Few things in life are as gratifying as getting your private pilot’s license. You spent long hours studying everything from aerodynamics and weather to mechanical systems and airspace. You practiced steep turns, short field landings, and pilotage until you could do them in your sleep. And in spite of some restless nights and lots of sweat in the days leading up to your check ride, you convinced your designated pilot examiner that you’re airworthy. Now that the sky, quite literally, is the limit, what do you do next?
What you do the first 12 months after earning your private pilot’s license (PPL) may be as critical as all the preparation you did ahead of your check ride. Now is your chance to build confidence and grow your skills as a safe and competent aviator, navigator, and communicator.
Most pilots like to have a mission, even if it’s to fly to a new (to them) airport and return safely. In this article, we offer seven missions for the new pilot to help ensure that flying remains fun, fresh, and safe.
This may seem obvious, but a number of factors can keep the new pilot out of the cockpit longer than is advisable. Maybe you’re a little burned out after getting your license. Or the hobbies and responsibilities you put on hold during training are vying for attention. Unless you’re intentional about flying, the days between flights can become weeks, and the weeks can become months. That can cause your flying “muscle memory” to atrophy, which can also impact safety. Even if you just keep working on landings or go out to the practice area for slow flight, exercise your new “license to learn” as much as you can. To stay both current and proficient as a pilot, strive to fly at least once every couple of weeks, if possible.
2. Sharpen your skills
Every pilot has areas where they excel and areas that could still use a little bit of work. Maybe you’ve never quite felt comfortable landing in stiff or gusty crosswinds. Go up alone or with an instructor on a day when the winds are just a little outside your comfort zone and practice your sideslip and/or crab techniques. Without the pressure of having to perform for a check ride, you can really hone your skills as a pilot and improve those areas that are weakest.
3. Visit an unfamiliar airport
Except for your cross-country flights, chances are good you spent most of your training at one airport. Now is the time to leave the nest. If your training was at a controlled airport, consider flying to an uncontrolled field to practice situational awareness without the benefit of ATC and communications using the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). If your home airport is uncontrolled, plan a flight to a Class C or D airport. New airports present new challenges that will stretch your skills as a pilot. Before taking off, make sure to review the Chart Supplement for the airport, know the frequencies and procedures, read any active Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS), and familiarize yourself with the taxi diagram at your destination airport so you can anticipate what Ground will ask you to do after you land. While you’re there, visit the FBO, get some fuel, and (if available) check out a crew car to pop into town for a bite to eat. The more you know, the more you grow.
4. Become a smooth talker
Radio communication is a critical part of safe flying. For many students and new pilots, it can also be an ongoing source of anxiety. As you spread your wings–fly further, visit new airports, and navigate through more complex airspace–you’ll benefit from becoming even more competent on working the radios. There are a number of great resources that allow you to practice and “rehearse” communications while you’re on the ground, notably PlaneEnglish’s Aviation Radio Simulator (ARSim) app (they also have a great manual to use with the app or on its own). You can also listen to live communications via the LiveATC Website and app. Whatever approach you take, learning how to anticipate and appropriately participate in radio exchanges you’re likely to have with ATC (and with other pilots at uncontrolled airports) will make your flying immeasurably more enjoyable and safe. [Related: How To Shake Hands With ATC – Initial Contact, Handoff, & Radar Service Termination.]
5. Take a passenger
Few things are as exciting for a new pilot than sharing the joy of flying with passengers. While some people are eager to fly shotgun, don’t be surprised if others are reluctant to get into a small, single-engine airplane with you right away. To help put them at ease, channel your inner airline captain. Brief your passenger on every step of the flight, from pre-flight to shut-down. Be sure to give a clear safety briefing. And keep surprises and sudden moves to a minimum. While you might be comfortable flying on bumpy days, or making 1000-foot-per-minute descents, these probably aren’t ideal for a new passenger. Pick a day when winds are calm and the air is smooth. Go easy on the controls. And let your passenger know what you’re going to do before you do it. For instance, let them know that you might go around if your approach doesn’t look perfect, including what that will look, sound, and feel like to them.
6. Practice emergency procedures
You can never be too prepared for when things go wrong. As a student you were required to have minimal emergency procedure and equipment malfunction training. But being able to demonstrate a power-off landing when your instructor pulls your power to idle from 3000 feet AGL is not the same thing as actually losing an engine right after takeoff. Or having your radios fail just as you’re entering controlled airspace. Your first months after getting your PPL are a great time to enhance your emergency preparedness skills, from memorizing emergency checklists, to going up with an instructor or safety pilot for some additional hood work, to using a simulator [see Technology and Aviation Training], to enrolling in one of the FAA’s many safety-related WINGS pilot proficiency programs. Even the luckiest pilots run into sticky situations where decisions have to be made quickly, calmly, and confidently. Like the Boy Scout motto says, be prepared.
Your pilot’s license doesn’t just give you permission to fly an airplane. It’s a doorway to a global community of fellow pilots and aviation enthusiasts. One of the best ways to learn about flying is by spending time with other pilots, and there are countless ways to connect, in person and virtually. Flying clubs provide both social engagement opportunities and, typically, access to airplanes for rent at lower costs than you might find at a formal flight school or FBO. Many airports host breakfast fly-ins on many weekends, where you can practice navigating to a new airport and connecting with people who share your love of aviation. The Experimental Aircraft Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and other organizations hold large gatherings (some with airshows, exhibitors, demonstrations, and workshops) where you can rub elbows with other aviators, learn new skills, and keep your passion for flying burning. Reddit (see the r/flying and r/aviation threads, for instance), Facebook, and other social media outlets have lots of groups for pilots and a range of specialty interests within aviation.
Getting your private pilot’s license is just the beginning of a lifelong aviation adventure. A good pilot is always learning, growing, and sharing his or her interest with others. So before the ink on your new certificate is too dry, get back out there. The skies are waiting for you.