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What Have You Done For Me Lately?

"Throttle slightly open; master on; fuel pump on; mixture rich; watch for fuel flow; mixture lean; brakes on…"

I paused and took a breath to focus my mind. "OK, let's see if I remember how to fly this thing," I thought to myself as I turned the key to start the Arrow's IO-360. This would be my first flight in almost two months and I felt a little rusty.

In many parts of the world, pilots can go through the Winter months without flying at all. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Winters are very mild, my flying club sees a marked drop-off in flying at this time of year. Whether it's long hours spent finishing up year-end projects, time spent with family over the holidays, or waiting out the weather, it always seems to be difficult to get out and fly.

Most pilots understand the importance of recent experience. In fact, many pilots I know insist that recency of experience is more important for proficiency than total experience. For them, a long layoff from flying makes them extra cautious in their aeronautical decision making.

Another way of putting it is that we generally feel less confident when we haven't flown in a while, and to a great degree this is appropriate—a sign of intelligence! The fact that we need regular practice to maintain proficiency is a reminder that flying is a never-ending learning process, and one of the principles of learning, the "principle of recency," comes into play here. It simply means that we best remember skills and knowledge that we've been exposed to recently, and because confidence in the cockpit is one of the things we learn from experience, we tend to feel a little pang of doubt when we contemplate a flight after a long layoff. It's sort of how the "confidence" part of our pilot psyche folds its arms, cocks its head, and asks, "So what have you done for me lately?"

Now in fact, our physical flying skills actually decay very slowly with time away from flying. It's the mental game where we're most at risk. Fortunately, we don't need an airplane to practice that part. Just spending a few minutes recalling and visualizing cockpit procedures, referring to the checklist and saying the steps aloud, can be tremendously helpful during those periods when we're not flying.

When I do experience feelings of doubt, rather than ignoring or denying them, I make a point of heeding them, but in a positive way: I choose favorable conditions, a familiar aircraft, or if it's been a very long time since I flew, I schedule some dual with an instructor, but I make sure to get back in the air. That's what brought me to the airport that clear, calm, beautiful December day—and my session in the pattern went great. It was a real confidence builder!

Hmm, it's getting to be time for another flight like that. It's been a while…

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