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Chair flying pilot training

IFR Anyone? Even if we can't fly, we can still practice by visualization.

Chair flying is a recommended way to keep up with your pilot training

It’s the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere – March 21 – but you wouldn’t know it by looking outside.  We have snowstorms all across Alberta with the city of Edmonton under a snowfall warning.  When we have bad weather days and aren’t able to fly, all is not lost.  Aside from simulators or Microsoft Flight Simulator Software, there are other ways we can practice flying when we aren’t able to get up in the air.

Use bad weather days effectively

Most of flying is about procedures so a bad weather day is an excellent day to review them. My instructor gave me this tip a long time ago, that when I get grounded on weather days, we can still go “chair flying!” Chair flying is an important technique that helps in mental and physical preparation for a flight.

This technique is effective because it allows the pilot to memorize procedures, techniques, checklists and so on without the need of an airplane – saving time and money. It makes procedures feel so natural and familiar that they will become second nature.  Practicing chair flying will make you better prepared for a flight and should be done regularly.

How to “chair fly”

To chair fly, pick a quiet spot where you can concentrate. Decide on what procedure or task you want to focus on, and make sure you have all the necessary materials you need – checklists, notes, maps, or procedures that will help you.

Create a goal for yourself that you want to achieve in the session. For example, I found this very useful for learning precautionary and forced landings.  My goal at the end of the practice session to be able to go through everything without having to  look at my notes.

Take the exercise seriously

Run through the procedure as if you were actually flying, so make the hand gestures to adjust mixture control and so on, make your necessary radio calls. Replicate the environment as much as possible.  I find talking out loud about each step I am doing is very effective.

Effective flight preparation requires practice of the procedures involved.
Effective flight preparation requires practice of the procedures involved.

Chair flying will also help you dismiss anxiety of flying. When I was learning specialty takeoffs and landings, I would sit in a chair and run though everything that I needed to accomplish.

This imprinted the procedure in my mind and by the time I got out to do them I was relaxed and able to perform them without issue. When my instructor asked if I was ready, I could say yes and feel good about it. It saved me a lot of time, money and stress, and improved safety, too.

Good for learning airport procedures

When I was learning the taxi procedure at my new airport, I would sit in a chair and pretend I was taxiing running through the airport diagram and who I needed to call when.

Often, I will drive out to the airport in silence with the radio off, going through procedures while I drive.  I found this relaxes me and puts me in the mindset to fly.  When I get to the airport, I am centered, and ready.

Another good idea when we are weathered out and at the airport is to sit in the actual airplane and practice.  This is the most effective way to practice, it allows you to use the actual environment where you will be doing the procedures.  Once when I drove all the way out to the airport and couldn’t get off the ground, my instructor suggest that I sit in the plane anyway and practice my procedures.  I found it very helpful, and did not waste any time by driving out there and not being able to fly.

Practice frequently. Frequent, short sessions are more helpful than long, infrequent ones.

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A student of weather

A student of weather.

Being a pilot means being a student of weather – all the time.

Weather is so fickle in Alberta that you quickly learn how much flying depends on it.

I did my ground school for my PPL a few years ago at Centennial Flight School in Edmonton City Centre airport.  After years of putting it off, I’m finally getting myself in gear to study for my ground school exam.  It’s harder once you’re done ground school and have had a long break from the theory in the lectures. And one of the most challenging topics is weather.  Things like instruments, aerodynamics, aircraft engines, navigation and air law, are more practicable, and used more often on a day to day basis. Many students struggle with weather theory the most.

Because I backcountry ski and climb, I feel like I already have a very close relationship with weather, specifically mountain weather. But in no other discipline will you have a more direct relationship with weather that you do when you fly.  It determines whether you can actually go up or not, and your safety while up in the air.  There is no ‘waiting out’ the weather once you make that decision to go up.

Weather determines whether or not we can fly VFR (with visual reference to the ground).   Fog will ground many of us.  Stay far away from thunderstorms, avoid icing and turbulence.  Mountain waves can be deadly. We need to know how wind shear affects aircraft performance.  Each airplane has a design limit for maximum cross wind – we need to be aware of these limits.

Air Command Weather Manual - by National Defense Canada
Air Command Weather Manual – by National Defense Canada

What are some of the best study aids for weather?

I want to share one of the most useful resources for studying weather I’ve recently discovered: the Air Command Manual which is published by National Defense Canada.  My instructor suggested I purchase it and I am really happy I did.  I find it very comprehensive and easy to follow: important sections are broken down into a series of lectures that can be easily referenced and reviewed.  In addition, an accompanying workbook can also be purchased in which you can test your knowledge in each specific area.  I find it a really great way to review and re-learn the specific weather topics. I have been using it every day since I got it, in preparation for the weather portion of my PPL written exam.


Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), published by Transport Canada.
Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), published by Transport Canada.

Transport Canada’s Aeronatical Information Manual (AIM) is also a very good source of weather information. It presents all of the weather products for aviation, in detail.  It tells us when the reports are published and for what areas, how long they are valid for and what all the various symbols and abbreviations are on the charts.  It is an invaluable study tool. This book is updated regularly and in fact, says on the cover when it is valid. For example, my old AIM book which is pictured was valid from October 22, 2009 to April 8, 2010. This book comes with your ground school kit when you sign up for ground school.

And of course,  the flying “bible”for Canadian pilots, “From the Ground Up” has a very good and detailed weather section, giving us the theory and application.  This also comes standard with your ground school kit.

These books can be referenced again and again, even once you are done your exams and have your license.  Certain areas, particularly when it comes to weather theory are easy to forget and these books exist so they can be easily referenced.  These books should be used regularly in your aviation career.

But of course, the best teacher is actually practical experience. Having all these resources is great but getting out and flying in all sorts of weather conditions, those we can manage of course, is indispensable.

Being a pilot means being a lifetime student of weather.

Review your weather reports!

Many different flight instruction books are available on Amazon

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Airport weather minimums

Since the weather has been so bad for the month of October in the Calgary area, we have been seeing a lot of IFR weather – weather that I, as a private pilot can’t go flying in.  What defines IFR conditions?  I thought it would be useful to post the IFR outlook chart as published by The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).

This table shows the airport weather minimums required for operation – takeoff and landing.

There is also SVFR – special VFR that the VFR pilot can request when minimums are not met. SVFR requires that the pilot has at least 1 mile visibility, stays clear of cloud and the aerodrome has 1 mile horizontal visibility.

Category Ceiling Visibility
IFR Less than 1000 feet AGL and/or less than 3 SM
MVFR between 1000 feet and 3000 feet AGL and/or between 3 and 5 SM
VFR more than 3000 feet AGL and more than 5 SM