Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook!

Monday, March 11, 2013

You've soloed. Now what?

Once a student has done their second solo, many times all they want to do is stay in the traffic pattern and practice touch-and-goes over and over again. Naturally, landing is one of the most important skills to have, but flying around in circles all day is not the most productive use of time, money, or enthusiasm. The freshly post-solo pilot is just that: a pilot. While being a pilot is cool, I don't train pilots: I train aviators. "Pilots" are people who wiggle sticks and jockey throttles, using their hands to regurgitate what they were told to do. "Aviators" are people who use their brains and hard-won skills to smoothly convince the plane that what they want to do was the plane's idea in the first place. It takes a lot more work and a lot more responsibility to become an aviator, just as it takes a lot more work and self-direction to make it to the NBA than it does to drop in on a pick-up game at the park.

I have a standard speech I give to those who have reached this stage. It goes something like this:

Congratulations! Now the hard part starts. You remember how I've told you before that as far as I'm concerned, my job is to put myself out of a job as soon as safely possible? You've now put me out of a job for the next several hours, and I couldn't be happier. It's now up to you to go out on your own and practice all those maneuvers we've been doing. This requires hard work and discipline on your part because just flying around aimlessly or sloppily (which tend to go hand-in-hand) is just a waste of your time, so you need to practice until you're twice as good as you'll need to be.

You'll know how good you need to be because of that magical book I told you about several lessons ago: the FAA's Practical Test Standards. Anything that's in that book is something that you can be tested on, and anything that's not in that book you can't be tested on. You'll know if you're doing it right because the book tells you what your standards are. For example, the tolerances on steep turns are +/- 100 feet on altitude, so practice until you can keep it within +/- 50 feet three times in a row. That way, if the stress of a checkride causes you to have a day that's 100% worse than you know you can do, you're still going to pass.

Have a plan for what you're going to practice before you even leave the ground. Make it no more than 1.5-2 hours, because if you're working hard like you should be, by the time you've flown for over an hour, you'll be mentally spent. The insidious thing about mental exhaustion is that it doesn't have a "burn" like muscle fatigue, which makes it so hard to spot that you probably won't think it's started to affect you. Believe me, it has, and it's also making your practice over 1-1.5 hours a waste of time. During your lessons with me, it's probably seemed I can read your mind sometimes because just when you're getting tired, I'll magically say, "Take me back to the airport." It's not that I have ESP; I just can recognize when you're starting to hit the point of diminishing returns. Not coincidentally, if you look in your logbook, you'll probably notice that most of our lessons have turned out to be in the 1.4-1.6 hour range, with the occasional 1.2 here or there on days you weren't at your peak or 1.7 on days you were really in the flow. I won't be there to tell you when to break it off anymore, so keep the 1.5-2 hour guideline in mind.

Sometimes practicing too long is even counterproductive because the maneuvers you might be practicing at the end aren't coming out very well, and you might think its because you just don't have the skills to become a pilot because you don't realize the reason they're coming out so sloppy is because you're mentally spent. Also, we all have bad days sometimes. If you get in the air and just don't feel like anything is going right, don't punish yourself or think you're not cut out for this. Just jump straight to your fun segment, head back to the airport, and call it a day. Trust me, you'll have a day later on where you can do no wrong, and it will all even out in the end.

You might have noticed that I said not to fly for more than 1.5-2 hours but not to practice for more than 1-1.5 hours. Where did the extra .5 go? That's for something else that's overlooked in the rush to the checkride: that time is reserved for enjoying the thrill of flying. Pick something fun to do for .4 or .5 hours. Go fly over your house or your old school or that park you like to jog in. Go check out the boats on the lake you like to fish in. Go see where that country road you've driven by a hundred times but never turned down goes. Go do whatever, as long as it's something fun you want to do (but remember to stay inside your designated practice area) and make an effort to stay reasonably within PTS standards while you're doing it. It's not a waste of time, because you'll be learning as you go in the most effective way: a way that is so sneaky you won't realize you're practicing. Flying over your old school/house/other objects teaches you ground referencing, flying down that back road teaches you about crabbing, and so on. All of them teach you about pilotage, which is a powerful enough skill that it got the mail from one coast to the other in planes that weren't nearly as nice as your trainer, and if you're holding your altitude while you're going there, you're turning that straight-or-level into straight-and-level, too.

So now the hard part has started. The good news is that the fun part has also started too! You won't have me in the right seat yapping away, but you also won't have me in the right seat to say, "That one could have been better. Let's do another one." That's on you now. You may think you're getting away with being sloppy since there's no one in the plane to tell you to do it again, but it will come around to bite you in the butt later on. Before you get signed off to take your checkride, I (and every other CFI in the world) will go up on at least a couple of simulated checkrides with you to make sure you pass. Remember, the FAA keeps track of our pass rate, so we're putting our reputation and certificate on the line every time we sign someone off, so you're going to have to be good before you'll even get past us, much less an examiner.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and thus different maneuvers that are easy and hard for them to do. The temptation is to practice the things you're already good at because they're easy. That is exactly the wrong approach. As I pointed out in my Bob Hoover post, the way to get the most bang for your buck is to practice what you're not good at until you can turn your weaknesses into your strengths. If you go up and nail a maneuver on your first try, move on to the next one so you can devote your money and mental energy to more productive practice. Congratulate yourself on starting to really get this whole flying thing down, though!

There are two things you should be practicing on every flight: emergency procedures and slow flight. I'm going to devote a whole post on the first one as part of how to practice for free, because you don't have to pull the engine every time to practice emergencies, and engine-outs aren't the only type of emergency you may have (in fact, it's by far the least likely emergency you'll encounter, if you ever encounter one at all). You can spend some useful, free time practicing your emergency flows and checklists before you ever turn the key and start the Hobbs meter spinning.

Slow flight should be done every time, though, for two reasons: first, you're in slow flight on every single flight when you come in to land, so that maneuver you're practicing miles from the airport a few thousand feet above the ground will, believe it or not, help you out when you're 500 feet up and half a mile away from it. Second, and probably even more importantly, is that nothing teaches you to listen to what the airplane is saying to you better than slow flight. You're intentionally bringing it to one edge of its envelope, so you have to be its master.

In cruise flight, the plane is whispering to you, but in slow flight, it's screaming at you. Being able to understand its foreign vocabulary when it's speaking at the top of its voice makes it much easier to understand it when it's whispering, and no maneuver has as much crossover value for learning how to truly fly an airplane as slow flight does. Sure, slow flight scares some people because you're bringing it right to the edge of the stall and leaving it there as long as possible, so if you push it a little too hard you might end up stalling. So what? That just gives you a chance to practice a stall recovery and is immediate feedback that you need to be a little smoother on the controls or a little more on top of that throttle. If you're still too afraid to stall a plane on your own, you're not alone. However, it means I (or your CFI) didn't do my job right so far, so you need to haul my butt back in the plane until you know you have what it takes to recover, and you should probably yell at me for having failed you back then. (Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect, because it is natural to be comfortable with something when you know the sandbag in the right seat will bail you out if you really get in over your head but be a lot more timid when he or she isn't there anymore. Nevertheless, if you have an instructor worth their salt, they wouldn't have moved past stalls in your training if they didn't think you could recover, even if you may not think so. So you can, whether you fully believe that or not.)

While going out to the practice area, pick an altitude and heading and focus on maintaining it the whole time. If you pick 2,500 and 270, don't just go up to 2,800 and say, "Well, I'm at 2,800, so that's going to be my cruising altitude." (It sounds like I'm being sarcastic when I say that, but the next person to say that to me won't be the first.) Practice climbing to your selected altitude at a constant rate one flight, then practice climbing at a constant airspeed the next.

If your heading is going to be 270, then maintain it using the compass instead of the DG. Using the compass makes you a better pilot, because it's much harder to stay on heading using a compass than a DG, and you'll always be prepared in case your vacuum system or pretty glass panel goes kaput. On every other flight, pick your heading using a point out the window and fly to that without using any instruments at all. That's what turns you into an aviator instead of a pilot.

Your order may vary, but here's a general order I recommend people use for practice when they're out on their own in the practice area:

Steep turns (both directions, progressing to the one that gives you the most trouble once you've started to get really good)
Slow flight
Power-off stalls (all flap settings)
Power-on stalls (any flap settings you might typically use on takeoff)
Emergency descent to 1000 AGL
Continue descent to appropriate ground reference maneuver altitude
Turns around a point/S-turns
Simulated engine out
Climb to appropriate cruising altitude and use pilotage/dead reckoning to find something fun to fly to
Go back to home airport and land
If landing went well, make it a touch-and-go
Pull power to idle at midfield and practice engine out on your home turf
Taxi to ramp and shut down
Grin and pat yourself on the back for being one step closer to your goal!

You won't accomplish this entire list every flight, and it's not designed or intended to all be done every flight: there just isn't enough time to do all of them and still devote enough time to useful practice. I recommend "sliding the window" down the list each flight. For example,

Flight 1
Steep turns (several in each direction)
Slow flight
Power-off stalls (several)
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

Flight 2
Steep turns (as necessary, but fewer than last time)
Slow flight
Power-off stall (one or two)
Power-on stalls (several)
Emergency descent
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

Flight 3
Slow flight out to practice area once you've reached your cruising altitude
Power-on stalls
Emergency descent
GRM (ground reference maneuver) of your choice
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

Flight 4
Slow flight out to practice area once you've reached your cruising altitude
Power-on stall (one or two)
Put plane in landing configuration and descend at approach airspeed to 1000 AGL
GRM that you didn't do last time
Simulated engine out
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

And so on. Remember, these are just suggestions, and although I have both a rhyme and a reason for tying them together the way I do (for example, most airplanes tend to gain altitude in power-on stalls, so why not practice while you're climbing until you get high enough that you can practice getting back down either in a hurry or like you were coming in on final?), there's nothing that says you can't adjust them to suit your needs--in fact, that's exactly what you should be doing, since you're now PIC. These are routines I've found to be generally efficient and helpful, but you're the one who has to make them specific to your needs.

Once you're signed off to solo, you're given the power to take control of your training to an even greater extent than before. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and it's now more your responsibility to ensure you're training efficiently and effectively. Your CFI doesn't leave the picture, but when they sign those solo boxes off they transition to a mentor role instead of the mama bird role you've been used to having them in up until now. So go leave the nest, spread your wings, and enjoy this new stage of your flying experience!

1 comment: