns. Since those are precisely the kinds of things a CFI is going to walk the pilot through on a BFR, they hate the process.

    Again, me? I love being challenged, not only by the CFI in a BFR, but I also practice those things on my very own, without a CFI pushing me to do it, because I know I need the practice … and because I love to fly and this is yet another excuse to go out and go flying!

    Alas, not all pilots have the same attitudes. Which likely contributes to the stubbornly-not-decreasing rates of loss of control accidents, including the all too common stall-spin accident that accounts for so many of our flight fatalities.

    • John Doe
      John Doe says:

      I believe the issue is more that most GA pilots don’t fly often enough rather than recurrent training. Do you get recurrent training for driving? No, but you probably drive almost every day. Also you talk about the CFI working for you, most CFIs do not understand that. I have found many good CFIs, they end up moving on to something else. Then you have to hire a CFI you have never flown with before. Sometimes they’re good, more often they are not.

      • Duane
        Duane says:

        John – the less that pilots fly, the more they need recurrent training, not less. But even so, even if you fly every day of the week, you still need recurrent training because all of us are subject to developing bad habits, and/or are afraid to do maneuvering flight or otherwise step out of our comfort zones. As John pointed out in his post, there are many ways to develop our skills, such as by flying with others, or trying new types of flying and new types of missions. Merely flying somewhere you haven’t been to before is a challenge to our skills and comfort levels. Or flying to a different type of airport.

        As for CFIs, I’ve had bad and good .. the bad ones I dropped very quickly. The good ones I go back to. They are not all the young time-builders, either. Some of my best have been guys who were professional pilots earning some extra pay, or instructors who actually were professional teachers. Word of mouth gets around pretty quickly in the small world of GA airports. No reason to stick with a bad one for more than one lesson.

        • Duane
          Duane says:

          Speaking of not all CFI’s being young time builders … a few years ago I got to know an older fellow who owned a ranch in New Mexico on which he had his own dirt airstrip, hangar, etc. He knew well all the local backcountry airstrips in the mountains of the Gila wilderness area, and he was gracious enough to host me and some of my friends who wanted to explore those airstrips in close proximity to his mountain ranch. He was just a great guy all around; eager to share his knowledge of the area’s mountain flying with a bunch of strangers from the “city”.

          Well, anyway, at the time I got to know him, he was 77 years old. At a subsequent informal fly-in that we arranged at one of the Gila area backcountry airstrips, he flew in to the airstrip (situated on USFS land) to meet us in his Maule. We chatted for awhile, and he was really beaming … proud that he had just passed his BFR!

          And he went on to tell us that his CFI, the fellow whom had just administered his BFI, was 91 years old! They’d known each other for many decades.

          • John Doe
            John Doe says:

            That’s cool that they’re still flying at that age! It’s great if you can find a good CFI who is in it for the long haul, in my experience there aren’t too many of those guys around. Flying is unique in that everyone focuses on the negatives. I’m not saying that hurts to fly with someone and have that person point out areas for improvement, but if you’re flying everyday you’re going to get good at flying. It’s like anything else, practice makes perfect. I’m still a relatively low time pilot and I hardly fly every day, the last time I went up with a CFI checklist usage is all he had for me (which I already discussed earlier). Flying is unique in that people for whatever reason focus excessively on the dangers. Probably 75% of the articles/blog posts on this site are about the dangers of flying or lecturing you on things you’re probably doing wrong (like this post on not training enough). How about we talk about the fun aspects of flying a little bit? Think about how horrible this industry is at marketing itself. That is why it is dying. Lots of recreational activities are expensive, but they market themselves properly. It’s time we did the same.

  5. David Heberling
    David Heberling says:

    Much of this hand wringing is the result of trying to move the safety needle to the positive side even a smidge. The same accidents keep happening over and over again. In addition, too many innocent people die in these accidents. It is our family and friends who perish with us when we make a mistake and crash. It is because my wife accompanies me on many flights that I strive to practice as much as I can. Stalls, steep turns, short and soft field take offs and landings, go arounds, and power off landings from 3000 feet over the airport. It exercises the airplane and my piloting skills as well.

    Yes, flying is fun. It can be taught to be fun too. BTW, I only use a checklist on the ground GA. In the airline, it is company SOP all the way.

    • Hunter Heath
      Hunter Heath says:

      I agree with David H’s approach. During my most active flying years, I habitually put some kind of proficiency practice into almost every flight– slow flight, steep turns, stalls (my son loved ’em), short/soft field, engine out practice, crosswind t/o or landing, etc. After getting my instrument rating, there were other drills to be woven into any flight. Consequently, I had no anxiety about a BFR, and often had specific areas I wanted the CFI to help me with, including “surprise me!”

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