How Do You Become a Proficient Pilot?

5 min read
Apr 21, 2021

Q: Can you give me specific steps to follow in order to become and remain a proficient pilot?



Yes...yes, I can. Now, I know what you are thinking. Captain Harv, no one can make a specific list like that. Many have tried, and all fall short. But as you know, I’m not just anybody. Today I will hand you the holy grail of piloting knowledge so that you too can become and remain a proficient pilot. But first, you need to know how to define and measure proficiency.

Proficiency can be determined by how well a pilot is prepared to handle both anticipated and unanticipated events and circumstances.

For example, pilots who hone their skills recovering from a power-on stall so expertly that the ball never wavers and their altitude barely changes are proficient in power-on stall recoveries—that they intentionally perform. In other words, if they know a stall is coming, they perform the recovery perfectly.

But, pilots who hone their skills and experience to recover safely from an inadvertent departure stall are proficient in power-on stall recoveries that surprised them during takeoff. That is a big difference compared to recovering from an intentional stall at altitude.

And further, pilots who hone their skills to avoid circumstances that could lead to a departure stall in the first place can be said to be proficient in situational awareness and in practicing good procedures. Regardless of their stall recovery skills, these pilots are good at avoiding departure stalls in the first place. And that is the sort of pilot with whom you want to fly. 

So, why don’t we just practice departure procedures until they are perfect and forget about mastering stall technique?  

That would be fine, except even the most perfect pilot history is not perfect 100% of the time. You never know when you might need to use basic stick and rudder skills. Because of this, you should endeavor to keep all your flying skills in top form.

Now, if we stop here and ask three different pilots what defines proficiency based on this example, we will get three different answers. You can go crazy debating other pilots about how not getting into a departure stall in the first place is the most important factor, while another pilot might respond by saying you can’t ensure it will never happen, and thus you should emphasize detection and recovery skills above all else.

Let’s face it, these debates are impossible to win because there is no correct answer for a specific situation that applies all the time to all pilots. There are just too many factors involved. But, you didn't come here just to learn how to be proficient in departure stalls; you want to know how to tell if you are a proficient pilot in all circumstances.

You can evaluate your proficiency by answering three simple questions. 

  1. How often do you do things required to stay proficient?
  2. How many of the required elements of proficiency do you do?
  3. How well do you do them?

The good news here is that you can manage what you can measure. So, if you are doing all the things you are supposed to, frequently, and doing them well—or at least improving each time—your proficiency can’t help but improve.

Now, I know what you are thinking: Captain Harv, where is the list of things a pilot needs to do to stay proficient? Gird your loins; here it comes. This is a realistic list with measurable elements that are guaranteed to work.

Fly Often

Flying is not like riding a bicycle. You can't just stop for a few months, then hop back on for a lovely ride down a tree-filled lane. Flying is more like speaking a foreign language. If you learn German to the point of fluency but then stop speaking it for a few months, you will find yourself struggling to keep up in conversation when you unexpectedly meet a beautiful aviatrix from Dusseldorf.

Sure, you will be able to have a basic conversation, but you'll be sweating bullets and you'll have to work hard to keep up. It will show as you struggle to remember how to say, “Would you join me for dinner?” It will be embarrassing when you accidentally ask if she "would join you for a strudel...and a baseball...and a boot-full of September-fest?"

If you can’t get into the air, no problem. Hop on a flight simulator or take yourself on a chair flight.

Read Much

Today, reading printed material on actual paper is passé; we consume our content online. You probably know that because you are doing it currently.

In addition to reading online content and any pilot magazines you may receive, watching online videos from reputable sources (preferably the Capt. Harv YouTube channel), webinars from pilot groups, and content of that nature is a great way to learn new things and keep the knowledge you already have fresh.

Aim for Perfection With Every Flight

Whoever said "practice makes perfect" perfectly misled you. Practice is super important, but only if you pay attention while practicing and try to achieve a next-level goal you have set for yourself. Let's say the last time you went flying, you really botched the landing...and by "botched" I mean the other pilots at the fly-in BBQ would not make eye contact when you got in line for ribs. They all saw your side-loading skid of a landing in a gentle 5-knot crosswind.

Look, there is no sin in having a dog-ugly landing once in a while. The sin is not analyzing the cause of your less-than-stellar landing and addressing it by reading up on crosswind technique (assuming your technique is what caused the problem), followed by a healthy amount of practice until you are consistently greasing it on.

Related Content: What the Average Pilot Looks Like and Why You Shouldn't Settle

Always Be Learning

To help increase your motivation to keep learning, schedule time each week to dedicate yourself to learning something new about flying as it relates to you as a pilot. When you make yourself a part of the story, your eagerness to learn and your ability to retain and understand that learning both increase dramatically. It should be a mark on your calendar that you joyfully look forward to each time you do it.

You can achieve this feeling by either challenging yourself to learn and using that knowledge in some aspect of your flying or delving into subjects that are intrinsically interesting to you. Regardless, it should be high on your priority list. Learning ensures that your mind is in the right place: thinking about flying. And when you think and learn about flying often, it is proven that you will be a better pilot on the flight deck.

So, back to that departure stall...

Imagine that you found yourself in that situation right now...right this second. Take a second to think about that feeling.

Now, imagine it’s happening, but for the past three months you have been flying often, reading much, aiming for perfection with each flight, and spending a little dedicated time each week learning. How is that feeling compared to the first feeling? 


Capt. Harv is the greatest pilot to ever live...if you ask him. When he isn't flying circles around you without ever leaving straight-and-level flight, he's straightening out your questions about aviation on the worldwide web. Follow him on Twitter and YouTube to become a better pilot.