Keeping Ahead of the Proficiency Curve

by Harold Green

We pilots tend to like lots of communication and navigation equipment in our airplanes. The more the merrier. Redundancy has become a catch phrase and is considered good, and for good reason. Then there seems to be logic that says if two are better, three will be even better, yet, etc.

I once knew a fellow who had five (5) GPS units in his airplane; three installed and two hand held units just in case. Dual VOR receivers have been considered the minimum for IFR flight for years. (The FAA just says you must have equipment appropriate to the navigation facilities to be used. They don’t specify redundancy.) Now, with the advent of the glass cockpit with real time weather, coupled autopilots, traffic avoidance systems, engine monitoring, auto leaning, etc., we have another level of redundancy. As a further result we have a plethora of information at our fingertips. This requires more diligence on the part of the pilot to manage that information.

The principal focus of this discussion is the pilot flying IFR in a single-pilot environment. However, with less critical emphasis, it applies to the VFR pilot as well.

We have, for the most part, come to accept that the pilot must be in good physical and mental condition to fly safely. Further, the pilot must be current, whatever that means, in the airplane. These facts are not new, but their acceptance by pilots has been growing over the past few years due in large part to programs by the FAA, AOPA and others. This is a very good thing and has obviously contributed greatly to the safety of general aviation.

Given all of this, what is truly critical to safe flight?

There is one element, which by itself would cause the entire system to fail if it were to fail. That element is the pilot. Now, since the pilot meets all the criteria listed in the previous paragraph, what are the chances of failure? Probably very little in regard to the physical or psychological well being of the pilot. However, pilots, being the complex organisms they are, training and capability must be taken into account for if the pilot cannot use the equipment, it is a useless addition to the gross weight of the airplane.

There is a saying that the three most useless things in aviation are the runway behind you, altitude above you and the fuel in the truck. You could add to that list, “The equipment in the airplane you can’t use.”

Training can be broken down into two issues as well. There is training on the really cool new stuff, and then there is training on the old stuff that no one loves any more.

The cool new stuff presents a well-known set of challenges. Typically, the pilot learns how to load a flight plan, perhaps just a “Direct To” destination, and an instrument procedure. Once this is learned, there is generally a reduced learning incentive for many of the other functions. With the presence of a full-glass cockpit, including a multi-function display, there are many toys here to play with as well. Typically the pilot new to this technology learns to obtain weather data, read engine gauges, etc., but leaves its many capabilities until later. Often “later” comes only when forced into it.

All goes well until something unanticipated happens or the pilot makes an error in set up. Then, things can get tense in a hurry when flying in IMC. This is a reflection of the fact that all too often pilots are trained only in proper operation of the essentials of their equipment, but are not trained in how to recover from an error, and all too often they are trained only on each piece of equipment at a time, rather than on the system as a whole. This is evident with the inclusion of a coupled autopilot.

The autopilot should be a definite requirement for IMC flight with a full-glass cockpit airplane. However, if the pilot makes an inappropriate system entry, it is not unheard of for the autopilot/GPS to decide they want no further involvement with the whole thing and therefore decouple, sometimes without warning the pilot. Now life becomes interesting, particularly since the pilot often is unaware that this has happened. All of this is made more difficult by the fact that it takes a lot of time to learn all that can be known about the capabilities of this equipment, and even more time to learn how to avoid and/or correct mistakes.

Mostly things work well and we certainly would rather have this equipment than not. We just need to think in terms of the overall system and thoroughly learn to take advantage of the capabilities available.

Now the point of all this is that we have tremendous capability in general aviation aircraft, today. In fact, our equipment far exceeds anything available to any aviation operation just 20 years ago. Just having weather presentation in the cockpit is a huge safety factor, to say nothing of all the other capabilities available. (Personally, I also like the safe taxi feature almost as much. Saves a lot of embarrassment at large, strange airports.) But, in order to take advantage of this equipment, we need to know how to use it.

One of the things that has changed is that it is no longer adequate to know how to use each piece of equipment…we also need to know how it works as a system.

For example, what can cause the GPS to disconnect from the autopilot? Questions like this need to be answered. A simple traditional check out by the local flight instructor cannot cover everything that you need to know in a short span of time. Scheduling time just to learn the system is a step in the right direction. If you are a certificated pilot accomplishing your first checkout in an aircraft with a full-glass cockpit, you can expect to spend more time learning the system than flying the airplane. Obviously, each of us must take it upon ourselves to explore the capabilities of the equipment in the aircraft we fly and obtain the training necessary to safely operate that equipment.

Since everyone knows the FAA plans on doing away with VORs, new students are reluctant to put forth the effort to learn how to navigate using the soon-to-be obslete equipment. Naturally they must do so in order to pass their checkride, but they do so grudgingly and only to the extent they must.

I am of the belief that if the equipment is installed in the airplane, we should know how to use it. Same philosophy the examiner used when you took your checkride. As a general aviation pilot, it is usually the case that there is only one pilot to fly the airplane, communicate with ATC and operate the equipment. Therefore, it behooves us to become extremely familiar with all those new goodies while maintaining our proficiency with the old.

When giving an FAA Part 61.56 checkride in a technically advanced aircraft (TAA), the pilot who flies frequently and uses the TAA equipment on a regular basis, stands out dramatically in a positive manner. When the system is used to its fullest extent, the TAA offers tremendous capability for safety and increased utilization of general aviation aircraft.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight 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, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (

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