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The time in between lessons is an often-missed opportunity to help sharpen your flight skills outside the airplane which can help you learn faster, save time, and save money.  Here are seven things you can do at home to make the most of your time outside of the airplane:

Practice a Checklist

Take some time before your next lesson and practice running through checklists for your airplane.  Purchase or make a copy of the same checklist you use when you fly.  Sit in front of a cockpit poster that closely matches your training airplane, or better yet, make your own that matches your airplane exactly.  This becomes a home built procedure trainer you can use throughout your training. Then practice running through the normal checklists as you would in the actual airplane.  Learn the location of switches and gauges, and what tasks you need to preform.  When you get back in the real airplane this will help save you valuable time during each flight.

As your instructor introduces you to abnormal and emergency procedures, add these to your checklist practice routine.  Have your instructor demonstrate the flow and any items that you should be able to do from memory.  Then practice it the way you were taught until it becomes second nature.  This will help you nail emergency procedures in training and come in very handy if you encounter an actual emergency in the future.

Chair Fly a Maneuver

It’s often said that an airplane in flight is a lousy place to learn.  It’s loud, cramped, has lots of vibration, and is expensive to operate.  Much of the challenge in learning a new maneuver is remembering how it is performed – the actual steps involved in setting it up and executing the maneuver.  Fortunately you can practice these things easily from the comfort of your favorite chair.

Write out the procedure for each maneuver with your instructor.  Include starting altitude, airspeed, and clearing turns.  Go all the way to the very end where the maneuver is complete.  Complex tasks can be practiced in parts, and some of those parts can be used over again in other more complex tasks.  Once a task is learned it can be reproduced as needed for every maneuver.  For example, the setup portion of a power off stall is virtually identical to setup to slow flight.  Meanwhile the stall and recovery portions are very similar to other types of stall recoveries. 

Once you have the script go home and run through the procedures in an arm chair or in front of your home made procedure trainer.  Keep practicing until it becomes automatic.  As you master each part of the maneuver sequence at home you’ll make practicing the maneuver in the airplane easier and more efficient.  Instead of remembering all the steps of a power off stall in flight, you’ll be able to just execute the “power-off stall” script automatically.

Chair flying maneuvers let’s you experience the repetition necessary to ground the procedures in memory without a Hobbs meter clicking away as you do.  One caveat to this method is that it is important to make sure you are practicing the correct procedure.  Once you learn a method or technique the first time it can be difficult to re-learn a different method later.  Make sure your instructor goes over the correct procedure with you before you practice.

Drill Memory Items

As a student pilot I hated to memorize things.  I always felt if I understood how the oil system worked I shouldn’t have to remember at what oil pressure the warning light came on.  Over time I realized that memorized operating and system limitations, airspeeds, regulations, and other critical information was much more useful to me during flight, especially in unusual or emergency scenarios where quick thinking is required.

What should you memorize?  Obvious Items are airspeeds for your airplane, from landing configuration stall speed to never-exceed and everything in between.  You should also know pretty much every limitation for your airplane.  Chapter 2 of the POH/AFM contains all these goodies.  As you go through training you’ll learn certain regulations that are best committed to memory.  VFR visibility and cloud clearance requirements are one great example.  Start drilling on a few important items early in your training and then keep adding to the list as you learn new things.  By the end of your training you’ll have committed an impressive amount of knowledge to memory without the need for a massive cram session right before your checkride.

Perhaps the easiest way to learn memory items to make flash cards.  Write out cards with each of the V-speeds, limits, emergency checklist memory items, etc…  pick up some cards, write the question or prompt on one side and the answer on the other.  Shuffle the deck and start quizzing yourself!  If 3 X 5 index cards are a little “too 2009” for your taste, there are a number of flash card apps you can use on a mobile device for the same purpose.

Draw a System

Systems on an airplanes are complex and often tricky for pilots to build an understanding.  New pilots likely haven’t had to put a lot of thought into the fuel system of their car, nor would they likely have any familiarity with flight control rigging.  It’s new territory and learning it can seem like an insurmountable challenge.  Good thing we like challenges around here!

One method that can help is to draw out a system to understand how the various components work together.  While your aircraft manuals may already contain diagrams of systems, there’s a big difference between looking at someone else’s drawing and trying to come up with your own.  The extra time and effort is the point.  Sketching a system by hand, drawing out each component, and having to figure out each connection, leads to a much better understanding of the system overall.  Get stuck or confused?  Great!  Take your drawing to your instructor for help in filling in the blanks.  It won’t be perfect the first time, but each attempt gets you closer to mastery.  Keep at it until you understand each major system on your airplane well enough to explain it to someone else.

Note: in an aviation maintenance class in college I had to draw a brake system for an exam.  I drew the system and then added a fish swimming in the hydraulic reservoir.  My artistic expression apparently did not warrant extra points.

Read a Weather Briefing

Weather briefings are something you should become intimately familiar with during your training.  While calling to speak with a weather briefer should become second nature, I also advocate for obtaining and reading a text weather briefing as often as you can.  Live briefers are incredible resources, but during the briefing they translate the raw weather data for us – and for learning purposes you should become comfortable doing that as well.

Weather Briefing

Screenshot of 1800wxbrief.com weather briefing.

1800wxbrief.com is the official Flight Service website and pilots can access all the services, including text weather briefings, with a free account.  Log in, get a standard briefing for either an actual flight you have planned, or one you’d like to take some day.  The briefing is organized in tabs that present the information in a standard format.  Practice reading these briefings until it becomes easy.  Start with one section, then add the rest over time.  On bad weather days see how the bad weather shows up in the briefing.   

Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) arguably need to be overhauled.  There’s a ton of them for every airport, and even more that will come up in your weather briefing even with no apparent relevance to your flight.  For the time being it’s the system we have to work with, so I’ll offer you some tips for reading them.  1800wxbrief.com does a great job organizing NOTAMs in a way that helps to make sense of them all.  Also, most airspace and obstruction NOTAMs are charted relative to your route of flight.  You can take in the location and height of the obstructions with a quick scan and refer to the text if there is one you would like to know more about.  As you become familiar with the NOTAMs for your training airports you’ll notice many are the same each time.  By reviewing them regularly you become familiar with the existing notices, and are more likely to notice the new one’s that pop up.

Practice Radio Calls

I know talking on the radio is probably your favorite part of flying.  Okay, maybe not. In fact, most pilots are a little uncomfortable on the radio at first – some just downright hate it.  Good news, there is a solution to this issue: Practice!  Better news, you can practice without having to actually key the mic on a real radio.  The hardest part of talking on the radio is knowing what to say in the way it should be said.  You can practice this for a variety of scenarios on your couch – better yet, in front of your homemade procedure trainer.

Come up with a script for the radio calls you make as you taxi out from your flight school, takeoff, and go to the practice area.  Make another for coming back in to land and taxi in.  If you train at an airport with a control tower, figure out the most common responses from the controllers to each of your requests and the practice running through them all.  If you feel silly doing this, remember that the goal is to make sure you don’t feel silly talking on the actual radio in the actual airplane.  The more you practice at home, the easier the real thing will be!

Here’s an idea: When driving your car on your morning commute, each time you turn a corner announce turning the next leg of the pattern.  “Main street traffic, Toyota four mike papa, turning left downwind runway two seven.”  If you carpool with non-pilots, this recommendation becomes mandatory. 

Come up with 5 Questions for your CFI

Flight Instructors sometimes fall into the trap of asking “Do you have any questions?” which is not the best method of determining whether a pilot understands material.  We sometimes fall into this trap because it’s easy and it keeps the student from feeling like they are being quizzed which can be uncomfortable or even frustrating if they get the questions wrong.  Nevertheless, questioning is an important part of the learning process.  In addition to your instructing asking you questions, you can gain a lot of insight be having questions prepared for your instructor.

Help your instructor out by coming to you next flight with five questions about the material you’ve studied since your last lesson.  Coming up with the questions helps you find the edges of your understanding and getting answers from your instructor helps fill in the gaps while giving them insight into your progress.  They should still be asking you questions to gauge your progress, but asking them questions helps you guide the conversation to areas they may missed and makes you an active participant in your training.

Why do all this?

Flying is supposed to be fun, what’s with all this homework?  Maverick and Goose didn’t quiz each other with flashcards at Top Gun!  … That was probably a deleted scene.  The reality is that flight training is expensive and there is way too much to learn to do it all in the airplane.  Also if you are like many students you may only fly once or twice a week.  It’s important to practice what you can in between lessons.

Learning to fly is an active process.  You can profoundly reduce the time and money you spend learning to fly by studying and practicing as much as you can in between flights.  Also by exploring as much information as you can on your own, you’ll be able to make more effective use of your instructor to thoroughly understand the material.

For those of you going on to professional flying careers, this level of preparation will be expected by all your employers and training providers.  If your goal is just to fly for the fun and thrill of it all, good study habits are even more important, since you’ll often have less contact with instructors after you training is complete.  What good at-home study habits work best for you?  Leave me a comment and let me know!  I’m always on the lookout for new and effective training hacks to share with readers.

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