Plane & Pilot
Friday, September 1, 2006

Is 35 Hours Enough

If you don’t fly much, make each hour pay for itself

If you don’t fly much, make each hour pay for itself

The world’s flying community looks at the 35-hour yearly average for U.S. pilots and shakes its collective head. They bemoan what they perceive as a general lack of proficiency and place blame on the pilots, as though they’re doing it on purpose.

Anybody who believes that pilots only fly 35 hours yearly because that’s all they want to fly is crazy.

If you take a serious look at flying in most of the United States, it’s amazing that the national average is as high as it is. In fact, the sunnier states probably skew the average up for the rest of the country. For instance:

• 35 hours a year would be 40 minutes, or one short hop, a week, if everything were perfect. That’s flying every week, 52 weeks a year. If you did that, and did it correctly, you’d stay surprisingly sharp.

• Assume winter and weather keeps pilots grounded four months of the year (this is optimistic for some states). This means that during the remaining months, a pilot would have to fly an hour a week for every flyable week to get 35 hours. How many of us get to fly every single week, especially if renting? Very few.

• The best weather for flying is also the best weather for other summer activities, so most folks are lucky to get up every other week, which means, if they’re really lucky, they’ll fly 16 times a year. 16 TIMES! So, to get 35 hours yearly, a pilot would have to fly slightly more than two hours every time he or she went up, and few general aviation pilots can do that on a regular basis.

It’s at this point that we realize the only reason the average is as high as 35 hours is that there are some show-offs out there who are flying 25 hours a month and raising the average.

So, why don’t people fly more? That’s a little like the “how high is up?” question, but a lot more complex. However, ignoring the obvious money and weather problems, the biggest obstacle is simply that there are too many other factors vying for your time.

It should be pointed out that though owning an airplane should, in theory, make it easier to fly (and put the onus on you to use it), that’s not always the way it works. If you don’t have the time, you don’t have the time; owning an airplane will only slightly ease the problem while raising time-gobbling problems of its own. Renting a plane for a 35-hour-per-year pilot is like being a grandparent: you play until you’re tired of the situation and then go home, gleefully letting someone else clean up the mess.

The reason there’s so much discussion about the 35-hour average is that it’s universally acknowledged that 35 hours spread out over a year is barely enough to keep you proficient and safe. Flying is a “use it or lose it” skill, which demands exercise to stay in peak condition. So, if 30 to 35 hours is all you’re going to fly, what can you do to maintain your proficiency and, thereby, avoid becoming an unsafe pilot?

First, let’s define proficiency: what do we mean, how do we measure it and how do we maintain it?

Being proficient means that every factor of your flying is well within safety limits. You’re not “barely” safe, you’re far enough above the bar that there’s plenty of margin for your bad days in all operational situations. This includes shorter than average runways and relatively serious crosswinds. You’re considered “proficient” only if you’re totally capable of passing a private pilot license (PPL) check ride at any given time.

As for measuring proficiency, here again, the PPL Practical Test Standards (PTS) are probably a good yardstick. Are you holding your altitudes as the PTS prescribes, keeping the airspeed on approach within limits, etc.? As far as that goes, when was the last time you studied a PTS? If you don’t fly often, it could well be worth the time to closely examine the document that spells out exactly what it is you should to be able to do.

Okay, so let’s assume the world has conspired against you, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t fly more than 30 to 35 hours a year. You know that’s barely enough to keep you safe and may not actually do the job. So, what do you do? Give up? Of course not! Make each flight a form of self-induced flight instruction in which you do much more than just go up and drone around. You hold your own feet to the fire and make certain every minute in the air either teaches you something or reinforces something you already know.


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