Landing currency: category, class and type
While recuperating from rotator cuff surgery, my landing currency was about to expire. That hasn’t happened since I first learned to fly. You know, back when we shared the pattern with pterodactyls. As my flying skills withered post-op, I wrote at the hangar office while listening to Clapton and Chicago. Taking short breaks, I played the keyboard (should I admit to singing?), video poker and rearranged stuff in the hangar. It’s common for aviators to talk to their planes so, when no one was around, I exercised my anthropomorphic right to whisper sweet-nothings to the Duke.
I also reviewed manuals and chatted with fellow airport bums about all things aeronautic, including landing currency. I wondered how well I would land the Duke and 737 once I finally got back into the air and hoped that it would happen before the landing currency reaper came for me, or the neighbors overheard my singing.
Warning, Warning Will Robinson
GA currencies aren’t monitored by my employer, but Part 121 requirements are tracked very closely. And just like when they kicked me off the Super 80 and sent me to the 737, the automated system responded to the approaching event. The automated message interrupted my writing and Chicago’s “Questions 67 and 68,” but at least this time the computer said please:
WARNING THE FOLLOWING IS ABOUT TO EXPIRE***737 LANDINGS ** 28 DAYS.
PLEASE CONTACT YOUR FLEET TRAINING SCHEDULER. COMPUTER GENERATED MESSAGE.
That was sweet. Robbie the Robot (Forbidden Planet, 1956) looking after me like that. But a warning? Our flight manuals are chockfull of warnings, cautions and notes, each stressing critical information or describing varying degrees of awfulness. A warning typically portrays possible injury, death or serious damage to equipment. But going non-current at the airline isn’t a catastrophe, so why issue a “warning?”
Because, yes it IS a catastrophe. I asked my 737 check airman buddy and fellow Michigander Jim Kause to shed light on the approaching awfulness. He explained that if your landing currency expires, before you can return to “line” flying, you are stripped buck-naked, shanghaied to DFW and sucked into the black hole of disaster in a simulator. Well, he may not have said exactly those words, but they were inferred. By going to the schoolhouse and flying the sim with an examiner for two hours of dial-a-disaster approaches, crosswind landings and single-engine drudgery, you can regain landing currency without flying the real airplane. This is not a stress-free option by any stretch, especially when naked.
Perhaps the question about Robbie’s warning was rhetorical: We do indeed risk serious injury if we go non-current at the airlines: serious psychological injury. Managing the Part 121 return-to-work date is therefore critical in order to get “real” landings and to thusly avoid the blood-pressure raising, life-sucking gravity well at the Flight Academy.
I decided to fly the Duke as soon as my repaired shoulder would allow, which gives me category and class landings plus a preliminary warm-up for the big iron. And to then ask my Chief Pilot Tim to send me out on a trip in order to get landings in type before the company Death Star cleared the horizon. The currency requirements in the FAR’s are what matters to our legality, license, livelihood and perhaps to our lives. Here’s a quick reminder of the category/class/type rules that keep our butts out of a black hole, and our certificates safe from the Empire.
No pilot may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days in an aircraft of the same category (airplane, glider, rotorcraft, balloon), class (SEL, MEL, helicopter) and type (C-525, G650, B-737) if a type rating is required, and if tailwheel airplane, the landings must be to a full stop. Night currency also specifies category, class and type and the three takeoffs and landings must be to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise. Night currency requirements can be waived if using qualifying simulators and continuous participation in certain approved training programs.
And while we’re discussing currency, here are the instrument proficiency requirements:
A person may act as PIC under IFR or in IMC if within the six calendar months preceding the month of the flight, that person performed and logged at least the following tasks and iterations in an airplane, powered-lift, helicopter, or airship, as appropriate, for the instrument rating privileges to be maintained in actual weather conditions, or under simulated conditions using a view-limiting device that involves having performed the following: six instrument approaches, holding procedures and tasks, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigational electronic systems.
If we experience some down-time, it’s a good idea to keep our head in the game by reviewing these rules as well as our airplane specific operational procedures and techniques. We used to call it “chair flying.”
Chair Flying Revisited
If we don’t fly much or don’t think about it much, our perceptions can get rusty, especially the landing “sight picture.” I have the luxury (or the handicap) of thinking about flying a lot. But I’ve discovered that longing not only makes the heart grow fonder, but it makes the brain remember longer. Thus, talking to your airplane and gossiping with fellow airport bums notwithstanding, reviewing policies, procedures and flying techniques in our mind while not flying, chair flying can help us to stay in or ease us back into the groove.
But chair flying doesn’t exercise our hand-eye neural pathways quite like the real thing. Three takeoffs and landings are a way to re-stimulate those pathways. But how exactly did the three takeoff and landing regulatory epiphany occur anyway? Why three? Did a study conclude that three takeoffs and landings in 90 days were the right numbers? I’m convinced it was mostly a subjective decision. But a good one because we all need repetition to stay sharp, even a high-time airline pilot and Duke aficionado returning to the air that didn’t follow the checklist and made a poor choice in footwear.
A Not-So-Glorious Return
When I flew the Duke for the first time after surgery, I made a couple of mistakes. No, I didn’t forget the gear or sing over the radio. In order to verify that the fuel crossfeed system components are working properly, and to maintain fresh fuel in the cross-feed lines, the before-takeoff checklist has you put both fuel selectors in cross-feed then individually shut off the left, then the right electric fuel pumps. Next, you watch for the opposite, fuel low-pressure light to illuminate. After the test, you switch the electric pumps back on and move the fuel selectors back to the normal position. I forgot to move the valves back to normal and took off with both valves in cross-feed. It doesn’t cause a problem unless the previous fuel pressure tests failed, but cross-feed is not the correct position for takeoff.
I also wore my large work boots and apparently a toe brake was depressed during one of my touch-and-goes, thereby causing a multi-cord thin spot on the right main tire that even Rogaine could not hide. So, instead of a glorious return to the air reciting sweet-nothings to the Duke, I found myself grumbling expletives about tread wear and a hurried checklist. Two weeks later, B-737 first officer Steve Price helped to ensure that Big Foot’s return to the Big Show was enjoyable and uneventful with no cross-feed issues or balding tires; only sweet landings for hundreds of passengers and sweet-nothings for the Guppy.
Solo: The Loneliest Number
From Latin solus “alone.” When the pilot is the sole occupant of the aircraft.
After a stable approach, landing an airplane is all about where we perceive the ground to be while in the flare. In the Duke it’s about four or five feet, and in the 737 it’s a little over twice that distance. If we can remember the picture from the last time we flew, then one landing should do it. But landings number two and three are always better than the first, so maybe there’s something to that three-landings-to-get-current thing after all.
Like sharing a great meal after hours of painstaking preparation, landing is unquestionably one of the most rewarding parts of flying, especially when shared with passengers – unless we pork it. And a porked landing is the reason we should fly with an instructor or solo if we’re rusty or non-current. “One” may be the loneliest number (Three Dog Night, 1968), but being the sole occupant of the aircraft allows us to practice those landings in solitude. And since we don’t want our passengers to experience that first potentially embarrassing, burned-the-turkey dinner landing or hear us mumbling expletives, it’s good that we fly alone. And then, rather than expletives about the wind, weather, runway and messed-up checklists, they can witness a great landing and hear us whisper sweet-nothings to the airplne.