6 tips for pilot proficiency and development

Flying is like any skill – use it or lose it

As you’re already aware, earning a pilot certificate is a fun and rewarding experience that will provide you with a lifetime of thrills and excitement.  But it’s also a license to learn and requires a system of continuing education and proficiency.

First, a word of caution – while your flying fundamentals will no doubt be sharp when you earn your ticket, the majority of your training and checkride preparation was likely spent close to home.  This isn’t a bad thing, but there is still a wealth of knowledge and skill to be gained during the flying that will come beyond the certificate.  Aeronautical decision making and judgment is a constant “work-in-process.”  It’s quite likely that not a lot of experience has been gained at this point in flying cross-country, managing weather, planning for alternates, communicating with ATC or dealing with equipment malfunctions. In other words, you’ll need to commit time to determining what your personal limitations will look like as a newly-certificated pilot.

Here is my advice for maintaining proficiency, gaining experience and managing personal minimums.

1) Fly – Yes, it sounds too basic to believe and you may even want to laugh, but you’d be surprised at the number of new pilots that do little or no flying after the certificate.  The reasons are numerous, but one that I’ve heard is that there’s no longer a commitment to come to the airport to meet the instructor for a lesson.  Seriously?  The certificate is a gateway…an open door to freedom and adventure.  Share that experience with friends or family and take a leisurely flight.  Make the commitment to fly.

Quality time on the ground with your avionics will pay dividends

2) Master the avionics – Regardless of your panel’s complexity, there is technology to be mastered.  Achieving the level of proficiency where control inputs become instinctive, while already task saturated, can literally save the day.  Like anything, this is knowledge that will degrade over time, so study your manuals and take advantage of simulator programs and training videos.  As a start, you’ll want to be thoroughly familiar with your aircraft’s autopilot and GPS.

3) Checklists & flows – Use a checklist AND flight deck flow for all of your procedures.  Aviation happens to be at the forefront when it comes to checklist usage.  The safest operations I’m familiar with typically use multiple checklist styles and layers for added safety that will evolve with time and experience.

In a to-do system, you would methodically read through each item on the checklist and then perform the necessary task as you come to the item.  As you become more familiar with an aircraft, you should consider and develop “flows” – an organized and consistent pattern of moving around the flight deck to accomplish items required of the upcoming checklist. 

Undoubtedly you’ve learned or developed a mental checklist or if not, you likely will at some point.  There’s the famous “GUMPS” as a before landing (G – gas, U – undercarriage, M – mixture, P – prop, S – seatbelt & switches) and “CIGAR” as a before takeoff.  The mental checklist will serve as another valuable layer of redundancy and perhaps even a lifesaver in a critical situation with little or not time to consult a written list.  

A good post-flight will allow you to catch items early

4) Thorough Pre-Flight/Post-Flight Procedures Review

A safe flight starts with a thorough preflight to minimize the chance of any surprises.  Get in the habit of reviewing weather, routes, performance, terrain, and contingency plans. This review should also include available airports along your route.

Also carefully study airport layouts and taxiway diagrams for your airports of intended use.  e particularly aware of any traps or hot spots.  And again, plan for alternate airports even in good weather – this exercise will keep you sharp if a diversion is ever necessary for weather, a malfunction or even a bathroom break.

Don’t miss the valuable post-flight opportunity. The time to discover items requiring attention on the aircraft is after a flight so issues can be addressed ahead of your next flight.

5) Meaningful Flight Reviews – A flight review doesn’t just need to be accomplished when the regulations say so.  A flight review can happen anytime and you should voluntarily participate in meaningful proficiency training.  Venture outside your comfort zone with an instructor in the interest of your personal development.

6) Maintain the personal minimums discipline – Finally, regardless of your adherence to a proficiency program, the discipline is ultimately adhering to those personal minimums. Personal minimums are just that – personal.  It’s not something you can read in a book. Stay within your comfort zone, continuously question your guidelines and remember, an occasional feeling of trepidation is healthy.

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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.