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I’ve Got the Flight Controls … Or Do You?

A Game Plan for Getting Back in the Sky

by Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Managing Editor

Photo of an airplane on the taxiway.

Goodbye 2020, hello 2021! You’re definitely not alone if you wish you could just erase 2020 from your memory banks. From rampant wildfires and a record-setting hurricane season, to the COVID-19 public health emergency, 2020 threw everything but the kitchen sink at us. However, if the last year taught us anything, it’s how to be resilient, a helpful virtue for pilots these days. I would venture to guess that many GA pilots were lucky to turn over a single page of their logbook in 2020. Or perhaps you were among those who wrote off the entire flying season and decided to wait for a fresh, and hopefully normal start in 2021. In either case, you’re going to need a plan to knock off the rust that accumulated on your flying skills before you take to the skies and include a few things that might not have been on your radar. Since many planes and pilots are conveniently tucked away for a long winter’s nap, now is an opportune time.

A good way to tackle this challenge is to consider both the fitness of the pilot (you!) plus the plane before your next flight. Let’s start with the human element in this safety equation.

Magazine cover graphic.

Mental Fitness, Check

In addition to being downright weird (I still can’t get used to those eerie cardboard cut-out sports fans), 2020 was also decidedly traumatic for many people. Whether it was dealing with the loss of a family member or friend, recovering from a financial hardship, or simply the overwhelming separation anxiety experienced by those sequestered in their homes for most of the year, it was (and likely still is) a lot to comprehend. Add children to the picture and the complexity of the aforementioned issues can easily skyrocket. For me personally: been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

It’s possible also that even though you might not have experienced any one major hardship or setback recently, the cumulative effects of adapting to new norms may very well have deleterious effects on your mental health. Bottom line here — don’t just shrug off or underestimate signs of anxiety or depression. These things have a sneaky way of manifesting themselves at the wrong time, so be proactive when it comes to your mental and emotional health and don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. Your ability to focus and make safe decisions depends on it.

Physical Fitness, Check

A thorough way to assess your overall fitness for flight is to use the I’MSAFE checklist (Illness, Medications, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotions/Eating). For a closer look at each element of this check, see the article “Say Ahh — A Pilot’s Guide to Self-Assessing Risk” from our Jan/Feb 2017 issue. Get a head start now by ensuring sufficient sleep and a healthy diet are part of your daily routine. Making these goals part of your New Year’s resolution may reward you with increased opportunities for flying down the road.

Also, be sure you’re up to date with medical certification requirements, especially if restrictions in 2020 caused you to cancel or delay your exam. The FAA did provide relief to pilots with medical certificates due to expire in 2020, the most recent of which (issued in October 2020) gave pilots with expiring medicals from October 2020 through January 2021 an extra two months (or three months for Alaska pilots) to complete their exam. We’ll touch more on the relief provided by the FAA’s Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 118 later, but do check faa.gov/coronavirus for any updates, or access the FAQ page (PDF download). Please be aware that the SFAR does not modify the requirements of 14 CFR section 61.53 regarding prohibition on operations during medical deficiency.

Currency Assessment, Check

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the physical and mental hurdles for returning to flight, let’s look at some of the legal and experiential requirements. Remember, being legal or current is by no means an indication of being proficient when it comes to flying. The FAA sets clear standards when it comes to what’s required in your logbook before you can fly as pilot in command (PIC), within a certain time period. We won’t dive in to all the specifics here, but for a complete list of these requirements, see 14 CFR section 61.57 as well as 14 CFR section 61.56 for flight review requirements.

You’ll also want to check out the current version of SFAR 118 for any relief offered on certain training, recency, testing, and checking requirements, as well as any duration and renewal requirements that may apply to you. For example, the FAA is allowing a grace period of two calendar months for certain pilots whose flight review was due from October 2020 through January 2021 and who were current to act as pilot in command in March 2020. Double check (do not assume) you are eligible for any of these provisions. Extensions and relief efforts aside, know that just meeting these requirements alone is unlikely to make you a fully competent and proficient pilot. That takes additional effort.

Proficiency Assessment, Check

Photo of a cockpit.

A good start toward fine-tuning proficiency is to use a flight review as an opportunity to go outside your comfort zone. Weak on crosswind landings? Been a while since you did a short field grass takeoff or simulated an onboard fire? Then make these priority items to work on with an instructor and/or during a flight review. A review that just substantiates all the things you already have a good grasp on is not exactly time (or money) well spent. The key to proficiency is practice … and then more practice.

Even if you have a current flight review in your logbook, don’t assume that action alone can ward off the rust that can accumulate over a period of inactivity. Instead, take a few flights with an instructor — just check they’re not rusty too! An instructor can also help familiarize you with any possible changes in your local area due to COVID-19 (e.g., air traffic control tower hour adjustments, FBO and fuel availability, etc.). An even better idea would be to use those flights toward completing a phase of WINGS, the FAA’s Pilot Proficiency Program. In addition to covering important airmanship topics, a WINGS phase also satisfies the flight review requirement.

Your return to flying after inactivity should also be appropriately paced. “Start with flying in your local airport traffic pattern,” says FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) and flight instructor Allan Kash. “Knock the rust off your takeoffs and landings on a low-wind day, and then try some basic air work in your local practice area.” Kash suggests building your skill base back to proficiency before taking on the challenge of a long cross-country or IFR flight (if instrument rated).

Living Room Learning

Of course, even if Mother Nature has you confined to your cozy multi-purpose living room/office/dining area, there’s still plenty you can do to sharpen your flying skills. For starters, have a look at some of the many courses and live seminars you can view on FAASafety.gov. The following three courses will get you on your way to improved proficiency and (added bonus!) satisfy the basic knowledge (BK) requirements for a WINGS phase (search on
FAASafety.gov or with your browser):

  • Aeronautical Decision Making for VFR Pilots, ALC-62 — BK1
  • Hold Short for Runway Safety, ALC-48 — BK2
  • Flight Review Prep Guide, ALC-25 — BK3

There’s also the many educational opportunities that flight simulation technology can offer. Whether with an aviation training device at a school or flight training provider, or with the many at-home options now available, flight training devices and apps are an excellent way to polish skills before getting airborne. For those interested in some tips on at-home options, I highly recommend watching this Experimental Aircraft Association Tech Talk video.

Check out the Sim City (Nov/Dec 2017) issue of FAA Safety Briefing for even more good tips on how to best leverage this powerful technology.

Plane and Simple

Ok, you’ve got your pilot plan all set, but what about your trusty aerial steed? A few essentials to consider up front are ensuring your aircraft is up-to-date on its annual inspection and oil changes, your pitot-static, transponder, and ELT checks are up to snuff, and that your aircraft is compliant with any applicable airworthiness directives. Perform an AROW check to verify you have your Airworthiness certificate, your Registration certificate (check the expiration date), your Operating handbook or flight manual (including updates and supplements), and your Weight and balance data.

Before flying, spend some time in the flight deck to re-familiarize yourself with the layout of the controls and the proper operation of any newly installed equipment (e.g., ADS-B, GPS, tablet brackets/chargers, etc.). Check that you’ve updated any databases and software components, including any apps you might use on your smartphone or tablet. Then do a complete preflight inspection of the aircraft with no time constraints. That way there’s no pressure to complete the check and you’ll have ample time to take care of any last-minute needs, like cleaning the windshield, topping up the oil, charging the battery, or clearing out any unwanted critter nests.

Before flying, spend some time in the flight deck to re-familiarize yourself with the layout of the controls and the proper operation of any newly installed equipment. Do a complete preflight inspection of the aircraft with no time constraints. Then you’ll have time to take care of things like cleaning the windshield, topping up the oil, or clearing out any unwanted critter nests.

National FAASTeam Operations ASI Heather Metzler suggests that after completing these steps, start the aircraft, bring it up to temperature, do a thorough run-up, and then return it to parking for another walk-around. “Don’t be in a rush,” Metzler says. “If there’s anything that’s questionable, contact maintenance.” She adds that pilots should also be comfortable flying with a mask if necessary and suggests carrying an extra just in case yours breaks. Headsets have been known to wreak havoc on face mask straps.

Body, Mind, and Airplane

So there you have it. A plan to get both you and your aircraft fit, trim, and ready to fly this year. Here’s hoping for a successful and safe year of flying!

FAA Safety Briefing Magazine
This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/
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FAA Safety Briefing

FAA Safety Briefing

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. Part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).

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