11 proven study techniques that make you a better pilot

Being a pilot requires constant learning and practice. Starting from your initial private pilot checkride through flight reviews to type ratings and airline training, these techniques will not only make the study process easier, they will make it more efficient. They will make you a better pilot.

  1. Chair flying. Flight training involves learning new motor skills. You would do much better in the air if you learn those skills in a relaxed and safe environment, while on the ground. Airline pilots spend hours practicing procedures in a “procedure trainer” (a non-functional mockup of the cockpit) before they step into an expensive level-D flight simulator or into the actual aircraft. That way, they already know what to do.
    “Chair flying” is simply the act of pretending to fly the aircraft while seating in a relaxed environment. You can practice chair flying in a procedure trainer, in front of a cockpit poster, in a parking aircraft, or on your couch at home. Any of those locations work.
    Be sure to practice every procedure in your normal, abnormal, and emergency checklists. Reach with your hands to the approximate position of each switch, lever or knob required for the procedure in order to build “muscle memory”.
  2. Flash cards. Learning the huge amount of details for training can be very challenging. System descriptions, Aircraft limitations, regulations, SOPs, memory items are all required to be retained in your memory and put in use immediately when time calls. You can make flash cards to help you remember those items.
    Buy a pack of index cards from any office supply store. On one side of a card write a question such as: “what is the maximum takeoff weight?”; on the other side write the answer: “Normal cat. 2550 lbs. Utility cat. 2200 lbs.” (for a c-172S).
    Make as many cards as you need to cover all subjects including: regulations, system descriptions, memory items, and aircraft limitations. Once you have a large pile of cards start using them. Read a question and try to answer it, then flip the card to see if your answer was right. Put aside all the cards that you answered right and keep reading through the ones you got wrong, until you answer all of them correctly.
  3. Learn the “cockpit songs”. Sometimes you can be familiar with a procedure but still have difficulty performing it in a steady pace while flying. The reason is that your thoughts of “what to do next” are slowing you down. Practice procedures verbally, so when you later perform them in the air, you won’t stumble. For example, recovery from a low nose attitude would be “reduce power, level the wings, slowly pitch up”. By practicing this procedure verbally while “chair flying” you could easily recall it when needed in a checkride or even better, in an actual unusual attitude encountered in flight. You can take any procedure and build a verbal action list in this way.
  4. Analyze “what if” scenarios. One very important (if not the most important) characteristic of safe pilots is the ability to make good and timely decisions. Luckily, this trait could be practiced and improved. Before, during, and after each flight consider “what if scenarios” . WHAT IF the weather moves in over my destination while enroute? Where would I divert? Would I have enough fuel to go there? Or WHAT IF I have an engine failure on the takeoff roll? WHAT IF it happens immediately after takeoff? What would I do?
    You get the drift.
  5. Group study. Studying with other people can boost your understanding of the material and help you gain new insights.
  6. Highlight with a marker essential ideas in textbooks while reading them.
  7. Use mnemonics and acronyms to aid memory retention. “Black square, you’re there!” John and Martha King repeat, referring to airport location signs. Although mnemonics often sound goofy, they can be very effective in helping you remember things better.
  8. Visualization. Mental rehearsal helps us improve our skills and correct errors. Visualize each maneuver while on the ground prior to your flight lessons. This is a technique used by many pro-athletes to improve their game. You can use it to improve your flying skills.
  9. Ask many questions.
  10. Study the Practical Test Requirements for your rating or certificate level. After all, you have to know what’s expected from you on the checkride so you won’t be surprised.
  11. Use a PC-based flight simulator or PCATD. Despite their many limitations, PC simulators provide you with free practice time. Although it cannot replace real practice time, it is still very valuable.