Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Is Proficiency?

Ten ways of telling whether you’re actually as good as you think you are

Make Every Flight A Test
The key to proficiency is to make it a goal that every time we take off, regardless of the purpose of the flight or how often we fly, we're going to be better when we land. First, however, we need to do a little self-examination to establish a datum so we know where we stand right now and how much work we need to do to get ourselves up to snuff. And what better place to start in judging our current proficiency status than with the FAA's Private Pilot Practical Test Standards (PTS)? However, when we apply those regulatory standards, we're going to do so with a huge caveat in mind.

The FAA's PTS are often misunderstood and even more often misapplied. The performance standards called for in the PTS were established as rock-bottom "minimums." Essentially, the FAA has said if you can't meet these standards, you aren't good enough to be a pilot. Again, let's emphasize: These are minimums. Then let's emphasize what they apply to: They're the minimums required to survive in an environment that's at least as hostile as the sea. Perform badly in either environment, and the results can be fatal.

So, knowing the seriousness of the situation, why would anyone be satisfied with barely meeting the minimums? That's the same as saying, yes, there's a tall tree at the end of the runway, so we'll just try to clear it by a couple of feet. Who wants to fly with margins that narrow? No one, right? So, why would we train or hold ourselves to standards that yield such narrow margins?

Each time we fly, our standards should be much higher than those called for in the PTS. In so doing, even if we do allow our skills to deteriorate through mental oxidation (rust), we'll have enough cushion that we aren't immediately a danger to ourselves or our passengers. If, however, we think the PTS standards are acceptable and we use those to measure our performance, then if we deteriorate even a little, we'll find ourselves in the danger zone in nothing flat.

Determine Your Current State Of Proficiency
First, when we set out to test our proficiency, we're going to do so with no preparation, whatsoever. We want it to be a normal flight, with all the warts and bumps intact. Then after landing, we'll mentally go back through the flight with our own PTS-style checklist in hand and evaluate how we did on that flight. If we take off with the checklist already in mind, we'll bias our performance in the direction of the checklist, and we won't know exactly what our current status is. We need to make the flight and evaluate our mistakes after the fact.

A better method, assuming our ego doesn't mind a little bruising, would be to hand the checklist to a pilot friend in the right seat and have him keep tabs on our performance without commenting on it. Maybe he gives us a grade on each point as it happens. Rate us 1 through 5 on each point being evaluated, with 5 being best. Then go back over the checklist on the ground. That will yield an unbiased and accurate view of your proficiency level. This evaluation technique, by the way, is a great way to make an enemy out of a friend, so be careful. Also, the following checklist isn't all-inclusive, so feel free to add whatever comes to mind as being important in your aircraft in your operating environment.

Download the Proficiency Checklist.

This all seems rudimentary, barely even Aviation 101. However, it will be the rare pilot that rates solid 5s all the way down the line. But, if our score card includes very many 1s or 2s, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate our approach to flying, consider a little dual instruction or at least have a stern talk with ourselves the next time we strap in. The subject of that talk should be how to change our "good enough" attitude. That's important because it only takes a little rust to turn good enough into not good enough.


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