Finesse

I’ve flown with a couple of pilots lately who had been away from flying for a while. One was a former instrument student who hadn’t done any instrument work in a few years. The other was a private pilot who hadn’t flown at all for 7 or 8 years. Each loved the sky, and each found, as we all find, that the finesse skills are the hardest to revive.

Finesse skills, you ask? Whatever are they? How about the landing round out and flare – think that qualifies? You betchya. How about the instrument scan, and instrument control of the airplane? Super qualifies.

Let’s talk about finesse, then, and see if we can shed some light.

Think about how much time you spend in the traffic pattern, on one of those frequent (we hope) days when you’re sharpening up your landing skills. If you’re flying a normal pattern, you’ve got about a minute on takeoff and the upwind leg, maybe 30 seconds of crosswind, a minute or so on downwind, 30-ish seconds on base leg, and about a minute on final. (All of this assumes that there’s not some bozo flight school flight instructor stretching his students’ patterns out beyond the earth’s curvature to keep the flight school airplane’s prop spinning and making his asshole owner happy.)

Add up the totals and you get about four (4) minutes in the pattern. How much of that total do you spend in the round out and flare? It’s probably about ten seconds in the round out and another five seconds in the flare (unless you’re landing too fast and floating halfway down the runway). That’s 6¼% of your traffic pattern time spent in the hardest, and most FINESSE-demanding, skill you have acquired: landing. If you do the three landings and takeoffs FAA requires every 90 days to maintain currency to carry passengers, that’s 45 seconds of actual landing practice every 90 days. If you think on it a bit, that’s almost nothing – and it’s appalling.

Did you ever wonder why it took so long to learn how to land as you were working on your private pilot certificate? Do the math. 15 seconds out of every 4 minute traffic patter was all you got to spend on the most important facet of each circuit: the landing. If it took you 200 landing attempts to finally figure it out and finally have your instructor solo you, that’s a total of 50 minutes of your training time. The national average for a student to pass his private pilot check ride is about 75 hours. Learning to solo – the landing part – is little more than 1% of your total flying experience (75 hours = 4500 minutes. 50 minutes of round out and flare divided by 4500 = 1.111111111%.

So, what should you be doing on a regular basis? Practicing your damned landing skills, that’s what.

Most tailwheel pilots will practice their landing skills every couple of weeks. Most new tailwheel pilots will practice every week. Hell, Bob Turner, the best pilot at Montgomery Field, practices landings in his J-3 (that he’s owned since 1962) every, single day.

Why do our landing skills diminish when we don’t practice? DUH. And why are they the first to leave us? Double DUH.

Tailwheel pilots are generally thought to be better pilots, and tailwheel pilots practice more often than tricycle gear pilots … shouldn’t you take the hint?

PRACTICE … YOUR LANDING SKILLS … OFTEN.

Next, consider the instrument scan. I mean, what’s so damned tough about the instrument scan? You look at the flight instruments, you cross check, you interpret, and you control the airplane. How hard can that be? It’s just learning finesse.

Perhaps you instrument pilots can remember how hard that was; how long it took to figure out how to make the airplane behave based on those tiny, little, ever-changing, dials, gauges, pointing thingies, OR, the worst invention of man, altitude, vertical speed and airspeed tapes on the goddamned glass cockpit displays – yes, I mean you, bloody Garmin G-1000. The hardest thing known to man … well, flying man … is mastering instrument flight – and then maintaining instrument currency.

I used to have a personal rule when I was a brand new instrument pilot. I vowed to fly on instruments at least once a week. At the time, I was working for King Schools and we had access to the sweepstakes airplane for which I paid just the cost of fuel. The Kings were very generous, especially when you were trying to maintain currency.

Did I succeed in flying instruments once a week? No. But I’ll bet I didn’t let two weeks go by without at least one instrument approach – even if it was only IFR from MYF back to MYF. I was working on my scan, working in the system, building experience – maintaining the finesse skills of instrument flight.

I did find that, as a new instrument pilot, if I didn’t fly approaches for more than two weeks, the scan began to break down. I wasn’t incompetent – it was just that I wasn’t as efficient keeping the scan up, interpreting what the instruments were trying to tell me, then being able to control the airplane based on those inputs.

Oftentimes I was able to cajole a colleague into being my safety pilot – and, if he or she were instrument-rated, we’d each fly an approach or two. It was a really cool experience in a new instrument pilot’s career, and it taught me just how important it was maintaining those hard-won finesse skills.

After a few years, I allowed myself the luxury of flying instruments once a month. And, brother, could I tell how quickly those finesse skills had deteriorated in that one month – one lousy month.

It wasn’t like I had to relearn the skills all over again – I knew how to fly instruments and by that time I had become a CFII and could teach instruments – but the scan had become a perplexing chore and I found that I was dreadfully slow interpreting what the instruments were trying so hard to tell me. At that stage in my flying career, with about 170 approaches under my belt, I still wasn’t experienced enough to let a lot of time occur between flying approaches. I didn’t find my first instrument student until six months after achieving the CFII, so the routine of learning through teaching hadn’t become a regular occurrence. Another year and change later, I had helped six students achieve their instrument certificates – and learned so much more about instrument flight – that I felt I had become a truly competent instrument pilot, and a very good instrument instructor. In that time, I had flown another 100 approaches and it was then that I could feel comfortable flying an approach after a one month layoff. (A CFII can’t log approaches when his student is flying them – unless required by the student’s inexperience in IMC.)

The whole point is that unless you practice instrument flight regularly – yes, even after you’ve earned your instrument rating – you really aren’t fully qualified to fly an instrument approach in hard IMC. There is so much finesse required to successfully fly an instrument approach down close to minimums that you risk your life if you try – without regularly practicing those hard-won finesse skills: cross checking your instruments with a reliable instrument scan; interpreting what those instruments tell you; controlling the aircraft based on what your interpretation tells you.

Finesse. It comes with practice – and returns more quickly with experience if you haven’t practiced. But FAA demands that you practice those instrument skills only every six months. It ain’t enough.

I will not fly with an instrument pilot who requests an Instrument Proficiency Check – unless I trained that pilot and know him to be competent, although he had let life get in the way of maintaining his instrument currency. An IPC is, basically, an instrument check ride – and if I sign you off, I assume an enormous amount of risk. In order to need an IPC, you’ve let an entire year (or more) intrude in your instrument currency. If I don’t know you – and haven’t flown instruments with you – why would I assume that much risk? If you don’t care enough about your life and the lives of those with whom you fly, why should I?

Finesse is hard won – and only happens with practice, and experience. Respect yourself. Fly instrument approaches regularly. Respect your airplane. Practice landings frequently.

Posted in Training Topics