|Even if you fly regularly, you’ll still need to make an effort to improve or maintain your skills by applying strict performance standards to them on each flight.|
Aviation is awash in proficiency-oriented literature and training courses. But, what exactly is proficiency? How, for instance, do we know if we’re as proficient as we should be, and how can we measure it? The good news is that aviation provides quite a number of yardsticks that enable us to measure what’s essentially an intangible item. That being the case, it’s then up to us to use those yardsticks and figure out how to keep that proficiency up.
What Is Proficiency?
The definition of “proficiency” is intertwined with the definition of “skill,” and they’re difficult to view separately. In fact, the dictionary says “proficient” is being “…competent or skilled in doing or using something.” That doesn’t clear things up, does it? However, if you sit back and carefully look at it, it could be said that skill is the living, breathing entity that enables us to move the controls at the right time, for the right effect.
Proficiency could be viewed as a way of measuring the health of that skill. Yes, we know how to fly. We have that basic skill. But, how healthy is that skill? Is our skill as sharp and as well-tuned as it was last year? Or the year before? In other words, are we as proficient at applying that skill as we were in the past, and are we as proficient at applying that skill as accepted aviation safety standards say we should be? Those are two different measurements.
Regardless of how we look at the skill/proficiency thing, we have to recognize that both will deteriorate, whether we want them to or not, if we don’t apply that skill enough to keep it fresh. It’s the old, “Use it or lose it,” adage. But there’s a flaw in that cliché: It’s entirely possible to be in the air every single day and still not be proficient if we’re not making any effort at improving or maintaining those skills by applying tight performance standards to them.
Intelligent Repetition Vs. Sawtooth Deterioration
It’s well accepted that learning is based on repetition: You keep practicing something over and over, until you can finally do it. However, that repetition only works if it’s “intelligent” repetition: If we keep doing the same thing wrong, we get really good at making the same mistakes, but never get any better. This is where applying performance standards to ensure that the repetitive cycles are done right comes into play. This also helps eliminate the sawtooth deterioration/improvement pattern that dogs a lot of us. This is the tendency to let ourselves slide downhill, suddenly realize we’re doing a lousy job, so we get some dual instruction and improve, only to let our skills slide downhill again. And the cycle keeps repeating itself.
So, where do those performance standards come from, how do we use them in testing ourselves, and how do we work them into our everyday flying habits?
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.