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License to Practice

By Radek Wyrzykowski

November 2016 - We all remember that one day a few months, years, or, for some of us, decades ago when we were presented with a document titled “Private Pilot Certificate” and most of us were told by our examiners, “Here is your license to learn.” I have never forgotten getting mine; it feels like it was just yesterday. I was thinking, what else is there to learn?

Many years have passed since that time. I became a CFI, CFII, and MEI. I worked as a chief flight instructor for various busy flight schools in the Northeast of the United States, and that was when I realized — we got it all wrong.

For decades, we have been restating the same formula: “License to learn.” The accident rate in general aviation, despite a slight decline in the last few years, has stayed virtually unchanged for decades. Technology, quality of equipment, and resources available in the cockpit are advancing exponentially. We all keep learning not only the new, but also the unknown, systematically lowering our minimums and being able to concur bigger and greater challenges. So, where is the problem?

Let’s define learning first. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.” But knowledge acquired, no matter how important, will never by itself make us better pilots. Knowing how to land in crosswind does not automatically mean you will be able to do it. But then, you may say, every flight is a unique experience from takeoff to landing. Flight, many times, with crosswind landings and challenging approaches. But how many times, after safely putting your aircraft on the ground in strong turbulence and crosswind on the edge of your plane’s maximum crosswind component, have you said, “Hey, let’s go for another one.” You have probably taxied to your parking space or hangar, perhaps even forgetting proper control wind corrections on your way, and you were proud of yourself that you conquered the challenging beast of weather.

Yes, it was a good experience, maybe not within your comfort zone but definitely within your capabilities. Our concern should be about the experience that is outside of both of those parameters.

For most of us, we fly in conditions within our own self-imposed comfort criteria. And through exercise, we may perfect our aircraft control, navigation, and communication techniques within those standards. What are going to get us in trouble are situations outside of those limits.

Let’s for the moment look at some other activities requiring highly skilled actions. The first that comes to my mind is a sharpshooter in the military. This is an activity in which the individual must gain knowledge and skill, and requires constant practice in various conditions, distances, and wind situations. There will be no point at which we could say somebody has learned how to do it. Constant practice will be required to maintain the ability to perform. Aerobatic pilots also require constant practice, not just knowledge of what has to be done.

The biggest problem for us pilots is that we can’t practice most situations that could get us in trouble. Yes, you can hire a highly skilled and experienced instructor and practice crosswind landings outside of your initial comfort zone, but even those individuals will encounter limits they will never want to cross. You wouldn’t want to practice engine failure 700 feet off the ground after takeoff in your airplane. You wouldn’t want to make an off-field landing for real just for practice, or fail a vacuum pump (also not possible for technical reasons) in actual IMC conditions just for training.

Practice, also defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is a “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”

It is not enough to learn and exercise in our comfort region. Your so-called “license to learn” is actually your “license to practice.” If we really want to take responsibility for the safety of our passengers and people on the ground below, it is our responsibility to systematically practice those situations that are outside of our comfort zone and those we don’t get to perform very often. Just like military pilots or airline captains, who have practice mandated by the nature of their profession, we should develop our own routines to follow.

Just like brushing your teeth every day, or taking showers on a regular basis, every one of us should sign up for a monthly simulation session in which to practice all those situations you already know how to handle but you wouldn’t practice in the air. Because it is not just about knowing; it is about practicing it to perfection, so when the situation comes up you will act on it without hesitation. You will act like a professional.

If structured properly with ground discussions and some flight time blended in, the entire process could even be used to satisfy your flight review. You can choose to learn or not to learn new airplanes, new systems, or new avionics. Or you may simply decide to stay local and fly “low and slow.” In either case, while your “license to learn” may be desirable, your “license to practice” is critical for your and others’ safety.

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