Returning to Flying After a Break
Unfortunately for those of us who do not fly for a living on a daily basis, it often happens that life gets in the way of our aviation aspirations. Sometimes it is a lack of financial resources and sometimes other life interests take priority. But sometimes something as simple as a tiny blob of molecules about 200 nanometres across is enough to screw up our carefully crafted plans and aspirations.
Whatever the reason, returning to flying after a long break has some challenges. Flying encompasses a number of highly perishable skills, both physical and mental.
In this article we explore some of the issues the returning pilot might encounter and offer some solutions about how to deal with these.
A unique skillset
As pilots we learn some basic skills which are pretty hard to forget. For example, pull back on the stick and the houses get smaller, push forward on the stick and they get bigger again. But beyond that there are a myriad of skills that may not be recalled so easily, whether consciously or sub-consciously.
A great example of this is the skill that we require to be in perfect working order when we have pulled back on the stick so far that the houses start to get bigger again. Every pilot’s reaction to the aerodynamic stall needs to be fast and correct.
We have all seen the videos of student pilots who instinctively use ailerons instead of rudder to pick up a stalled wing, although I am sure none of the readers of this fine publication would ever be that stupid. But the fact is that such behaviour is a natural human response that pilot training must overcome. Much like learning to not spontaneously defecate when presented with an oversized invoice for an undersized period of flight training.
Experience makes a difference
A pilot’s experience is traditionally measured in terms of logged flying hours. This is because relying on a pilot’s own opinion of their flying skills would result in almost all pilots being absolutely perfect. The experience level may also have a bearing on the types of errors that might arise after a period of abstinence (from flying).
For example, a very low hour pilot might suffer degradation to basic motor skills, while a higher hour pilot might find that certain activities that were performed automatically before the break may now require some conscious thought. That may lead to over-thinking or even some self-doubt about the retained skill levels. According to Murphy’s Law, this will occur at the worst possible time.
Mooney or Malvern Star?
Some say that flying is like riding a bike. You never forget. Except that when you do it is going to hurt. A lot.
I still remember my first attempt at riding a bicycle. It was ugly and cost me a fair bit of skin. Fortunately, it was on Lord Howe Island and there was virtually no traffic to deal with, although a certain less-than-nimble Jersey cow may never be the same again. I rode bikes extensively throughout my school years, including the regular performance of some quite acrobatic stunts that I eventually mastered. But then I discovered the motor car and the bike was sold for beer money.
Fast forward 30 years and someone (who obviously wanted me dead) suggested getting a couple of pushbikes to ‘keep fit’. I reluctantly agreed and took my first ride in more than 3 decades. After a couple of minor wobbles, the sense of balance returned fairly quickly, although I was not anywhere near game to try any of the acrobatics of old. No skin was lost this time, but the overall skill levels were only a fraction of what they had once been. The confidence levels were also noticeably lower.
But because of my newly acquired allergy to Lycra and being run off the road, I quickly decided that the “deadly pedally” could go back to the shop from whence it came.
So, with this highly scientific experiment concluded, I can confidently say that if someone says that “flying is like riding a bike”, you might want to be bloody careful.
Coincidentally, after a 10-year break from flying, I experienced similar feelings. On the first flight back, I experienced the same nerves as my original first flight when we hit a few minor speed bumps in the air. But everything settled quickly and after about 3 flying hours I was back to where I left off all those years prior. And no Lycra required.
But what if you have taken a few months off from flying, as many have during the COVID-19 crisis? Obviously, you won’t need to start again at the beginning, but what can you do to make sure your first flight back is not your last?
Access to a flight simulator is ideal. However, unless your local flight school owns one, or you (or your new bestie) has invested a fair amount of hard-earned in a reasonably sophisticated home one, you might need to look at some alternatives.
Mental rehearsal is a strategy that becomes more common on the higher rungs of the success ladder. This is quite common with elite athletes and has also been practised in progressive businesses for many years.
For example, many of the leading pro-golfers will visualise the shot in their mind just before they make the real one. Back when I played golf on a regular basis, I tried this a few times. But for some reason, the only shot I could ever visualise involved tequila, lemon and salt. Damn that 19th hole.
In your idle moments, you might try to visualise a complete circuit, for example. Try to do this as close to real time as possible rather than skipping the dull bits. In most cases you should always be doing something at all times in the real circuit, so this should not be too difficult.
Start with the radio calls, then looking out for traffic, lining up, rolling, instrument checks, rotate, climb out, balanced turns, more radio calls, setting up for landing, the approach, flare, touchdown and taxi off the runway.
Boring meetings or even public transport are great for this, just don’t make airplane noises at the same time. Or Gatling gun noises, that freaks people out (don’t ask me how I know). However, if you can find somewhere private, talking your way through the entire process – as if you were explaining everything you are doing in minute detail to a passenger – might help reinforce the process.
Better still, if you have some in-cabin video from previous flights in the aircraft you will be flying on your return, that would be ideal to follow through the process.
Alfie, Bravo, Chuck
One handy tip for those who struggle to instantly and accurately recall the phonetic alphabet is to practice while driving your car. When it is safe to do so, try saying out loud the letters of every number plate you see as quickly as possible. This is a great way to both learn the phonetic alphabet and maintain automatic recall especially when you only fly occasionally. Don’t let it distract you from the main task at hand, though.
Check, one, two
The humble checklist was invented because in 1934 a highly experienced flight crew forgot a critical step in the take-off process. The aircraft was destroyed, and 2 lives were lost.
For the rest of us, the checklist is an essential part of aviation. However, it does happen that as a pilot becomes more experienced and familiar with an aircraft, the reliance on the written checklist may reduce as often-repeated processes become second nature. Sometimes the pilot may modify the checklist ‘on the fly’ (intended) because the written one provided does not provide a natural flow for the particular aircraft being flown.
After a long break from flying, any items committed to memory may have faded. The returning pilot should address this potential deficiency in two main areas.
Firstly, some checklists are normally committed to memory, such as most emergency lists and usually the pre-landing list for small aircraft. These should be revised and practised on dry land during the lead-up to the first flight back, and perhaps for a few flights after that if required.
Secondly, the pilot should strictly adhere to the written checklists provided for the aircraft until a high level of familiarity has returned. The pilot should also have a strategy for dealing with interruptions that may occur during a checklist sequence. The safest strategy in most cases may be to start that sequence again.
Bring a friend
For the first flight back, consider taking either an instructor or safety pilot along for the ride. This can serve as a backstop in case you have any major issues (unlikely unless you are a very low hour pilot) or to get you back to the top of your game as quickly as possible.
You may be quite capable of controlling the aircraft and performing a satisfactory circuit with few or no distractions. But you need to consider how you would cope with a high stress environment after a long break.
For example, say that the circuit is full, another pilot is not doing what you expect, then your radio fails. Are you certain that your head is going to be in the right place to deal with that or any other situation that may arise? It is always safer to hope for the best but plan for the worst.
Don’t try to rush your return to the sky. Make sure your preparation is 100%, and don’t cut any corners. Plan every detail like you did when you were new, and before complacency set in.
Ensure that you have the maximum available redundancy wherever possible. Assume everything will go wrong and plan accordingly.
Importantly, check every available resource for changes that might have happened while you were grounded. For example, the airspace around South East Queensland has had some significant changes during COVID-19 due to the commissioning of new runways at Brisbane and Sunshine Coast airports.
You will most likely need a new ERSA and maps. If you use Electronic Flight Bags exclusively, then make sure these have been updated correctly and your subscriptions are current. Whatever system you use, take the time to re-familiarise yourself with local airspace and procedures before you go flying.
Practice radio calls at home whenever you can. As always, LiveATC.net is an excellent resource for keeping the brain in tune with aircraft radio procedures.
Recently acquired skills
After a long break, issues may arise with skills that were newly acquired in the leadup to the break from flying. This may involve something as simple as starting the engine.
For example, someone we know (not me, honest!) spent many years flying carburettor-type aircraft and moved on to a fuel injected model just before the enforced break. On returning to the injected model, the more recently learned habits were temporarily forgotten and the brain reverted to the old, ingrained methods. On that occasion the engine did start, although more through good luck than good management.
That was not a particularly critical issue, but there are many others that might be. Take retractable gear, for example. Forgetting that you need to actually extend the gear rather than just parroting “undercarriage is down and welded” or something similar might turn out to be rather expensive – and embarrassing.
If you do take an instructor or safety pilot and everything goes smoothly, you might take the opportunity to learn a new skill or practice an old skill that has become a bit rusty.
Finally, don’t forget the 90 day / 3 take-offs and landings rule before taking passengers. And if you do decide to take an instructor on your first flight back, make sure that they are current as well. And wearing a mask.
Keeping it up
In the process of acquiring the Recreational Pilot Licence (CASA) or Recreational Pilot Certificate (RAAus), a pilot is taught to handle a wide variety of landing configurations. But then these skills deteriorate little by little as time goes by. Some flying schools focus solely on one type of approach such as the glide or a stabilised approach. They have their reasons, but we believe that the wider the pilot’s skillset in the landing phase, the less likely they are to come to grief when the unexpected eventually happens.
We are all taught the glide approach, flapless landings and short field landings (which are also useful when one must go from a normal speed approach to one that is as slow as possible to let a plane take off between the previous aircraft and ourselves). Then there are partial flap, full flap, and crosswind landings. And that’s before we get to the more advanced techniques. All these need to be practiced just to maintain proficiency, let alone produce any improvement in skill levels.
In our opinion, there are a number of basic skills that should be practiced on a regular basis. The following table lists some of these along with the usual locations and instruction that may be suitable. You may need to add extra lines for other flying skills required for ratings and endorsements. However, you should always personalise this plan to your own requirements and experience (with your instructor’s advice and input) before commencing any practice sessions.
Use the circuit
While some consider circuits as boring, we believe that the circuit is a better place to sharpen one’s skills than going for a scenic flight around the bay/mountains/insert favourite destination here.
The circuit is the perfect environment for pilots to keep their skills at a high level. Aside from the obvious variety of take-offs and landings, these include:
- Accelerating on the runway with the option to abort the take off if any of the instruments show something not right
- Climbing for different outcomes e.g. Vx, Vy, cruise climb
- Climbing turns
- Use of rudder in turns
- Levelling out
- Speed control
- Trimming the aircraft
- Transitions from one manoeuvre to the next.
There is also the opportunity for more frequent interaction with other aircraft while in the circuit. Apart from the obvious benefits, this is a great environment for developing situational awareness. By listening to (and quickly analysing) every radio call, we can quickly build up a mental picture of the circuit in our head. When we look out the window, we already know pretty much what we are going to see as far as other aircraft are concerned.
We should also have some idea of the relative speeds of each aircraft and what that will mean for our own performance in the circuit. This is why it is important to broadcast your aircraft type as often as sensibly practical. For example, if we are in a Cessna 182 and have a Foxbat immediately in front of us, we know that we cannot proceed at full speed around the circuit. Conversely, if we are in the Foxbat amongst faster aircraft then we would be mindful to keep the speed up and fly tight circuits wherever possible. Or just go somewhere else.
Play nice with others
Interacting with other aircraft in the circuit can sometimes inject an element of the unknown into the session. This can be great for honing the skills for dealing with the unexpected. One of our favourite exercises is trying to maintain a standard size circuit by controlling speed when the preceding traffic decides to take the scenic route on a wide downwind or late base turn.
There have also been occasions when other traffic has misinterpreted ATC instructions and joined the wrong leg or made turns at the wrong time or in the wrong direction. By knowing what is going on at all times in the circuit, we have so far managed to avoid any potentially serious issues.
Play it safe
Don’t try to be a hero on your first flight back. It may take you some time to get ahead of the aircraft again, so play it safe, plan, prepare and err on the conservative side. Even the best of us make mistakes, and time off will make that more likely.
At this time, more than ever, it is critical to self-evaluate before you go flying using IMSAFE. In case you have already forgotten what that stands for, it is Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Emotion.
Also recognise that your decision-making abilities may not initially be at their peak, and there may have been changes in many areas and procedures (such as social distancing) since your last flight. Don’t be afraid to slow down or stop (but not in mid-air) and take some time to gather your thoughts before committing to something that you may not be fully ready for.
Whatever you do, be safe both on the ground and in the air. As they say, enjoy responsibly!