How Much Fun Is A Currency Ride?

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2017/January 2018 issue

Remember when you passed your private pilot checkride? The odds are the examiner said something like: “Congratulations. You are now a Private Pilot and you now have a license to learn for the rest of your life.”

There are plenty of opportunities to aid our learning process. Among others, the FAA, EAA, and AOPA all provide opportunities to learn. There are numerous seminars, mostly free, provided by these organizations, along with other opportunities offered by local and aircraft-type oriented organizations. A large number of pilots of my acquaintance take advantage of these. That is a good thing. For the participant, the comforting thing about these programs is that one can sit and listen or not as may be desired. There is usually good conversation and frequently free refreshments. Further, there is no one checking the attendees’ learning. That is, there are no tests. However, this still leaves the issue of airplane control and judgment in flight operations. For this, life gives tests.

There are minimum requirements placed on us for maintaining our flight proficiency. We all have the biennial flight review (BFR), now known as the 61.56 check, to contend with. Some will need an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC). More and more frequently, if we rent our ride, we need to fly with some frequency in order to continue to rent the airplane. If not, a ride with an instructor is necessary. If we own an advanced airplane, the insurance company will require periodic checks in addition to other requirements. However, for most of us, it is likely we will only have to do a check ride every 24 months.

First, let’s agree that checkrides are just that…a check on our ability to meet objective, relatively inflexible, standards set by the FAA, with the hope of achieving a new rating. On the other hand, the BFR, IPC, etc., are “currency rides” intended to provide instruction and assistance in maintaining our proficiency. The goals are somewhat arbitrary, being up to the judgment of the instructor within guidelines provided by the FAA. As evidence of this, remember that we cannot fail a BFR, or for that matter, any currency ride. We may not complete it in the time we thought, but there is no such thing as a fail. So, we will refer to these as currency rides,

While there doesn’t appear to be reliable up-to-date statistics on the subject, it is a fair bet that the majority of private pilots put in less than 100 hours/year. Whether that is sufficient or not depends, in part, on the pilot, how that time is used, and the airplane being flown. In this column, we have encouraged pilots to put their valuable flying time to good use by having a goal in mind and practicing while going for the hundred-dollar hamburger or whatever they do to enjoy their flying. There is also an opportunity available when it comes time for a currency ride. All too often these are looked on as just another stupid bureaucratic requirement and unneeded expense. In fact, since we have to spend the money anyway, why don’t we try to get the most out of it? To do that we obviously need the participation of the flight instructor and, we need to have a plan in mind. We will discuss the participation part later, but for now, we’ll focus on the plan.

Our plan should involve knowing in what area(s) we are deficient. None of us is an objective judge of our own shortcomings, but on the other hand, we aren’t totally ignorant of them either. Therefore, we need to decide which of our concerns we would like to work on during our currency ride. Also, we need to try to determine what it would take to remove our concern.

Then comes the participatory part of the game. Before the flight, we need to discuss our concerns with our instructor and ask if they can be addressed. Particularly if we have flown with this instructor before, we need to consider simply asking the instructor for his/her opinion regarding areas we should focus on. In most cases, the response will be very positive and the instructor may display a little shock that we have given the subject that much thought. The instructor will still want to see us perform his or her selected maneuvers to the normal standards, but will usually modify the program to cover what we want to cover. This applies to both VFR and IFR flight.

It is my belief that currency rides should stretch the student’s capabilities. That means that the lower limit of the performance scale is the FAA acceptance guidelines. The upper limit is whatever the student can accomplish during the ride. The reason for this is simple: For most pilots, this is the only opportunity they have to stretch their capabilities while under safety supervision. The reaction of students to the idea of the currency ride provides interesting insight into their approach to flying and ranges from interested enthusiasm to reluctant compliance.

The extent and type of maneuvers flown depends on the student’s attitude, rating(s), observed pilot capabilities and the airplane being flown. For students without an instrument rating, instructors tend to work on standard maneuvers for the Private Pilot checkride. Once these are executed successfully, we go to the commercial standards. For example, a steep turn is done to 60 degrees of bank, rather than 45. Perhaps we introduce chandelles or pylon eights. If there is a reasonably strong wind, we practice crosswinds.

A similar approach is taken to IFR flight. If the student is instrument rated, they will spend time with IFR flight, and if instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) exist, they will take advantage of that, providing the instructor knows the specific airplane they are flying.

For IFR, the idea is to not only fly the airplane correctly, but to also provide a heavy workload of navigation and communications for the pilot. Naturally, partial panel or emergency backup gauges in the case of a glass cockpit, play a major role in all of this. In this case, the goal is to provide the student with a stress producing environment beyond what is likely to be encountered in normal flight, while the instructor is there to assist and provide a safety factor. In reality, the stress level will naturally be higher in flight without the instructor present to “bail us out.”

Of course, throughout, we try to have fun. Student reaction to challenges is a good indicator as to the quality of their piloting. Those who like the idea of being challenged tend to be better pilots than those who resent the idea and just want to get the ride over with.

While most students react favorably, a few keep asking, “What’s the point?” or “When would I ever use this?” My personal favorite is, “I don’t need this because I would never be in this situation.” My response is usually, “When you schedule your next emergency, please let me know so I can watch.”

Now, just to put perspective on the issue, we will review those things often in need of improvement and common to the majority of pilots.

For everyone not flying regularly from a towered airport, we need to be honest with ourselves: Are we really proficient in radio communications?

For VFR flight, here are four issues I have found to be commonly in need of improvement:

a. Coordination: Climbing with the inclinometer ball skewed to one side.

b. Chasing the airspeed needle, instead of holding pitch attitude with the airspeed used as a guide.

c. Airspeed control in the pattern, particularly on final. Students typically jockey the throttle and elevator excessively and to counter purposes.

Fixes for these:

a. Remember, when pitch goes up or throttle goes forward, so does the right foot.

b. Think back to our first lessons. Recall the instructor telling us to watch the horizon line and where it crossed the windshield posts and/or check the attitude indicator. Do that most of the time and just use the airspeed to confirm we are, in fact, holding the correct pitch.

c. Same as pitch control on climb out, but now we should have a routine that calls for specific power settings and airspeeds on downwind, base and final. These may all be the same, but this should be routine with every landing unless tower instructions dictate otherwise.

For IFR flight, the following are common deficiencies.

a. Scan, Scan, Scan.

b. Fails to set up equipment in advance and/or when workload is lightest. Particularly true if there is GPS involved.

c. Doesn’t check instrument operation while taxiing.

d. Cockpit organization.

e. Lack of final check before takeoff.

Here are some fixes for IFR flight.

a. Simply practice our scan every time we fly, even in severe clear. We might even shoot an approach, even in VFR, for practice.

b. Do everything we possibly can before we taxi. That includes setting up the navigation equipment, including autopilot if we have one.

c. Check the flight instruments, particularly the Turn Coordinator and Directional Gyro while taxiing.

d. Have all of our charts and electronic devices where we can reach them without having to climb into the backseat.

e. Just remember to check all instruments and settings before charging down the runway. Make up our mind what to do if: The engine quits before liftoff or just after, and picture in our mind the first few minutes of the fight, including the need to switch frequencies.

Finally, the most disturbing is the pilot who is inflexible in reaction to changing situations. These folks will often simply lock their mind and become resentful of anything new or unexpected. These are almost exclusively from the group that says, “I would never be in a situation like this,” or words to that effect. These are the ones that are the most stressful to sign off on their currency ride. If they meet the pass standards for flying the airplane, it is difficult for an instructor not to sign them off. But, suspecting what their reaction would be to a true emergency, does give one pause. It’s like teaching judgment: No matter how hard the instructor tries, there is no way of knowing for sure how the student will do in an emergency until it happens.

In any event, however, we do it, don’t waste an opportunity to brush up on our piloting skills, and perhaps learn something new. Who knows? We might even enjoy it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at harlgren@aol.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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