Shaking Off the Rusty Spots

Some suggestions for your first flight after an extended layoff.

It's been a cold winter for much of the United States, and it stands to reason that many pilots don't get out flying as much. When the days are short and the underwear is long, motivation for those regular "tune-up" flights sometimes falls victim to inertia. When you do get back in the saddle, there might be a period of adjustment as you reacquaint yourself with some of the skills and procedures that may be lying dormant.

Byron Hamby, an instructor at my home airport, was named CFI of the year in 2007 by the FAA's Allentown, Pennsylvania, Flight Standards District Office. I talked with him about how best to shake off some of the rust. His first suggestion (not surprising) was to book a session with a CFI. Actually, he proposes making that a good habit even if you are flying regularly, because bad habits can creep into your flying over time. A short ride with an eagle-eyed instructor can flag some of the shortcomings in your technique that you might not even realize are lurking beneath the surface.

I told Byron that one thing I like to do is to read through my entire checklist before I start the engine. Then I pay particular attention to each phase of flight as defined on the little white card I keep close to my eyeballs. I also like to review John Eckalbar's excellent book, Flying the Beech Bonanza, the night before the first flight after a long hiatus. I try not to schedule a long trip as my first flight after a layoff. I prefer to take the airplane up for a low-intensity fun ride or two before adding the stress of the IFR environment to my list of readjustments. It works for me.

Sometimes on those short practice flights, I'll fly the procedures for an instrument approach back at home base on my own. But just as often, I'll keep it even simpler -- maybe a stall series or some slow flight. Nothing too demanding. Byron recommends focusing on landings as part of tuning up your technique. He suggests a long final to ensure you have the approach stabilized -- but not so long as to compromise your ability to make the runway if the engine quits, or to render yourself a hazard to other traffic flying more conventional patterns. He also related to me an object lesson he presents his students. As you're standing on the ramp next to the runway, try focusing on some spot about 30 feet away. Then look up and focus on the end of the runway. The exercise goes a long way to showing how situational awareness and peripheral vision increase significantly when you take the "long view."