What to practice with limited flying time

No matter what you fly or why, you’re certainly doing less flying now as the country tries to survive the Covid-19 virus. So how can we get the most effective practice and proficiency retention out of the limited flying we can do?

The traditional answer—and the one the FARs regarding currency are built on—is stay in the pattern and shoot landings. Practicing landing is important, for sure, but I think there are some other maneuvers that can test and refine your skills more effectively in less flying time.

The landing currency rules are ancient, dating way back to before my time. And I think I understand the reason for the landing practice emphasis. You see, those rules were made when most airplanes had conventional landing gear. Seems odd to call a taildragger conventional, but it was then. Not now.

Landing a taildragger, especially if there is any wind, is challenging. With the center of gravity aft of the main gear the tail wants to get ahead of the nose. And it’s your job to keep that from happening.

Citabria on grass runway
Staying current on landings is essential in a taildragger; but a Cessna 172?

I learned to fly in a Cessna 140 taildragger, and nearly all of my first 500 hours were logged ahead of a tailwheel. What I know about landing, or taking off in, a taildragger, is that the exercise is more subliminal than intellectual. You can know that you need to press on the rudder or brake when the taildragger swerves, but thinking about that takes too long. Your reaction must be quick and instinctive, and that comes only from actual practice.

On the other hand, landing a tricycle gear airplane is straightforward. If you have achieved proficiency in landing a type, it’s easy to retain that skill. It’s really about airspeed control, monitoring sink rate, and knowing the proper sight picture on approach. And after touchdown the trike tries to straighten its path down the runway, not diverge and head for the ditch like a taildragger.

So here are some practice maneuvers I think will test and sharpen your skills more quickly and efficiently than going round and round the patch in a tricycle gear airplane.

Steep Turns

If you’re very demanding of yourself, and try really hard to stick to the assigned airspeed, altitude and bank angle, I don’t think there is a pilot challenge that is more difficult than the steep turn.

The well flown steep turn is actually an instrument flying maneuver. You don’t need a hood or observer pilot because looking out the windshield won’t help much, if at all. The only way to know that you’re flying the steep turn as near perfectly as possible is to scan the instruments.

If you’re really looking for a challenge, fly 360-degree or more steep turns at 60 degrees of bank angle. But the training standard is a constant 45 degree bank angle. The three measures of success are to maintain bank angle within plus or minus 5 degrees; airspeed within plus or minus 10 knots; and altitude within plus or minus 100 feet all the way around. Of course, those are the outer limits of a passing grade. Your real goal is a much tighter tolerance.

The reasons the steep turn is difficult is that you must use all available control inputs. As you roll into the bank, the airspeed will decrease so you need to add power. As the bank steepens, the nose will want to drop so you must pull back to maintain altitude. At 45 degrees of bank most airplanes have a tendency to steepen the bank when you pull back and increase load on the wing, so you’ll probably need to add some aileron against the turn to stop that.

On rollout the goal is to not lose or gain airspeed or altitude and maintain the target heading, so you need to reverse all of those control inputs you made to initiate and maintain the steep turn.

It’s hard to fly the steep turn perfectly. But it doesn’t take a lot of time like flying a full pattern does to practice a landing. The steep turn will reveal your proficiency—or lack of it—quicker than any maneuver I can think of.

Constant speed and rate climbs and descents

This is a standard IFR training maneuver and something almost none of us fly after we get the instrument rating. But like the steep turn, it’s hard to do, and will reveal how sharp you are at making adjustments to all controls to fly the climbs and descents perfectly.

Instrument panel in Cessna
Flying a descent at constant airspeed and with the ball centered is not as easy as it sounds.

To fly the maneuver, pick a target vertical speed rate, target airspeed, and, of course, an assigned heading. When you begin the descent airspeed builds so you need a power and pitch adjustment. Establishing the target vertical speed takes many almost continuous power and pitch changes. And to level at the target altitude without changing airspeed demands reversal of most previous control inputs.

And if you’re really being hard on yourself, as you should be, keep close watch on the slip-skid ball. In many airplanes pitch and power changes also require rudder input to keep the ball exactly in the center.

The constant speed and rate descent is also perfect practice for a landing approach without the needed extra time to fly around the pattern to try again.

Tracking a ground or GPS course

No skills are more fundamental to flying, nor more revealing of pilot proficiency, than the ability to hold a heading to fly a desired course while also maintaining altitude or airspeed. If we can do those tasks no flying maneuver is out of reach, and our landings will be safe.

To see how good you are, punch up a direct course to some point on your navigator, or look down and select some feature on the ground to follow. Then turn to that course while holding altitude and airspeed.

If there is any wind you will need to make heading adjustments to maintain the desired course. This is private pilot training stuff, but it’s in the private course because it’s so essential. At the private level you won’t be expected to be perfect, but now that you have a certificate and want to test and maintain your proficiency, demand perfection of yourself. It’s not easy, especially when you turn the flight director off—gulp—which to me is a really bad day at the office.

If you fly a couple near perfect steep turns, execute great constant speed and rate climbs and descents, and track a course with near perfection, your return landing at the airport will be great. I promise. And you will have practiced more basic skills, and measured your proficiency more, in less flying time than it takes to fly three or four circuits of the pattern.

14 Comments

  • Dear Mac, I wonder if that is your impression because you first learned in taildraggers. I say that, because when I did my first flight in a taildragger, I was already a CPL with almost 300 hours, and felt no difficulty at all – although I did felt frustrated when I first learned on any kind of airplane, which happened to be a tricycle gear. I do not question whether landing a tailwheel airplane is harder – I believe it is, and this is one of the main reasons why I think first learning in a tricycle is a smart choice: you will get the hand of it faster, therefore is gonna be cheaper. The second reason is more obvious: every experience is important, but not every experience is essential. So, if you aim for the airlines, for example, not having a taildragger endorsement is not gonna change your life, since DC-3s are long gone. But I think its difficulty is overrated. What a pilot needs, when it comes to proficiency, is to practice in the kind of airplane and flight he does normally. Having said that, my last landing was this week, after almost two months. I did not break the airplane, it was not super smooth. But was safe and ahead of schedule, as it is supposed to be and have been for years. I hope to not have to wait much more until my next – even because these days, this ancient recency rule is still there, and the clock is ticking. Safe flights!

    • Hi Enderson,
      Thanks for the comments, and happy to hear your most recent landing went ok.
      I couldn’t help but note your comment about the landing not being super smooth. I know we as pilots, and certainly many passengers, judge a landing to be good based on smoothness. The fabled greaser.
      But in terms of safety the good landing is one that is on the center line, in the target touchdown zone, with the airplane track aligned with the runway. A solid thumb is just fine as long as the primary criteria are met.
      The worst landing in terms of safety is a very smooth one that is the result of “feeling” for the pavement as you float over the runway. Runway behind you is the most useless thing in flying.
      Bests,
      Mac Mc

  • I can’t disagree with Mac’s suggestions regarding practice maneuvers, but his premise is that we all have limited time to fly due to the CCP virus.
    I, for one, have actually flown more in these past 7 weeks than in any other similar block of time prior. Much of that time was in practice for my instrument check ride, but I also managed some good CC time. I had my check ride in April, during the height of the “crisis”. I suppose my point is that pilots tend to be an independent, pragmatic group of people not particularly inclined to follow the herd.
    And let’s face it, it’s pretty obvious that flying solo at 4500 feet is the ultimate “social distancing”.

    • Robert, you are among the fortunate few. Every measure of flying activity for the past couple months is way off. Like down 70 to 80 percent.
      It’s true that there are few restrictions on flying. Some localities have limited flight training along with other school activities. But in every situation I’m aware of aviation has been deemed a “critical” activity so FBOs, maintenance shops, and flying are permitted.
      I think I’m in the largest group of pilots who are flying very little, and for that group, the reason is we have no place to go. Business contacts have been put on hold, meetings of all sorts are delayed, and people are simply hunkering down.
      I see a little light at the end of the tunnel as the company I fly for is starting back to work next week in the automotive industry.
      I don’t know what normal will be for pilots, but I hope we get to it soon.
      And congrats on the IFR check ride.
      Mac Mc

  • This is one of best articles I’ve read for awhile. Makes really good sense and the explanations are spot-on. Makes we want to pursue my commercial! Thank you!

  • As GSI for 31 years at CAE, I have seen it, heard it, taught it. As crew member on B-52D/G aircraft, I lived it. As a private pilot, I get it. But at some time in your flying life, one must go beyond proficiency and training and just fly for the beauty, thril, and awesomeness of being in the glorious sky. Proficiency is it’s own reward, but not the only reward.

  • I completely agree with this. The conventional gear aircraft ( I currently own and fly AND land a Tailwind W8 regularly ) will teach the aviator about keeping the nose of the aircraft lined up with it’s direction of travel and make your landings better in both types.
    The practice of more aggressive maneuvers can be a life saver ( personal experience talking here ).
    There is huge satisfaction, comfort and pride in knowing the aircraft you are flying no matter what type, make or model.

  • During the last couple of weeks my mind was revolving around exactly the question that led to your article. Thanks for sharing!
    I agree on the steep turns by the way. Perfect mix of rating your proficiency and fun to fly.

    Stay safe,

    Leonard

  • Great article, Mac. Thank you.

    While most may be flying less right now, I find myself flying far more often than typical – about 5 hrs per week right now. You see, I live in an airpark, and my Luscombe 8A and Mooney M20C are close by. In Pre-COVID times, my long drive to and from the office wasted precious flying time everyday. Usually, I’d have to wait for the weekend to fly. Nowadays, working from home, I get up at dawn, go flying, then start my work day. Other local airports have been less busy, allowing plenty of power-off short approach landings in the Luscombe (and not the typical “four aircraft in the pattern” and all the extended downwinds).

    I am not looking forward to having to go back into the office … it’ll really slow down the rate of entries in my logbook.

  • Respectfully, I have to disagree with the assertion that the steep turn should be treated — indeed can only be flown — as an instrument maneuver. I’m quite confident that my private pilot check ride was saved by an article I’d read shortly before, saying that the best way to control pitch/altitude and bank angle is by looking outside at the horizon reference. Going heads-down in VMC, for any maneuver, is just not good advice in my opinion.

    • Hi David,
      To perform these maneuvers with precision you must scan. Adding a scan through the windshield along with the scan of the other six critical instruments would be great. In fact, it would make it an even greater challenge.
      In the early 1980s I earned my Lear Jet type rating through the Lear Jet training program. After the complete simulator training and checking, the Lear training guys took over and we did everything over again, and this time in the real airplane.
      The checkride was also in the real airplane. I asked the examiner if he wanted me to wear a hood. He said I could if I wanted, but looking out the windshield would only make my task more difficult.
      And he was right. So if you want to add a windshield scan to the essential instrument scan you will make the tasks more challenging, and thus more valuable as training and currency aids.
      Mac Mc

      • Interesting, Mac. You’ve got way more type ratings than me (“some” vs. “none”!) so I certainly have to consider your experience. Good thing to go try on my next outing, which is very much the point of the article, isn’t it? Thanks!

  • Great article. One of the measures I use to determine how good my steep turns are is to get into my wake turbulence on completion of the 360 degrees. Granted the wake will tend to descend somewhat. If you hit your wake the turn has to be fairly tight. Of course the steep bank is also one of the more fun maneuvers as well as a good training aid. Thanks for the articles, when it’s time to stop learning about flying it’s time to stop flying.

  • Thank you, Mac, for the article – good points. I’m not flying often for other reasons – mostly financial ones – so for me it’s important to keep proficient and safe. Among the items you mentioned, I have also on my practice list PFL (practice forced landings) and 180 glide turns. Both skills are the things we do not do in normal flying, but need to be almost automatic should they are needed. Therefore, I believe, these need good dedicated practice once in a while.

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