What I learned from my CPL

I have an FAA Commercial Pilot’s Licence. I took the exam in 2007 and I wrote an article about the challenges involved. But I never wrote about why I did it. So this article is an attempt to explain what I learned and how it helped me.

Let me make one thing clear. I did *not* do it because I want to be a commercial pilot.

Most American pilots take the PPL, then an instrument rating and then do the CPL. After that if they carry on in the aviation industry they do their ATPL as on-the-job training. The situation is different in Europe where most commercial pilots do a long ATPL course before starting their paid flying career. The American system is admirable because it encourages pilots to keep improving their skills. This was my main motivation.

So this is what I learned:

  • Improved visual flying skills. My instrument rating training had my working very hard to fly very smoothly and improve my procedural skills. The CPL takes you back to your PPL VFR skills and improves them. Manoeuvres like very steep turns, lazy eights, chandelles and eights on a pylon helped me to polish hand flying skills. And they’re fun too. The standard for the CPL is much higher than for the PPL and so you learn that you can fly the plane with much greater precision.
  • Better landings. At first my landings were dreadful in the Arrow but the CPL sets a very high standard for accurate landings. You need to be able to put it within 50 feet or so of your designated landing spot and it also calls for skill with short-field and soft-field landings. By the time I had finished, I had done hundreds of them and I was very, very good at landings. It’s good to know that I can reach that standard even if the precision has worn off a little since then through lack of regular practice.
  • Night flying. I do very little night flying in the UK because my home airfield shuts at night. So it was good to do lots of night landings and some VFR night navigation.
  • Retractable gear and variable pitch prop. Although the SR22 has a VP prop, it only has one lever in the cockpit – the prop and throttle are interlinked. And, of course, it is a fixed-gear aircraft. You have to do part of the CPL in a ‘complex’ aircraft with VP prop and retractable landing gear. These extra things to think about actually forced me to work much harder on my checklists and in-flight procedures so that they were fluent. This is a useful skill to have and I’ve changed the way I use checklists and flow checks in the Cirrus as a result.
  • Studying the plane. My instructor made me learn everything about the Arrow – all the systems and POH information. This helped me in the Oral exam but also, I think, helped me fly better. It also helped when the plane broke down. For example, the engine wouldn’t start one day, the gear lights didn’t illuminate once etc. etc. Knowing the systems and the procedures helped turn these things into manageable problems. When I got back, I went to our maintenance company and spent a few hours with a mechanic going over the SR-22 in similar detail. I recommend it.
  • Learning a new plane. It’s good to fly different types of aircraft. Especially when the Cirrus lulls you into a (false) sense of security. It’s just too easy to fly. Also the Arrow I flew in Florida for my training had a dodgy radio, one intermittent VOR and no GPS or autopilot. It’s good to see what happens when you don’t have all your toys. I coped surprisingly well without a TV screen in the cockpit too!
  • Oral exams are nothing to fear. I had an excellent examiner in Janeen Kolchan and I think that all my study and revision meant that the CPL oral was not the torment that my IR oral exam had been. It’s good to learn that you can overcome your fear by hard work.
  • Looking after passengers. Unsurprisingly, the CPL is about preparing you to fly people for money. There is more emphasis on safety, decision-making and passenger management. The CPL encourages you to take responsibility. For example, there’s a lot of emphasis on when flights are legal or not and what your responsibilities as a pilot are. This is good stuff. We all fly with friends and family and we owe them the best duty of care we can give. The CPL is one way to enhance that.
  • Consistency. I think that the single most important lesson of the CPL is the importance of consistency. Consistent checks, consistent application of procedures, consistent handling, consistent landings etc. It’s about flying in a professional way and that, I think, is the basis for safe flying.

The course isn’t particularly long or difficult. Allow two weeks and go to a good school with good instructors and aircraft and you’ll come back a better pilot.

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