Stop Doing What You Do So Well!

Are you a creature of habit when it comes to flying practice? Maybe that’s not such a good thing.

Anyone who’s seen the inside of a gym can tell you: those with toned arms always have a weight in their hands, and those with killer legs are always squatting, extending, pressing, etc.

And, it makes sense: How else did they get that way if it wasn’t for all that hard work?

But those solid arms are often held up by chicken legs, and those award-worthy stumps are often supporting T-Rex-like upper torsos.

The trouble is, we tend to favor what works for us, whether in the gym or in the cockpit.

If you’re like many pilots, you practice, by instinct, what you already do pretty well. If you’re practicing soft field take-offs all the time, I’ll bet I could rely on you to get us out of the muddy grass. Or, if you’re practicing rapid-fire short approaches until the tower seems annoyed at the repeated request, I’ll bet you’re me.

But what don’t you do well? Chances are, it’s what you practice least. After all, what fun is practice that humbles us, or makes us nervous?
I’ll be honest: One weak link in my aviator skill set is navigation into unfamiliar airports. It’s not that I inherently fear the unknown; it’s just that I prefer to over plan my virgin approaches. I’ll check the charts, check the airport facilities directory (A/FD), ask other pilots, and I’ll even pull up an aerial map on Google—all because I want to know, without question, what I’m getting myself into. (And heaven forbid, when I get there the wind is favoring the other runway!)

In theory, what we see on VFR sectional and terminal charts should be all we need to safely land at an unfamiliar field. At a minimum, the text portion of each airport chart listing shows:

  • The airport name (SCARY FIELD) and identifier (BAD),
  • The airport elevation (666 ft.),
  • The lighting situation (*L – part-time lighting, see A/FD for details),
  • The longest runway length (2600 ft.), and
  • The common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF (122.7).

We don’t see the traffic pattern altitude, but we can figure that out by calling in on the CTAF, or just assuming it’s a standard 1,000 feet above the field elevation. (We also don’t see information about Internet access at the field, and there’s really no excuse for that, in my ever-humble opinion. Why would I ever land at a field that offers no WiFi if I still had gas in the tanks?)
For me, the information printed on charts is about as useful as a controller who offers progressive taxi instructions by saying, “go that way.” But I need to get over this.

So what’s the one thing I never practice? I never practice flying into random airports, just to force myself to “see” the approach from the perspective of a Third World VFR chart and not a Google map.

And, really, it’s an easy enough thing to do. I live within spitting distance of a dozen or more airports that would each be happy to host me, and I’m sure at least some of them offer WiFi. So, I promise here and now, I will practice this.

What do you promise to practice?

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  1. Jeanne
    Posted May 15, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    While I agree with your premise; there are some things that are just too important to stop doing well, preflighting the plane is one of them. I am fanatical about preflighting my plane. I want to know that I have checked everything possible to make sure that my plane is ready to fly. There are days I think if I turned around quickly enough I might just catch my CFI roll his eyes about my thoroughness. I’m amazed at the number of pilots that I see have their planes pulled out of the hangar, fueled, and hop in and go without much more than a quick walk around without every touching anything on the plane other than the door handle to get in. Some never even check the oil. I’ll get off my soapbox here.

    I know this is not where you intended this to go so I must confess that the most difficult and humbling things for me is practicing maneuvers, slow flight, stalls, s-turns, etc. Last week my CFI and I went out to the practice area to work on maneuvers and it seems no matter how hard I try to remember how to do one thing, I am forgetting something else. I would like to practice the same maneuver over and over until it becomes a habit and I feel comfortable doing it and then move on to the next maneuver, but he keeps changing them up so I never know what’s coming next.

    Another area that I need to practice probably sounds silly to some, but for me, it is harder to do the radio work at a non-towered airport. I am training at a towered airport so I am used to that and can easily do the radio calls necessary there, but take me to a non-towered airport and I become tongue-tied. I know for a lot of pilots the opposite is true.

    I think what is most important about what you have to say is that we should never stop learning and working on all our skills as pilots. Challenging ourselves to improve our weaker areas will only enhance our overall piloting skills and flying experiences.

  2. David Diamond
    Posted May 16, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Hello Jeanne!

    Good for you for your pre-flight diligence! It’s always important, but especially so for those of us who rent airplanes.

    One thing that really helped me get a better handle on maneuvers was to put them into perspective: Why was I doing them in the first place? Sure, we say they help our “piloting skills,” but what does that mean?

    I found I got a better handle on them once I saw them as a means to an end and not the end itself. What I mean by this is that I imagined certain phases of “real” flights and applied those to maneuvers.


    I take folks sight-seeing around the San Francisco area all the time. (I think I know the local airspace better than I do the local freeways!) Anyway, everyone wants to fly over the city. Well, SF is a pretty small city, so at 110 knots it goes by pretty quickly. But at 60 knots, it becomes a whole lot bigger. So, when I think “slow flight,” I think tourism. Instead of just slowing my airplane down, I do the maneuver. It gives me a chance to practice in the context of the purpose of the maneuver in the first place.

    Then they want to fly up along the coast, you know, with the wing hammering me from one side or the other. So then I get to add wind correction angle to my slow flight and I find myself in one long crosswind or base of the rectangular course. If I’m flying north, and SF is on my right, I know my “downwind turn” will be toward the Golden Gate Bridge. And, without question, that’s what they all want to see the most. So, I add a dash more of slow flight, because I know that tailwind will push me a long just a bit more.

    Then comes the “transition from slow flight to turns around a point” maneuver, better known as Alcatraz Island.

    You get the point.

    For me, always thinking of flight in terms of “flying,” and not in terms of theoretical maneuvers, helps me appreciate the point of those maneuvers better. And then, I find that I actually do them better.

    With regard to the radio stuff, keep this one very basic point in mind: The radio is there for the sole purpose of communication. There’s no script and no right or wrong ways to phrase anything you say, so long as the communication is clear and accurate. The AIM and other publications suggest better ways to communicate more concisely and with more adherence to standards, but I find when I’m in uncontrolled environments that I need to know exactly where that other airplane is that just called a position near mine. And if that means saying, “Uh, aircraft just calling in at Half Moon Bay: This is Skyhawk 1186U on downwind too–do you see me? I don’t see you,” is perfectly fine to me, no matter how much of a moron I seem like for not sticking to the official “traffic pattern” terms.

  3. Jeanne
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,
    Thanks for the advice on maneuvers. I was up flying this morning and they didn’t seem quite so scary. I actually felt like I knew what I was doing a few times. I told my instructor your comment about thinking of slow flight as tourism. He liked it. I actually enjoyed working on stalls and recovery. Maybe I’m finally getting more comfortable with the plane.

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