Post-Graduate Flying

Many of us pilots (and pilots-in-training) are highly motivated, goal-oriented types, always reaching for the next step. The path to the pilot certificate fits perfectly with our need for structure and a progression of task mastery with the ultimate goal of certification at the end of our efforts. All too often, though, when we reach our goal, we’re a little lost. We wonder, “what’s next?”

Some of us don’t even get that far. An Air Force buddy of mine always wanted to fly an airplane. He worked diligently, hitting the books and flying as often as he could. After about twelve flying hours he soloed a Cessna 150 from a grass strip near Higginsville, Missouri. He never flew again. Was he scared? Did he run out of money? No. He told me he’d always wanted to see if he could fly an airplane, and now he knew he could. Goal met, game over. End of flying career.

Back when I was doing the right-seat thing in Cessnas, I often noticed that pilots who earned their private ticket would engage in a flurry of ride-giving for a week or so after their checkride, but in many cases their flying would diminish. Soon it was just a hop here, a couple times around the pattern there, until they drifted away, seemingly for good. Goal met, end of flying career.

The Cure: To keep the business going, and to encourage pilots to continue flying after the checkride, I put together something I call the Post-Graduate Flying Curriculum. The idea is to give even student pilots a glimpse into the depth that is flying and hopefully, in so doing, provide them with the inner motivation to seek the steps past that first monumental checkride.

Earning a Private certificate is just the beginning of learning to fly an airplane. Your “pilot’s license” demonstrates your ability to meet a minimum set of standards on one day — your checkride. It’s a great introduction to the skills you need as a pilot, but that’s all it is … an introduction. Once certificated, you’re cut loose to fill in the gaps of your primary flight training.

Note: This learning plateau may be even harder to overcome if the U.S.’ Sport Pilot certificate takes off and a lot of “privilege-limited” “Sport” pilots need encouragement to stay in aviation.

To keep pilots flying and learning (and keep money coming in to the FBO), I successfully hyped some “training modules” for my “post-graduate” pilots that concentrate on improving skills in specific and important areas:

  • Class B Operations. (Actually, at the time it was “Terminal Control Area” operations). My base of operations was about 50 miles from the edge of the “solid blue ring” airspace around Kansas City — close enough that we’d fly into it maybe once during the private training, but not so close that a student got any significant experience there before his/her checkride. My short ground school syllabus for flying in this airspace includes flight in and out of the primary airport, flight into satellite airports, transitions through the airspace, and trips “under the rings” with special emphasis on pilotage and obstacle clearance. Then we’d go do it. Several of my students who had expressed great fear in getting any closer to Kansas City than the traffic pattern at the home airport gained confidence — and access to — this large block of airspace. The training regimen reinforced radio communications procedures that would help in future inflight information gathering as well as (perhaps one day) the Instrument rating.
  • Low-Altitude Navigation. By “low altitude” I meant cruising flight at 500 to 1000 feet above ground level. The program consisted of ground school covering the applicable regulations, preflight planning, reading the sectional chart, and memory items of the airplane’s emergency checklists. The theme is that a problem at these altitudes leaves little time to act. And of course we’d get out and fly — especially if conditions were visual, but not optimal. The goals of this module were to:
    1. increase the pilot’s ability to navigate and find airports in those pre-GPS days (the exercise couldn’t hurt nowadays, either);
    2. demonstrate the unusual cues associated with flight at low altitudes, when compared to cruising higher up, and to show how hard it is to see towers and landmarks;
    3. reinforce the requirement to maintain adequate altitude above the ground, obstacles and populated areas;
    4. review the need to always keep an emergency landing site within reach, even if your best option won’t assure an intact airplane after a forced landing; and
    5. highlight the extreme danger of combining low-level flight with other risk factors like low visibility, night flight, or flight in unfamiliar airplanes and unfamiliar areas.
  • Night Flight. I love to fly at night. Most pilots do. But most night flying for the Private certificate is done in optimal conditions and in the airport traffic pattern. In this module we’d:
    1. review the night-flying rules;
    2. assemble a proper night-flight kit (extra flashlights, fuses, batteries, etc.);
    3. talk about weather briefings and the inability to see clouds and fog in the night; and
    4. discuss lighted facilities and vagaries like “pilot controlled lighting” and operations at airports with closed towers.
    5. cover the hazards of nighttime visual illusions like the black hole approach.

    Then we’d plot out a cross-country and fly into the dark.

  • Commercial Flight Maneuvers. You don’t have to have 250 total hours or be working toward your Commercial “ticket” to enjoy flying chandelles and lazy eights. Mastering such maneuvers injects some fun into straight-and-level flying. We’d review the maneuvers in ground school, talk about how they teach coordination and judgment applicable to more everyday flying, and then go find a road and lazy-eight the afternoon away. If a student decided to continue to work toward the certificate… well, then it was good for us all, and for business.
  • Emergency Instrument Flight. At the time, there was no minimum number of instrument flight hours required for the Private certificate. Yet, attempting visual flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) was then — and is now — one of the biggest killers in general aviation. The instrument time required to earn your Private certificate serves as a mere introduction to instrument flight. So, with several post-graduate students I did some review of instrument rules and regulations; scan techniques, normal and emergency operation of the flight instruments including “partial panel,” unusual attitude recoveries, and radio communications. Our goal was not to teach toward the instrument rating (although they did log it as instrument dual and I assured them it would count toward a future instrument rating), and CERTAINLY it was not intended to encourage non-instrument pilots to fly in less-than-visual conditions. The purpose was:
    1. to teach instrument flight as an emergency procedure — just like those we learn for other crises like engine failures and stalls;
    2. to allow pilots to consider what they would do, who they would contact for help (how to reach Air Traffic Control); and how they would communicate with controllers to get assistance flying back to visual-rules weather; and
    3. encourage the pilot to continue to work toward his/her instrument rating.

    BOTTOM LINE: Maybe you’ve reached a plateau in your flying. Maybe you’re not ready to commit to an instrument rating or a commercial certificate just yet, but still you’d like some goal to shoot for, something new to learn. Maybe you’re an instructor pilot wanting to keep your students in the air after the checkride, and keep the rental and instruction fees flowing into your business. You don’t have to wait until time for a Flight Review to cover something new. Maybe you should consider Post-Graduate Flying.