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I know that in accident reports they will typically say the total number of hours the pilot had, but also the total hours in type and total hours in the last 90 days. I know from personal experience that landing an airplane can be a perishable skill (I recently went 60+ days since flying and my landings were not the picture-perfect examples they usually are...don't get me wrong, nothing unsafe, just wasn't proud of them...drifting off centerline, excessive float, etc :)

The FAA seems to know this with the 90-day passenger carrying requirement (3 take-offs and landings within 90 days to carry passengers during the day and 3 to a full-stop for night passenger carriage).

All this to say flying doesn't seem to be "just like riding a bike - you never forget it." But in what sense? The muscle memory goes? The "seat of the pants" sensation starts to feel foreign? I know charts can change, regs can change, but do you really "forget how to fly," or just "lose the touch?"

What skills go first, and what is the best way to self-assess your skill quality and mitigate the loss of it?

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I imagine the skills that go first vary depending on the pilot. The instrument scan and the precision required for IFR flight could certainly atrophy pretty quickly, the skills required for "normal VFR cruise flight" would probably be the last to go (keeping the wings level and holding a course is about as easy as it gets - you might not be graceful at it, blowing altitude or overshooting turns - but many pilots had on their first or second lesson and they should come back pretty quickly) – voretaq7 Aug 8 '14 at 7:25
Having not ridden a bike for over 15 years I have to say that riding a bike is not just like riding a bike. I had to relearn how not to fall when I tried teaching my son how to ride a bike. – slebetman Aug 11 '14 at 5:19

I have no hard data answers to your questions. Perhaps others will. I can, though, offer some personal observations.

My last two jobs were at 747 carriers. At the first we had two weeks on, two weeks off. At the second, we had 12 days off a month, which, with a little seniority, you could arrange to have as a block.

For me, the first thing to go was my instrument scan, and I used to joke that it took only 4 days of inactivity to lose that. The joking aside, I did notice a slight degradation the first day or two upon returning to work after time off. I should note that my habit was to hand fly the airplane to the first cruise level, and then to hand fly from the top of descent, so I perhaps would notice a bit of degradation more so than those who used the autopilot as soon as possible and until as late as possible.

I retired 15 years ago, and it had been 30 years since I had flown a light single engine airplane when, a few weeks ago, I decided to check out in a Cessna 172. After three sessions, the instructor said he was satisfied. I wasn't and we went out a four time, and he signed me off for my first-ever BFR.

In general, I did a little better than I had expected. In one area, landings, I did a worse. The problem was the sight picture I had in my head from 10 years of landing 747s. On the first landing, knowing that I'd want to flare high, I delayed rounding out until my gut way saying, "if you don't flare, you will crunch the airplane." When I started the flare, the instructor said, "No, you're way too high." I delayed again, then started again, and the instructor said I was still too high." I delayed again, then absolutely had to start again, at which time the instructor said something like, "Well, you're still high but go ahead." That landing was followed by three sessions of nothing but takeoffs and landings. Each session I improved, but, frankly, I have yet to get a really good landing. My next session will be solo and will be nothing but takeoffs and landings.

So, for me at least, I conclude that we don't forget how to fly, but we definite do lose the touch.

After I get the solo takeoff and landings session in, I'm going to go out with the instructor and shoot a couple of ILSs. I'm expecting my instrument scan to be terrible.

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Thanks. I know my scan goes quick as well. What I've found is that I mitigate this a bit using a sim, even something like FSX or X-Plane. How do you think your cross-country planning and decision-making skills are? – Canuk Aug 8 '14 at 0:07
@Canuk Not good. The Garmin GNS 430W in the 172 is totally new to me. For the last 10 years of my career, I used the old Carousel inertial systems that had to physically spin up before use. They put in a small GPS update box for the inertial systems during the last year or so. So far, I've only mastered what's necessary for communication on local flights. Insofar as flight planning is concerned, that was primarily something dispatch did. Captains were consulted only for unusual situations. So, I've a lot of work to do there. I may have to buy an iPad. lol – Terry Aug 8 '14 at 2:58
This is basically my "Well I'm WAAAAAAY not current..." routine -- if you're not sure of your skills go up with an instructor to make sure you're bare-minimum safe. After that you can drill yourself to meet the Practical Test Standards which is a great way to knock off rust. You can always grab an instructor again for anything that you're not able to polish back up to standards. – voretaq7 Aug 8 '14 at 7:28
Did you try to look down sideways before flaring? This has helped me most in judging the actual height and works great in a high wing plane. Only looking ahead does not help, and all it takes is a split-second glance sideways. – Peter Kämpf Aug 8 '14 at 12:29
@PeterKämpf Oh, yes. In fact after lining up on the runway for the very first takeoff and for a few subsequent takeoffs in later sessions, I paused on the runway to look sideways for a bit and try to get that perspective in mind. I talked to an instructor who had checked out a couple of 737 pilots and she said even they had a bit of a problem with flaring too high at first. I think the problem is one of having to unlearn an internalized reaction in favor of the new situation. Don't know if that last statement really makes sense. – Terry Aug 8 '14 at 17:06

The Killing Zone: How & Why Pilots Die by Paul Craig (excellent book) has the results of an FAA study of this question, called Private Pilot Flight Skill Retention 8, 16, and 24 Months Following Certification. This table from the study lists the 27 skills they examined and the percentage of pilots who could perform them to PTS standards:

enter image description here

Based on this data, the first skills to go are accelerated stalls and magnetic compass turns: both were at 51% after 8 months. In some cases it seems obvious why the skill degrades: most pilots rarely - if ever - need to make magnetic compass turns so it isn't surprising that that particular skill goes away quickly. On the other hand, after 2 years only 60% of pilots could take off properly, only 51% could land properly at an uncontrolled airport and only 54% at a controlled one. That's all rather worrying considering that pilots usually take off and land at least once per flight.

As for how to assess and improve these skills, you could systematically work through this list in practice flights (like this guy has been doing in his last couple of videos), and/or get a regular review with an instructor. Just because the FAA requires a review once every 2 years doesn't mean that you have to wait that long: every 12 months or even every 6 may be more useful, especially for new pilots. Additional flight training of any kind will also help you to keep your skills sharp: get an instrument rating, commercial license, tailwheel endorsement, seaplane rating, glider rating, checkout in a new aircraft model etc.

But whatever approach you take, the first step is to critically review your own performance after every flight and make notes about what you did well and what you need to improve. If you don't do that, you have little or no chance of coming up with a good self-improvement plan.

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Great information, really, BUT it doesn't consider currency which is what this question is about. Pilots can be very current or way out of currency at the 8/16/24 month points. – Lnafziger Dec 3 '14 at 21:37
@Lnafziger It's true that currency is important but I think the OP mentioned it mainly to make the point that it's well understood that skills degrade, hence the need for legal currency in some cases. However, his basic question is which skills go first and fastest, regardless of formal currency requirements. At least, that's my take on it, hopefully the OP will clarify if I misunderstood. – Pondlife Dec 3 '14 at 21:45
I guess my point was that this includes people that fly every day as well as those that took the check ride and hung up their hats shortly thereafter. Some subsets of this group will be current while others are not, and their skills most likely stack up differently, while averaging out to what is in the table. I wish that we had access to the underlying data along with currency information. It would be interesting to analyze! – Lnafziger Dec 3 '14 at 21:53
@Lnafziger Yes, absolutely! The raw data isn't in the Craig book and I couldn't find a free copy of the original study online. The book is entirely based on an analysis of accident statistics and he spends a lot of time talking about currency and total hours, so there's a lot more information there. – Pondlife Dec 3 '14 at 21:59
Really interesting. This is the first time I've actually seen some data on this. I would be interested in knowing if there were any currency qualifiers like @Lnafziger suggests. However, I thought this comment was interesting "Pilots' ability to predict and evaluate their own skill retention levels for specific flight tasks was negligible." Maybe it's best to just systematically work on each of these tasks whether you think you need them or not. – Canuk Dec 5 '14 at 7:07

I agree with @Terry, but to add a couple points. If I go without flying for an extended period, some skills that I am rusty on are:

  • Emergency Procedures.

  • Getting the feel of the airplane again.

As far as emergency procedures, if I'm flying everyday I find it beneficial to do a take-off briefing (failed engine before/after lift-off). When I come back from a hiatus of flying, these take-off briefings take a bit to remember and get back in the groove, reaction time is critical. Sometimes I will practice forced-landings when landing at home (when proficient, it's no big deal hitting your mark). When I'm rusty - it's a bit more sloppy.

As far as getting the feel of the airplane again, some things I notice are landing too fast, maintaining coordination takes a bit more work (muscle memory). Basically, just general flying skills.

The best way to mitigate the loss is to fly at least once a week, even if it's just a trip around the pattern, that will help tremendously.

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Once a week would be really nice, but doesn't seem terribly realistic for most. Even when I was in training I was only able to fly about once every other week (between airplane breakages, weather, work, etc). Now, once a month is a LOT, I'm frequently out of currency just from not being able to get to the airport every 90 days! – Brian Knoblauch Aug 12 '14 at 16:18
@BrianKnoblauch, my personal opinion is if you only fly once a month, you will never be proficient. – fbynite Aug 14 '14 at 8:03

its says "aircraft," so I will answer for the categories and ratings I hold:

  1. Airplane Single Engine Land/Sea -- landings
  2. Rotorcraft/helicopter -- autorotations
  3. Gliders -- tow rope breaks
  4. Tailwheel -- wheel landings
  5. Complex + high-performance -- managing cowl flaps, wing flaps, rudder trim, engine cool-down, gear, etc.
  6. High-altitude -- emergency descent to 10,000ft
  7. Instrument/airplane -- partial panel
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