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Pilot proficiency check: Staying mentally proficient when grounded

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains By Dan Sobczak
November 2020

Editor's note: This article first appeared in America's Flyways magazine in July 2006. This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.

As a student pilot years ago, I realized early in my training that I needed to fly regularly. Maintaining a respectable level of proficiency at my budding pilot skills meant flying at least two or sometimes three times per week.

By not flying consistently, I reasoned I would probably spend extra time and money re-learning previous lessons, as I would likely forget important skills during my downtime.

An Allegro 2000 Light Sport Airplane in 2005 at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

Sunset at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

After I earned my private pilot certificate and my well of flight funds had dried up (I procured a small loan early in my training to help pay for flight lessons), I made a commitment to myself that I would fly at least a minimum of once every two weeks to maintain my proficiency.

Much of that flying would be limited to quick practice area flights to refresh my private pilot maneuvers, or fly circuits around the pattern to work on my landings. At least I would be flying consistently and improving my growing skills as an aviator.

Over the next two years, this minimum flight schedule worked well for my personal flying abilities. That is, until the holiday season rolled around and my trusty car of six years decided to strand me on the side of a road one severe clear Saturday afternoon, its fuel pump failing without warning.

After a costly repair of the failed pump and other maintenance issues that cropped up around the same time, I recognized that my flying days were now a distant memory, at least temporarily. My car repairs had used up any extra funds I had for flying. I was grounded.

Ideas to help stay mentally proficient

As a student pilot or a newly certificated pilot, you may find yourself grounded for any number of reasons. When you're not able to fly consistently, what can you do to keep your flying skills up to par and stay sharp mentally?

There are a number of resources you can take advantage of to help your mind stay airborne, even though your feet are firmly attached to the ground.

While the following tips have helped me stay focused mentally during my downtimes, this list is certainly not all-inclusive.

  • Get some time in a flight simulator. This could be a full-size simulator at your local flight school, or one of the popular home computer flight simulator packages. The physics and photo-realism built into home computer sims these days are breathtaking. Sit down in front of a virtual instrument panel with your airplane's checklists on your lap, throwing switches at the appropriate times in a flight, and you might not be able to tell the difference. While you cannot officially log home computer sim time, this is a great way to keep cockpit resource management basics fresh in your mind.

  • Buy a cockpit poster for your airplane type and hang it on your wall. While looking at it, visualize yourself at the controls during each phase of flight, moving your arms, hands and feet in the direction of each cockpit control as needed.

  • Browse the aviation section of your local bookstore. There are many excellent books available to read and learn new aviation tidbits. From aviation experts offering tips on how to become a better flyer, to pilots who have written about fascinating experiences in aviation's 100+ years of history, there are plenty of books that will keep your mind focused on flying.

    Some great aviation stories I've enjoyed over the years include:

  • Close your eyes for a few moments and visualize yourself running through emergency procedure checklists, as if you were right there in the cockpit, experiencing an emergency situation. Remember to move your hands and feet, grabbing and tugging at your imaginary cockpit controls. While the focus of this exercise helps retain emergency procedures fresh in your memory, moving your arms and feet in the proper direction helps build muscle memory too. Should the time come when you are in a real emergency, that extra bit of subconscious muscle memory might help shorten your reaction time.

  • Take your aircraft's checklists with you when driving your car. Before starting your vehicle and with your startup checklist on your lap, run through your airplane's startup procedures in your car's cockpit, just as you would if you were about to start up your airplane for a flight. You might consider doing the same with pre-landing checklists and shutdown procedures when you arrive at your destination. This assumes, of course, you don't have small kids with you who might be impatient and nagging you to get going.

Your car can be your proxy airplane

Back in 2005, I checked out in an Allegro 2000, a light sport aircraft that was new at the time. While I was learning the flow of the Allegro's cockpit, it dawned on me one morning as I jumped in my car to go to work that my vehicle's cockpit layout was vaguely similar to the Allegro's instrument panel.

An Allegro 2000 Light Sport Airplane in 2005 at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

An Allegro 2000 Light Sport Airplane in 2005 at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

I began taking my Allegro checklists to work with me for a few days. Before starting my car, I'd run through the startup flow of the Allegro. While stopped at a red light and it was safe to do so, I'd quickly run through the Allegro's emergency procedures, grabbing at the Allegro's instrument panel controls where they would be on my dashboard.

Surprisingly, the next time I strapped into the Allegro, I felt much more comfortable with that airplane's flow.

Returning to flight? Get an instructor first

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The only aviation accident app that helps you see and understand the accident chain from NTSB reports.

Finally, and most importantly, when you return to flight for the first time after an extended layoff, get an instructor and make your return flight a solid hour, or more as needed, of recurrent training. Work on the basics. Get a few landings under your belt with an instructor in the right seat.

One thing you cannot simulate on the ground is the feel of an aircraft. Though your skills may not diminish from an extended layoff, your feel for that aircraft, and perhaps your overall confidence, may suffer. However, as you regain the feel of the airplane, and your confidence, you just may learn a new tip or two from your instructor in the process.

Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains Dan Sobczak is the founder of, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.

Flight Chain App and its companion blog are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.

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