Competency vs Proficiency: A Look at Flying Aircraft Safely
When Flying Aircraft, Exceeding Flight Minimums = Maximum Safety in the Skies!
Competency versus Proficiency. Flying aircraft competently means you have met the standards. Flying aircraft proficiently means you’ve taken that extra step to gain a certain comfort level in the cockpit – you’ve refined and built your competence to a point where you are confident (but not arrogant). As pilots, we must maintain certain minimums to fly legally. But sometimes the minimums only make us competent…not proficient.
Take for instance the fatal aircraft crash of a Piper Arrow on approach to an airport under a moonless night sky with Visual Flight Rule (VFR) conditions. The pilot held a commercial license, instrument and multi-engine ratings and more than 2,000 flight hours.
How did this happen to a seemingly competent pilot? Despite his impressive history of qualifications, he had only logged 2 night take-offs and landings the previous month; prior to that, it had been 7 years since he had flown at night! And yet, he still chose to fly.
Good judgment so often goes hand-in-hand with practice and training. And everyone is different. The challenge is recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and admitting to when you may need a little extra to gain the edge necessary to become safe. To exercise your piloting skills safely and proficiently, you must avoid getting wrapped around the word “minimum” and strive to hone your skills.
Many General Aviation (GA) pilots are part-timers so flying on a regular basis isn’t always possible because of competing demands. So determining your level of proficiency is sometimes difficult. Looking at where you’re at in your flight training often provides a good gauge. For instance, if you just got your instrument ticket (congratulations) you’re undoubtedly more proficient than the general aviation instrument rated pilot who only flies the minimum 6 approaches within the preceding 6 months, to keep “current”.
Most are aware of the flight minimums but just in case you’ve forgotten, fly with me as we go through a refresher. Who knows, you may just discover a thing or two about your competency level and just maybe, how to achieve that level of expertise that will make you a much safer pilot.
Regulatory Minimums for Flying Aircraft
Recent Flight Experience (FAR 61.57 (a) and (b))
Simply put, if you plan to take your significant other up flying because you think it would be insanely romantic to propose to her during the flight (or if you’re just heading somewhere warm with all your newly acquired friends) then you must have made 3 takeoffs and landings within the preceding 90 days.
And if you plan to fly at night, those takeoffs and landings must be to a full stop and performed during the period from 1 hour after the sun goes down to 1 hour before the sun rises (now that’s early morning).
Flight Review (FAR 61.56) – previously known as the Biennial Flight Review (BFR)
Once you achieve the coveted ability to pilot an aircraft as the sole manipulator of the controls (very cool), you must maintain your privileges by undergoing a flight review roughly every 2 years, consisting of 1 hour of ground and 1 hour of flight. If you recently passed a test for an advanced rating or license (think Commercial or Instrument), you are exempt. Passing a phase of the FAA’s pilot proficiency program also qualifies.
Instrument Experience (FAR 61.57 (c))
To fly in weather less than VFR minimums or straight-up IFR weather, you must have your instrument rating (duh). And to comply with the regs, you must have performed 6 instrument approaches, holding and tracking, and intercepting and tracking using navigational systems within the 6 months preceding the month you are flying in either in an aircraft or a flight simulator (could this get any more confusing?).
If you have access to an aviation training device, then 3 hours of instrument experience within the 2 calendar months preceding your flight will suffice. You still must perform 6 instrument approaches, holding procedures, intercepting and tracking and 4 unusual attitude recoveries (from various configurations).
And it gets better. You can combine aircraft, simulator and training device to fulfill the requirements- yay! If you choose to accept this route, you must still log the 6 instrument approaches within the preceding 6 calendar months (plus the intercepting, tracking, and holding) but you can combine your flight experiences using the different modes.
Instrument Proficiency Check (FAR 61.57 (d))
Bummer. You failed to meet the minimum instrument experience requirements within the preceding 6 months or maybe you’ve been away from flying longer than 6 months – if you fall into either category, then to regain competency, you must undergo an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) with a designated examiner, an authorized instructor or other qualified pilot.
Working to exceed the minimums and gain expertise not only makes you a better pilot but also makes you safer in the air. And I, for one, would much prefer to be a contributing member of the friendly skies rather than a dangerous blob, flying “fat, dumb, and happy”.
When you go beyond your personal flying limits (or you purposefully break the rules…think little devil on your shoulder), you tend to get uncomfortable which can land you in some less-than-desirable situations.
Regaining Competency Flying Aircraft and Beyond!
Plentiful options exist to help you in your quest for competency and beyond. More flight time, conducted with a great fight instructor, is always a good place to start. But if cost is an issue, many less expensive (often free) alternatives exist to help get you back into the cockpit, brush up on your current capabilities or gain the experience and knowledge to dominate the skies!
A Rusty Pilots Seminar (provided by AOPA) may sound like an event planned for a retirement community but in reality, it’s an excellent way to get back into flying if the only thing you’ve “piloted” for the past (fill-in-the-blank) years has been your automobile.
A Rusty Pilots Seminar is free (which is always good) and offered at many locations (check the Rusty Pilots Seminar link for a list of seminars near you). I chose one close to my sister-in-law so I was able to combine a visit with the event. The seminar consisted of a few hours of ground lecture (with ample coffee and food provided), which fulfilled the 1-hour ground requirement for the annual flight review. Aircraft and instructors were available afterward (yes a fee but nominal) to complete the flight requirement per FAR 61.56.
The WINGS program (provided by the FAA’s Safety Team or FAASTeam) is another great way to get closer to proficiency. You learn through seminars, online classes or actual flight training. Sign-up is-you guessed it-FREE and many of the classes are free, too.
Remember, gaining expertise in flying aircraft takes consistent practice over time…10,000 hours, to be precise…yep, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, research shows that’s the magic number.
So open a book…or a browser and get studying. And the next time you embark on a flight into the wild blue, remember to do a self-check. Are you just flying the minimums or are you doing what you can to become an expert aviator in the sky?
Happy flying…safely and proficiently!
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Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). (2001). (Identification: IAD01FA038).