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Mitigating skill fade

Expert tips for staying proficient in the face of rising fuel costs

Airplanes have an absolute ceiling; the altitude at which no matter what you do, nor how much power you add, you simply can’t go any higher. The price of 100LL, however, doesn’t appear to have an absolute ceiling.
Illustration by Patrick George
Illustration by Patrick George

Pain at the pump is creating pain in the wallet, and for some pilots, that’s adding up to flying less. With the average GA pilot in the United States flying less than 50 hours per year prior to the latest round of inflation, how can you maintain proficiency while flying even less?

Here are four strategies for keeping your edge in these edgy times.

1. Spend the time (you can afford) wisely

Paul J. Preidecker, president of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI), says he thinks the solution is a “very focused plan of action” to maximize whatever hours you can afford to fly. He says that it’s “too easy” for pilots “to default to flying a few loops around the pattern for takeoff and landing practice, and call it good.” Rather, he thinks pilots should treat limited flight time more like a flight review. He suggests short cross-countries with a review of emergency procedures. If instrument-rated, he says fly a couple of complex approaches, rather than simple ones.

Jon Kotwicki, founder and chief instructor of FLY 8MA, an online learning provider, also favors maximizing whatever hours you can afford to fly. To do so, he says, “ask yourself if you could pass a private pilot checkride easily today. If the answer is ‘no,’ make a list of items to sharpen up.” Then “be purposeful to create a local flight plan that will allow you to practice those items in the plane solo, or with a CFI, and get as many completed in the shortest time possible.”

Gus Putsche, who knows a lot about maintaining proficiency as a member of the operations team at the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture, says today’s problem isn’t new. “The cost of flying and the desire to keep current without breaking the bank has been an ongoing issue and topic of discussion for years,” he says. But although the traditional solution was to shop for the cheapest rentals of airplanes, often ones that “looked a little worse for wear,” improvements in computer technology have created new opportunities for staying current: using simulators.

2. Rent an airplane that doesn’t fly

Second-career flight instructor Victor Vogel, who spent 25 years as a medical school professor, says his airport owns a Redbird FMX full-motion advanced aviation training device configured to mimic a Cessna 172, which rents for half the cost of his flight school’s Cessna 172. “My impression is that the simulator is an excellent tool for both initial training and for maintaining proficiency.”

In fact, Vogel thinks the full-motion sim could be the “ideal device” for maintaining proficiency, and also points out that Redbird has created an app specifically designed to help pilots maintain and track proficiency using sims (see “Tracking Proficiency” below).

What if there are no high-end sims in your area for rent? Putsche says that even basic aviation training devices, when used with creative lesson plans, have “improved to the point of sweaty palms and total immersion in the scenarios that evoke the need for proper procedure and response.” Preidecker says he believes that the use of simulators can help keep up proficiency, “even for non-instrument pilots.”

3. Sim at home

Gold Seal flight instructor Brian Schiff, one of the AOPA Foundation’s Rusty Pilots presenters (as well as being a speaker, writer, and airline captain), says that, used correctly, sims don’t need to cost more than your airplane to be effective. He likes the high-definition version of X-Plane 11 for home computers. He says to be sure to fly the model that “most approximates” the airplane you fly; and that the feedback he gets from pilots he trains is that “it really works, especially if you are religious about how you operate it.” That means, says Schiff, “go through the motions from preflight inspection through tiedown.”

There’s more to proficiency than simply maintaining your edge, keeping legal, and flying safely.Celebrity CFI Rod Machado is also a fan of home sims and is a champion of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, which he confesses can be hard to find nowadays. He recommends setting up a home sim in a dedicated training environment with a pair of monitors and rudder pedals. Machado also says that, given the sophistication of modern desktop sims, “you can even hire a flight instructor to monitor your performance and train you over the internet.” Additionally, according to Machado, simulated ATC, such as PilotEdge, can also help maintain proficiency in communications. “There’s really no great mystery to keeping proficient” using a sim, says Machado, “so long as one uses the simulator as an educational tool, not just a recreational tool.”

4. Don’t worry so much about the stick and rudder

Preidecker also feels that we can use some of our hard-earned lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, and that pilots can keep their heads in the game “by signing up for more webinars and seminars, or selecting some online courses to review.”

Machado agrees, and says that, “degradation of flying skill doesn’t occur as quickly as the degradation of confidence. In other words, a pilot might not fly for six months and only experience a small decrease in flying skill. He will, however, experience a disproportionate decrease in the confidence he had six months prior.” So, the key, if you can’t keep your body in the game, says Machado, is to keep your head in the game between flights. “I’m speaking of maintaining a constant course of study. Reading, watching flying videos, participating in safety seminars, are all excellent ways of keeping your head in the game.”

Kotwicki says when it comes to flying videos, however, it’s important to be a good consumer. “Before you just hop on YouTube and start scrolling for the coolest thumbnail, ask yourself, ‘How will this video make me a better pilot?’ If you cannot answer that, move on, or stick with the FAA stuff that, while a little dry, stays on point very well.” He also suggests spending some of the time that you would otherwise spend flying “if avgas wasn’t outrageous” revisiting your training library. Kotwicki also advocates for making study social. “Get a study group together, or even run an aviation trivia night at the airport. Flying is expensive,” he says, “pizza and drinks, not so much.” Kotwicki likes using a platform like Kahoot! to create a game-show-like experience to up the fun factor.

Putsche echoes the overall sentiment, saying, “Honestly, stick and rudder atrophies less than the mental aspects of flying. We get rusty on communications, regs, procedure, and decision making.” He likes the IMC and VMC clubs started by Radek Wyrzykowski that use hangar flying to “give pilots tools and examples to study and improve their thinking about scenarios.”

And Schiff says another cheap way to maintain proficiency is to literally hangar fly, “Sit in an airplane without flying it,” says Schiff. “Go through the motions, normal and emergency. Read the manual, while sitting in the airplane.”

The right approach

There’s more to proficiency than simply maintaining your edge, keeping legal, and flying safely. Expanding on his thoughts on how a reduction in flying time can lead to decreased confidence, Machado says, “Ultimately, a decrease in confidence manifests primarily in self-doubt, which diminishes the pleasure we derive from flying.”

Luckily, the converse is true, too. Prioritizing proficiency, by deploying any or all the tips from these experts—focused use of what flying time you have, renting high-end sims, purposeful deployment of home sims, and an investment of time in ground study—increases confidence. That, in turn, dissolves self-doubt and increases the pleasure we derive from flying. And that’s the ultimate benefit of proficiency: increasing the joy of every hour you have in the air, no matter how many, or how few, those hours are.

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is a widely published aviation writer and columnist. He is an FAA Safety Team rep and a rare "double" Master Ground Instructor accredited by both NAFI and MICEP. An AOPA member since 1983, he holds a commercial pilot certificate and has a degree in aviation technology. He was recognized as a Distinguished Flight Instructor in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards.

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