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Practice To Stay Out of That Rut

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There is a honeymoon phase after the check ride. You have that new certificate or rating in your pocket and it is natural to want to relax and do some fun just-for-you flying, like buying $100 hamburgers, make fly-out camping trips, attend fly-ins, and take trips to visit friends and family.

The fun flying continues until you realize that it has been a while since you practiced a skill—like stalls or steep turns—that you learned months, perhaps even years earlier, and you’re a bit fuzzy about the setup and recovery.

Or maybe you encountered a situation that taxed your skill set, like an attempted crosswind landing that took multiple attempts, or that practice instrument approach where you were so far behind the airplane that it landed five minutes before you did.

These are the times the prudent pilot seeks out dual instruction. A pilot’s desire for more training is often done as a confidence builder. You learned how to perform those tasks years ago, but without regular practice, they can get a bit rusty.


Recently I flew with a learner who has a great deal of cross-country flight experience, but very little of it involves towered airport operations. This is not uncommon, because the majority of airports in the U.S. are non-towered. The learner wanted to remedy that, and they asked me to come along wearing my CFI hat.

Tower communications can be intimidating. You have to fly the airplane, keep an eye out for traffic, and communicate effectively when there are dozens of pilots in the same airspace doing the same thing.

Tower communications usually begin with the enroute pilot listening to the weather. For the single-engine piston trainer, listening to the automated weather 10 miles out is a good plan because it allows you to stay ahead of the airplane. Make sure to get the automatic terminal information services (ATIS) designation if appropriate, and noting altimeter setting, winds, and runway in use along with any special items such as “caution, mowing operations in progress.” I am a big advocate of listening to it twice. On the first pass write it down, then listen at least once more to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

After you get the weather, switch to the tower frequency and note how busy it is. Don’t wait until you’re right on the edge of their airspace to call, especially if they are busy. It’s a good idea to consult the local VFR sectional as there may be a note such as, “Contact Approach within 20 nm.”


On initial call up, let the controller know your type of aircraft, tail number, where you are—including altitude—what your request is, and advise that you have the ATIS or weather. The controller may ask you to identify yourself by pushing the appropriate transponder button. They have the option to either accommodate your request or tell you to steer clear of the airspace—and yes, they can do that. Arguing with the tower controller isn’t going to change the situation, so don’t even try.

Be prepared to answer the controller’s questions, such as type of aircraft. There are a lot of Piper and Cessna models out there, both twin and single-engine. Sometimes you hear disturbing things on the radio, such as the pilot, when asked what his aircraft type was, replied “I don’t know, they gave it to me at the flight school.”

The First Call Up

Some airports have designated VFR reporting points. They are mentioned in the chart supplement and marked on the VFR terminal area chart with a magenta pennant. In some cases VFR departures and arrivals are printed on a panel of the chart. For example, “When arriving from the south stay below 1,500, contact Tower over the gravel pit.”

In our case the reporting point was over the Tacoma Dome. To the unfamiliar, it looks like an upside-down teacup next to Interstate 5. On this particular day, Information Papa was current, winds were 340 at 8 gusting to 17. Runway 35 in use. The altimeter setting was 30.04. Although we did not intend to land, the wind and runway in use were noted since that would help in spotting traffic. Look at the runway and then widen your gaze to the extended centerlines. That’s where the airport traffic will be.


We requested a transition of their airspace, east to the west.

The request was granted at or above 2,000 feet. Sometimes the controllers will tell you what part of the runway to cross over. Often it is the approach end of the runway in use because that’s where traffic is at its lowest altitude, or it can be at midfield.

We were instructed to cross at midfield, and it was a nonevent.

Following Instructions

The ability to follow instructions is critical for a pilot, but for the pilot who does not have much experience with getting vectors—that is an assigned heading and altitude— it can be confusing. For example, let’s say you are on a heading of 270 degrees and the controller instructs you to turn to a heading of 180 degrees. Do you turn left or right? According to air traffic controllers, the controller will state the direction of turn in the clearance—”Turn left to heading 180 degrees”—when it is necessary. You’re still responsible for making sure the area is clear before turning,

Sometimes, the controller will ask you to state your intentions. This can be one of those funny moments during training. How many of you have heard the “state your intentions” query answered with “I want to be a professional pilot” or something close to it? 

“State your intentions,” means the controller is asking what you want to do next. Leave the pattern? Full stop landing? Go missed approach? Be clear and concise when you answer. “Low approach followed by departure to the east,” tells them everything they need to know.


Practice Coordination

Away from the pattern out in the practice area, put yourself through some basic maneuvers, such as steep turns and standard rate turning, focusing on holding altitude and bank angle. If you haven’t done a steep turn in a while, don’t be surprised if the aircraft bobs up and down like a dolphin at feeding time. Practice managing upon power setting bank angle and trim. Practice power on and power off stalls, both immanent and full stall, in both straight ahead and in turning configuration.

First Pancake Syndrome

If it has been awhile since you flew in the pattern for multiple approaches, you will notice that each approach (up to a limit) gets better. This is often referred to as the ‘first pancake’ syndrome, as the first lap in the pattern, like the first pancake poured on the griddle, is a test of conditions, and adjustments will be made. On the first takeoff you drifted right and on final approach you were high. On the second lap around the pattern your takeoff and climb out were spot on because you adjusted for the crosswind. To deal with being high on final, you reduced engine power slightly earlier than the previous time and added a notch of flaps earlier. It is very satisfying to have each approach and landing get better with each trip around the pattern.

Practice What You Don’t Use

Practicing emergency procedures is like training for and practicing first aid and CPR. These are skills you hope you never, ever need to use, but if the situation presents itself you’re glad to have them. Power-off approaches to a landing, emergency spirals, pitching for best glide while your troubleshoot—all these should be reviewed.

Don’t forget to throw in some specialty takeoffs and landings, such as soft-field and short-field operations. It may have been months since you landed on grass, or perhaps the flight school you rent from prohibits landing on anything but pavement unless it’s an emergency. You still want to have those skills in your back pocket, and ready to go.


Editor’s note: This story first appeared on

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