Are you improving as a pilot?

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Learning anything new is good for your brain. Whether it’s a new language, hobby or instrument, learning new skills stimulates neurons in your brain which form more neural pathways and helps improve all cognitive tasks.

In the spirit of learning new things, among my most enjoyable responsibilities at Sporty’s is piloting our corporate Cessna Citation SII (S550). Because it’s a turbojet airplane, it requires a type rating to serve as PIC and is certified for a two-person crew. The Citation can carry eight passengers up to about 2,000 miles and cruises about 400mph.  It’s powered by Pratt & Whitney JT15D-4B engines providing 2,500 pounds of thrust each.

Jets require pilot-in-command (PIC) proficiency checks annually (61.58). Many airlines, as well as charter and fractional operators, employ alternate training programs that satisfy the same proficiency requirement. Other stand-alone corporate flight departments utilize well-know training organizations that specialize in jet training for both initial, type-rating training and ongoing proficiency training. Most of these training organizations utilize full motion flight simulators and are certified as FAR Part 142 training centers.

Part 142 signals no aircraft and instead, offers an alternative to airplane training via sophisticated simulation equipment. Most insurance underwriters insist on this type of training given its reputation for thoroughness and the ability to experience high repetition exercises and accomplish items that may not be possible or safe in the actual aircraft.

I recently traveled to a Flight Safety International training center in Texas to complete my annual PIC proficiency check in the virtual world for the Citation. While the training experience is something to look forward to, it can also be humbling and grueling from a mental and physical perspective. The proficiency training is completed over a four-day period and is very intense and prescriptive. The curriculum is approved by the FAA and includes traditional classroom instruction as well as simulator flying.

Because I train with a crew, we alternate flying left seat as Captain and right seat as the pilot monitoring. This exchange of roles enhances your overall awareness of the various tasks to accomplish in a jet (especially in the case of an emergency) and helps us as crew members improve our communication and crew resource management.

Classroom instruction consists of a review of each system on the aircraft as well as exercises in responding to various abnormal or emergency scenarios. We also accomplish a variety of weight and balance and performance calculations and review elements of basic airmanship such as upset recovery and prevention, weather recognition and avoidance, and any emphasis areas that may have come about from a recent accident or FAA directive.

The advanced, full-motion simulation is an exact replica of the airplane down to every switch and circuit breaker. Visual systems in many of these devices produces a level of realism that can be indecipherable from the real thing. While the simulator flying is prescriptive in terms of basic air work (stalls, steep turns, emergency descents, etc.), various enroute and approach scenarios will evolve according to how the crew reacts. There are many situations and abnormalities, or compounded malfunctions, that don’t necessarily have a correct response and could very well have multiple solutions – all part of the learning process.

It’s healthy exercise to say the least and, while the training represents a significant investment, is the reason why many operators voluntarily choose to accomplish this proficiency training on even a more frequent schedule than is required by the regulations. The training is a fundamental element of achieving the level of safety that is achieved in a two-pilot crew jet aircraft.

I’ve been participating in annual proficiency training for nearly 20 years and can honestly say, in spite of my familiarity with the aircraft, procedures and airmanship principles, there are always invaluable learning experiences that take place. It’s a time to force yourself into uncomfortable situations from which we can grow and create new experiences to sharpen our skill.

Is it likely to experience an engine failure at V1 (takeoff decision speed) in a heavy airplane on a hot, summer night in reduced visibility? Probably not, but understanding how the airplane reacts when operating at the edge of its capabilities offers added confidence and responses more decisive.

Are we likely to experience a cabin fire on rotation requiring an immediate 180-degree return to the airport with an overweight airplane? Fortunately, not, but this most uncomfortable experience maneuvering at night low level to get the airplane safely on the ground and evacuated certainly stimulated neurons in my brain that will help me deal with new, high stress (high risk) situations in the future.

It doesn’t take a trip to a Part 142 training center to put these concepts into practice. It can be done by paging through the expanded procedures section of your Pilot Information Manual; participating in an ATD training session at your local school; adding a certificate or rating; attending a safety seminar; playing the “what-if” game with yourself or fellow pilots; or reviewing aviation investigative reports.  It can be done by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations within a controlled environment.

As is proven year after year in the statistics, our most effective risk mitigation tool is being a well-trained pilot. Keep learning!

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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.