Currency vs. Proficiency : You Could, But Should You?

Currency vs. Proficiency : You Could, But Should You?

By Jacob Tacke, CFII

When you are taking your private pilot practical test and the examiner asks you to distinguish between currency and proficiency, will you know how to respond? What’s more, have you considered why this topic is important enough to be included in the Private Pilot ACS?

The NTSB attributes the root cause of the overwhelming majority of aviation accidents and incidents to "pilot error". Understanding if you could legally and safely complete a flight is the core idea in the discussion of currency versus proficiency.

A common scenario given to students to evaluate their understanding of 14 CFR 61.57 is as follows:

A week after passing your private pilot practical exam and becoming a certified pilot, your friend asks you to take them flying. You completed all of your training in a Cessna 172S G1000 equipped aircraft, but it is currently down for maintenance. The only aircraft available to rent is a PA-28 Piper Warrior equipped with avionics you are unfamiliar with. Provided you have completed 3 take-offs and landings in the preceding 90 days in the 172S, are you legally able to take your friend for a flight in the Warrior?

This scenario is a great one for instructors to use and for students to ponder for many reasons:

A Whole New Airplane

  • Student pilots who are not familiar with 61.57 will err on the presumption that such a situation certainly would not be acceptable. After all, they’ve never flown a PA-28, so how could they be expected to do so safely and carry passengers?
  • This serves as a segue into the definitions of the terms category, class, and type mentioned in 61.57, which mandates that "[t]he required takeoffs and landings [to obtain the currency] were [takeoffs and landings] performed in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type (if a type rating is required)". These terms, of course, can be found in 14 CFR 1 (Definitions) and 14 CFR 61.31 (Type rating requirements, additional training, and authorization requirements).
  • The student should come away from this understanding that legally the requirements of takeoff and landing currency to carry passengers per 61.57 are met, but will hopefully comment on the fact that they would not be comfortable taking their friend flying in this scenario without first becoming proficient in the PA-28 with an instructor.

Proficiency and Personal Minimums

  • Now that the student recognizes that the minimum requirements to legally conduct a flight are not necessarily going to achieve a safe level of proficiency, they can start to question other instances where they would feel uncomfortable and un-proficient but aren’t necessarily breaking a specific regulation.
  • Whether the winds are higher than what the student normally flies in, or the airport is far busier than what they are used to, setting reasonable personal restrictions, policies, and weather minimums will aid the low-time pilot in avoiding hasty and poor decisions when it comes time to make a go/no-go decision.
  • Finally, now that we have expanded outside of our initial scenario, we can understand how the concepts of proficiency, currency, and personal minimums persist throughout almost every aspect of aeronautical decision making. Every pilot should know what their personal minimums are for a variety of potential conditions that could present hazards.

Stick To Your Minimums, But Don’t Leave Them Stuck In Time!

  • Once you have outlined, written out, and committed to setting personal minimums, you should make every effort to make the safe aeronautical decisions necessary to comply with them.
  • However, the personal minimums you have as a student pilot should not necessarily be the same personal minimums you have at 1000 hours total time. As you build experience and proficiency, you should adjust your personal minimums to match what you feel you are capable of doing safely.
  • While experience and proficiency often build together, this is not always the case. For instance, if you previously had a personal limit of flying with 15 knots of crosswind or lower when not with an instructor, and have since gone several months without flying, you will certainly be less proficient and should consider adjusting your personal minimums and limits accordingly until your regain your prior level of proficiency.

Tying It All Together 

At the surface level, the difference between proficiency and currency seems simple. The resulting conversations from discussing that difference tie into concepts such as personal minimums and aeronautical decision making, which are absolutely vital to being a safe pilot.

by Jacob Tacke, CFII

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