Most any athlete will tell you that it doesn’t take much time away from training to loose your crisp edge of performance. Ask a pilot if they have the same issue, and the most honest of them will tell you that they recognize a similar loss of acute sharpness if having taken a break from being sky-bound.
Time away from the cockpit, however long or short, will inevitably have some effect, greater or smaller, on your performance. If you know yourself to be a rusty pilot, there’s multiple ways to re-hone your skills to safely return to the sky.
One of the first considerations you may want to pursue is to simply re-establish a mindset. In other words: think flying. Visualize airplanes and airports in your spare time. Pick up the aviation magazines you’ve fallen behind on reading, and scroll through their pages of columns, articles and photos. Re-establish your mental connections to those factors that made you want to fly an airplane in the first place.
If you have an airplane that’s been as idle as you’ve been, go sit in it. Re-familiarize yourself with the cockpit’s environment: its space, its smell, its sightlines, and its “feel.” If you’ve been away from the flying game for a longer time than you want to admit, test yourself on where everything is located: controls, instruments, knobs, fuses, etc. If you’re a low-time pilot with large gaps between flying adventures, you might be surprised at how quickly the cockpit has become a foreign land.
As you sit in your aircraft’s left seat, pull out its Pilot Operating Handbook (POH). Flipping through its pages as you sit in the aircraft for which it was written will re-connect you in a way that reading it at your kitchen table cannot do. Focus on the POH’s Emergency Procedures. As you sit there reacquainting yourself to your airplane, perform the cockpit actions that the POH specifies you do to deal with the emergency about which you’re reading. Do it again and again, until familiarity is re-confirmed, and your muscles react quicker than the time it takes for your brain to tell you what you’re supposed to do.
Thank goodness for the Internet. Videos and educational resources abound that will scrape away at the rust built up over your skills. Just about any pilot association to which you might belong will likely have a database of webinars to get you prepped for a return to the cockpit. YouTube, as you would expect, has a litany of offerings for pilots looking to wipe away the cobwebs covering their competency to fly.
Find a flying mate like yourself who may be looking to brush away the dust on their skills too. Work together: challenge each other to Q&A sessions about airmanship. Throw hypothetical flying scenarios at each other and work together at reminding yourselves of the best ways to achieve preferred outcomes.
Plan a flight, whether it’s one you eventually intend to do or not. Run through every element of its planning as if you were about to embark on it. After too much time away, it’s easy to forget a step or two of the dozens you have to consider before taking an actual flight.
Since you’ve been away from flying for some period of time, re-affirm your personal minimums. Add a bit more margin to your planning and activities for those first few flights, and until you’ve re-established a comfort zone that comes with your re-building of time in the air.
Don’t step back into the cockpit assuming that you can do everything you did when you last stepped out of it. Even a few weeks away can nibble away at some sharper elements of your skills and know-how. (Imagine, then, what a year away can do to your readiness to fly with as much competence and confidence as before.)
Sometimes, the imagination thinks that nothing has changed from being away. A dead engine at 5,000 feet is the wrong time to realize that imagining a safe landing is a whole lot different than remembering the specifics of how to actually deal with it.