Proficiency on a Budget

Illustration by Chris Gall

With the economic downturn and unemployment and underemployment that ensued, many Americans are enjoying less disposable income. As a result, your flying budget may not be what it was a few years ago. And meanwhile, the cost of flying has risen. We all know that staying proficient is equivalent to reducing the risks associated with flying. And nobody wants to compromise safety. So with a trimmed flying budget and higher costs, how do you stay proficient?

Being proficient means ­different things to different pilots. So the first thing you need to do is to specify what proficiency means to you. To some it may mean simply being able to safely take off and land. To others it may mean being able to land without power, touch down at an exact point and roll to a stop at a specific location. Others may desire the ability to fly a perfect instrument approach, exactly on the glideslope and localizer (or GPS approach with vertical guidance). And of course it is important to stay proficient with in-flight failures. There are also many regulations to keep track of and other aviation-related knowledge that should be considered as part of the proficiency package.

If your goal is to stay proficient on all levels, there is a lot of work to do. But the good news is that there are more opportunities than ever to achieve proficiency while spending very little money. So if you’re looking to maximize the dollars you have set aside for flying, here are some tips that will help.

Finding the Money
Flying is by no means an inexpensive hobby, so finding the money to stay proficient may be the biggest challenge. At the same time, you don't need to be rich in order to fly. But the best way to make sure that you do get some time in the air is to set aside funds specifically for that purpose. So make sure that you include flying in your monthly budget.

“I have a good friend who sets aside $100 each paycheck, and that money goes into a separate account and he knows that that money is dedicated to flying,” says Jason Blair, executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors.

Actually taking the money out of your personal checking account and putting it into a dedicated flying account ensures that you don’t spend it on a nice dinner out or a pair of jeans that calls your name out of a storefront window.

Time to Fly
If your flying budget is tight, make sure that you don't spend all your money in one place. It's best to stay away from long cross-country flights and focus on taking shorter, more frequent flights instead.

“You don’t have to fly for two hours every time you fly,” Blair says. “By flying more regularly for a half-hour to 45 minutes each time, you’ll get better proficiency than if there are big gaps between flights.”

You're also best off sharing your time with another pilot. That way you'll get double the time in the cockpit for the same price. If you can get to know somebody who owns an airplane who is willing to share time for the cost of fuel, that's a very economical way to do it. Flying clubs can also help you with both saving money on each flight and connecting with others to share the cost with. If one of you is always wearing a view-limiting device, you can both log all the flight time. This type of flying is particularly helpful for instrument pilots.

But if you’re really serious about proficiency, Martha King, co-owner of King Schools, recommends taking a look at what jet pilots are required to do in order to keep their type certificates current. Generally, the pilot (or pilot/copilot combination) is put in a situation where there is a short distance from the departure point to the destination, a failure happens during the takeoff and vectors are issued while the pilot is dealing with the problem.

“The whole idea of keeping the workload up and keeping it very intense is that you get a high level of proficiency pretty quickly and a big dose of it in a concentrated, economical period of time,” King says.

So have an instructor put you through the ringer in a simulator for an hour. While this may not sound like as much fun as taking a $100 hamburger flight, the time will definitely pay off in flying skills.

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.

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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