I had my Bonanza set up perfectly for the straight-in ILS Runway 22 approach at Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (FGSL), following a short, 63-nm flight across the Bight of Biafra from Douala, Cameroon (FKKD). It was actually a rare clear day near the equator and I could easily see the nearly 10,000 foot Pico de Basile only 10 miles south of Malabo, certainly a potential terrain hazard to be managed if it had been actual instrument conditions and I had been concerned about the missed approach. That would be one of many risks to be managed in this environment.
Actually, only a small part of this is true. I was actually “flying” an advanced aviation training device (AATD) to try and recapture some of my instrument proficiency. I’ll explain more about the AATD in the sidebar on page 7, but what I was really doing was some research for my just-released historical novel Valhalla Revealed. Along the way, I recalled a few things about simulators, got to check out some amazing scenery and came away feeling a lot more proficient on the gauges. That’s a good thing, because my flying activity has changed in the last few months, and I’m not as active a pilot as I was even a year ago. Within my lack of recent experience—especially with modern GPS navigators—lies a tale similar to that of many other pilots.
Two operating profiles
Few general aviation pilots fly a lot, defined as perhaps 150-200 hours per year or more. The vast majority of us fly less, sometimes a lot less. I’d guess that fewer than 10 percent of GA pilots not flying for hire fly more than 150 hours per year. It should be obvious, but the record says it isn’t: When you fly only 20 hours per year, you need to think differently about the need for training and about the difference between “current” and “proficient.”
I also believe it’s relevant to describe why GA pilots fly. Again excluding GA pilots who fly for hire (corporate pilots, instructors, etc.), I’d guess again that only about 10-20 percent of GA pilots fly mostly for real transportation—from Point A to Point B and back, on a schedule—generally for business purposes. This doesn’t count those who fly to the beach occasionally, or indulge in $100 hamburger flights, which I consider to be recreational flying. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a different type of flying and may require a different approach to currency and proficiency, as well as risk management. So, when we try to decide how much training/currency/proficiency is “enough,” we need to consider both the frequency of your flights and their nature.
Another dimension to consider is the complexity of the aircraft you fly. It’s one thing to be operating a Cessna 172 with basic avionics VFR in your local area, but another one entirely to be flying a high-performance single with a glass panel into locations you rarely visit. Finally, the distinction between “current” and “proficient” also must be considered.
Like most members of the GA training community, I consider “currency” to be a regulatory term that references meeting minimum FAA standards. The term “proficiency,” meanwhile, embraces the ability to operate safely and efficiently in a much broader range of conditions than if you are merely “current.”
So we need to answer four questions to determine whether we are able to operate in specific conditions or not. How much am I flying? What is my purpose in flying? What is the complexity of the equipment I am operating? Finally, am I all right being merely current by the regulations or do I need a higher level of proficiency? To illustrate how to answer these questions, I’ll use my own rapidly changing operating profile. The sidebar at right provides some background.
As it turns out, I did not fly at all between June 17 and December 19, 2013. This was my longest stretch away from the cockpit since 1971, when I was in the military and duty came before recreation or personal travel. Recently, my life without owning an airplane—I had owned one continuously from 1975 through 2013—caused me to reflect.
To be honest, I didn’t miss being a stick, but I did miss the nationwide mobility my Bonanza provided. Even for the reduced number of trips I was taking, nothing beats the on-demand transportation capability of a high-performance GA airplane. Why can’t our industry sell this idea and grow? But, I digress.
By December of last year, it dawned on me that I still needed to travel for business to places like Bend, Ore., and Sand Point, Idaho. Neither can be reached by airline, except circuitously. The trip to Bend, a straight-line distance of 287 nm from my home in Bellingham, Wash., is illustrative. For example, sparing you the detailed cost breakdown, I would spend 12.2 hours and about $600 getting to Bend and back on the airlines, an airport-to-airport speed of about 47 knots. It gets worse if you count airport check-in and security time.
I also could drive the roundtrip (884 miles) in 15.5 hours (averaging 57 mph, faster than the airlines) and costing $315 out-of-pocket (closer to $757 when considering the fully loaded cost of the automobile). The airline flight would give me about five hours with the client. The auto trip requires an overnight in order to meet with the client. Neither of these options sounds efficient or appealing to me.
But I could rent a Cessna 172 that would take about 5.6 hours roundtrip (102 knots transit speed) and cost about $672. This would give me seven hours with the client, in order to return the same day in daylight. I know which transportation mode I would choose. But would I be up for this trip if the client wanted to see me this week?
Timing Is Everything
Earlier, I mentioned four different dimensions to consider in determining whether I could make this flight. Two of those raise risk management issues, while the other two may or may not.
The first is my level of activity—I have flown the Cessna 172 for only 7.0 hours between December and May. Other than two AATD sessions, this has been my only flight activity in almost a year, which clearly raise a risk factor for the “pilot” or P in the PAVE acronym (Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, External pressures) used to identify risks.
The other factor is the nature of the planned flight: It’s for business purposes, with an appointment associated with it. That could mean I’m subject to “external pressures” to complete it. Also, the prevailing weather means that my IFR options could be limited in a non-ice-protected piston airplane. That’s the “enVironment.” Even if the weather is benign and I’m legally current for IFR (which I am, just barely), I still have to deal with ATC and other variables, all of which add to the risk.
Fortunately, I am planning on flying a Cessna 172, one of the most benign aircraft available. I found myself feeling not only legally current but proficient after only an hour and three takeoffs and landings. Having 9600 flight hours and perhaps 2000 hours in type, the basic physical maneuver skills come back quickly. The problem isn’t the aircraft, it’s the equipment.
The two 172s available come equipped with a Garmin 430 or a Garmin 480, plus a King back-up radio. I’ve flown the 430 before, in my first Bonanza, but not the 480 and, frankly, this device has me stymied a little. I purchased a quick reference guide, which helps, but I do not consider myself proficient using the 480. As of this writing, I can just barely get by with basic communication, VOR/ILS navigation and direct-to GPS navigation. I don’t yet feel up to shooting WAAS approaches to minimums. Hence, the A or “aircraft” risk in the PAVE acronym is present, despite it being in a Cessna 172.
Putting together all these factors, I judge myself both current and proficient for local VFR flying. I would also make cross-country trips in the 172 under VFR or “soft IFR” conditions, providing I avoided complex or busy airspace. I would temper that by saying that I would rent the 172 with the Garmin 430 for the IFR missions and wait until I had become more proficient with the Garmin 480 before flying that aircraft under actual IMC conditions.
Hazards vs. Activity
This example illustrates the boundaries we must identify in determining whether the identified risks for a proposed flight will overwhelm our actual level of proficiency, regardless of our legal currency.
Some flights are no-brainers. For example, I may face very low risks on a local VFR flight with only the legal levels of currency. The risk levels would increase, however, if I attempted any complicated IFR flights at my current level of proficiency, especially if it required using the advanced features of a Garmin 480.
The risk levels could rapidly increase for other pilots in similar situations. For example, as a worst-case scenario, picture a 60-hour pilot with a cursory one hour in type who attempts a night cross-country flight in marginal VFR conditions to get home for his or her daughter’s birthday party. It’s astounding how many fatal accident profiles match this exact scenario. This pilot may have been perfectly “legal” to execute this flight, yet may still come to grief by pushing all areas of the risk management envelope with only “legal” currency to protect him or her.
Your proficiency program
It’s certainly possible to maintain both currency and proficiency at low levels of flight activity. That’s especially true if your flying is restricted to good weather over familiar terrain. However, pilots should consider using formal risk management tools to manage the hazards and risks posed by low activity levels when planning flights outside their recent experience. Here’s how that might stack up using the PAVE acronym.
Pilot (P): Even at low activity levels, try to fly a minimum amount including at least once per month, to maintain basic skills. If you plan on flying IFR, consider using an AATD or other flight training device to maintain these skills. Consider applying personal minimums to limit your exposure to hazardous conditions, including a minimum number of flight hours per month or limits on the weather conditions you’ll accept.
Aircraft (A): If you rent rather than own, consider downgrading to a less-complex aircraft that still meets your needs. You also may want to switch to an aircraft with simpler avionics and systems, despite the allure of glass. Alternatively, use appropriate training tools and manufacturer guidance to maintain your proficiency with advanced avionics. If you own your own aircraft, especially a high-performance model, you may want to find a way to fly more to gain comfort and proficiency in it. Twenty hours a year just isn’t enough to maintain proficiency in a Bonanza, Cirrus or Mooney.
Environment (V): If you’re IFR-qualified, you may want to limit your flying in low IMC conditions, unless you are using an AATD to supplement your proficiency. You also may want to file IFR most of the time to keep up your proficiency in the IFR/ATC environment. Personal minimums can be used here also to match your capabilities to potential hazards. For example, with my current low activity, I feel okay flying to 500 and one minimums under IFR in relatively benign conditions. But I would not be comfortable accepting a flight requiring me to fly down to 200 feet and half a mile in moderate turbulence. I therefore limit my exposure envelope to such conditions.
External Pressures (E): At low activity levels, try to decouple your flying to any business or personal deadlines, meetings, events and other external “must-do” requirements. Cancel the event or find an alternative way to get there. Remember that takeoffs are always optional, but landings are not.
Putting it together
The tools today’s pilots have for assessing and mitigating risk are worthless unless we use them in the flight-planning stage. Once we’re bouncing down the ILS final and expecting 200 and a half for the first time in months is not the time to assess our skills and recent experience.
An honest assessment of our understanding and skill at using the airplane we have available is what’s necessary. Most of the time, however, honesty is in short supply. To compensate, we need to ensure we’re proficient at handling whatever may come our way.
Robert Wright is a former FAA executive and President of Wright Aviation Solutions LLC. He is also a 9600-hour ATP and holds a Flight Instructor Certificate. His opinions in this article do not necessarily represent those of clients or other organizations that he represents. To learn more about his non-aviation work, visit www.robert-wright-books.com.