Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Currency, Proficiency, Poverty

One of the biggest challenges facing pilots and flight instructors alike is maintaining currency and proficiency. As any experienced pilot knows, these two concepts are quite distinct: Currency is an objective, regulatory requirement while proficiency has both subjective and objective elements. Pursuing currency is usually neither hard nor terribly expensive because it is the lowest water mark of flying skill. Obtaining and maintaining proficiency, well that's another story.

Yesterday, my day off, I set aside to actually rent a plane and go fly some approaches with a safety pilot. A friend, who's a former Navy flight instructor, a CFI, and an Airbus FO, agreed to ride shotgun and keep me out of trouble. I decided that I'd pull out the stops, use an account balance I had saved up, and fly at least 5 instrument approaches in the Duchess. At first it was an odd feeling to be the one performing the engine start flow checks, calling clearance delivery, actually taxiing the aircraft, programming the GPS, and setting up the navigation radios. There's a big difference between observing and doing, which is part of what my proficiency flight was all about and soon I was in the groove.

FAA-issued pilot certificates never expire and a pilot certificate cannot be surrendered unless the pilot him or herself does so in writing. Pilots who are involved in alcohol or drug related infractions can have their certificates suspended or revoked, but there is a legal process for appeal. A fairly new, post 9/11 regulation allows the FAA to revoke a pilot's certificate(s) if the TSA deems them to be a threat to national security. There is a legal appeal process - to the very agency that revoked the certificate in the first place! Sometimes, I worry about my country. Lately, I worry a lot, but that's a different topic.

The majority of pilots haven't run afoul of alcohol/drug laws or the TSA, but they need to do a few things to maintain their pilot privileges. They need to maintain a current medical certificate, unless they are flying under the new sport pilot regulations. Sport pilots just need to maintain a current driver's license. I won't go into whether or not this is a good idea, it just is. Next, you'll need to accomplish a flight review or otherwise meet the requirements of 14 CFR 61.56.

14 CFR 61.57 says to carry passengers, you'll need to log three takeoffs and landings every 90 days (these must be to a full stop for tailwheel aircraft). To carry passengers at night (I won't go into the intricacies of how night is defined), you need to log three takeoffs and landings to a full stop every 90 days. Most FBOs and flying clubs require pilots to fly at least once every 90 days and some require a birthday ride - an annual proficiency ride with a flight instructor.

VFR pilots usually don't have to spend too much time or money to maintain currency. How proficient they remain depends on the individual. Some people can go months without flying, then get in a plane and within 30 minutes they're flying pretty well. Most people require regular flights - twice a month is probably the minimum - to maintain proficiency. Flying a simulator at home can be a good way to keep procedures fresh in your mind, even if the simulator itself is lacking in flight dynamics and ATC realism.

As an instructor, I get my required landings over the course of the various lessons I teach. I invariably demonstrate a few landings each week and I always make a point of getting a few night landings in every month. Most students don't mind me flying a lap around the pattern, but a small minority seem to resent it. An instructor demonstrating is often the most time efficient way to get a point across. Having the instructor fly provides the pilot receiving the instruction an added benefit - the chance to catch their breath.

One of the goals of my proficiency flight yesterday was to concentrate on landings as much as approaches and holding patterns. I fly a variety of aircraft each week and so my landing demonstrations can be as much about what not to do as about correct technique. It's frustrating to land with just a bit of side loading, just a bit too firmly, just a bit before the designated target and then not have a chance to correct the problem until a flight the next day. And the flight the next day may be in a completely different aircraft. Today a DiamondStar followed by a Cirrus, tomorrow a Cessna 150 followed by a Seminole. The variety is challenging, but the lack of consistency can be frustrating, too.

Instrument-rated pilots have a more expensive challenge in maintaining instrument currency since they must log, every 6 months, six instrument approaches, holding procedures, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems. If you go more than 6 months without logging the required procedures, you have a 6 month grace period to regain currency. This can be done in simulated or actual instrument conditions and you can do this with a safety pilot or an instructor.

Let the 6 month grace period expire and you'll have to do an instrument proficiency check with an authorized instructor, a designated pilot examiner, or an FAA inspector. An IPC used to consist of "a representative number of tasks" from the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards, but the latest Instrument PTS now explicitly defines all the tasks and areas of operations required for an IPC. Let your instrument currency expire and you'll basically have to do an instrument rating check ride all over again. Do the minimum approaches, holding, and tracking every six months and you'll be current and legal to hand-fly an ILS down to the minimum altitude and visibility. Current - yes. Proficient - doubtful.

Instrument instructors get to log the approaches flown by pilots who they are teaching if the approach was flown in instrument meteorological conditions. That's right, the instructor's hands never touch the controls, but they can log the approach toward their own instrument currency. This isn't all bad since most CFII would quickly go out of currency if they had to rely on their own finances.

I was indeed depending on my own finances as we departed Oakland in the Duchess through a 1700 foot overcast ceiling. By 2800 feet we were on top, where I donned my view limiting device and the fun began. Heading to Stockton, tracking the Oakland VORTAC and monitoring the course on the Garmin 530, I noticed the usual course roughness out of Oakland. A bit later, I asked to proceed direct to JOTLEY for the SCK ILS 29R and began tracking the GPS. I had already loaded the approach with SC (JOTLEY) as the initial approach fix so I could do the holding as a course reversal. You can see from the Flight Aware track exactly where I started navigating with the GPS.

Norcal approved my request to fly the approach on my own navigation, saying "proceed direct JOTLEY, report procedure turn inbound." All I needed to do was activate the approach, then set course and source - adjust the HSI to the Desired TracK (DTK) shown on the GPS, then press the CDI button to select GPS as the navigation source for the HSI.

Descent planning is an energy management puzzle, and one I always enjoy solving. I like staying ahead of the game, anticipating or, in some cases, asking for a lower altitude, all the while keeping the engines' cylinder head temperatures stable. No sudden power changes, no diving descents, nothing rushed or hurried. Even though I enjoy this process, I've yet to find an efficient way to teach this to my students. I come up with heuristics and procedures, but I guess there is no substitude for experience and intuition.

The first ILS went well and at the DH, the needles were centered. The landing felt good, then we were off for another approach - the SCK GSP 29R. This approach involved another holding pattern course reversal. It, too, went well and was followed by another good landing - what a great feeling. Next, Norcal gave me vectors to the SCK VOR 29R and I asked my safety pilot to pull one of the throttles at some point to simulate an engine failure. This single-engine approach was okay, but my course on final wandered a bit more than I would have liked. Another landing and it was back to Oakland for one last ILS.

Oakland was still reporting overcast at 1600 and Norcal sent me direct to GROVE, but kept me at 6000 feet a bit longer than I would have liked due to VFR traffic. Anticipating, I began gradually reducing the throttles and slowing in anticiptation of the airspeed I would gain when told to descend. Soon I had a descent to 4000 and was only 12 miles from GROVE with a ground speed over 150 knots. Systematically reducing power (ATC just doesn't understand shock cooling, do they?), I arrived at 4000 feet and slowed to 125 knots, still ahead of the energy management game.

Then came the approach clearance - "Four miles from GROVE, cross GROVE at or above 3400, cleared ILS 27R." It became clear that the gear would have to come down prior to the FAF if I was to reach glideslope intercept. This is where some pilots would just catch the glideslope early and ride it down. For me, intecepting the glideslope at the appropriate altitude is a matter of professional pride. I reached 1500 feet two miles from the FAF (which also happens to be glideslope intercept on this approach) and had to bump the power back up maintain altitude and airspeed.

At the decision height, I found myself a dot left of the localizer, but otherwise stabilized. The landing was okay, but not a crowd pleaser. Nearly 2 hours later, after five approaches, and two holding patterns I was tired and a few hundred dollars poorer. I was also current for another six months and, more importantly, I had that pleasant, satisfied feeling that pilots get after a job well done.


The Big Pilot said...

Another excellent post. Another reason to keep current, especially if you fly glass, is to remember the "button pushing" sequences.

I've found it helps to have simulator at home to just to keep up with different situations that may come up on an infrequent basis.

Like I say, this blog is a must-read for all flight instructors and GA pilots.

Keep up the good work.

IWishIWasFlying said...

Pardon my ignorance, but don't you have to be checked out in all those aircraft that you're flying in, or do instructors get a bye on that?

John said...

Thanks, Big Pilot. I agree that simulators can be a big help.


Instructors have to get checked out. In some cases, must log significant time to meet insurance requirements. It ain't cheap, either.

Paul said...

Just curious why you say that "intecepting the glideslope at the appropriate altitude is a matter of professional pride", suggesting that those of us who don't are sorry amateurs?

By the way, I'm happy to say I suck, but would like to know why.

John said...


Good question. Long answer.

It is incumbent on instrument flight instructors to properly prepare pilot candidates for an instrument rating or ATP check ride. Intercepting the GS above the depicted GS altitude on one of these check rides is disqualifying.

Both the ATP and Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards have the same wording regarding criteria for evaluating a precision approach:

"Establishes a predetermined rate of descent at the point where the electronic glide slope begins ..."

The "Instrument Flying Handbook," one of the references cited in the aforementioned PTS says:

"Pilots should pay particular attention to the following approach chart information: name and number of the approach, localizer frequency, inbound course, glide slope intercept altitude, DA/DM, ..."

An often cited reason for intercepting the GS at the appropriate altitude is the possibility of false glide slopes above the normal glide slope. These false glide slopes are very steep and should be easy to recognize, but false glide slopes are also possible BELOW the normal glide path if the ground where the GS signal is reflected is covered with snow of the appropriate moisture content. There was a great article in "IFR" a few years ago that talked about this rare, but potentially deadly phenomena.

There are approaches where the only way you can verify that you are at the correct altitude when on the GS is by intercepting at the depicted GS intercept altitude. The OAK LOC/DME or ILS 27R is one such approach. If you don't have DME and are flying the ILS, the only way you can identify the FAF is by correlating an altitude of 1500' with GS intercept. Strange, but true.

Pilots who ride the GS down from an altitude above GS intercept usually do so, in my experience, because they are lazy, or because they failed to have the appropriate configuration and airspeed, or because they were otherwise generally behind the aircraft and ATC's game plan.

I train a lot of pilots in aircraft that have autopilots capable of flying a coupled ILS approach. The AP manufacturers are very specific about how a coupled ILS is to be flown and that the GS be captured from below at the appropriate altitude.

Last, but not least, in a complex aircraft it is important for non-professional pilots to be trained to follow well-defined procedures. A lot of important tasks need to be accomplished at GS intercept in complex aircraft that may be forgotten or ignored if the procedure is altered.