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Repetition Is Not Enough
March 2017 - My last landing was a B-plus. Smooth but a couple of feet off the centerline.
One of the things I have enjoyed most about flying is the process of learning new skills and working to master them. It is a constant process that begins with basic flight training and never ends. It is critical to remember that you will only maintain skills within the period you are always putting them into practice. The minute you stop, those skills begin to fade. It means that some ongoing practice must continue just to keep the skills you have, never mind if you plan to expand your skill set.
During initial flight training, this sequence of steps is pretty straightforward. Students are shown new skills under the watchful eyes of instructors and repeat them with coaching until they have demonstrated themselves to be reasonably proficient. Lessons finish up with a debriefing, where the instructor breaks down the flight. Even though I believe my training was very thorough, I was rarely if ever asked to critique my own performance. Eventually, I learned to just jump into it before the instructor could get a word out.
At the beginning of flight training, a new student won’t have enough experience to contribute much to the analysis phase. Even so, it should be encouraged as soon as is practicable. The reason is simple: From solo until the last flight as PIC, the only way a pilot will continue to improve is if he or she has the ability to recognize where skills could be sharper and work actively to improve those skills. If you are a student and have never been asked to do this, ask the instructor if you can do the debrief first and then let him or her catch what you missed. It will help you learn to assess your own performance, a skill that is absolutely necessary when you start flying solo. Without the ability to perform at least basic self-assessments, the student is as good as they will ever get at the end of their training. The trip to the examiner will be the beginning of the end, rather than the end of the beginning.
As a longtime sailboat racer, instructor, and coach, I have used one simple formula: Learn, practice, assess, practice, assess, relearn, practice, assess — rinse and repeat as needed.
You may notice in the last segment I use the word relearn. Now and then, all of us get a little out of rhythm. A skill we had nailed will suddenly elude us. It is normal. Remember those plateau periods you read about in primary flight training? Well, these little slips are similar.
I can feel people cringing as I write this. I am not trying to turn precious flight time into drudgery. It is really about learning a process and making a habit of self-assessment during and after the flight. Most of us only enjoy limited flight time, and we need to make the most of it. Good habits taught early will go a long way to maintaining and improving flight skills, even with limited time in the air.
During the run-up to my time with the examiner, I developed a routine I jokingly called my “air show.” It was all the maneuvers required for the flight test, run pretty much one after the other. If the routine runs smoothly, it takes about 15 minutes or a little less to complete. Even now, several years after getting my certificate, I still go and fly this pattern with some regularity. If I don’t complete one of the maneuvers as smoothly as I would like, I will repeat it after taking a minute to think about what I need to change. I don’t necessarily fly the whole thing every time. Not every passenger enjoys power on stalls, but I try to do at least parts of the “show” every time I fly. Additionally, I try to add one or two extra landings each time, especially if I feel my landing was not as good as it could be. Not just standard landings, but also short field, soft field, and the occasional run to a grass strip in the season.
For the record, the air show goes something like this: clearing turn to steep turns port and starboard, slow flight with precision turns of 90 degrees and 180 degrees, power on stall, power off stall, and then down to the deck for a few ground reference maneuvers. When I am flying with my 12-year-old, he has the prerogative to declare a random engine out at any time.
It is important to recognize that every time you fly you are practicing, whether you are headed out for a pancake breakfast or repeating maneuvers preparing for a checkride. The real question is, how effective is that practice? It is only effective if you make an effort to recognize areas where you can improve, and then make a further effort to make corrections next time you perform the same task. A big part of this is making mental notes on your performance in flight. Some things will be acted on right away, most for digesting after the flight. That means every activity from preflight through post-flight should be evaluated, not just wheels up to wheels down. Were your landings on center? Did you hold altitude in your turns? Did you hit everything on the checklist during the run-up and preflight?
How people learn is a wide-ranging topic I will not attempt to cover here, but practice and assessment go hand in hand and the basics are simple: Perform a maneuver, perceive the result, and process the result. It is similar to the three P’s that we use as part of the ADM process. In general, assessment should be like a program running in the background on a computer. It is always running but not necessarily visible. Just don’t make it so invisible you forget to pay attention to things you want to correct or improve the next time around.
A habit I developed during my years of racing sailboats is the end of the race “post mortem,” an honest assessment of my performance on every maneuver and tactic, what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I need to improve. It is a habit I have carried over to my flying. I try to break down and grade every maneuver, takeoff, and landing. If you are a list maker or there is going to be significant time between your flights, write down some notes so you know what to work on next time you fly. On your next flight, think back to your last assessment or check your notes as part of the preflight and make sure you work on those elements.
Lastly, the goal of this process is making you a more proficient pilot by instilling good practice habits that will allow you to make the most of your time in the cockpit. It is not supposed to be something that causes unnecessary angst. It is just as important to pat yourself on the back for the right things as it is to recognize where you need improvement, so don’t brood over mistakes. Everybody makes them, even professionals, and let’s face it, most of us fly for fun.
My last landing was a B-plus. How was yours?