Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Different is not The Same

Having logged waaay more than six approaches and several holding patterns in the last six months, I was current and legal to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR). The problem is that current & legal does not guarantee a pilot is proficient. 14 CFR 61.51(g)(2) permits an instrument instructor to log instrument time, holding patterns, and instrument approaches flown by their students in instrument meteorological conditions and that helps instructors stay current at a low cost. Unfortunately, there's a big difference between watching someone fly an aircraft and actually flying the aircraft yourself. When it comes to maintaining proficiency, instructors are in the same boat as any other pilot: It takes time, effort, practice and money to maintain your flying chops.

Pressure Cooker

For a professional pilot, recurrent simulator training and proficiency checks are an opportunity to learn, practice, and be evaluated. Or to become unemployed! Recurrent training and proficiency checks create a pressure to perform and a certain level of stress is a good thing. For GA pilots and flight instructors, the only pressure to perform that we may experience is usually self-imposed. To keep myself in the game and feeling challenged, I hire another instructor to give me an instrument proficiency check every six months. During those flights I am just like any other pilot: I pay for the aircraft, the fuel, and the instructor. I feel the stress, make some mistakes (hopefully not too many), and listen to a post-flight critique. And as Dr. ATP recently wrote, I'm not looking for an easy pass.

The tasks for an instrument proficiency check are defined in the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards, along with the tolerances for satisfactory performance. The FAA has produced a nice document called Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) Guidance to help focus the mind of pilot and instructor. Most any instrument instructor worth his or her salt can recite the tasks to be demonstracted for an IPC from memory, but actually performing these tasks to the stated tolerances is a different story.
  • Holding procedures
  • Recovery from Unusual Flight Attitudes
  • Intercepting & Tracking Navigational Systems & DME Arcs
  • Nonprecision Approach (NPA)
  • Precision Approach (PA)
  • Missed Approach
  • Circling Approach
  • Landing from a Straight-in or Circling Approach
  • Loss of Primary Flight Instrument Indicators
Change is Good

Back in January 2010, the FAA made some welcome changes to the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards. For one, RNAV approaches with LPV minima and a DH of 300' or less now meet the requirements of a precision approach. This clears up some of the problems with earlier versions of the PTS that specified an RNAV approach with LPV minima as a non-precision approach. And the old concept of partial panel has been reworked to better account for glass panel aircraft - what Garmin calls reversionary mode.

Last week, I scheduled time with Jim (a currently furloughed airline pilot who is also a flight instructor) to put me through the paces and evaluate my performance. We came up with a plan of action that included all of the tasks, but left some room for spontaneity: I wasn't sure exactly what routings I'd get, when I might be instructed to hold, when we'd do unusual attitude recoveries, and so on.

"Cross JUPAP at or above three thousand seven hundred, cleared RNAV Y 27L ..."

During the flight I did my best to stay ahead and relaxed, something I encourage pilots I train to strive for. Hey, everyone performs better when they are relaxed. I used the bits of onboard automation when it made sense, but I also did a lot of hand flying, too. Also had a chance to show to Jim a trick I discovered for quickly setting up reversionary mode. Afterward, I was relishing the brutally honest debriefing. I'd made a couple of gaffes, but Jim thought things looked pretty good. This made we wonder if he was going easy on me, but he insisted he wasn't, offering "I could make some stuff up, if you want."

Proficiency on a Budget

If you think it's expensive to mimic part 121 or 135 recurrent training, it is. It's also an investment in your safety as well as the safety of those who fly with you. And there are ways to reduce the expense. In 2009, changes were made to 14 CFR 61.57(c)(1)(i), (ii), and (iii): An authorized instructor is no longer required to be present when an instrument pilot uses an approved flight training device (FTD) or flight simulator to log instrument approaches and holding procedures for currency. The pilot using the FTD must have not exceeded the 6 calendar month currency limit, but this is good news for pilots who want to stay current without breaking the bank: An hour in an FTD is probably one-third the cost of a flight in an actual aircraft.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that without an authorized instructor present to create realistic scenarios and provide the voice of air traffic control, this type of FTD activity is more likely to keep you legal than proficient. Still, many FTDs allow you to program random equipment malfunctions, which can make the training more spontaneous and challenging. Alternate the non-instructional use of a FTD with proficiency flights in an actual aircraft (with a safety pilot or instructor) and you've got the best of both worlds: A plan to stay proficient that is also cost-effective.

If you've been feeling stale or uninspired, you can always hook up with another pilot and split some flight time. It may take some time to find another pilot with whom you feel simpatico, but you can save some money and get another perspective by critiquing one another's performance. There are pilots who pass the check ride and then do the minimum required to stay legal, but we should all bristle at the suggestion that piloting skills will inevitably deteriorate after the check ride. Sure you have to be up for the challenge and ready to spend some cash, but you can't put a price on the rewarding feeling you get when you know you've done your best.

1 comment:

Ron said...

See, this is why I enjoy your blog. I always learn something new. :) I didn't know about the LPV changes to the instrument PTS.