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I Had a Choice

“Look, this is going to go one of two ways,” my instructor began. I will never forget the look on his face. He was disappointed – mostly with me, but partly because I could tell this was not the first time he had given this speech. He explained that I had a choice. I could either struggle through this entire recurrent training course and hope to limp through the checkride, or I could come in tomorrow “actually prepared.” Those words stung.  Ever since I got into flying I had never shied away from a challenge.  I rarely arrive for flight training unprepared, but here I was. Implied in the instructor’s admonition was that he expected better from a professional pilot. He’s right. Clearly I’ve worked hard to be here – to have the privilege of flying for a living. What business did I have showing up without cracking a book?

This was my first annual recurrent training in the Cessna Caravan. I learned that the first recurrent is often the most difficult because pilots come back from a year of flying thinking they know everything about their airplane and don’t need to study before class. I proved myself a member of this sorry group by my inability to accurately and completely answer any of the first three questions my instructor asked me at the start of our first training session. Those three incomplete answers told him plenty about how seriously I prepared for this training.  It also foreshadowed how the rest of our time together might go if I didn’t step it up.  What’s that they say about first impressions?

Train Before You Train

Virtually all professional pilots go through some sort of recurrent training once a year (some every six months). At our company we did a 3 day recurrent training in flight simulators at Flight Safety International once a year, and then a checkride with a company check airmen six months in between. Each of those events met a different requirement under part 135 of the regulations under which our company operated.  Recurrent training was highly intense. It was expensive, so we were expected to arrive prepared and ready make the most of the company’s dime. I had made the same folly many first-year pilots make by thinking I didn’t need to study the airplane I flew every day.

This conundrum isn’t unique to a professional training program.  All flight training is expensive, and even a student pilot with a few hours is going to benefit greatly from home-study and preparation for each lesson.  For younger pilots that start flight training in high school or college, homework and study seems like a normal part of life (though that doesn’t always mean younger pilots are more likely to be well-prepared.)  For all pilots there is a learning curve about how best to learn to fly.  Often the default approach is to have the instructor “spoon feed” all the information to the student.  The student learns from the instructor and then coasts until the next lesson where they learn more.  This is a really inefficient and expensive way to go through training.  Effective study and practice between flight lessons is the student’s greatest tool in maximizing their abilities while minimizing their costs.  Further, home preparation is not an either/or proposition.  The more effort a student puts into preparing before their next flight lesson, the more benefit they will get out of that lesson.

Hitting the Books

My lack of preparation set the tone for my first meeting with my instructor. I was determined to redeem myself. The realization that failing the checkride at the end of this training would cost me my job was also rather motivating. I ate dinner in my hotel room that night with all the study materials laid out on the bed and desk. Taping the instrument panel poster on the wall, I used it to practice procedures and checklists. Much of the evening, I paced the room reciting aloud checklist memory items and system limitations. I memorized the entire startup sequence of the engine and recited all the indications of various malfunctions. Then I drilled the proper procedures for each of those scenarios and many others.

Mnemonic aids, flash cards, diagrams, aviation books, and online videos are all tools to help pilots prepare, but the secret sauce in all of flight training is repetition.  Whatever training aids and techniques you use, use them often.  While my own cram session was necessary to get me up to speed, the best approach is to prepare early, often, and regularly in between training sessions.  There’s a lot you can do with 20 minutes and a stack of index cards.  A cockpit poster and copy of the checklist makes a great procedure trainer you can use every day.

Showing Up

The morning after my cram session I got to the procedure trainer early and ran through all the scenarios again. When my instructor arrived I was ready. The second day went much better. Not only did I have the knowledge down, but my flying was smoother and more precise. I was more prepared and engaged all around. At the end of the second day as we waited for the simulator to settle into its home position, my once skeptical instructor looked at me. “Good,” he said, “I was worried, but you really pulled through.” I thanked him. Then I went back to the hotel and spent the evening preparing for the checkride – I wasn’t to the finish line yet!

On the final day the checkride went very well. I passed the ride and garnered a few compliments from the examiner. His kind words were nice to hear.  I was proud of the results, and even managed to land a “pro card” which meant my performance met a more stringent set of standards.  Nevertheless the words that stick with me to this day are “this is going to go one of two ways.” That was the wakeup call that got me to show up – and I think of it every time I prepare for any flight training or review – even nine years later.

You Have a Choice

The choice I was faced with is pretty universal in aviation. It reflects the choice we all face every day. Not just professional pilots, but student pilots and aspiring pilots too. Flying as a professional pilot might be your dream job or it might be your dream hobby. The nature of dreams is they tend to be fleeting unless we work our tails off to make them a reality. I owe a lot to an instructor who called me out on my complacency in the pursuit of my goals. I issue the same challenge to every other current and future pilot I meet. Opportunities for professional pilots abound like few other times in aviation history. Flight training is more accessible for more people than it has ever been. This is a great time to be a pilot, but no one is going to hand you your dream. You simply have to decide to show up and do the work.  You’ll be happy you did.

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