In my area of the country at least (Pacific Northwest), the COVID pandemic has resulted in a serious reduction in the amount of business and personal flying being conducted. This has been particularly noticeable to pilots like me who fly professionally on a fill-in or contract basis. Even the full-time guys are just barely getting enough flight time to justify their pay.
It has also affected pilots who fly their own airplanes for business or recreational reasons beyond the immediate touch-and-go pattern, given all the issues of arranging accommodations and meals at distant locations as opposed to just staying home. In turn, there is a reduction in pilot currency, which then makes you wonder just how “competent” you still are…this thinking (even for the most egotistical of us) tends to decrease our confidence. We might be more reluctant to tackle weather that would have otherwise not been a concern, which leads to an even further reduction in flight hours. It is like falling dominoes.
So, with all this in mind, I got out of bed on a recent winter sunny morning, thinking about how much (or how little) flying I had done over the past couple of months – frankly, not quite as confident in my flying abilities as this time last year. I decided the only way to deal with this discomforting feeling was to go down to the airport and actually fly the airplane. Which I did, being particularly diligent about watching myself closely.
I started out carefully running the before start flow pattern I have used for the past 20 years and 2,000 hours in my own Cessna 340. And then, just to make sure I had not missed anything, I ran the written checklist through verbally more than one time. Grinning to myself that I had not missed anything in the flow pattern, I then started the engines.
Now, it is not just the pilots who are suffering from this lack of utilization currency malady, but also the airplanes. My own airplane had not been flown since the middle of the last month, and it took just a bit more priming and coaxing to get the engines started than it normally does. Once they fired up, I got all involved in keeping the RPM down to just over idle levels until the oil pressure finally came up. Before that, my mind visualized pistons grinding up and down against the cylinder walls without any oil to provide lubrication. Once that period of wincing and grimacing had passed I released the brakes and taxied out, making sure I kept the nose wheel exactly on the yellow line.
Upon arriving at the run-up area, it appeared I was not the only one out trying to restore confidence as there were three single-engine piston airplanes in front of me, slowly working their way through checklists. Finally, it was my turn to taxi into position and hold on the runway while waiting for traffic that had just landed to clear. As I waited, my question of confidence again presented itself. So, just to make sure all was right, I pushed up the engines to about 70 percent power. I checked the oil pressure, temperature and fuel flow at least two times, plus dropped my right hand down to the fuel supply valves at least twice (already done before start-up) just to make sure they were on the proper tanks – all the while thinking to myself, this is not something I would normally do.
The takeoff went smoothly enough, although I noticed it took me much longer than usual to advance the throttles to full power. Maybe this was because I kept glancing at the engine gauges to make sure everything over there was okay before we arrived at anything close to Vr or rotation speed. Once airborne, I got the gear and flaps up right away, just as the memory checklist items require, but decided to stay in the pattern to make at least one landing just to make sure I could still do it halfway safely. And, to my surprise, the approach and landing went amazingly well. Right in the touchdown zone, with the nose wheel on the white line and the main gear just squeaking as they gently arrived at the pavement. I almost regretted not having any passengers on board, such a nice landing would surely have impressed.
Having convinced myself I could still land the thing, I departed the pattern and deliberately, on short notice, assigned myself the task of setting up the instrument panel up for one of the local instrument approaches. In a Garmin-equipped airplane this takes quite a few keystrokes that must be done in a sequence, the order of which is relatively easy to forget. For a few moments I found my fingers on the buttons saying out loud to myself, “Now, let me see, just how did I do this?” But, after just a couple missteps, I managed to program the approach I wanted and select “direct” to the initial approach point (IAP). Then, I turned on the autopilot, activated NAV and ALT, and let the airplane take care of itself while I talked to the controller.
The frequency was strangely quiet, so just to make sure someone was there, I opened up the conversation with the controller with my N-number, a pleasant “good morning,” and a question as to whether he could handle a pop-up. Probably bored stiff down there with the lack of traffic, he immediately agreed, identified where I was and gave me an IFR transponder code. All of which I acknowledged in what I hoped was my usual confident manner. The approach required a holding pattern, which I purposely wanted to do anyway because IFR currency requires it. I realized it would be a parallel entry, but I was happy to see the Garmin box also suggest the same. My confidence was gradually increasing.
For this airplane to shoot the approach on autopilot you must switch the autopilot from NAV to APCH, something I often find instrument students fail to do. Keeping in mind that I would not want to make such a mistake, I make sure to hit the APCH button, then look up to see if that indication showed up on the annunciator panel, which it did. From that point the approach was easy until I started getting close to the glide slope intercept altitude, only to notice there were no yellow glide slope needles showing up on the visual display. I tapped on the instrument a couple of times thinking it may have gotten stuck from lack of use, but that didn’t fix it.
In the meantime, the annunciator panel GS (glide slope) light came on, and the autopilot starting trimming nose down to reach a 400 feet per minute or so descent, which with the gear still up caused quite an acceleration. Yikes, regardless of the lack of glide slope needles being AWOL, the airplane itself seemed to know what it was doing, and I was getting behind it. Dropping the gear and reducing the power slightly caught me up with the airplane, at which time I reached for the landing checklist to make sure I had not missed anything.
Sure enough, somehow during the glide slope needle problem, I had forgotten to turn on the pulse light switch that flashes the landing lights on and off in a very noticeable back and forth fashion. I got that oversight fixed then it also occurred to me that if I was going to do this completely right, I needed the radar altimeter alarm set for the missed approach point altitude. Luckily, I remembered what to do and the audio alarm went off just exactly at the right altitude. Off went the autopilot, the throttles stayed in the same position, my eyes glanced down again to the three green landing lights, and I again checked to make sure the flaps were all the way down. The landing was almost perfect, and I rolled out exactly on the white line until reaching the yellow one leading to the taxiway.
Now feeling pretty good about myself, I decided to repeat the entire endeavor and mix it up with a simulated engine failure while on the approach. The takeoff went fine, and I found I had the engines up to full power much earlier than on my first try. The controller greeted me like a long-lost friend and I was soon back on the approach with the faulty GS needles and all. With the autopilot seemingly knowing where the glide slope was, I gradually pulled the right engine back to 12 inches of MP and added 3 to 4 inches on the left. Occasionally, when doing this in my airplane, the autopilot will not handle the change in rotation about the vertical axis and kick itself off. I am carefully watching for this and wondering what I will use for glideslope monitoring if that happens. But for whatever reason, the autopilot decides to be kind to me and hangs in there. I arrive over the threshold with the airplane slightly turned toward the good engine, but manage to get that straightened out just before touchdown right on the white line, a landing which I must admit was safe enough, but not my best one of the day.
Taxing back in, I see my wife already has the hangar door open, the lights on and the orange motorized pushcart outside where I will need it. She knows me well and wonders why I have such a wide grin on my face as I get out of the airplane. I explain I am feeling quite happy with myself because I had not been flying much and was worried about a loss of competence. And, for a guy who has 11,000 hours and flying since age 18, that in turn had started to produce a very discomforting loss in my sense of confidence. But, all was better now.
If during this COVID mess you are getting worried that you are losing any competence (and confidence), my advice is just go fly your airplane.