Flying is a perishable skill. If you’re an ag pilot, your skills have to stay particularly sharp. During slow periods and off seasons we get rusty. Speaking for myself, the rust sets in quick. Even a few days off affects my flying. The longer I’m out of the cockpit the duller my skills become.
When we’re busy, we become sharp, honed to the edge of the envelope where we work. Our reaction times are tuned to nanoseconds, even our vision is tuned to the areas we rely on the most. Just think for a minute how much you rely on your peripheral vision while flying as opposed to when you’re doing your chores at home.
During a dearth of activity, like the period of time between herbicide season and insecticide season, or even just waiting for bad weather to pass, our skill sets start to lag. It’s a concern we should all take seriously and keep in mind when we climb back into the bird and fire up after a span of time away from the controls.
There are lots of guys out there, with tens of thousands of hours zooming across the fields and farms who appear to have this ag flying thing down to an instinctual ability. Taking off with a fully loaded airplane from a short, rough strip, in hot weather is as as commonplace as putting on their shoes. But wait a minute… Things aren’t always what they appear.
I was paired up for a day of flying with an old veteran of an ag pilot. This guy was flying before I was born, and I ain’t no spring chicken. I would watch him do his thing, amazed at how easy it seemed to him. He could load down an old Thrush on a hot day and get off the runway in half the distance it took me. I swear he could have tied bricks on the wings and still out fly just about anyone short of Bob Hoover.
While pre flighting our airplanes, I noticed how methodical he was in inspecting his airplane, the same airplane he’s flown nearly everyday for several years. I walked with him around his airplane for a minute or two. I finally asked why he was taking so much time as opposed to his usual “kick the tires and light the fires” approach. “I haven’t flown in a week.” he said, “I take a little extra time to get my mind set.” Here I was in a hurry, trying to make sure I kept up, while this guy was intentionally slowing down. A light bulb flashed on in my cobwebbed brain housing group! I caught myself wadding up my nerves and anxieties into a fist sized ball, in a practice of dealing with things as they came at me. While this old hand calmly addressed every moment to come well in advance.
I’ll admit to being a little jittery when climbing into an airplane after a long period of being on the ground. There is no warm up time. You strap in and go to work and you’d better be at the top of your game right now. I am my own worst enemy at times because I have a habit of rushing myself and my own set of performance levels is quite strict. Too many times I think we can push ourselves a little more than what is practical given the circumstances, especially when we’ve been away from the airplane for an extended period of time. My friend was smart enough and experienced enough to know he needed to slow it down a notch or two. I never noticed before, but that is one thing that enabled him to appear so smooth and accurate in his flying. Chalk one up for the old guy!
The operation I work for has very high standards, but there is no such thing as rushing past the line of practical expectations when getting the work done. I know and appreciate that my boss won’t be screaming at me if I pause for a few minutes to gather things together. I consider it a huge benefit of my job. Working in a good, professional, low pressure environment is worth an extra percentage or two in my book.
When we start back to night flying operations, it’s a new ball game compared to the daylight flying we do during the winter and early spring. Going into the night environment is an operational change we do as easy as flipping the channel on the television, yet under the veneer, each one of us is taking extra time to prepare for it. Our turns will be wider and the first few loads might be a little lighter. The rust has built up pretty thick and takes a little while to clean it up.
I’m sure most of us has encountered an old rusty bolt. It takes some effort and a little finesse to work it loose. If you snatch at it with a big wrench, or try to force it, you’ll likely snap it off or strip it out, creating another, more complicated problem. Working back into the seat or flying into a different environment is much the same as an old rusty bolt. Go easy on it. give it some time, add the pressure slowly and you’ll realize the desired outcome. Push too hard and it just might make matters worse. “Worse” in our line of work, is definitely not a desired outcome.
The same approach goes for those guys in the midwest moving to different areas of the country this time of year. A new area, a new environment, take enough time to be centered in the saddle. Stay ahead of the airplane, go easy and don’t get yourself twisted off.
Fly well and stay safe!