The cockpit is an expensive classroom. When it comes to flying, the more you can do on the ground, the better. Studying, whether books, videos or a classroom setting, is certainly a necessary component of ground time, but what else can be done to utilize your time on the ground? Chair flying is a way to practice and mentally map almost anything you can do in the airplane. Much like a familiar song gets mapped to your mind, you’ll be able to more easily “press play” on the various procedures in the airplane because your mind can already execute it well. Besides the practice, chair flying allows you to remove any of the physical stresses or anxiety that comes with learning to fly, allowing you to focus solely on what you are trying to work on. Let’s look at four different ways you can utilize the concept of chair flying to save money and be more prepared in the airplane.
A Good Old Chair
The only thing you really need to chair fly in its purest form is your mind. You can have different setups depending on what you are trying to accomplish. For instance, read through the engine start checklist, reaching out and touching the imaginary switches as you go through it. You gain a better familiarization with the flow of the checklist and learn to anticipate the next item. You can then speak radio calls before you taxi and take off. “Athens ground, Cessna 19916 at Georgia Flight Academy with information Bravo, ready to taxi for departure to the South.” You can have a friend or instructor play the role of Air Traffic Control if you like, or just say back what you think would be said. Most of ATC is pretty predictable. Talk out loud through what you are thinking and doing. Adding an airport diagram will allow you to follow routes to the runway. Setting up a poster of the cockpit of your airplane is a great idea, too. Places like Sporty’s sell them (and have this Cessna 172 poster for free), but you can take a picture of your actual airplane cockpit and print it out, blow it up, or even have it up on a tv or computer screen. Touching the picture as you go through checklist flows can add more realism.
A Cold Airplane
You can one-up the old chair by spending some time in the cockpit of the airplane you fly. This works well if (when) you have to cancel a flight for weather. You already have the plane booked and your calendar clear, so why not make the most of the time instead of losing it? Sit in the cockpit and run through your checklists. You are able to physically touch the various switches which allows you to gain a better familiarity with the airplane. Challenge yourself to a game of “what does this do?” as you explore the panel. I always keep a cockpit picture of the airplanes I fly so that I can use them to chair fly later.
Certain kinds of chair flying are best done on the move. If you have a good area to do so, draw out a runway in chalk. Make it as intricate as you like and mimic it after your home airport, or an airport you plan to fly to. You can keep it as a simple runway or draw out some of the airport diagram as well. With your checklist in hand, you can talk through each one as you step your way around your drawing. For instance, make your radio calls and stop for a run up. Following down the runway, talk through everything you would be thinking and doing in the airplane (“airspeed alive, oil temperature and pressure green”). Fly the pattern if you like, turning each leg, talking though your throttle and flap settings, altitudes and other tasks. I especially like this exercise on a windy day. By being able to feel the direction of the wind as you walk the direction of taxi, takeoff and final approach, it makes positioning the controls for wind correction much more natural.
A flight simulator is a great tool, but it’s only effective for training if you use it effectively. With home setups getting more realistic and more cost effective, it should be a staple in any pilot’s arsenal. I use X-Plane 11 with a CH Products Flight Yoke – take a look at some videos on the Clayviation YouTube channel. People might debate how realistic the simulator is, but even though a system like X-Plane has a high level of realism, that is really beside the point for most of the uses you can benefit from as a pilot. Just remember that the simulator is not a great tool for things like learning to land, or practicing steep turns. You can do them in the simulator, but the maneuvers that require finesse on the controls typically don’t translate well from a home simulator. That being said, you can benefit from the mental flows of landings, and even maneuvers like stalls. Even if the simulator is not mimicking a stall as precisely as the airplane would, nailing the steps and rhythm of the maneuver is what chair flying is all about. You can also benefit from the systems in the simulator. Getting the hang of VOR navigation is much easier and cheaper in the simulator. You can even take an old sectional chart and tune in your favorite VOR from the area you fly, adding some practicality to your practice. Most simulators also have options for failures, so you can randomly fail different components, or have a friend with the X-Plane Control Pad throwing challenges at you while you fly.
Not only is chair flying a very effective practice technique, it’s fun, too. As a self proclaimed Avgeek, immersing myself in aviation whenever I can is a habit, whether it’s firing up the simulator or drawing chalk runways with my son and flying die cast airplanes around the pattern. Keep in mind that while you will likely gain a level of memorization of the checklists, your goal is not to replace the checklists with your memory. You’ll always want to use a checklist, but by being familiar with them, you’ll be much more efficient as you go through them. The exception to this is your emergency checklists. Some emergencies require immediate responses, often with little time to find a checklist. Memorizing these flows and backing them up with a checklist can be critically important. By utilizing these chair flying techniques, you’ll find that the maneuvers and flows are well mapped in your mind, allowing you to stay one step ahead of the airplane when you are IN the airplane.
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