And if you think that type of training is strictly for instrument currency, think again. Simulator training can be very valuable for VFR pilots when it comes to dealing with weather issues.
“You start out on a moderately good weather day and the instructor can play with the weather and have you really understand as a VFR pilot what can happen when the visibility goes down or the ceiling goes down,” King says. “In real life you don’t have any choice on what the weather is going to be.”
Simulators can also be used to practice in-flight failures that simply can’t be done in an actual airplane. The key is to discuss what you would like to work on with the instructor. Then he or she can tailor the flight based on your level of proficiency and create scenarios that are much more realistic than simply retarding the throttle in the airplane to simulate an engine failure.
Fly for Free
If you spent your entire flying budget on simulator training, there are several ways to get up in the air for free. There are many pilots who are looking for company, particularly while flying on long cross-country flights. When Blair takes long flights he’s often looking for company — so much so that he offers friends airline tickets home if they can’t stay until he’s ready to return. So getting connected with people at your local airport is a very good thing for many reasons. You may just make friends with somebody who wants to take you flying — for free.
You may also be able to ride along on somebody else’s training flight. Sitting in the back is never as much fun as being at the controls, but it can be a terrific learning experience that will more than likely help you stay proficient.
What’s even better is if you can watch yourself fly. This may sound impossible, but there are several great video cameras that you can mount in the cockpit. Then when you get home, you can sit back and critique your flight, rate your proficiency and relive the experience over and over.
There are also virtual ways to put yourself in a cockpit for free. With home-based simulator games, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, the only cost is the initial purchase price.
If you’re good at visualization, you don’t even need a simulator. Just sit back in your easy chair and pretend that you’re in the cockpit. Think “mixture, prop, throttle — set, positive rate — gear up, pitch for blue line (or Vy)” and so on. Continue this type of visualization for an entire virtual flight and make all hand and foot movements while you’re verbalizing what you’re doing. This kind of practice may seem awkward at first, but you might be surprised at the results. Many aerobatic pilots visualize their flight sequences. You can watch them as they dance their hands in the air, pretending to execute the complex maneuvers of their flight routine prior to stepping foot into their cockpits.
Keeping Up the Knowledge
Knowledge is a big part of proficiency, and there are many ways to maintain and increase your aviation knowledge for free or for a small fee online. The FAA lists a slew of free courses on its website. Some of these courses are offered directly by the FAA, but others are provided through other websites, including AOPA’s. AOPA’s courses come from the Air Safety Institute (ASI).
“The Air Safety Institute has a huge number of online resources that are free; they’re very practical and they will help to keep your knowledge up to speed,” says AOPA Air Safety Institute chief flight instructor Kristine Hartzell.
ASI’s courses are interactive and cover a wide range of topics, such as weather, runway safety, radio communications and airspace.
ASI also offers webcasts and webinars, which you can watch live or access later if your schedule doesn’t allow you to watch a segment live. The webcast participants are experts on the subject, and there is a benefit to watching them live because as a viewer you can post questions for the participants.
“You get a lot of the questions from pilots who write in, so you get to hear what people are concerned about,” Hartzell says. “And the types of things they have questions about a lot of times will match up with what you want to know about.“
In addition to being free and full of pertinent information, the great thing about many of the courses, webcasts and webinars listed on the FAA and ASI websites is that they qualify for FAA’s Wings credit. So in addition to providing you with valuable information for free, you can also save yourself one hour of ground instruction time by a flight instructor when it comes time for your biennial flight review.
If you want to study while you’re not connected to the Internet, Sporty’s offers about 20 video courses on DVD, and most of them are also available as apps for the iPad and iPhone.
“If I’m waiting in line at the airport for my airline flight for half an hour, I can watch a Sporty’s video on takeoffs and landings or VFR communications or airspace,” says Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s vice president, John Zimmerman. “What used to be wasted time I can now get some value out of, and I don’t have to bring anything extra along. I already have my iPad or my iPhone.”
You just have to make sure that you have downloaded the Sporty’s app while you’re still connected to the Internet.
And doing what you’re doing right now helps as well. Every flight instructor I’ve talked to about maintaining proficiency suggested reading magazines as a way to stay current. So as much as I’m biased in this regard, my last and final tip is to keep reading.