It was a hot and dry day near the banks of the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. The lawn sprinklers were creating a distracting fine mist with mini-rainbows as I made an approach to the helicopter’s designated grass landing area. I had another pilot onboard and a group of field workers also watching, so I really wanted this set-down to be gradual and smooth. To my satisfaction, that was what happened. But after shutting the machine down and exiting, I was disappointed to see that the right skid was about 5 inches to the left of the yellow line of dry grass located where the helicopter’s skid was parked earlier. In a helicopter, putting the skid exactly where you found it without even thinking is an indicator of real competence. And though no one else noticed this small snafu, I thought to myself, I could be more current.
A week later, I was pre-flighting the Lear 40 and found the flaps were left down by the crew who flew the previous trip. The flaps are electrically controlled but hydraulically driven, and since pulling them up requires an engine start, I decided to leave them where they were until we were ready to go. When my fellow Lear pilot arrived, I pointed the flap position out and we briefly discussed this small oversight by the previous crew. We noted that we would be extra careful not to commit a similar sin.
So, upon returning that afternoon, we made a smooth landing then proceeded to diligently work our way through every item on the after landing checklist, ensuring we pulled the flaps up. Thinking everything was perfect, we then taxied up to our home FBO smiling smugly. But the smile soon turned to a blush of embarrassment when I opened the door and with a slight grin the line guy said, “Spoilers are out.” I looked and sure enough, they were. Now, how the heck did that happen? Simple. The spoiler lever moves by an indent, but only a half-inch exists between armed (ARM) and retracted (RET). When we reached that checklist item, I apparently did not push it quite hard or far enough to do the job. Though no harm was done, I again thought to myself, I have not flown this airplane for a while. I could be more current.
A month or so went by, and I was making an ILS approach in a round-dialed Cessna 340 outfitted with Garmin avionics and an older Bendix King autopilot. This combination usually works well, but there are a few steps you have to remember or things can go awry. One step is switching the navigation source on the Garmin control head from GPS to ILS – which I successfully caught. The second step is switching the King autopilot control head from NAV to APCH. About the time that task was due, the controller gave me a clearance and while reading it back, I was a little late in pushing the APCH button. This caused the yellow glide slope needles on the airplane’s old round dials to show the airplane was slightly above the glide slope. I caught this gauge indication and (based upon recent flights in turbines with good FMS systems) thought, the autopilot will probably fix it.
But as the airplane continued to remain above the glide slope, I remembered in that particular airplane, with that particular avionics and autopilot, it would only capture the glide slope from below, not above. To fix this, I disconnected the autopilot and manually flew the airplane until the ILS needles were all centered then re-activated the autopilot. Again, no one noticed my snafu, but I certainly did.
I could be more current.
It Was Not Always This Way
At one point in my professional pilot life, I was flying 80 hours per month and usually in the same aircraft type. After doing that for a couple of years, you realize there is a huge difference in “currency” when comparing that amount of flight time in the same airplane to say 200-300 hours per year in a variety of aircraft…which is what I do now. In the first scenario, you know the airplane, its numbers and any quirks just cold. Plus the button pushing details required to operate the airplane (under almost any condition) also seem to slow down; so much so, that you can get bored waiting for the appropriate time. And even though you still use them, the very long and complicated checklists wind up being completely memorized from the constant repetition.
Understanding the difference between being “current” and “legally current” just makes the issue much more obvious and irritating to pilots who have the “80 hours per month in the same airplane” background; they know what they are missing. And so, I have spent some time thinking about how to alleviate this currency conundrum.
In discussing this issue with other pilots, recurrent training at places such as FlightSafety or SIMCOM almost always comes up. And without a doubt, that kind of training is very helpful particularly for certain types of operation. But I personally have found simulators do not line up exactly with the airplanes I am flying. Plus, regularly taking those training courses in everything from single- and multi-engine piston twins to business jets and helicopters is almost impossible (yet alone prohibitively expensive). I often leave those courses well-versed in the airplane’s systems and numbers, but feel far from what I know to be “80 hours per month” current.
One of the things a lack in true currency brings out in me is plain forgetfulness. Jumping in and out of different airplanes all the time, I find it hard to remember certain key numbers such as gear extension speed, maximum operating weight, total fuel capability and average fuel burns. And in what order certain things are to be completed. Of course, in each airplane there is a POH or its equivalent, but those often seem to be awkwardly written and make quick comprehension difficult. To combat this issue, I have found it very helpful to write my own personal checklists for every airplane I fly. I make sure to include the important numbers I have trouble remembering so I can readily refer to them. I also highlight any specific items I overlooked on previous flights. For example, my Lear checklist now has yellow highlighting over the “spoilers” line on the after landing checklist.
I probably have two dozen of these checklists by now, all well-worn. The pilots I regularly fly with even give me a knowing nod when I haul them out. In the case I am flying with another pilot, I will also usually announce (when true) that I have not flown the airplane for some time, and tell him or her to “watch out” for me. Although this almost always results in a slight laugh and response to the effect of, “Yeah sure, you’ll be just fine,” it still sets a certain tone for our subsequent interaction. I definitely believe it contributes to the safety of the flight.
But if flying an airplane that does not require another pilot, I pay particular attention to briefing myself. I’ll typically read through both sides of the checklist a couple of times before even starting the airplane. If my checklist shows any yellow highlighting, rest assured I look extra carefully at those items. When solo, I also limit the type of weather and airport I am willing to operate in if I do not feel truly “current” in that particular airplane. For example, my own Cessna 340 has RAM VII engines, a Robertson STOL kit and VGs. When light, it thinks it can climb trees. But if I have not flown it in say 20 or 30 hours in the previous month, regardless of what the airplane thinks it can do, “tree climbing” is out of the question.
In terms of basic aircraft control, I find the effort required to become “80 hours per month” current varies with the amount of time I have already accumulated in that airplane. For example, in an airplane that I have 2,000 hours in, everything comes back pretty quickly. Whereas, in airplane I have 200 hours in, it is going to require a lot more time. I say this with exception of certain basics of piloting such as judging the angular distance from the ground required to make a safe landing. Typically, landings are one of the currency issues I least worry
about. Sort of like the proverbial “like riding a bike” analogy.
Today, another factor making currency more difficult is the plethora of different and vastly more capable avionics and FMS systems. Three decades ago, in the era of VORs, vacuum pumps and round dials, everything was pretty straightforward and simple to stay on top of. Now, there are usually four or five computer screens, each powered by separate electrical systems and each receiving information from different input sources. Not to mention, they require an often-confusing array of key strokes to operate properly. Staying on top of how all of the different equipment works (especially when flying a variety of aircraft) is a major problem for anyone.
For example, there are considerable differences in how to operate the Universal FMS found in a newer Lear, as opposed to a Rockwell Collins Proline unit found in a CJ or newer King Air. The Collins unit requires typing commands into what is called the “scratch pad” (abbreviated SCP), then moving it to the appropriate function line. Whereas, the Universal set-up does not make use of a so-called scratch pad at all. Pilots just enter the information directly into the appropriate function line. This is an issue even with the older Garmin units in smaller aircraft. The Garmin GNS 430 and 530 models operate completely different than a 480 (which actually has a functional logic more akin to an FMS in a larger airplane). There are of course manuals for all of this equipment, but they are usually bound in a 2-inch thick book. Though greatly informative, they’re absolutely useless if wanting to find directions on how to do something quickly. To deal with this particular problem, I made myself one-page instruction sheets for the most common
operations for each of the avionics or FMS systems I am likely to encounter. Those sheets have proved to be a big help.
They say you only miss the things you know about. Well, I definitely miss the type of comfortable currency that comes naturally when flying 80 hours per month in the same aircraft. But on the other hand, I do not miss being away two weeks every month, and the sense of boredom that can occur when constantly flying the same airplane along the same routes. If you are careful with your limitations, use personal checklists and instruction sheets to compensate for your foibles, you can still be a very competent and safe pilot – even when flying just 200 hours per year. There are solutions to
the “currency conundrum.”