Monday, February 05, 2007

Losing It, Finding It

This is great! Not only am I not learning anything new, I'm forgetting stuff I used to know!

Millhouse, from "The Simpsons"

A realization has been creeping up on me over the past few weeks and months. Like many GA pilots and instructors, it's something I have been denying for a while. Recent events have forced me to face reality: A fair number of pilots out there not only lack proficiency, they are a risk to themselves and others.

Here are just a few, choice excerpts from what I've heard or witnessed in my daily teaching experience over the last month or so.

Cirrus: Oakland Ground, Cirrus 123, ready to taxi.
Tower: Cirrus 123, Oakland Tower, confirm you are holding short of runway 9 left?
Cirrus: Ah, Cirrus 123, sorry 'bout that. We're at runway 9 left, ready for takeoff.
Tower: Cirrus 123, hold short 9 left for landing traffic. (That traffic was me and my student in a Duchess on final)
Cirrus: Okay, ah, and we're IFR ... (Cirrus starts to creep forward toward the runway)
Tower: Cirrus 123, hold short runway 9 left and read back hold short instructions
Cirrus: (a different voice) Hold short 9 left, Cirrus 123

Bonanza: Bonanza 123 ready to go, request a right turn out
Tower: Bonanza 123, say your position on the field.
Bonanza: 7 Right, position and hold.
Tower: Negative! Bonanza, hold short of all runways and say your position on the field!
Bonanza: Sorry, we're holding short of 7 right.
Tower Bonanza 123, continue holding short 7 right, landing traffic.

Tower: Socata 123, runway 19 right, cleared for takeoff, simulated KANAN TWO departure approved, Cessna traffic on left base is for the parallel runway.
Socata 123: Cleared for takeoff 19 right, simulated KANAN TWO departure approved, traffic in sight, Socata 123.

( I was in the Socata and the pilot I was flying with hesitated taking the runway because it looked like the Cessna was lining up to land on the wrong runway. After a brief pause ...)

Tower: Socata 123, thank you for holding short, the Cessna landed on the wrong runway ... Cessna 345, is there an instructor on board? ...

And there's more, much more, but I won't bore you with it.

Now I'm not singling out the pilots of a particular brand of aircraft, I'm singling out a particular type of pilot behavior. I'm not sure why this behavior has become so prevalent, but I have some theories. This might sound harsh, but here goes.

I understand that many GA pilots cannot afford to fly more than a few times per month and this can lead to a lack of recency of experience - you get rusty. And if you're smart, you know it and arrive at the airport prepared. By that I mean you don't get in a plane after not flying for 4 or 5 weeks and proceed to fly a long trip to Vegas in marginal weather. A good pilot allows some time to fly around the pattern and get back in the groove, perhaps taking an instructor along who is current and can help accelerate the process. And you avoid flying in marginal weather.

Well-run FBOs and flying clubs recognize the potential liability associated with pilots who aren't current and they put safeguards in place to reduce the liability. These might include a requirement that any pilot who has not flown in the last 60 days must fly with an instructor. Other safeguards include a Birthday Ride - an annual flight with an instructor. At the very least, a good FBO or club will require pilots to provide proof of completion of a flight review and that they have a current medical. Pilots who aren't in compliance are grounded from flying aircraft. For these safeguards to work, someone at the FBO or flying club has to be paying attention.

Aircraft owners have much less oversight, except for the training requirements placed on them by their insurance company. I've heard many an aircraft owner, especially owners of high-performance aircraft, bemoan these requirements. Most complain about the cost and inconvenience, which I can understand. However, insurance company-mandated training is an investment in the pilot's own safety as well as the safety of their passengers. If you don't like spending money (often in large quantities), then I recommend avoiding aircraft ownership.

For their part, instructors should not be pencil-whipping flight reviews - giving an easy pass to pilots they have flown with, or like, or who pay them well or buy them lunch. Instructors need to require proficiency from the pilots they train or sign-off for a flight review. Good pilots should accept, even welcome the challenge of a thorough flight review or instrument proficiency check. If you don't like having your skills and performance evaluated and critiqued, I recommend avoiding getting involved in aviation. If you don't like the difficult job of evaluating and critiquing other pilots' performance and skills, I recommend avoiding becoming a flight instructor.

To help encourage pilots to maintain proficiency, the FAA created the Wings Program. The idea is pretty simple: Attend an FAA-approved seminar or complete an approved on-line training course, then get three hours of instruction - one hour of landing practice, one hour of maneuvers, and one hour of instrument flight. When you complete the winsg phase, the instructor gives you an endorsement, you send the endorsed card to the FAA, and they send you a Wings lapel pin.

The problem with the Wings Program is that a pilot may do up to 20 phases of Wings and if you do one phase every two years, that's 40 years of flying without ever being required to review the AIM or 14 CFR part 91. I doubt this is what the FAA intended and in fact it's a practice that might actually be creating a dangerous environment for GA pilots.

Flying, even for fun, is a potentially hazardous activity. GA pilots out there need to take personal responsibility for maintaining proficiency and that means getting regular instruction and evaluation, especially if you aren't able to fly very often. Flight instructors need to take their role seriously and that often means facing the difficult and uncomfortable task of confronting pilots who lack the requisite skills to pass a flight review or a phase of the Wings program, or make sound pre-flight decisions.

And if you are one of those conscientious pilot who spends a few hours each week reading, thinking, and practicing to be safe and proficient, you have my utmost respect.


Eric Gideon said...

Well said. Despite passing an IPC a week or so ago (in preparation for my instrument instructor course) I still don't consider myself totally confident for actual IFR flight. Sure, I could go up and shoot an approach and probably do fine, but my current abilities put me more in the 'get me down' category than the 'get me somewhere' skill level. Still, I always consider my proficiency prior to any VFR cross country - and if it's been several weeks I make a point to do some laps to get my radio work and landings back up to snuff. Your examples highlight the bigger problem, though - it's not the actual flying we need to concern ourselves with, it's local and pattern procedures, at airports both towered and untowered, busy and quiet.

Some of the other pilots here at the UND flight program don't take it so seriously - it's remarkable how many times they'll swap reporting points ("Approach, Sioux 79 is over Carpet" - "Sioux 79, confirm you are over Carpet?" - instructor: "79 is truckstop" - "Sioux 79, roger, report Carpet; contact tower") or cruise straight through practice areas on cross countries without checking in on frequency. As a newly-minted CFI fresh out of all that FOI jazz, I can't help but think that in many cases the pilots' instructors are probably at fault. The decision-making skills and self-improvement that should be part of every pilot's flight bag sometimes get left behind during the fifth demonstration of turns around a point.

Anonymous said...

Very well said. Some ought to point thses things out. Its a shame that you don't write for one of the big publications. Oh. But then they wouldn't get so many ads from theindustry.

Mike said...

True, true John.

Flying in the heart of flight training territory, you hear alot of this. What suprises me is the amount of incompetence coming from "seasoned" pilots flying high dollar a/c such as Bonanzas, Barons, Mooneys, Mirages etc.

A story from November featuring one gentleman in particular comes to mind. He was flying a Turbo Baron. In 10 minutes time he was reprimanded by ATC no less than 10 times. Not once did he use proper read back procedures, he couldn't fly the pattern altitude, attempted to make left traffic when instucted to make RT, cut across the path of a Challenger on final causing a go around, landed on the wrong runway and back taxied to the wrong taxiway and THEN executed a flawless runway incursion. Those are just the things I CAN remember. It was a nightmare and I'm just glad we were flying at a towered airport. Can you imagine communicating with a guy like this on CTAF?

We landed right after him and made a point to go see this guy. He was flying single pilot and had 4 passengers, including young children!