While recent advances in electric-airplane technology are exciting, the reality is that most general aviation pilots will be flying piston-engine airplanes for the foreseeable future. Even if you assume new airframes will be enthusiastically adopted by flight schools and private owners, it will take a long time to replace the 130,000 piston airplanes built in the 1970s alone.
But just because your next flight will be powered by a Lycoming or Continental doesn’t mean you can’t fly more efficiently. For many pilots, simply staying current consumes a significant portion of their flying hours every year. Using some new technology to train smarter, you can reduce these hours and save both avgas and money—without reducing proficiency.
One tool may already be in your cockpit: an action camera, such as a GoPro or Garmin Virb. Pilots typically use these to record a memorable trip or a landing at a unique airport, with dreams of creating the perfect YouTube video that goes viral. That’s fine, but a camera can also serve a valuable training purpose on less-exciting flights. Things happen pretty quickly in the cockpit, especially for a new pilot, so the ability to rewind and pause a flight is invaluable for post-flight review.
The key to making a video camera a training tool and not just a gadget is to set it up, then forget about it. Spend some time on the ground (with the Hobbs meter stopped) finding the right mounting location that will give you the perspective you want. The latest generation of cameras feature amazing picture quality and exposure controls, so you can usually get a good look at everything: the panel, the view out the windshield and the movements of the controls. A suction-cup mount on the copilot’s window is a good place to start if you’re unsure. For more-advanced users, an external mount that attaches the camera to a tie-down ring or wingtip is another good option. This can provide a unique perspective on in-flight maneuvers or landings.
If you’re mounting the camera internally, be sure to hook it up to your aviation headset with an adapter. This allows you to play back real-world air traffic control transmissions and to add your own real-time commentary, if you so desire. This is particularly helpful for operations at towered airports or for instrument training.
Once you have the camera positioned properly, hit record and don’t touch the camera for the rest of the flight. The focus should be on flying the airplane, from engine start to shutdown. If there’s a particular maneuver you want to review, make a note of it or say something in the microphone, then get back to flying. You don’t need to narrate the entire flight, but a few well-timed comments can help organize your post-flight review.
After the flight, don’t worry about editing the video; just watch it. Review the flight from beginning to end, making notes about mistakes you made or areas for improvement. You’ll know right away if your nosewheel was on the centerline or not.
A nice supplement to a video camera is a flight-data recorder. While this once meant expensive, permanently installed “black boxes,” there are a host of new options that are much less expensive—some are even portable. The most basic option is an app like ForeFlight, which uses GPS to record the airplane’s track and speed. This is helpful for reviewing ground-reference maneuvers (Was that rectangular course really rectangular?) and getting a general sense for how smoothly you flew. It’s also a good way to track your proficiency over time: If you notice your altitude control is getting sloppy, and your traffic patterns aren’t as square as they used to be, you can schedule a flight to get sharp again.
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The next step up would be to use a Stratus portable ADS-B receiver, which automatically records pitch and bank in addition to GPS position. This allows you to play back the flight with a simulated attitude indicator and is particularly helpful for instrument pilots.
The ultimate in post-flight debriefing comes from a panel-mounted data-recording device, like those found in the latest Garmin G1000 glass cockpits. These record everything that happens on the panel, including engine data. Using an app such as CloudAhoy, you can overlay your flight on a sectional chart or instrument approach plate, watch a simulated glass-cockpit view, track airspeed control, and see just how precisely you flew that ILS.
Another powerful proficiency tool is a flight simulator, and the options have become much more affordable here as well. While full-motion simulators are still the best, you don’t have to visit FlightSafety International to get value out of a sim session. Check to see if a local flight school has a Redbird or Frasca simulator on site; these won’t teach you how to land in a crosswind, but they’re a great way to maintain instrument currency or just get an aviation fix when the weather stinks.
Even home flight simulators can be valuable for keeping your skills sharp. For well under $500, you can have a capable system that runs on the laptop or desktop you already own. The key to making this more than a game is to have a plan before you fly: What specific skills are you going to work on, in what order, and how will you evaluate your performance? In a basic simulator, it’s best to skip the stick-and-rudder stuff and focus on procedures, instrument scan and cockpit switches.
Some pilots get caught up in the minutiae of simulator regulations, stressing about which models allow you to log time. That’s wasted effort. The real payoff from a simulator is not what you put in a logbook—it’s the time you save in the airplane. If your next training flight is one hour instead of two, or if you can complete your instrument rating in 30 hours instead of 50, the savings are significant.
Of course, there’s no better way to improve your flying than to do it for real. So, when you’ve reviewed your last flight and practiced in the simulator, make sure you get out there and slip the surly bonds.
This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine