Rust Kills Pilots

For most pilots, they never fly as often as they like and the flights they do fly are never as long as they desire. But for most pilots, they try to get out and fly once or twice a month, sometimes more or less depending on their schedules.

The FAA knows this about private pilots, and so has recurrent training requirements. For example, private pilots are required to complete three takeoffs and landings every 90 days in order to carry passengers. If they wish to carry those passengers at night (one hour after or before sunset or sunrise, respectively) they must do their three takeoffs and landings at night. These requirements help ensure aviation safety.

But for most pilots, myself included, having lower personal minimums than the FAA’s is a good idea. Three months is a number agreed upon by bureaucrats, lobbyists and others who compromised to find a reasonable sounding number; it’s not the best indicator of piloting skills or the deterioration of those skills overall.

I had a great reminder today of exactly why practicing one’s skills is vital to aviation safety. My last flight was December 13th – some 19 days ago. Due to the fact that snow, freezing rain and high winds make for a really bad combination, I wasn’t able to make it to the airport to do any flying. Add in the fact that my altitude encoder has been on the fritz, and you have a recipe for a decent stretch of time without flight experience.

Today was the kind of day made for practicing some takeoffs and landings in the traffic pattern. Relatively light winds (12 knots down the runway) and high ceilings (8,000 feet), plus 40 degree temperatures beckoned me to the airport. I preflighted the airplane, got the engine started (19 days of sitting had slowed the battery down a bit), and headed to the runway. I departed normally on Runway 32 at Gaithersburg, and with the cold temperatures had great climb performance to 1,500 feet (pattern altitude). I turned crosswind, then base, then final, established a decent 500 foot per minute descent, and got ready to land.

The problem with not having flown in 19 days is that even in that short span of time, some skills begin to go rusty. For example, pilots must be able to judge their altitude and descent rate in relationship to the runway (harder to do without any kind of lighting system, which Gaithersburg does not have for Runway 32). They must also manage power, airspeed and flap configurations on the way down. I crossed the threshold around 150 feet which is high but not terribly so, and I began preparing to transition into the flare for touchdown.

Unfortunately, I carried far too little speed into the final approach phase. At about 85 feet above the ground I saw the stall warning light illuminate on the dash, warning me that I was approaching a stall. When five feet off the ground this is expected and even desired; pilots want a full stall landing to reduce their rollout distance. But 85 feet above the ground is the wrong time to stall the airplane. Of course, at this point training kicks in: the nose comes down, the power comes in. Most pilots would try a go-around, though 85 feet above the ground is a bit of a short distance to attempt a go-around. I instead made a (very) hard landing, bouncing and then settling. It was perhaps the hardest and ugliest landing I performed in a long time. Had an instructor been sitting next to me there surely would have been intervention. I felt awful foolish.

They say that a good landing is one you survive and a great landing is one that the plane is usable again. I flew two more trips around the pattern, and since the plane was intact, it apparently qualified as a “great landing.” But it was a true lesson in flying. Like most skills, time away deteriorates the precision with which we operate machinery. Stop cooking for a month and you’re liable to burn the bacon; stop driving for a while and you’re exhausted after a long trip. Riding a bicycle may be forever thanks to the learned balance, but the mechanics of cycling are lost after a while. And since most pilots never fly as often as they like, and since flying is so complex, the skills deteriorate faster than normal.

I was lucky. My landing was hard, and even if I find out later that I damaged the airplane, I’m alive. Throw in a good gusty crosswind and the story might have ended differently. Pilots are obliged to maintain their skills, and should always consider carefully how ready they are and how much skill might have deteriorated since the last time. Taking a CFI along is never a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of intelligence to fly with more experienced pilots.

Rust kills pilots. But it doesn’t have to kill you.

One thought on “Rust Kills Pilots

  1. Great article. The more complex a skill, the quicker it deteriorates. I’m sure you’ve noticed how an instrument scan can degrade in as little as a week. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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