Is it possible for a —-baby bird to survive without its mother? Sure, at least for a while. Ultimately, however, the odds will change and the outcome will yield unfortunate, if not tragic, results. The same analogy can apply to pilots, except manipulation of the odds can be made in favor of survival. I am referring to the regulatory compliance of pilot certificate currency and recent flight experience, versus proactive pilot proficiency (Reference FAR part 61.56 & 57). Those are three very different definitions, two with inherent pitfalls for the unassuming pilot, although they’re all trying to attain one goal: Safety. Note: The latter of the three, proactive pilot proficiency, is usually a standard upheld by the individual pilot, not a regulation.
At the airlines, pilot training occurs twice a year for captains (ground school followed by two proficiency checks) and once a year for FO’s (ground school, followed by a PC). The ground school consists of system operations, airline SOP’s, reviewing ASAP reports (Aviation Safety Action Program) and other valuable trend data. Occasionally, line flying stories are traded, the usual banter of the airline is debated, and tribal knowledge is passed down between the ranks, such as “if this happens, try doing this first” (before the official procedure). The airlines do not like tribal knowledge, as it encourages a lack of standard operating practice.
Simulator sessions encompass IAP’s, emergency ops, LOFT training (Line Oriented Flight Training), and some extracurricular situations that are only possible (hopefully) in the simulator. The simulator is very comprehensive, as it knocks the rust off tools normally underutilized. Yes, you may be thinking to yourself, “I train once, if not twice, a year.” Although that may be true, the difference is that airline pilots fly almost daily. Proficiency, therefore, is maintained by flying regularly. I hesitate, however, to write this in today’s environment, as we’ve also seen a degradation in proficiency on the Part 121 side of the spectrum. Simply put, if you can’t fly on a regular basis, you may not be as “proficient” as you think you are, or as the regulations lead you to believe.
That being said, as Part 91 pilots, it’s up to us to uphold the same standards set forth by those companies flying paying passengers and/or cargo. After all, anything less than an accident/incident-free year is cause for improvement. Therefore, what does this mean for those of us who want to be as sharp as we can? Well, we all know about the existing programs to keep us up-to-date on trends, techniques, and procedures; I won’t list them here. However, on the flying side of the equation, why not set up a pilot training schedule based on the amount you fly per month, as well as the quality of flying normally conducted? Perhaps for every 15 hours of flying or 15 days (whichever comes first), you train for two hours. Whatever the course of action you deem to be appropriate, follow through and stick to it. Think of it as a requirement.
Moving back to the airlines, their crews train in night and poor-weather conditions during the simulator sessions. This enables the pilots to hone their basic instrument flying skills, situational awareness, SOP’s, etc. Although the pilot training is aimed at facilitating proficiency, what really keeps the crews sharp is the constant exposure to flight, on an almost-daily basis. For those of us on the Part 91 side, flying for hours every day is not possible, so we need to be proactive in order to maintain proficiency. I don’t suggest taking off into hard-IMC conditions alone at night, unless you feel qualified. Instead, take an instructor or qualified safety pilot (I’m sure both are eager to ride in a Twin &Turbine aircraft) and practice some actual or simulated approaches, published holds, and non-published holds. On another occasion, should the same flight not be conducive, find a nice day or night to practice your air maneuvers; engine out procedures, aborted takeoffs, stall recognition and recovery, memory items and limitations, cross-wind landings and takeoffs, and even aborted starts. Either way, set up a system of flying regularly, and train well beyond what’s required by insurance companies and regulations. It’s like compound interest: The more you put in, the more you’ll receive in return–the more you train, the more proficient, comfortable, and confident (albeit, hopefully, not over-confident) you’ll be.
Of course, this is easier said than done and we all fall victim to a lack of time in our lives. Flying around in a complex, cabin-class machine is a responsibility. So, too, is holding the certificate to act as PIC. If the regulations alone are not stringent enough to force the issue of true proficiency, then make sure you do it yourself. Ask yourself: Are you really ready to fly today, if the last approach you flew was five months and 29 days ago? Are you ready to land at night, if your last nighttime landing was over two months ago? And, should the unthinkable occur, are you ready to handle an emergency situation? If the answer is yes, then good for you. If not, make sure you get out there and practice. After all, isn’t it just another reason to jump into a beautiful machine and have some fun?
This may appear to be a lot of effort, perhaps even overkill, but the time and cost is well-allocated and will absolutely yield a strong return on investment. Remember, we’re flying complex airplanes in complex airspace and with that comes the responsibility to ourselves, our passengers, and even those we fly over (or near) to maintain proficiency rather than just currency and recent flight experience. Can a fish live without water? For a little while…