By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the March 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Spring is just around the corner, and that means it’s spring cleaning time. We open the windows to let in the fresh air, clean the windows to let in light, and scrub everything to get the dust and dirt out of all the hidden corners. Along with the cleaning usually comes some maintenance and repairs — things we keep meaning to do (or forget to do), but never quite find the time for.
For many of us, it’s also time to give our flying skills some spring cleaning. We need to scrape off the rust and hone them to a sharper edge. Whether that takes the form of some recurrent training or a full-blown flight review, we need to shine some light into those hidden corners we might not have explored for some time.
Completing recurrent training or a flight review isn’t always as much fun as we might hope. It certainly isn’t the highlight of my flying season, but it’s a critical element in flying safety. And every time we engage in the effort, we may find weaknesses that we didn’t expect.
Throughout my decades of giving and receiving flight checks and recurrent training, the following appear as common problem areas we should spend some time scraping and polishing:
Instrument scan — Perhaps one of the first tools in our flight skills locker to show some signs of rust is our instrument scan. Whether we’re a VFR-only pilot or instrument rated, we should spend some time brushing up on our basic skills for flight by reference to instruments. If we haven’t practiced in a while, we may find that our scan is a bit slow. That could put us in a bind, especially when dealing with an emergency or abnormal procedure. The time we really need those skills is when a situation goes awry, and that’s when we need to be sharp. If our scan is slow, we might have a difficult time dealing with the situation. The workload can quickly mount as we’re reading a sectional chart or approach plate, reprogramming a GPS while trying to maintain heading and altitude, completing a turn to a heading, or initiating a climbing turn. But with just a little bit of practice, we can sharpen those skills dramatically and be ready to use them in a pinch.
Unusual attitude recovery — Here is another critical skill we need to review periodically. Those of us who have had the experience of flying ourselves into an unusual attitude situation know how insidious such a situation can be. Unlike the typical training scenario, a real-world unusual attitude situation can easily sneak up on us, and it may take a second or two for the full realization of such an event to occur. The key here is to first note what the airspeed is doing. If airspeed is low and going lower, we need to simultaneously lower the nose, add power, and roll wings level. If airspeed is high and going higher, we need to reduce power, roll wings level, and then recover from the resulting dive.
Engine failure — Engine failures are not terribly common, but they sure do get our attention when they occur. They can require some quick reactions and good decision-making. In some aircraft, power loss during climb-out requires a rapid and dramatic pitch change to maintain best glide speed. Failing to do so can cause our airspeed to decay in dramatic fashion. Likewise, a steep turn to align the airplane for a return to the field or an off-field landing site can result in excess altitude loss or an unintentional stall/spin scenario. If such scenarios are not practiced at altitude, they could result in a deadly outcome if they occur near the ground. A few practice runs to get the procedure down pat can make all the difference when such a scenario arises for real.
Abnormal and emergency procedures — Beyond engine failures, a key element in our training revolves around dealing with a variety of other emergency situations. While some are a staple of our initial and recurrent training, others we may not have contemplated for some time, if ever. Besides engine failures, we might consider how to deal with a no-flap landing, electrical system failure, and brake or engine fire during taxi, gear retraction, or extension issues, and what to do when a cabin or cargo door opens in flight.
Stalls — I’ll venture to say that most of us don’t practice stalls and stall recoveries often. As we contemplate and perform stall recovery, we should pay close attention to the effects of varying weight and balance conditions, density altitude, aircraft configurations, and aircraft attitudes on stall characteristics and our recovery process. In all cases, the intent is to recover from the stall with a minimum of altitude loss. Increasing weight and near-limit loading conditions can make a familiar airplane feel unfamiliar as we approach a stall condition. Here’s where an experienced and qualified instructor can help us understand the challenges and sharpen our skills in the airplane we typically fly.
Steep turns — Another lesser-used skill is steep turns. Here again, we might find we’re a bit rusty unless we have practiced this skill recently. At issue is the fact that we might be prone to significant altitude loss if we’re rusty. If we’re low or slow when the need for a steep turn arises, we could find ourselves in a particularly dire situation. Key elements here include proper use of trim, adding power to compensate for loss of lift, maintaining coordinated flight, and having good references for turns in either direction.
Aborted takeoffs and landings — Another skill we might not often practice is aborted takeoffs and landings. Especially if we haven’t practiced these maneuvers recently, we might be slow to react to a situation where one is warranted. If we haven’t practiced recently, we might also be slow on making the rapid changes needed to complete them safely. Especially on a go-around, power application, pitch control, and flap retraction must all be coordinated to maintain the proper airspeed as we transition from intended landing to a climb. Waiting too long to abort a takeoff can make the difference between a relatively minor inconvenience and a major catastrophe.
A good flight review or recurrent training session not only will touch on the elements of our normal flying, but also should hone the skills we don’t practice very often. Even if we don’t practice every conceivable scenario or skill, we should at least talk through as many as we can. Through discussing such scenarios, we help preload our brains with the strategies we need to maneuver out of danger, and that gives us an edge when the unexpected occurs.
Spring cleaning might not be the most fun we have in an airplane, but we may feel a renewed confidence in our skills and a well-earned sense of accomplishment once it’s done. For our own safety, and the safety of those who fly with us, we should all take ample time and effort to scrape the rust from our flying skills.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.