Special Feature

Sharpen up your flying skills after a lay-off

Looking forward to flying again after winter? Our flying skills might not be the sharpest so Mark Greenfield of Ultimate High reckons it’s time to think about a plan…

Brilliant! With longer days and better weather on the horizon, we should be starting to get airborne again. Whatever our level of experience as PPLs, we can get back into our owned – or rented aeroplane – and finally get back in the air.

Of course, after a winter break, we’re rusty. We should have a long hard think about how we approach this. If you are completely familiar with the suggestions here then that’s great – but others may well find some, or indeed all, of it useful.

Those familiar with the concept of Threat and Error Management (TEM – more of which later) will hopefully sit down beforehand and think about the particular risks associated with us getting back into an aeroplane after a long lay-off. And most people will immediately identify the single biggest risk to safety – and that’s us, front and centre. 

However competent or even brilliant we used to be, there’s no way we’re getting back to that same standard immediately. Flying is a perishable skill, at all levels, and appreciating that fact by taking the appropriate skill recovery action is a strength NOT a weakness. So let’s figure out how we might do that in the best and safest manner possible. We need to make sure that it stays fun, but safe.

aircraft engine
Aircraft may have been sitting idle so a thorough pre-flight will be essential. Maybe that battery could do with a charge too?

Inevitably the first thing to do before going flying again is ‘the paperwork’, both for us and the aeroplane, which covers a multitude of sins. There are many good guides out there on this, including the CAA and GASCo, which cover these in detail. Just bear in mind if you rent an aeroplane that you need to make sure whoever owns the aeroplane has fulfilled all of these requirements already – even if somebody else has already rented the aircraft before you. As ‘captain’ of the aircraft, there is no escaping your responsibility to ensure that insurance, maintenance, annuals etc are bang up-to-date.

What should we aim to do on our first flight back? Something pretty simple, which isn’t going to put any real pressure on us as we focus on getting ourselves back in the groove. Ideally we want to build competence and confidence.

Good ideas include a ‘general handling’ trip around the local area. Those that fall into the ‘not so good’ category might involve taking a friend for their first flight, trying a long distance transit to a new destination, or promising a buddy that you’ll take them for lunch somewhere.

What are the greatest risks to us as individuals? There are two ways of looking at this. As aircraft captains we are supposed to be self-critical and well aware of our own strengths and weaknesses. Often there is nobody else in the aeroplane to tell us if we have done something well or badly. In a perfect world we will have debriefed ourselves on each and every flight and have identified things that we should look out for on the next trip. For example, if you’re consistently landing long then you probably need to be particularly aware of accurate speed management on your next approach. Hopefully we can figure out that type of issue by ourselves, and if not then it’s worth getting an experienced pilot or, even better, a good FI along to help resolve it.

aircraft cockpit
Spend some time refamiliarising yourself with your cockpit environment - have you forgotten any oddities particular to your aircraft?

The other major risks are revealed in the accident statistics. Being aware of the typical issues that cause incidents and accidents for GA pilots is hugely important. If you don’t voraciously devour the AAIB GA write-ups and safety summaries then now is a great time to start. As a ‘starter for ten’, the common danger issues include poorly flown go-arounds, inaccurate approach speeds (mentioned again because it’s so common!), incorrect fuel loads (including running out) and the most worrying of all – Loss Of Control in Flight or LOC-I, still the largest single cause of fatal accidents in GA in the UK, Europe and the USA.

Let’s just say that we’ve settled on a gentle re-familiarising flight around the local area. In a perfect world we should be as well prepared as we possibly can be. So, let’s spend some time the day before sitting at a table with a map or GPS, and ideally a plate or plan of our airfield, and go through the flight in as much detail as we can.

Head out into the local area and take your time. Keep your head out of the cockpit as much as possible

Remember what the radio calls are, and when, and where? What is the taxi route to any of the runways from where the aircraft is parked? Whether or not you do checks from memory or from a printed checklist, go through them a few times until they feel familiar again. Some people like to draw a picture of the circuit and write down all power settings, speeds and checks, just to make sure they will be remembered accurately in flight. Others will write out or memorise an A5 sheet for what they see as key information or ‘hot poop’.

The bottom line is that all of this preparation is incredibly useful. It’s impossible to be over prepared for that first flight back. The more issues we identify, address and resolve on the ground before we even get airborne (great threat and error management!), the more capacity we will have in the air to operate the aeroplane competently and enable us to have a decent chance of dealing with anything non-standard.

Have a good think about what you will do if things go wrong, and remind yourself exactly how you will fly a forced landing should the worst happen. Be aware that you will probably be easily distracted on the day – easier said than done! As a modification of a well known maxim, remember your priorities are always: Aviate / Navigate / Aviate / Communicate / Aviate.

Why not practice flying a circuit at height, as well as some slow-speed handling before making your return to the circuit? Remember, you can always go around if you’re not comfortable

On the day of the flight, having made sure the weather is good – don’t fly otherwise – ensure that you get to the airfield early so there is no rush. Use the checklists and take time on the pre-flight inspection and all of your checks. You will already have run through all potential emergencies, but DO remind yourself before take-off just WHAT you will do with a complete or partial engine failure.

Getting back in the cockpit may feel alien. Before flying carry out a check list refresher and cockpit touch drills session in slow time, including basic emergency drills and procedures. Run through a go-around drill and if you intend to do touch-and-goes have a dry run on that too. This also helps get the mind back into general flying mode, and reminds you where everything is in the cockpit.

Engine failure

In the crew room you may hear some pilots tell you that they’re ‘so ready’ for an engine failure after take-off that they’re almost ‘disappointed’ if they don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate their brilliance in flying a perfect EFATO. It is important to have a plan for the main eventualities and make as many decisions as possible on the ground beforehand.

With your emergencies brief complete – I always say it out loud – you’re likely to avoid any drama if you focus on using accurate speeds for take-off and the climb-out. It may take a little adjustment to get the correct climb attitude to give the precise speed and, remember – as ever – that trim is your friend.

pilot flying
Keep the first flight local, in good weather and straightforward

Some people might advocate flying straight into the circuit while the pilot is fresh and concentration high, but I’d suggest that flying out into the local area and reminding yourself how it all works makes sense. Remember to fly attitudes and not to chase needles, the right pictures will come back quickly. Keep your head out of the cockpit looking for traffic as much as possible, and assume that all the other rusty pilots have completely forgotten about lookout.

Make sure that any Electronic Conspicuity kit is functioning correctly, having reminded yourself the previous day exactly how it works. Fly some climbs and descents in the local area, accurate medium and steep turns, think about getting back into the habit of a good lookout, carry out frequent FREDA checks and remind yourself just how fortunate you are to be airborne again – and smile lots!

A great idea is to practice a complete circuit at height. Try and find some ground reference to use as your runway and use a simulated runway height of 2,000ft. From the climb-out, turn onto base and fly downwind at circuit height above your simulated runway (3,000ft?) in the circuit direction.

Make dummy calls out loud and go through all of your checks, then continue the simulated circuit as accurately as you can manage to a go-around height of about 100ft, then apply power and climb away. If it’s gone well, fantastic. If you’ve been inaccurate, especially if you haven’t been able to fly the final approach exactly on speed, then do it again.

While at height, make sure you practice the approach to stall and your recovery technique.

approach to land
Those first few flights after a layoff should be straightforward. Plan your approach to land well ahead

Most will recover on hearing the stall warner, but remind yourself of the other aerodynamic warnings as well – just in case. Unintentional stalls in a turn are probably more problematic, practice these and remind yourself of the relationship between stall speed and angle of bank/load factor. Back in 1944 Langweische wrote in Stick and Rudder that ‘the challenge with stalls is not the stall itself but the pilot’s incorrect reaction’, and it’s just as true today. Just remember that reducing the angle of attack below critical alpha by moving the yoke/stick forward is the essential start of any stall recovery.

If you’re flying P1 then you should be comfortable practising stall recoveries solo. If you’re not, then make sure you take a flight with an FI who will help get your knowledge, recognition and recovery skills where they need to be.

It may be that distraction and/or overload causes you to become temporarily uncertain of your precise location. Hopefully you will have revised your ‘lost’ procedure the day before, but don’t be afraid of using all of the assets available to you, including ATS and especially D&D on 121.5. Listen out first to ensure a real emergency is not underway, but don’t hesitate to ask for a ‘training fix’ if that’s going to help! Don’t be embarrassed to ask if you’re not sure of anything – messing up will be a lot more embarrassing.

Back then to the circuit, but be relaxed and take additional time to figure out how you rejoin an active circuit. Lookout again as diligently as possible. Listening out is also a great tool, but poor discipline sometimes means that aircraft are nowhere near where they claim to be, and ATS might have many distractions, and possibly be rusty themselves. A slow time overhead join (where allowed) is definitely the way to get into the circuit, ideally identifying all of the traffic before you descend to circuit height. Other aircraft will probably be making mistakes as well, so expect this and be understanding!

Once again the focus needs to be on safety at all times. Yes, we’d like to be accurate, but far more important to look out effectively, especially in the likely non-standard circuit joining avenues that non-radio traffic might sneakily use.

Carry out the downwind checks early, and then do them again. If you fly a retractable then check a third time that there really are green lights showing.

Many will advocate flying the first approach or two to a planned go-around in order to reduce pressure on the pilot, and it might make life easier. Whatever approach is flown, we need to be as accurate as possible with approach and landing speeds. Use the numbers in the POH. Do NOT add an additional 15kt ‘because I’m rusty and faster means I won’t stall on short final’.

Anticipate the danger of being overloaded. Have a plan for it, so should you feel that you are getting behind the aircraft (perhaps more of a passenger than a pilot!), gently depart the circuit, and fly to a clear space to gather your thoughts and replan. Take lots of fuel so you are not under time pressure.

Keeping the number of circuits to three or four on the first flight is probably a good idea. Consider making the first touchdown a landing (especially on wet grass), slow down to exit the runway and gently taxi back to the hold. If our approaches and touchdowns have gone well, under no circumstances should we think ‘yep, I’ve cracked it’ and relax too much, resulting in a poor or heavy final landing. It’s not over until the aeroplane is parked and you’re walking away with the key in your pocket. And you’ve gone back to double check that you really have turned off the battery and the mags.

All sorted, and back to your peak after this flight? Clearly not, and any overconfidence might result in the second or third trip going wrong. We need to be satisfied that we’ve made a good start, but remember that we are still comparatively high risk with ‘rust’ still to remove. The same principles laid down here apply to the second or third trip, to which might be added practising responses to emergencies, a run through of a PFL at height (again with a simulated runway/field at 2,000ft), maybe another down to a field at 500ft agl, and varied circuits back at the airfield.

From a currency perspective, many will have no option but to fly with an FI on their first trip, and the benefit provided by this opportunity should be maximised. Although often driven by ATO or currency requirements, make sure that you are comfortable with all of the issues here and anything else about which you’d like to feel more confident. Even if we aren’t obliged to fly with an FI, it will almost certainly be beneficial and might accelerate our journey back to competence.

In summary we just need to be realistic about our own ability. We need to thoroughly prepare ourselves before we go to avoid preventable surprises and keep it simple and comfortably within our own limits.

Let’s make sure that we remember getting back into the air for all the right reasons – and come away with a huge grin!

We enjoyed the great privilege of hosting Harrier test pilot and regular FLYER columnist John Farley at Ultimate High some years ago when he came to write an article on our Advanced PPL course for a FLYER feature. 

A fascinating couple of days ensued and John discussed his ideas on personal currency and his Farley Card, which is a standard military concept and a principle that translates well into the GA environment. Download a pdf of the Farley Card here.

Individual currency training should reflect the tasks and possible emergencies likely to be encountered.  I have my own set of exercises which must be carried out on a periodic basis. Returning to Threat and Error Management, it’s an extremely useful exercise to figure out what should realistically be on yours.

Below: The Farley Card


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