“Prior Preparation Prevents P!ss Poor Performance”– DC
That was a phrase that one of my flight instructors in the military liked to remind me of often. Being prepared for a flight was deemed such an important factor that an instructor could fail you before you’d even walked out to the aircraft if they thought you weren’t prepared enough. It got the message across though: preparation was extremely important, and could make the difference between a successful mission, and total failure. In civilian flight training things are usually a little more relaxed, you’re probably not going to fail a flight for lack of preparation (unless it’s a test), but if you aren’t prepared then it’ll end up costing you a lot more in time and money, and slow down your progress.
In this article, I’m going to share with you some tips and tricks to help you make sure that you are prepared for your training flights so that you can get the most out of your time in the air.
Short Final Version
When preparing for a flight there are four areas you should focus on:
- Thoroughly understand the training objectives of each flight.
- Study the theory, technique, procedures, rules and regulations applicable.
- Create a prep book to keep notes and learning points on each flight.
- Chair fly the flight before you go flying.
- Use the IMSAFE checklist to pre-flight yourself.
- Make sure your medical is valid.
- Create your own well-organised flight bag with everything you need in it.
- Wear appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather.
- Remember why you want to be a pilot.
- Approach each flight with the right attitude.
Learning how to fly is a very dynamic experience, it will require you to learn and use a broad range of skills, in an environment that is initially quite foreign to most people, without any real way to pause what you’re doing. At first this may seem an impossible challenge; but if you put in the effort to thoroughly prepare for each flight, it will make a huge difference in your confidence and overall learning. There are four core areas that you will need to focus on in your preparation, these are:
Of these areas, mental preparation and attitude are perhaps the most important for you to focus on, but let’s have a look at each one in detail.
Being mentally prepared for each flight means having a thorough understanding of the training objectives, i.e. the main learning goals of that flight, and having an adequate knowledge of the theory, technique, procedures, rules and regulations that you will need for that flight. This might seem like it will require an excessive amount of time, and when you first start out that might be the case, but once you establish good habits and patterns, it will become easier to build upon the knowledge and skills you have attained from your prior training. I’m sure you already have techniques that you developed at school for studying written material, and they will be useful here, but to improve your pre-flight preparation I recommend that you create a prep book, and take up “chair flying”.
When I was learning to fly I used a prep book for every flight, and so did most of my friends. A prep book serves as a place for you to focus your thoughts on the next training flight you are preparing for, and as a record for you to be able to go back and review what you’ve learned. There’s no right or wrong way to use a prep book, some people would just write a few words in theirs, others would draw elaborate pictures or glue pictures in there, but most, like myself would sit somewhere between; it all depends on your learning style.
For a starting point I would recommend that you buy yourself a large-ish sketch book (also known as a visual diary) to use as your prep book then, for each flight, fill in the following headings:
- Objectives – this can be dot point form, taken from your training syllabus or your instructor.
- Exercises – this is where you would expand on the objectives, paying particular attention to new/unfamiliar flight manoeuvres for that lesson, and any past learning points you want to remind yourself of. If your instructor has given you a ground lesson in preparation for your coming flight, then you might want to note the key points down from that.
- Debrief – perhaps the most important function of your prep book, it’s a place where you can write down your learning points from each flight lesson. I highly recommend that you do this. Developing the habit of mentally reviewing each flight will help you to learn from your mistakes make you a better pilot.
Flight training isn’t cheap; but, thankfully, there’s a way that you can “fly” for free, and that is by chair flying. The more common name for the practice of chair flying, outside of aviation, is visualisation, and it’s a powerful tool used by people in all different areas of life to practice something before they actually perform the action (even Red Bull Air Race pilots chair fly). Chair flying might feel a little bit awkward at first, or perhaps even a bit goofy, but with practice and experience it becomes easier to create the mental imagery you need. Here are a few points to help you get started:
- Print off a cockpit poster or use the actual aircraft if possible.
- Visualise required actions in real time, run through your work cycles.
- Think about where you will look and when, move your hands and feet too in order to build muscle memory.
- Rote learn the normal and emergency procedures.
- Practice your radio calls (with a friend if you can).
- Review and practice learning points and manoeuvres from previous flights.
As pilots we are legally required to have a valid medical certificate, appropriate to the level of pilot certificate that we will be exercising (14 CFR §61.23); for example, student pilots and flight instructors must hold at least a third class medical certificate. Whilst this will satisfy the legal requirements, a medical certificate could be issued months, or even years, before the day of your flight and doesn’t necessarily mean that you are physically fit to fly. The FAA recognises this and has come up with a useful pre-flight checklist for you to use on yourself (AIM 8-1-1).
- Illness – flying whilst sick could degrade your performance and you also run the risk of injury if you have something like a cold or a flu that’s blocking your sinuses (I almost had a barotrauma once and it was not fun!).
- Medication – some medications will negatively affect your mental or physical abilities, but there is no definitive list of what medication is allowed in aviation. A good rule of thumb is if you haven’t taken a medication before, then don’t fly with it until you know how it affects you. Check out this FAA brochure for more information.
- Stress – stress can be a huge distraction. If you can’t “leave it on the ground” then it may be a better option to cancel a flight until you can fix the cause of your stress.
- Alcohol – this one is pretty obvious, drinking alcohol and flying is a terrible idea! The FAA’s rule is 8 hours bottle to throttle, and a BAC less than 0.04 (14 CFR §91.17). If you satisfy both of those requirements, yet still feel like you might be affected by alcohol (i.e. hungover), then it’s probably best to stay on the ground.
- Fatigue – being tired can impair you as much as alcohol can, yet it can be a more difficult issue to notice or accept.
- Emotions – like stress, emotions can distract us an interfere with our ability to focus fully on what we are doing. If you’ve recently experienced an emotionally upsetting event, then you should avoid flying until you’ve had time to recover from it.
Other than the items mentioned above, I also like to add eating/hydration to my personal checklist. Getting hungry or thirsty halfway through a flight can be distracting; likewise, being too hydrated and having to urgently use the toilet is an even worse distraction (that’s a story for another time). In the end though, look after yourself and, if you feel unable to perform to your usual standards, then stay on the ground, there’s always another day to fly.
Going flying is kind of like going on a long road trip in a way, you’ve got to think about what you’re going to bring with you, and what you’re going to wear, because you really don’t want to have to turn around and go back to pick something up. My advice is to get yourself a bag that you can designate as your “flight bag” and in that put the things that you think you might need with you pretty much every time you get up in the air. Your flight bag might include:
- Approach plates
- Whiz wheel (flight computer)
- iPad/tablet (make sure it’s fully charged and your aviation app is up to date)
- Logbook, medical, pilot certificate, and ID
- Sunglasses and normal glasses (if needed)
- A head lamp, with a red-light function and spare batteries
- Hat and sunscreen
- Water bottle
- Warm clothing
- A small first aid kit
Once you’ve got your flight bag sorted out it’ll make it easier for you to quickly double check you have the things you need before you go flying so you don’t have to ever be that person that had to turn around because they forgot their maps.
The success of your flight training will depend a large part on your attitude towards it. You’re going to learn how to do things that are unlike anything you’ve done before; some days it will come easy and you’ll feel like a sky-god, and others it may feel like you’re going backwards or that maybe you shouldn’t be a pilot. It’s on the tough days though that your attitude can become either your worst enemy or your best ally; you can let difficulties beat you or you can face your challenges with confidence in yourself and your ability to learn and improve.
Here’s a few tips that might help you when you’re feeling challenged:
- Know your why – sometimes when difficulties get in our way then we can forget why we wanted to do something in the first place. If you have a powerful motivating reason behind why you want to be a pilot then it will help you remember to enjoy it, and help you keep on going when things are tough.
- Seek and provide assistance – genuinely help others and they will help you in return.
- Develop your self-discipline – if you work consistently towards your goals then your actions will compound together; small changes add up to big changes over time.
- Don’t aim for perfection – it’s futile to aim for something that is impossible, instead aim for small improvements each flight.
- Accept that you will have good days and you will have bad days.
- Be open to (constructive) criticism – sometimes it’s hard to hear, but the only reason your instructor is pointing out your errors is because they want to help you succeed.
Learning to fly can seem a little bit overwhelming when you first get started, but don’t worry, every pilot out there had to go through the same thing, and it is achievable. Focus on creating good habits to make sure you’re well prepared for each flight and you will make quicker and smoother progress in your training. On top of all that, if you approach your training with the right attitude, you’ll be able to handle any bumps that come your way.