Tips on staying proficient

Ok, there are not many subject areas in aviation which are more well-trodden than the old “stay proficient” troupe. It has almost become one of the tried and true aviation cliche’s, joining the ranks of phrases like “How do you make a million dollars in aviation? Start with two!” at the official Old-Timers meetings at every small-town FBO.

However, if you have been involved in aviation for any significant amount of time, you’ll already know that being Current and being Proficient can be two very different things. Recency of experience and the applicability of that experience to what you are trying to do in an airplane today are both very significant factors in determining if your operation will have a safe outcome. All pilots know the feeling of not…quite being as sharp as they would like. A missed radio call here, perhaps a safe but inelegant takeoff there. Just a slight dulling of your pilot skills’ normally sharp blade, brought on by some subtle and varied factors. Perhaps a lack of sleep, stress at home, or life getting too busy to fly regularly has put you in this position. Perhaps you’re not sick enough to feel obligated to cancel the flight, but you know you’re not at 100%.

As an instructor, I’ve seen many different types of pilots over the years. I’ve seen sharp individuals who were exemplary pilots, committed and focused on the task at hand, and strongly attached to both check list usage and following the limitations and prescribed procedures from the Pilot’s Operating Handbook. I’ve also seen cowboys who could barely be bothered to acknowledge the existence of another person in the cockpit, so committed were they to what could only be described as a “performance” on a flight review or aircraft check out. From these pilots’ perspective, any sort of proficiency check with an instructor was simply a box to be checked prior to going back to operating however they like. Hazardous attitudes were nicely tucked away for an hour, and notes on technique and procedures were received, although it was apparent that they likely would be disregarded soon after.

The vast majority of us would prefer to be like the first pilot: an example of proficiency and a true practitioner of the craft of aviating; the next level up from a being just another person who flies airplanes. To move toward that end goal, dedicated practice beyond that which is required to simply comply with the regulations is required. When you are studying or practicing alone or training with an instructor, there are a few things which can help make your journey smoother; let’s take a look at just a few, below:

  1. Have a good headset.

Training in a loud airplane with an old, heavy, potentially unreliable headset can add extra stress, hassle and distraction to your mission. I spent 10 years flying with a headset that was well used even when I bought it. Once I upgraded to a nice, lighter noise-canceling headset, I could not believe the difference. As simple as it may seem, investing in a good headset like the Bose A20 or similar can make both your training and your everyday flying safer and more enjoyable:

Bose A20 Aviation Headset with Bluetooth Dual Plug Cable, Black

2. There is no way around studying the regulations.

Yep, there is no substitute for reading the actual regulations as they pertain to your operation. Many people prefer the solid, physical FAR/AIM as opposed to searching specific regulations on the FAA website. At such a low price at least in aviation terms!), it might make sense to get a physical copy of the Federal Aviation Regulations and Aeronautical Information Manual (FAR/AIM) which you can study and highlight to your heart’s content!

FAR/AIM 2022: Federal Aviation Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual (ASA FAR/AIM Series)

3. If you’re training IFR, get a good view limiting device.

Many pilots who are training for their instrument rating, or working on staying proficient by flying practice approaches with a safety pilot or instructor just use whichever hood is provided by the FBO. Increase both your focus and comfort by getting your own hood or pair of Foggles. It’s a more sanitary choice than using the same piece of equipment as everyone else, with the added bonus of fitting just right for your personal preference:

4. Add a new certificate or rating.

The pilot who is focusing on a specific mission, like adding a Commercial certificate, Instrument rating or an additional endorsement like High Performance or High Altitude will naturally apply their efforts toward the goal, increasing their proficiency. Make sure you have all the right study materials before beginning your endeavor (depending on what you’re looking to do, an online course here at Pilot Proficient may also help 🙂

GLEIM Deluxe Instrument/Commercial Pilot KIT

5. A cool flashlight?

Ok, a flashlight like this will not help you stay proficient, but it’s pretty hard to resist a good flashlight, especially one with a red light mode for night flying:

Smith & Wesson Night Guard Elite Dual-Beam 400 Lumen Flashlight with Red/White Modes

In the end, no product will be able to make sure you are current, proficient and ready to face the potential challenges which may confront you on a normal flight, let alone an abnormal or emergency situation. The ultimate tool to ensure your proficiency is between the pilot’s ears; a humble pilot who is chasing (ultimately unattainable) mastery of his or her craft is virtually guaranteed to become and remain proficient, while the headstrong self-professed “virtuoso” who does not believe that a focus on his own skills is even warranted since they are already so divine, will falter and give away most of whatever stuck the last time they were listening to input.

Proficiency is a “guilty until proven innocent” arrangement, where only your last flight counts, and nothing is guaranteed going forward. Study hard, train frequently and remember that if you’re not flying for a living, you and only you are the ultimate decision-maker on just how proficient you need to remain. You’re also likely to be the only one who knows when the edge is starting to get dull, and, of course, the one with the responsibility to sharpen it once again.

Thanks, and fly safely!