Are you grading yourself as a pilot?

Report card grades
Be honest–how would you grade your last flight?

One of the best ways to become a better pilot is easy, free and doesn’t require a flight instructor. Sound too good to be true? Hardly. In fact, you may already do it, at least in some form.

It’s the post-flight evaluation.

Every time you fly, you probably have some gut feel about how well you performed. A solid post-flight evaluation is really just taking this gut feel to the next level. Try to force yourself to review each part of the flight–from pre-flight to landing–in a structured, disciplined way. A good time to do this is on the drive home from the airport, while the details of the flight are still fresh in your mind.

What should you review? Beyond just “that landing stunk,” replay the flight in your mind and go through a quick checklist:

  • Did I violate any FARs? Hopefully not, but another question might be “what do the FARs say about that situation?” Did your flight raise any questions about the regulations that suggest further study?
  • Did I break any personal minimums? This is often an uncomfortable question. Breaking FARs is very rare, but more than once I’ve had to admit to pushing my personal limits, whether for crosswinds or weather. If you routinely break your minimums, then they aren’t real minimums. Don’t have personal minimums? Make some. Even if they’re not extremely detailed, you ought to have some sense of what conditions are too much for you and your airplane.
  • Did I learn any new tricks? Sometimes we do and simply fail to recognize it. If your landings today were all excellent, ask why. You may have discovered a better approach.
  • Did I uncover any traps? Another place to be brutally honest. I can remember at least one instance when I accepted a clearance I should not have. It was an accident waiting to happen, but I didn’t fully realize it until after the flight. I walked through how it happened and how to avoid it next time–and I haven’t made that mistake again.
  • Did the weather match the forecast? Even on the shortest flight, there’s usually something weather-related to learn. On cross-country flights, I go so far as to save the weather/radar map I looked at before the flight and compare it to the one right after my flight. Seeing the difference between forecast and actual and then exploring why it changed is a great learning opportunity. You really can and should learn about weather on every flight, even if you only fly VFR.

This approach may sound obvious to some, but a disciplined review of your flying can pay big rewards. For student pilots, this is especially true, as you can learn an awful lot without the Hobbs running (which means it’s free). You might set a goal of getting 3 hours of learning out of every hour of actual flying. Some pilots go so far as to re-fly the flight on a home flight simulator or using a cockpit video camera.

The post-flight evaluation isn’t just for student pilots, though. After you earn your license, there isn’t much of a requirement to keep learning other than the obligatory flight review every two years. The safe pilot has a much higher standard than this, though. The impetus is on you to continually get better, which means every flight should be a learning experience. An honest self-critique can also be a great way to ward off complacency, which is one of the most dangerous traits any pilot can have.

Most importantly, it’s vital to do a post-flight evaluation after every flight, no matter how good it was. After all, that “good flight” may not be so good after some introspection.

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John knows how lucky he is to go to work every day at an airport. As Vice President of Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s Catalog Division, he says, “I get to hang around airplanes all the time, flying regularly and testing new products for the catalog.” Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. Despite his love of low and slow flight, John says, “I love the challenge of IFR flying in the system. Seeing the runway lights as you break out on approach is a thrill.”