Back In The Saddle

Removing the winter’s patina of disuse will be a lot easier if you have a good plan. Putting one together requires an honest assessment of what you need.


Although winter flying can be some of the most rewarding available to an active pilot, not all of us can work out the timing, the short days and the weather enough to go aviate in the cold and damp. Along the way, we’re suddenly not as good at this flying “thing” as we were a few short months ago. But the coming spring promises longer days and warmer temperatures. It’s flying season again, time to unlimber your airplane, even as you ponder your atrophied skills.


You don’t need a BFR, and you’re not ready for an IPC, even if you may need one. You just need to get back in the saddle after a few months away. Find your airplane keys, or schedule your favorite airplane at the club/FBO, then put together a plan for the upcoming flight. You want to come out the other end of the day’s flying ready to knock out the IPC or confidently launch for the first $100 hamburger of the season. Here’s how.

Before heading to the airport, we need to sit down with a good book: the airplane’s Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) or its Airplane Flight Manual (AFM). Even if it’s your airplane, one you’ve been flying for years, you still need a review from time to time, and this is a great opportunity to refresh yourself with its numbers and procedures.

Start with reviewing the manufacturer’s recommended airspeeds. Make note of the values for short-field liftoff, the airspeed to use when clearing an obstacle (VX) and the one for best climb (VY). Also pay attention to the speed for its best engine-out glide (single) or single-engine climb (VYSE). Finally, note the recommended speed for final approach. During your upcoming practice flight, do your best to nail these speeds and recommended configurations, if any. The point here is refreshing your memory of what these speeds are, the power settings and pitch angle necessary, plus how they should be used.

Next, move to the emergency procedures section. Depending on how complicated your airplane is, you may want to review procedures for emergency landing gear extension, glass-panel failures, etc. Regardless, you definitely want to review the checklists for things like in-flight engine fires, electrical system malfunctions and, of course, engine failure itself.

Finally, pay some attention to the normal procedures section. For one, I always find something interesting in this portion of my plane’s POH, not because I didn’t know it was there but because I either had forgotten the details or remembered them differently. Peruse the checklists themselves, and think about what you’ll do and when you’ll do it on your upcoming recurrency flight. Now, you’re ready to go fly.

Slow Flight/Stalls
Once you’re in the practice area and at an appropriate altitude, start slowing down, after performing clearing turns, left and right. As you add flaps and gear, if in a retractable, you’ll also need to add back some power to maintain altitude. Open cowl flaps if you have them, and an extra turn or two rich on the mixture also will help cool the engine.

The main object here is to re-familiarize yourself with how the airplane flies at the low end of the envelope. Our definition of slow flight? The stall warner is constantly and fully on, pitch and power are sufficient to maintain altitude, and any reduction in power or increase in angle of attack will result in a stall. Occasionally, you may nibble at the buffet. If so, don’t overreact; just lower the nose slightly, or crank in 50 rpm/half an inch. Perform coordinated 360-turns in each direction. Note how much rudder it takes to turn right but how much less is needed to the left.

Then, stall the airplane, straight ahead. Depending on the airplane, you’ll probably need to use some combination of reducing power as you maintain or increase the pitch attitude. Recover, and clean up the airplane, accelerating. We want to regain any altitude lost in the stall/recovery, then set power for level flight in the cruise configuration but at or below the airplane’s maneuvering speed (VA) or the manufacturer’s recommended speed for maneuvers.

Yes, you’ve been making turns on this flight, both to get to the practice area and in the slow-flight exercise above. Tough. We’re going to do some more.

Again, start with a clearing turn. Once you’re satisfied with the airplane’s speed and altitude, let’s start with 30-degree banked, 360-degree turns, left and right. These should be fairly simple for you, and rolling out within 10 degrees of the original heading and no more than 100 feet from your target altitude a piece of cake. If not, do them again, until you feel better—making a level, 360-degree turn is a fundamental skill. Once recovered and again flying straight and level, let’s up the ante with 720-degree turns, also at 30 degrees of bank. The object here is to get comfortable in this attitude and ensure coordinated flight throughout.

Once those turns are complete, let’s get into the program a bit more: steep turns. Initially, we’ll do 360-degree turns, but at between 55 and 60 degrees of bank, left and right. Again, our standards are 100 feet in altitude and 10 degrees of heading. You know you’re doing these correctly when the additional g-force pushes you down in your seat and you fly through your own wake. If you can do that, you’re almost done with turns for the day. If not, practice until you feel better. Regardless, 360-degree steep turns are for sissies. Real pilots do them twice.

If you’re like me, you hate ground-reference maneuvers. I got through the commercial ride, but just. So, we’re not going to spend a lot of time here. That said, the idea behind ground-reference maneuvers are two-fold.

The first thing they’re good for is flying traffic patterns.  By learning what the wind will do and how to anticipate it, we can fly a more-square pattern, helping us put the airplane where we want it on the runway. The second thing—and most important, in my mind—is the ability to keep a fixed-wing airplane over the same point. This comes in handy in engine-out situations, or when needing to climb/descend in a confined area.

After clearing the area, start with simple turns about a point. Altitude, of course, depends on airspeed, and one of the common errors here is choosing an altitude too low for your distance from the object. Your bank angle will be too shallow to really benefit from the maneuver. to allow any real bank angle. If you’re too high, though, demanding bank angles approaching 55 degrees, you also can move further from the chosen point to help make things work out better. Throughout, remember why your feet are there, and fly the turns with the ball centered. For some additional details, see the sidebar on page 13.

Once you get the hang of turns about a point, use the same landmark and do some eights on a point. It’s your choice how enthusiastic to make them, but it might be best to limit yourself to 30 degrees of bank, at least until you get bored.

You can spend more time with ground-reference work by, for example, flying S-turns across a road, but I just don’t think the payoff is there. If you’ve mastered turns and eights on a point, there’s not that much more here to learn. Let’s move on to some fun stuff.

Performance Maneuvers
The “fun” stuff are the so-called performance maneuvers: chandelles, lazy-8s and steep spirals among them. Also known as “advanced” maneuvers, they’re required for the commercial ride and—regardless of your certificate level—should at least be familiar to the accomplished pilot. The sidebar on the opposite page details the chandelle and the lazy-8.

We perform these maneuvers to help us analyze and respond to the forces acting on the airplane in dynamic situations and to develop a better “feel” for the airplane. Coordination, timing and—once again—dividing our attention are some of the benefits of learning and performing them.

If you’ve never been formally introduced to these maneuvers, attempting them without a flight instructor or someone experienced in them aboard is probably not the best way to spend your time getting recurrent. One exception is the steep spiral, which is little more than turns around a point while descending. Start it at a high-enough altitude you can safely execute at least three 360-degree turns, preferably more.  When performing it, remember the wind will change as you descend, requiring constant changes in your corrections.

Even without any experience in performance maneuvers, they should come easy to you with little introduction by a CFI. Regardless, the objective of these maneuvers is to develop the smoothness, accuracy and control techniques necessary to fly the airplane near its upper and lower performance limits. An important benefit of these maneuvers is sharpening fundamental skills, the ones that have become degraded over the long, cold winter.

As with ground-reference maneuvers, performance maneuvers demand skilled, coordinated flight while anticipating and correcting for wind. The lazy-8 and steep spiral, especially, should trace on the ground a proportional flight path, one which compensates for the wind.

Once we’ve thoroughly embarrassed ourselves out in the practice area, it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. Literally. Even if you’re current enough to legally carry passengers by virtue of logging three landings in the last 90 days—you have, haven’t you?—that doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. Head back to the pattern and join the flow for some touch-and-goes.

Our first landing of the day should be a normal one. By which we mean on-speed and on-glidepath. Any gross power/pitch adjustments on final mean we need to try again. Once we get this down, let’s progress to short-field landings and soft-field takeoffs. To correctly practice and perform the latter, however, we may need to come to a full stop. Depending on traffic, we may need to taxi off the runway and wait our turn before taking off again.

If there’s any wind, so much the better—we can also work in some crosswind practice. Better yet, use the crosswind runway—traffic permitting—or go to a nearby airport where the runway in use isn’t aligned into the wind. One of the objectives here—in addition to getting you comfortable again with landings generally—is some real-world application of the rudder skills you’ve been practicing all day.

Critiquing your landings and takeoffs is beyond this article’s scope, but you’ll know when you’re doing it right. Once you get to that point, leave well enough alone and head for the ramp. You’re done for the day.

Feel Better Now?
Knocking off the rust accumulated after a winter’s worth of sitting around the fireplace isn’t hard. And you certainly can accomplish the same things on more than one flight. But trying to work in all of these maneuvers and procedures in one flight will not only save you money but give you a lot of feedback you can use to help perfect your skills on subsequent flights.

If, after an honest evaluation of how you did, you feel you need some additional practice or experience, you probably do. Before leaving the airport, schedule your favorite CFI for some dual, or call a friend and ask him or her to join you next time.

Don’t worry if you didn’t do a perfect job—you’ll have plenty of chances to get more practice over the summer.




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