When You Go Back to Flight School, Don’t Lose What You’ve Learned

FLYING offers some tips for retaining aviation knowledge to anyone facing a pause in their pilot training.

“Do you have any pumpkins at your flight school?”

The term was coined by a co-worker during the first week of August to describe the private pilot candidates who were running out of time to complete their private pilot certificates before they headed back to high school or college in pursuit of nonaviation degrees. The message was that once the school year began they would not have the time or opportunity to complete their training. They had to be done, lest they turn into a pumpkin à la Cinderella’s coach.


If this describes your situation, know you are not alone. Although aviation may take a back seat for a while, with a little bit of planning and creativity, you can protect that hard-earned knowledge and, to some extent, those flying skills as you pursue a nonaviation education because continuing flight training just isn’t an option at this time.

FLYING has a few suggestions to help you hang on to that aviation knowledge until the next time you can get into the air. And these tips hold true for anyone facing a pause in flying—not just students.

Join or start an aviation club at school

Many high schools and colleges have clubs already. They are a place to talk about aviation with like-minded souls. Sometimes, when they are paired with engineering or computer gaming clubs, you can take on projects like building a cockpit-style flight simulator gaming console.

While it’s not a way to build hours toward certification, flying the device can help keep procedures sharp and keep you thinking about aviation.

Sign up for the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam)

This doesn’t cost anything and can be tailored to your location. You will be notified by email of upcoming FAASTeam events in the form of seminars and webinars. The FAASTeam also offers online courses covering everything from aviation maintenance to hot topics such as avoiding runway incursions. A great many of the activities can be completed for credit in the FAA’s WINGS program, which is designed to encourage and reward pilots who seek to make flying safer by expanding their knowledge and skills.

Practice flight planning

The knowledge you gained in ground school is a perishable commodity—especially the ability to plan a flight by hand. Make a list of places you want to fly to and plot the trips on paper. That’s right—paper. You may be completely electronic in the cockpit, but for this exercise, go old school using a paper sectional, navigation log, and plotter. There is something about looking at the sectional and actually drawing the course line on it and using the plotter to determine the true course that keeps the rust away.

The true course, distances, and altitudes required to clear terrain won’t change. You can use these “navlogs” in the future, so put them in a folder for safe keeping. When you return to flying, you just need to drop in the winds, do the aircraft performance calculations, and off you go. Every now and then, plan one with the weather available just to make sure you can still determine aircraft performance and fuel burn.

Practice decoding weather

It’s easy to pull up a weather briefing and hit the “decode” button. Be sure you can take weather in the raw format and still process it. This is akin to being able to do basic math with a pencil and paper rather than a calculator. Do this enough, and you may become the meteorologist for your social circle.

Practice weight and balance and performance calculations

You know you’re supposed to do these calculations before every flight, but sometimes get-in-the-air-itis robs you of your sanity. It is very easy to forget how to do these things, so make yourself practice. Get your hands on a POH for the airplane you trained in and, every now and then, review the process and graphs if applicable to make sure you can still read them.

Pro tip: You may find the application of flight planning, weather assessment, weight and balance, and aircraft performance calculations make for easy topics if you are called upon to demonstrate the use of math or give a speech about a technical skill.

Keep in touch with the flight school

If able, make plans to fly when you are on holiday breaks and—here is the most important part—fly with a plan. If you soloed, but it has been months since you touched the controls of the airplane, takeoffs and landings to regain currency may be a good use of your time. Keep in mind it may be that your CFI has moved on to another job (read that to the airlines), so be flexible and prepared to fly with someone else.

Determine what you need to finish

Before you take your break, sit down with a CFI and go through your logbook line by line to see what has been done and needs to be done under FAR 61.109 in order to qualify for the check ride. Make a list and keep it in the logbook for quick reference. Do you need another 1.2 hours of flight solely by instruments? Another dual cross-country or night flight?

When you return to flying, advocate for yourself to fulfill these requirements. It is distressing that some learners think they have to start all over again, which usually isn’t true but may be an attempt by the flight school to pad the bill. The first flight after the break should be an evaluation flight, similar to a stage exam. This will allow the CFI to see where your skill level is and what you need to work on.

Be realistic about your expectations

If you have not flown in a while, expect some rust on both your knowledge and skills. If you are post-solo and that endorsement has run out or was from a different CFI under Part 61, don’t expect the new instructor to automatically grant solo privileges. The new CFI will likely run you through the tasks of FAR 61.87 to make sure you have the appropriate skills for the task, and there will be another pre-solo exam.

Keep track of your logbook

You don’t want to have to pay for your hours twice. Protect your logbook, making sure the instructor endorses what needs to be and signs off on the appropriate lessons. There are times when a CFI is in a hurry and says something to the effect of, “You fill it out. I’ll sign it next time,” and then disappears. Try not to let this happen.

This column first appeared in the October 2023/Issue 942 of FLYING’s print edition.


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