(October 2011) The concept of staying current always seemed an intellectual one to me. While I still had my Cessna Cardinal, I tried to fly it every week or so to keep its fluids — and mine — flowing. As a result, I was able to routinely check off most of the currency boxes without much special effort. But now, without the Cardinal, my time in the cockpit is curtailed, and though I’ve always felt flying an airplane was a lot like riding a bike — a skill that was easily resurrected after a layoff — I was wrong.
I recently flew a Cardinal for the first leg on a flight to Atlanta to attend the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators’ Pilot Training Reform Symposium. Doug Stewart, chairman of SAFE, let me ride with him in his Cardinal and offered me the left seat on the first leg. After owning a Cardinal for almost 25 years, I felt comfortable assuming command.
I chose to hand-fly the IFR flight to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and, for the most part, keeping the shiny side up wasn’t a problem. What I did have difficulty with was learning the instrumentation. The panel in Doug’s airplane had a number of avionics systems I wasn’t familiar with. The panel hosted an Aspen Avionics electronic flight display system, an electronic tachometer, an S-Tec 55X autopilot, a fuel totalizer and a Garmin 430 GPS navigator. If I’d been making the trip solo, I’d never have attempted the flight without transition training on the unfamiliar equipment.
I expected a learning curve with the instruments but not with the basics of flying the Cardinal. As we approached Mt. Airy in good VFR conditions, I canceled our instrument flight plan and proceeded inbound. Out of practice (read “not current”), I got behind the airplane. I was higher and faster than I should have been and, to correct, extended the gear, added flaps and lowered the nose.
“What are you trying to do,” Doug asked in a surprisingly gentle voice, “rip the gear and flaps off my airplane?”
I’d completely ignored the speed limits on the gear and flap extensions and gone right through them. In the past, I’d always been very careful about raising the nose to bleed off speed before lowering the gear, but because of my lack of recent experience I’d embarrassed myself in front of my mentor.
A glutton for punishment, Doug let me again fly a leg on the trip back north after the symposium. I did much better about holding heading and eliminating uncomfortable vertical excursions. I was feeling pretty good about myself. Everything went well until I turned final, realized I was still too high, checked my speed and added full flaps. Out of practice — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it — I misjudged my height above the runway, hit hard and bounced. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t one of my better landings. No damage to the airplane, but my ego suffered.
Flying an airplane is not like riding a bicycle. It’s possible that your cycling skills don’t atrophy, but take it from me: Your aviating skills, like old soldiers, do fade away. And it happens to the best of us. I remember the glut of mail from readers who felt Dick Collins should have been immune and complained when he once confessed about the diminution of his skills after a short hiatus.
Staying current isn’t just a good idea; it’s a requirement in the regulations (61.57 Recent Flight Experience: Pilot in Command). The FARs spell out currency requirements for pilots who want to carry passengers (three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days), carry passengers at night (three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise within the preceding 90 days) and carry passengers in conventionally configured — tailwheel — aircraft (three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop in a tailwheel airplane within the preceding 90 days).
There are additional rules for when pilots act as pilot in command under IFR or in weather conditions less than the minimums prescribed for VFR. To be able to file IFR a pilot must have performed and logged at least six instrument approaches, holding procedures, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems within the preceding six calendar months. Unless a pilot meets those requirements within the prescribed time, or within six calendar months after the prescribed time (with a safety pilot), he may not serve as pilot in command under IFR, until he passes an instrument proficiency check that essentially consists of the same requirements as those detailed in the Practical Test Standards for the initial instrument rating.
Unless a pilot is very active and flies frequently, it’s hard to log six approaches in a six-month period. So typically what happens is that a pilot goes out with a safety pilot and flies six approaches, one of which might include a holding pattern instead of a procedure turn to reverse course. And since by definition any approach qualifies for “intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems,” he’s met the minimum currency requirements. But 5½ months later, the pilot, “legal” to file IFR, goes out and attempts to make an approach to minimums in atrocious weather conditions. Legally he’s permitted to make the approach, but his competence to do it successfully is doubtful.
The idea of requiring currency is to ensure that pilots’ skill sets are, at the very minimum, what they were when the pilots earned their certificates or ratings.
Staying current is not just mandatory, but it’s also judicious. Unfortunately, many pilots look at compliance dates for maintaining currency as deadlines and wait until the last minute to get back on the good side of the rules.
It’s not unusual for a pilot who wants to take a friend for a night flight to ask the friend to wait on the ground while the pilot goes out and completes three takeoffs and landings to a full stop. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be going on a night cross-country flight with a pilot who hasn’t flown at night in 90 days and does nothing more than hurry through the three mandated landings while I wait on the tarmac.
I’d recommend you set your own deadlines for maintaining currency. Maybe, instead of waiting until the end of the 90-day periods to get current, plan to do it every month. That way, you’re never stuck having to ask your friend or spouse to sit on the sidelines as you get current. In addition, if you do the required landings (or approaches) every month, think how much more competent you’ll be.
I’d also suggest you alternate how you stay current. If you’ve been making most of your flights by filing an instrument flight plan and relying on the GPS and the controller to hold your hand as you aviate across the landscape, forgo the outside help on alternate flights and work at sharpening your pilotage and dead reckoning skills. Not only will it keep some of the basic skills available to you for use in a pinch when your high-tech gear goes belly up, but it’ll also be fun.
And of course, speaking of currency, we have to remember the flight review that is required to be completed every two calendar years. Before the flight review (aka biennial flight review, BFR) was introduced in the early 1970s, once pilots had passed the flight tests for their certificates there was no requirement that they ever fly with an instructor again. There was no opportunity for a pilot’s performance to be scrutinized, and any bad habits that had developed remained uncorrected.
Unfortunately for most pilots, the flight review does little to ensure they haven’t developed any bad habits. The only requirements of the regulation are for the review to include an hour of ground instruction and an hour of dual flight instruction. There’s no requirement for the review to be performed in the most sophisticated airplane a pilot is qualified to fly, and the tasks to be accomplished are up to the instructor.
If the instructor isn’t happy with a pilot’s performance, the only logbook entry is limited to the dual instruction with no mention that the pilot failed to successfully complete the review.
We don’t like to be tested, but since the BFR is not a test, encourage your instructor to challenge your abilities. Normally, the instructor will spend time learning the type of flying you do. That’s well and good, but this is a chance to do things you may not have done in years. How about a short/soft-field takeoff or landing; or recovery from unusual attitudes under the hood; or maintaining control with only a partial panel; or doing some side and forward slips? Even if you’re not instrument rated, be sure to do some hood work so you can control the airplane when the horizon isn’t visible during a night flight or in case of inadvertent IMC. Make the flight review count; it’s a great learning opportunity since, as the promulgators insisted, you can’t fail it.
If you’re ever tempted to take a “Parker pen” ride (the euphemism given to a logbook entry that has no basis in reality), remember that keeping your aviating skills sharp shouldn’t be simply to obey the letter of the regs but to satisfy the spirit. Stay current; stay safe.