Proficiency is a term that resonates through every pilot’s career. Its achievement and maintenance are taught to be the mantra of all who choose to fly. If you don’t have it, you should be pursuing it all the time.
Proficiency may be defined in various ways. In terms of the aviator, it implies that the pilot is “fully competent” in the art of handling an aircraft in all conditions of flight. Another definition may state it simply as a process that “advances one towards perfection.” But, who’s perfect? If it’s true that the most competent people in any discipline are those who are always aware of their shortcomings, then the vast majority of people likely need to work on their proficiency all the time.
No matter what the definition, there’s only one path to proficiency: practice. And, if you’re a pilot, practicing can be achieved in three different ways: in an aircraft with an instructor, in an aircraft on your own, or in a simulator. Simulators, in fact, are becoming so increasingly sophisticated that even lower-priced set-ups deliver such sharp accuracy that they quite accurately represent “the real thing.” And these aren’t units that you’ll only find at a flight training facility: some incredibly sophisticated stuff can be set up affordably in your home.
The aviation industry puts a lot of emphasis on the use of simulators for their extensive benefits in the training environment. However, licenced and experienced pilots should never dismiss their use for the benefits they can imbue upon themselves. Simulators are excellent tools for any pilot to use to blow dust off skills that have atrophied owing to lack of recent and repetitive time in actual flight.
Simulators keep your aviation mental game sharp. If you haven’t been in the cockpit for a while, setting yourself up on a simulator will re-connect you to the mental framework necessary to effectively and safely fly an airplane. They give you the opportunity to re- familiarise yourself with protocols that may have lost their edge. And, they prepare you for what’s ahead, when you’re about to climb into the cockpit for a flight you’ve never done, or one you’ve not done for some time.
What can you do with your simulator time? Some of the toughest hand-eye coordination skills can be practiced over and over again, without risk to yourself, your airplane or your pocketbook. You can work on crosswind approaches and landings. You can practice short field and soft field take-offs and landings. You can practice manoeuvring in the circuit. It’s in this latter phase of flight that the chain of errors that lead to accidents remains statistically high. Practicing it first in a simulator will reduce the risk of it happening for real.
What’s really nifty about today’s home-based simulators are the services available that so enliven your sessions that the realism is moving ever closer towards the world of virtual reality. You can now plug your simulator into services that deliver live air traffic control over the Internet. In other words, you can actually talk to a “real” air traffic controller during your simulated flight. Other Internet services are available that will pump real weather into your simulator, thereby adding a factor that’s hugely beneficial to any instrument pilot who wants to blow cobwebs off their latent skills.
A few rules of thumb should be kept in mind when using simulators for practice. Start every session with an objective in mind. Don’t fall into the trap of using your simulator device as a toy: it’s for legitimate practice. If you’re practicing dealing with emergencies, keep the scenarios realistic. Don’t create inescapable situations: they do you no good. Know when to press “Pause” to evaluate a scenario with which you are having trouble, and work on it until you get it right.
The point to the above is simply this: don’t feel that a simulator is only for trainees. If you’ve gone from flying hundreds of hours per year to only flying a few dozen – or if you’ve been entirely out of flying for a couple of years – consider a home-based simulator to re-freshen your skills. Whatever your simulator hardware and software set-up, the transference of skills from such systems is firmly established to work. Don’t hesitate to give it a try.