The Value of Practice

Once we achieve our private pilot certificates – nearly overwhelmed by the hours of practice that’s required, not to mention the money spent – we tend not to practice landings, or maneuvers like slow flight, very often. After all, we reason, we’ve met our goal, we’re private pilots, so why the hell do we need to practice? Sure, the Feds insist that we do a flight review every two years – and if you’re a Plus One Flyers member, or a smarter pilot than most, you’ll do annual recurrent training: WINGS, the pilot proficiency program. But most of us are lazy, or stoopid (the spelling chosen more accurately defines the state of our foolishness), or don’t want to spend the money.
Then, we achieve our hardest-won flying goal: we become instrument pilots. And, for a while we practice those skills, but the bloom quickly wears off that rose and we stuff it in a closet, only to bring it out when currency requirements demand – and we often find that those rose petals are dried out, dead.
Well, friends, your hard won goals, and those hard earned skills, will atrophy if you don’t maintain them.
Have you ever golfed, or played a sport that requires a learned skill? How well would you play if you didn’t go out to the range and whack some balls on a regular basis? If you’re an average golfer, you need to hit a large bucket of balls every week – and spend an hour or two on the putting green – or else you’re stuck buying everyone else’s drinks at the end of your weekly round on the links.
For some reason, though, many of us don’t practice our flying skills with the same enthusiasm as our golf games. I’m here to tell you – er, write to you – that you’re probably not going to die if you don’t practice your golf game, but you may well meet an unhappy end if you don’t pay attention to your flying skills.
The first choice should be obvious. How often do you work on the most finesse-filled aspect of flight? LANDINGS.
For most of us, the hardest part of our flight training experience was trying to figure out how to stop that 500 fpm crash just above the runway, then hold the airplane off until – SQUEAK, SQUEAK – the main wheels greased the asphalt. The Feds, in their infinite wisdom, demand that we do three (really, 3?) landings every 90 days, in order to carry passengers. (Apparently the Feds don’t care about us as individual pilots, just the poor unsuspecting public.) Three landings? Every 90 days? Is that all there is to maintaining those skills that were so hard won? And those of us with the tailwheel disease need to practice those landings to a full stop. Holy Haysoos.
The best pilot at Montgomery Field, Bob Turner, practices landings EVERY DAY. Granted, he’s semi-retired, but the guy you all have seen in the pattern in his J-3 Cub, practices every single day. And he’s been flying for over fifty years and is pushing 19,000 hours.
How often do you practice your landings? How much experience do you have?
I had a ground loop in the Stearman a while back. Even though I’ve got well over a thousand hours in open cockpit biplanes, and pushing 2500 tailwheel hours – as of this writing – I couldn’t keep the Stearman straight on the runway. Why? Well, quite frankly and for various reasons, I hadn’t been practicing my landing skills. I attempted to land the Stearman using a technique I learned when I was flying a lot of rides in the Travel Air open cockpit biplanes for Barnstorming Adventures.
The technique – with a left crosswind, say, involves landing on the north side of 28R and angling across the runway to cut out some of that crosswind – works well if you’re experienced and you practice it. It does not work well if you don’t PRACTICE.
Yes, it costs money to fly. Sure, most of us would rather go places on our flights, or do fun sight seeing adventures, than practice, but when you come back to the airport, you’ve still gotta land the damned airplane. And the best way to do that is to PRACTICE.
How often? Well, it’d be great if we all could practice at least 3 landings every day, like Bob does. Reality, unfortunately, rears its ugly head, when we’ve gotta work for a living to pay for the flying, and when we’ve got family obligations, social commitments, etc.
But you need to practice. Randy Lake used to have a Citabria in a flying club and he insisted that you flew it every 60 days, or else you had to go up with a qualified tailwheel instructor. He pulled his Citabria from the club after a good pilot ground looped it and nearly totaled it. That was the third ground loop in that Citabria.
George Kovacevic used to keep a Decathlon in the club and his rule was that you had to fly it – or any other tailwheel airplane – every 30 days, or else you needed to fly with a qualified tailwheel instructor. The day before it left the club, it got stood on its prop by an experienced pilot.
One of the fun things that we do at the Stearman Ale House when we gather for “services” on Sundays is sit out on the deck, or in the loft, to watch and critique pilots’ landing skills. You cannot imagine the groans (and guffaws) you’ll hear from us watching our fellow pilots’ lack of landing skills.
What do we see, probably on every fifth landing? One of the most common is watching pilots flying their airplanes way too fast on final, then bouncing down the asphalt, sometimes with tires smoking. (The Cirrus drivers [no, most of you Cirrus people do not qualify to be called “pilots”] are prime examples of this behavior.)
What else do we see? We see a decided lack of crosswind landing skills. We see pilots who fly a crab all the way to the runway – always going too fast for conditions – then try to kick out the crab at the last moment, just before touchdown. In order to attempt that particular (particularly bad, if you ask me) technique, you’ve got to practice – because that particular technique only works if you do it regularly.
Another thing we see way too frequently is nose wheel pilots who clang their airplanes onto the runway with all three wheels touching down at the same time. In a tailwheel airplane, that’s called a “3-point” landing. In a nose wheel airplane that’s called an invitation to porpoise. Worse, are those sterling individuals who push forward on the yoke and land on the nose wheel first. That’s called an invitation to a prop strike.
Another area most pilots neglect to practice is slow flight. Why practice slow flight? I mean, heck, when you’re flying slow, you’re near the stall – and most of us are scared spitless when it comes to stalling the airplane. Yet, every landing, if done properly, involves slow flight.
How do you grease an airplane onto the runway? In a full stall landing, with the airplane moving as slowly as possible just as the wheels kiss the pavement – that’s how you grease it onto the runway. And how do you accomplish that? PRACTICE.
Grab an experienced instructor, one who actually likes slow flight – there are some who don’t – and ask her, or him, to work with you on your slow flight skills. The time and money you spend will pay enormous dividends – improving your slow flight skills, which will dramatically help to improve your landing skills. And then, go out and PRACTICE.

Next, let’s talk a little about instrument flight.
Even FAA, with its incredible history of incompetence and stupidity, insists that we maintain instrument currency. How often? Well, trying to keep everyone happy (could that include AOPA?), the Feds allow us to maintain instrument currency with a total of 6 approaches every six months, plus some flight using navigational aids and a hold. Is that enough? No.
When I was a brand new instrument pilot, my goal was to fly approaches every week – and for the first year I was close to achieving that goal. Think back to how hard it was to learn to control an airplane solely by reference to the flight instruments. Can you remember the struggles you had just learning the basic instrument flight skills – let alone combining those with the use of navigational instruments and then learning to fly approaches? It was torture for most of us.
Why would you let those skills erode by flying the FAA’s barebones instrument currency minimums? How about making a goal to flying approaches every week – you don’t have to spend a lot of time. Book a plane for an hour, grab an instrument pilot friend, and go fly the VOR-A approach to Brown Field. Next week, fly the Localizer at Gillespie. Next week, fly the ILS 28R into Montgomery. Or, grab an instructor and fly somewhere outside your comfort zone. Try the ILS at Long Beach, or the VOR into Chino, or the GPS into French Valley. Then grab lunch and fly back. You’ll be astounded at how quickly your instrument skills return – all you’ve gotta do is PRACTICE.
How often do you need to practice hitting golf balls in order to maintain your skills? At least once a week. How often should you practice your flying skills? The answer should be obvious.

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