If it were true that "Flying is inherently safe; it's just very unforgiving of mistakes," it would follow that the best way to improve our flying is to eliminate mistakes. To do that I'd like to suggest that pilots adopt the phrase "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" as their mantra, with a slight modification: "Every flight, in every way, I'm getting better and better."
It's in our own self-interest to strive to improve our flying technique. These are some of the ways I've found you can improve your aeronautical skills and knowledge. Do what you will with them, but remember, improving your flying is in your own best — and long-term — interest.
1. Fly With Someone Who's a Better Pilot Than You Are (or Not)
In college I roomed with a student from France, and we occasionally played tennis together. But one day, he refused to hit with me. "I've been told the only way you get to be a better player," he said, "is to only play with people better than you." His opinion of his ability was mistaken, but he had a point.
Over the years I've been lucky, having shared the cockpit with some really good pilots. Some were great "sticks"; others knew how to play the Air Traffic Control system with finesse, making their flights more efficient and the job of the controllers easier. I'm not suggesting you only fly with pilots who are better than you are, but when you do fly with other pilots, pay attention to how they handle themselves and their airplane. Then, considering what they do, decide what makes sense for you to adopt for your own flying and what doesn't.
2. Practice Patterns
I had the advantage of sitting at the feet of a master every two years when Richard Collins and I would trade seats for our biennial flight reviews. Once, I presented Richard with the Air Force's Pattern A and asked him to fly it under the hood. The pattern calls for a series of timed turns and legs and changes to cruise speed. Col. Joseph B. Duckworth, considered the father of the Air Force's modern-instrument flying, is credited with introducing the patterns (A, B and C) into the attitude-instrument training curriculum.
When Pattern A is performed precisely, the airplane will end on the same heading it was on at the beginning, some 12 minutes after the maneuver began. Richard's performance was impressive; he nailed it!
Pattern B adds 500 fpm descents and an emergency pull-up at the conclusion of the pattern. Pattern C describes a square with four descending and climbing timed turns of 270 degrees and 450 degrees separated by straight two-minute legs.
Practicing the patterns can be a humbling experience but a great way to tune up your scan and sharpen your instruments skills.
3. Be Precise
Whenever Pete O'Brien, my safety pilot of choice, landed my Cardinal, he always seemed to make smoother landings than I did. I finally realized the major difference was that he was paying attention. Familiarity doesn't only breed contempt; it also fosters a languorous attitude. When you taxi, are you on the centerline? How good are you at precisely holding your assigned altitude and heading? It can be trying and exhausting, but if you demand precision of yourself, you'll be a better pilot.
4. Back to Basics
Remember those exercises you had to fly for your private or commercial certificate? The maneuvers (turns around a point, S-turns, Dutch rolls, eights around pylons, eights on pylons, steep spirals, lazy eights, chandelles, power-off landings, slips and slow flight) were designed to teach us precise aircraft control while compensating for wind drift. How long has it been since you tested yourself with any of those maneuvers? Be honest now — when was the last time you attempted a power-off emergency landing from a position downwind or from altitude, performed a stall recovery or did a short, soft-field takeoff or landing?
Give yourself a refresher course on the basics. It'll pay off with more precision and a better appreciation of your and your airplane's capabilities and limitations.