What piloting skill is the most perishable? When I’ve had a lapse in flying as I did recently following my hip surgery, I tend to focus on my instrument procedure skills. More specifically, I prioritize my ability to execute an instrument approach with zero errors and within commercial standards as a key benchmark of my skills as a pilot. Sure, I’m game for practicing steep turns, landings or stalls, but I tend to prefer to shoot approaches, ensuring I get the button pushes correct, and the needles centered.
Certainly, it’s important to master this critical phase of flight in which the aircraft is moving perilously closer to the hard, unforgiving ground. Interestingly though, it is not the skill that’s most likely to slip away the quickest when we step away from the cockpit.
Studies have demonstrated that pilot skills erode the fastest in perhaps the most predictable places: landings, crosswind landings, crosswind takeoffs, steep turns, and minimum controllable airspeed, to name a few. In other words, the hands-on, basic airmanship skills tend to go first.
When I lived in Wichita, it’s a common sight to see KC-135s flying the circuit at McConnell Air Force Base, shooting landing after landing. I asked a KC-135 pilot once why they practice landings so much. His answer: It is the most perishable skill. Thus, they have to work at it all the time, especially crosswind landings. The KC-135 has only an 8-degree roll limit on touchdown (the -135R with its bigger engines is even less), making crosswind landings a particular challenge. Too much roll and the pilot will be dragging a nacelle on the runway.
Tony Kern wrote in his landmark paper “Foundations of Professional Airmanship and Flight Discipline:”
“Flying an airplane is not like riding a bike. If you haven’t flown recently in the model you are in, you may not remember precisely how. It is probably more like juggling knives, where if you’re not proficient, you are likely to end up hurting yourself.”
In the same publication, Tony cited research that showed pilots lose their cognitive piloting skills as fast or faster than the physical ones: “In fact, since flying is a psychomotor process, it is by definition a blending of mind and body to achieve results. Pilots and other aviators must rely heavily on cue recognition and pre-learned mental response patterns, which are decidedly cognitive processes. If we fail to recognize a cue, for example a traffic pattern reference for flap lowering, then it can be the first in a long series of falling dominoes that will mess up our ability to maintain positive control of our flight parameters.”
As Tony tells it, skill and proficiency are two edges of the airmanship sword. How do you keep it sharp? Train, and then fly like you train. If you can help it, avoid long chunks of time between flights. If it can’t be helped, be prepared to increase your personal minimums, seek expert coaching and commit to sustained practice. Don’t put yourself and your passengers at risk because you’ve allowed the airmanship sword to grow dull. The stakes are simply too high.
While there is no shortage of research and credible science to prove that practice really does make perfect, it’s equally important to develop a strategy for you to debrief your own performance after the aircraft is tucked away in the hangar. For it to be effective, it’s something you’ve got to do every time you fly.
Chris Lutat of Convergent Performance, a human factors and safety consultancy, offers this excellent list of questions to pose to yourself after every flight:
1.) What could I/we have done today that would have made this a mistake-free flight?
2.) Are any of the errors or mistakes made on this flight “repeat discrepancies” from a previous flight?
3.) Which of these strategies can I apply to eliminate the same errors or mistakes on future flights:
a. More practice of the maneuver or procedure?
b. Feedback or coaching from another expert, instructor or check airman?
c. More study of technical, procedural or regulatory resources?
d. More or better planning or briefing?
4.) What maneuvers, procedures, and decisions did I/we make today that led to error-free (or near error-free) outcomes? Why?
A friend of mine who flies a Piper M500 is religious about his post-flight debrief. He keeps a detailed notebook where he notes his mistakes, errors or lapses in judgement. He counters each with a constructive plan on how he intends to correct it. His debrief occurs immediately after his flight in the quiet space of his hangar office. Following his lead, I started carrying a small leather notebook in my flight bag in which I attempt (probably a bit less religiously) to capture my flubs. It is a humbling and revealing assignment in which you must leave your ego at the door.
In Daniel Goleman’s “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” there is this excellent quote: Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.”
How sharp is your airmanship sword? Are you satisfied in remaining at the performance level are you now? Let’s strive for better. Our lives and that of our passengers depend on it.