Budd Davisson

Flight Training Magazine, May 2000

Viewing Your License as a Ticket to Learning

The ink on your new pilots license has finally dried and you're dying to get out there and start using it. So, what's stopping you? Oh, you're waiting for the wind to die down. And there are some clouds to the south. And you've never been really comfortable landing on that 2,200 foot strip where the airplane is based.

Okay, already. The next thing you'll be telling us is that you don't want to miss reruns of Gilligan's Island. Stop making excuses. Or better yet, stop blaming the environment when the problem is really a lack of confidence in your own skills.

Every single pilot on the face of the Earth, the honest ones anyway (there are a few, believe me) will admit they aren't as sharp as they'd like them to be. This is especially true of new pilots. If you ignore procedural skills like flying instruments and stick to the basics, you'll notice that the things which bother new pilots the most are crosswinds, weather and....well, that's about it until you get to short runways, mountain flying and a few other more exotic areas.

The entire reason you're got some doubts in your skills and hang back when the wind is blowing is first, of all, you have some common sense. A good rule to follow in aviation is, if you aren't comfortable with the situation, don't push it. Of course, if you adhere to that rule religiously, you'll find yourself avoiding the edges of your personal envelope so much that the edges begin closing in until they smother you. You'll always be finding reasons not to go flying. There is a way around this, however.

Right now I want you to imagine yourself wanting to go flying (not much of a stretch, right?) and then deciding you can't because your skill in such and such area (you fill in the blank) isn't up to handling that particular day. Grab a pencil and paper, right now, and write down a list of all those things which concern you in flying. Certainly crosswinds will be on the top of the list. Maybe concerns about engine failures are second. Do clouds or reduced visibility figure in on the list? What about turbulence? Let your imagination run and let your fears hang out. Put whatever has been keeping you from flying on the list. Lack of money doesn't count. That's universal.

Now, sit back and look at the list. In all probability it's not very long. Holding that in your hand, pick up the phone and call your old flight instructor and make a date to design a 10 hour training program that is aimed at addressing nothing but those areas which make you feel uncomfortable. This is going to be focused, really hard core training and your instructor has to know that. When you were working towards your license, the lessons had to be balanced and aimed at the flight test. This time, however, they aren't meant to be balanced. The goal here is to examine every single one of your skills, especially the ones that worry you, and concentrate on honing a nice sharp edge on them.

Whether it's on the list or not, you should plan on devoting three hours to nothing but crosswinds, even if you already feel comfortable with them. This, however, isn't going to be your normal crosswind training. We aren't going to mess with the pansy eight knot crosswinds you saw while working towards your license. This time you're looking for serious cross winds that approach the demonstrated crosswind factor of the airplane involved. They don't all have to be that high, but the goal is to get you comfortable in nasty little winds, say those with a 90° component exceeding at least 12 knots. More important than the size of the wind is its direction and gust spread: you're going to be out there looking for the baddest wind in which your instructor is willing to instruct.

Leaning to handle a healthy gust spread when the wind is crossed is almost as important as handling the crosswind itself. The changeable characteristics of a gusty crosswind are what drive all pilots nuts and it is usually because they haven't drawn a firm visual line they want to fly. Once that line is drawn, they have to resolve they are going to instantly correct for any deviations from that line. In a gusty wind in something like a 172, that means you're going to be thrashing away with the ailerons doing what ever you have to do to keep it from drifting while absolutely nailing the nose at a given attitude so the gusts don't drive it up and down, left and right. It's going to stay at the proper attitude for the speed and it's going to remain pointed down the centerline. Period.

The gusts are also going to try to rock the wings, which will change the gust correction, but you aren't going to let the wings so much as wiggle. Then, if you do see the slightest drift, you're going to be right there with aileron and rudder to correct it. It takes a firm hand and determination to hold that line and it's surprising how difficult it is to develop that skill on your own. An instructor is a huge help.

If you're out there on your own, chances are the airplane will start moving on some axis and you won't see the movement until the airplane has already moved a few feet. Once the airplane has started moving, it's hard to stop. However, with an instructor on board, he can point out the instant the airplane starts moving and, in so doing, will help you sharpen your visual acuity until you see the movement as quickly as he does. The sooner you correct it, the easier it is to control the wind.

If you're a new pilot, don't try to tackle winds like this on your own. Most new pilots wouldn't try that anyway, but having an instructor on board is not only your best insurance, but he or she will show you what you need to know and shorten the learning process considerably.

Do not, repeat DO NOT, go out for one hour, find you have the crosswind basics down, and then skip on to another subject. Of all the tricks in the pilot's bag that needs practice and lots of it, it is gusty crosswinds. Invest three hours in going round and round on bouncy days on a variety of airports. Of all the time invested in post graduate training, this is the one that will pay you back many times over during your aviation career.

Another point that may or may not have been hammered into your head during your initial training is becoming comfortable with shorter than normal runways. Actually, as a new pilot, it's not necessary you become comfortable landing on a 1200 foot postage stamp, but it is important you be able to put the airplane where you want it, which is to say, get it down in the first 500-700 feet after the numbers. If you can do that, you already know how to land on a 1500 foot runway, because most little airplanes you're likely to be flying with your new license can stop on the balance. Actually, in normal practice, it's highly unlikely you're ever going to see a runway shorter than 1800-2000 feet, so, assuming you can put it down in the first 500-700 feet, total runway length becomes a moot point. The training for this should consist of at least two intense hops of about 45 minutes a piece. And just for the record, 2,000 feet isn't even remotely short. It just looks that way to someone used to 3,500 feet or more. For most airplanes, it's plenty.

When you outline your program to your instructor, he or she is undoubtedly going to look at the short field recommendation and say, "No problemo! The first turn off here is 2,000 feet, we just have land short enough to make that and ignore the other 5,000 feet past it." Wrong! That's not what this training is about. We're after real life scenarios so you've actually been there before. Landing on the first part of a long runway is not the same as landing on the same scrap of pavement when that's all there is. Even if every landing you've ever made on your home runway has culminated with a turn off at the 2,000 foot mark, there is something different about turning final to a runway that really is only 2,000 feet long. Suddenly, it's for real and the imaginary trees at the end are made of real Douglas fir. There is simply no substitute for the real thing, when it comes to developing accuracy in touchdowns and short field work.

Depending on how short you want to get, you may find your instructor isn't all that confident on shorter than normal runways either. If that's the case, find one who is perfectly happy with 2,000 feet and is willing to work shorter, if you want. Remember, however, the goal isn't to be able to land on a postage stamp. The goal is to be able to consistently put the airplane on a given spot in even the roughest weather.

Once an instructor is found, you may find it's difficult to find a runway that fits the bill. In certain parts of the country 2,000 foot strips abound while in others, they don't exist except in some rich guy's backyard. If you have to call the rich guy and get permission to use his strip, then do it, if that's the only shorter than normal strip available.

You're going to work this strip on at least two different occasions. The first time it will be on a relatively calm day so you can develop your short field and spot landing techniques in a real world situation with few distractions. The second time, however, you're going to pick a day when your favorite nasty crosswind is blowing. You'll find that trying to hit the mark, which was easy the day before, becomes a game in which you are constantly correcting and fighting to maintain the proper glide slope. You might consider a third session doing this just to make certain you have it wired.

And then there's the old weather bugaboo. You stand in the living room and look out at the sky. Boy, they sure do look low. 'Wonder how the visibility really is. Flight Service said it was five miles. Wow, that's really getting down there! Nah, I'll just watch Gilligan again.

The concept of what constitutes flyable weather is interesting because it is part concrete definition, "...1,500 feet, sky obscured, five miles visibility..." and part subjective guess work, "...I wonder how low they really are, I'd guess them at 1,000 feet." The definition of "flyable" is also mandated via the FAR's, but the subjective definition varies wildly depending on where the pilot got his license. Someone who did all of their student work in New Jersey is intimately familiar with less than perfect flying conditions. 1,500 feet and five miles is nearly CAVU to them. I fought that kind of weather for more than 22 years then moved to Arizona and, after nearly a decade, I'm still suffering from meteorological culture shock Out here, when we get 3000 foot solid overcast, we have to go looking for our students because they're hiding under their beds convinced the gods have stolen the sun. If we get a 2,500 foot overcast (which is usually coupled with 50 mile visibility, less than half of normal), there won't be a little airplane in the air. The result is, our students have very little experience in deciphering weather conditions and flying in them. So, they are terrified of anything resembling a cloud (in their defense, during August, we hold the patent on killer thunderstorms). Students in other parts of the country may or may not have been brought up looking at local weather and deciding what's flyable and what's not. Regardless of where a student got his or her training, however, part of the ten hour graduate course should be aimed at giving them up close and personal weather experience.

Get your instructor to take you out on days where the weather is above minimums, but barely, so you'll know what a marginal day actually looks like. Then have him start working you as if you were under the hood on instruments. In fact, if the instructor can work it out, file an IFR clearance and get Center to let you aim right at the clouds, then, as your visibility starts to go down as you start into them, execute a classic 180° turn out on instruments. Do not, however, let the instructor talk you into doing it without a clearance or a C-310 or Lear might drop out of the clouds and ruin your day.

Tell your instructor that you want to see weather first hand that is capable of luring you into situations you can't handle. Try to find weather that's working it's way towards the ground or visibility that's right at minimums. The goal here is for you to get a reality check on what the bad stuff looks like, so you'll know to 180° early, before you have to do it on the gauges. Don't confuse this type of training with an attempt to make you comfortable with low visibility and bad weather conditions. Hopefully, you'll come out of this with a healthier respect for weather and a better understanding of when it really IS a good time to catch up on your Gilligans.

There's one last area that should be mandatory in your ten hour course and that's some gross weight work with the four-placer you're likely to be flying. Since you probably never flew the airplane completely loaded, it's a good idea to get some real life experience with a heavy airplane, so it won't surprise you on your first cross country.

There are lots of other possible items you could work into your graduate course, like maybe practicing a whole bunch of engine out situations, everywhere from takeoff to enroute. Or maybe do some more night work. Or maybe get some spin training (which should be mandatory anyway...don't get me started). You can design the course the way you want to, but the important thing to realize is that the goal is to eliminate those unavoidable gaps in your training that may be keeping you from flying. Or, more likely, are keeping you from flying as safely as you should be. Ten hours of extra instruction isn't really all that much money and, in the long run, it'll be some of the best money you'll ever spend.