Category: Always Learning

Proficiency Precision Mastery

Epic Challenge Coins

The Epic Challenge

Some time ago I wrote an article that recounted my experience as a pilot in training, even though I had years of experience as both a pilot and instructor, which shared my experience of receiving my Seaplane Rating and transitioning to the experimental Epic LT turboprop, within months of each other, and how these experiences made me a better flight instructor.  It made me a better pilot because I was learning new skills and a better teacher because I was reminded that learning is about growing in a myriad of ways. Most importantly it taught me to be more patient with myself and the pilots I am privileged to work with as their instructor, coach, and facilitator in the learning process.

Almost seven years later as an Epic Aircraft Factory Trained Instructor, I conduct transition and recurrent training in the Epic LT and provide Mentor Pilot training in the certified E-1000. I recently facilitated a program created by Peter King, Flight Training Program Manager at Epic Aircraft, which was designed to assess and improve the skills of pilot’s upgrading, to an Epic aircraft. This program is called the Epic Challenge and its’ purpose was to have pilots arrive for factory training with their skills sharp enough to meet the rigors and time constraints of the upgrade to a higher performance aircraft.

As I prepared to conduct this training and reflected on my own training, over the years, I was struck by the thought that this program would be an excellent challenge for all pilots regardless of whether they are moving up to a new airplane, a higher performance aircraft or motivated to refine and improve their pilot skill set. The challenge for the instructor is to effectively conduct the pilot assessment element of this program and then, in concert with the pilot training, to creatively choreograph and structure the training scenarios.  

The Epic Challenge, as noted above, was designed to assess and improve the skills of pilots preparing for transition training into an Epic aircraft. The program is not complicated:

  • For the pilot training it requires a commitment to training, an honest assessment of piloting skills and a willingness to do whatever it takes to be the best you can be. 
  • For the instructor it requires a commitment as a professional educator and a training portfolio that can meet all the requirements necessary to facilitate the goals of the challenge.

The concept of a challenge for improvement is not new. We are reminded regularly that recurrent training is a very necessary part for building and retaining our skills as a pilot and an instructor. Many of the “Type specific” organizations encourage their members to train regularly and offer levels of recognition for this training. The American Bonanza Society is a great example of this through the ABS Aviator Program. AOPA encourages pilots and instructors to improve through Focused Flight Review profiles. These and many more examples remind us that we should never stop learning and growing as pilots and flight educators.

 The Epic Challenge should be considered as more than a program designed to prepare pilots for their transition training to a new aircraft. I believe strongly that it can be used for recurrent training and skills enhancement for both pilots and instructors. The focus of the program is a “holy trinity” of aviation, PROFICIENCY, PRECISION, MASTERY. By meeting or exceeding the standards of each scenario we are growing as aviators and having fun in the process.

As an example: there are eight scenario’s and there are twenty-four months between each required Flight Review. Chose a different scenario every three months. At the end of the twenty-four months, you have completed the requirements for your Flight Review and then some.  This is only one example of how the Challenge can be applied. The pilot, the airplane and the desired outcome are the only limiting factors. Let your imagine run wild. 


The Skills Development program is implemented in two phases:

1. Skills Assessment in the form of a no-jeopardy assessment flight is the cornerstone for the success of this training. An assessment form was developed which outlines the skills to be evaluated and graded from needs work to meets or exceeds standards.

2. Skills Improvement and assessment in the form of a series of fun flight-training challenges, collectively called The Epic Challenge.

The challenges are intended to inspire pilots to elevate their skills by pursuing ever-increasing standards of proficiency, pushing pilots beyond their comfort zones while focusing on skills that will increase their enjoyment of and success during Epic flight training. The skills development program provides a complete roadmap for conducting this training but for brevity the program will not be fully outlined at this time. The following are the eight challenges that comprise the Epic Challenge:

  1. The Perfect Pattern
  2. Two Hours, Four Airports, Eight Landings
  3. Zero Tolerance
  4. Minimal Control (airmanship skills)
  5. Green Needles Only 
  6. Big Iron Conga Line
  7. Classic Air Derby
  8. Garmin Geek-Out (Simulator or airplane)

The skills assessment should be conducted in an airplane with the following characteristics:

  1. High-performance
  2. Complex
  3. G1000 Flight Deck or digital avionics suite with an integrated autopilot (if possible)

Aircraft that would be well suited to skills development are:

  1. Bonanza G36
  2. Columbia 350/400 with G1000
  3. Cessna TTx  G2000
  4. Piper M350, Meridian M500/600 with G1000
  5. Lancair Evolution 
  6. Epic LT or E1000

The above listed aircraft were chosen given the genesis of the Challenge. The challenges can be done in any airplane and each challenge can be developed to suit the goals of the pilot training and the specific airplane being flown. This will provide both the pilot and the instructor with an opportunity to think about the goals, the airplane, and how the challenges could be developed to elevate the skills of the pilot training and the creativity of the flight instructor (think outside the box). In the case of the Garmin Geek-Out scenario a Redbird MCX with a G1000 interface was used.

Finding an Instructor

An important element to the success and credibility of any training is the Flight Instructor. When looking for a “qualified” CFI if you are planning on moving up to any advanced aircraft, not just a turboprop, it is strongly recommended that you find a seasoned educator with the following qualifications:

  1. Turbine aircraft experience (if required)
  2. Professional operations experience, if required (airline, charter, military)
  3. G1000 and advanced avionics experience
  4. Factory or type-club standardized training
  5. American Bonanza Society BPPP, BPT
  6. Cirrus CSIP
  7. Cessna Advanced Aircraft Recurrent Training (CAART)
  8. Piper M-Type MMOPA,
  9. LOBO
  10. TBM

Most of what I have shared has been focused on an upgrading pilot. If you are a Flight Instructor, wanting to enhance your skills, you should consider this program as a way to improve. To find a qualified instructor may take some time and patience.  In addition to your contacts there are several resources that I would recommend:

  • Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE)
  • Master Instructors
  • National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI)
  • Above named aircraft type organizations

My Experience

At first glance the challenges, developed by Epic, seemed straight forward. However, when the pilot training and I sat down to plan each scenario, we discovered an opportunity to mix and match the scenarios in such a way that we were able to complete six of the scenarios over the first weekend and the remaining two in the equivalent of one day (1/2 Friday afternoon, 1/2 Saturday morning). 

The day before our first weekend we spent several hours discussing our plan, being clear as to the standards for performance (which are outlined in the guidelines for the program) and how we would integrate each of the scenarios into the flight. 

In the case, of this pilot, I had conducted his transition to the TTx as well as his instrument training and have mentored him over the past four years. I was very aware of his strengths and weaknesses which made the need for a skills assessment flight unnecessary.  I share this piece of information because the skills assessment component of the Challenge is critical to developing a baseline for the successful measurement of improvement during the training.

It made a big difference that the pilot training was very motivated as he was stepping up to an E1000, from a Cessna TTx, and was scheduled to begin his training two weeks after our last flight.  Attacking the scenarios as we did added an element of consciously managing our energy and allowing for some rest between the flights which made a big difference. 

The Challenge Coins as Incentive 

As an added incentive to the skills enhancement component of the training, Epic created Challenge Coins for each one of the Challenges completed and endorsed by his/her instructor. They are very cool and well worth adding to your aviation memorabilia collection. As it turned out the pilot training was the first pilot to have earned all eight challenge coins and successfully completed his initial factory training and is happily learning all about his new airplane. As his instructor it was a total blast facilitating this process and watching him meet the challenge of each scenario and growing as a pilot. 

Postscript to Professor Emeritus to student pilot~classroom to cockpit

Michael made his first unsupervised solo yesterday and sent me the following note which I am sharing because it captures the essence of learning and realizing that the hard work is worth it.

“I had a terrific time this afternoon–felt like one of the big kids just sauntering in, being handed the book and the keys, doing my preflight, then jumping into the cockpit for a 1.3 hour flight.

I headed for the Ventura shore, skirting the Oxnard airspace and climbing to 3500, where I did some steep-bank turns, slow flight, then some power-off and power-on stalls. (A year ago stalls really freaked me out (to use the vernacular), so I’m delighted that I could do them and do them pretty well, without any apprehension.) Then I headed for Oxnard. I didn’t lose enough altitude before I entered the right downwind (confession), so I went around the first time, then did four landings and taxi-back take-offs. The wind was 180 6-7, so all the landings were crosswind but no sweat. I think I even got the nose more or less straight. Then back to SZP and a descent landing. I think most  of my radio work at Oxnard was fine; at least I didn’t hear about any omissions. You may detect a certain self-satisfaction in the above, but I’m sure you will forgive it.” Not only is it forgiven I applaud you for your success and look forward to our next flight together.

Professor Emeritus to student pilot~classroom to cockpit

Michael and Student Cessna

I created this blog to share stories about the people I meet and the opportunity that I have to share the adventure of learning to fly with them. The time that I have spent with Michael O’Connell is time that has been both challenging and rewarding. Michael is an accomplished  scholar with an interest in  Renaissance literature and medieval and Renaissance Drama and a passion for the sea. He is Professor Emeritus at UCSB. The following from the English Department website lauds that  Professor O’Connell’s work as an English scholar, instructor, and Education Abroad Program director has left a lasting impact on the department and campus. “Michael’s 30 years of service to the department and the university at large have demonstrated that his good cheer and friendly disposition extend well beyond the classroom. For his entire career, Michael has been a focused scholar, candid leader, and wonderful friend to his colleagues at UCSB – and will continue to be in his well-deserved retirement.” The “well-deserved retirement” gave Michael the opportunity to pursue an interest in flying which he developed while flying with a friend. Learning to fly in your sixties requires commitment, patience and a willingness to accept the fact that age is both a blessing and a curse. For reasons, outside of his control, Michael had a number of instructors and was introduced to me with a significant number of hours in his logbook. This is not a bad thing but having numerous voices and teaching styles rolling around in your can be confusing. Nonetheless, we started down the path to his first solo flight and what a path it was. The self-described “absent minded Professor” struggled with consistency and I would not have blamed him for saying “I have had enough”. He made it clear that if I felt that this was not for him that I say so. I am of the opinion that as long as a person never gives up, I will never give up on them and he was determined. Michael would make the one hour drive to Santa

Captain O'Connell sailing in EurpoePaula week after week and finally on January 23, 2012 he made his first solo at Santa Paula, followed by a solo at Oxnard. Momentous occasions, to be sure, but it was his flight on February 13 that proved to me that all his hard work had paid off and he truly earned the title of Pilot In Command. After three supervised solo flights we will endorse our pilot for unsupervised solo flight. After two solo flights Michael had lost some of his consistency and so we worked through the challenges. The day started with a weather system moving through early and we had a very clear but windy day for the scheduled flight. We had spoken on the phone before the flight and Michael had expressed concern about the winds and we decided to give it a go with the worst case being not soloing but having an opportunity to practice landings with strong winds. Strong winds was an understatement, at Oxnard and Camarillo where we planned to land, winds were 25 gusting to 36 pretty much down the runway but gusty and challenging for any pilot regardless of there skill level. He handled the challenge at a level that I never expected and I had decided that if the winds at Santa Paula were acceptable I would solo him. The winds were not as strong as at the other airports but nonetheless a challenge. After almost two hours of flying I asked Michael if he was up for his third solo and he said yes. Really? I said and he said yes with conviction. He had earned it and off he went for three solo landings. Each presented its’ own challenge but he handled each with a skill level that had come from his persistence and commitment to become a Pilot In Command.

Michael is one of the many reasons that I say “being a flight instructor is the best job in aviation”. I have left a lot out of this post but I would like to share the note that Michael gave to me along with a really good bottle of Scotch which we will share when he reaches the status of Private Pilot. The card had two tanks on it and he penned USMC on one and UC on the other.

“Tanks for blasting away at me from that right seat. Professors aren’t used to Marine platoon leaders-and I recognize that there really aren’t any ex-Marines-but you were exactly what was needed by this professor more used to libraries and
committee meetings. You were-and are-exactly what I needed in this complicated
process of learning to fly. More you’ve become a good friend”.

Always Have A Plan

Resting Peacefully

Teaching simulated emergency landings is an integral part of the training that each student receives on their way to their Private Pilot certificate. An integral part of this training includes regular discussion about the “impossible turn” and always having a plan for an unexpected challenge during each phase of flight.

During a recent training flight we were taking off with the intention of staying in the traffic pattern to practice landings. At 500 feet as we turned crosswind we experienced an unexpected drop in engine performance and it was clear that we had no option other than to land the airplane off airport. I immediately assumed control of the airplane, informed my student to tighten his seat belt and shoulder harness and selected a sandbar in the river bed on which to land. Since we were still developing some power I elected to keep the engine running as we positioned ourselves for touchdown. This was helpful in that as we were about to land there were large rocks in our path and the extra energy allowed us to fly over the rocks before touching down. At this point we were flying as slowly as possible with full flaps extended and as soon as we cleared these obstacles we touched down and rapidly rolled to a stop, secured the engine and exited the airplane. We were unhurt and the airplane was intact with very little damage.

The issue with the engine was diagnosed as a stuck exhaust valve which in a Cessna 150 with two adults made it impossible to return to the runway and a normal landing. The outcome of this landing was a combination of having a plan and luck. In my mind I have landed on this stretch of river bottom a thousand times so when we experienced the problem there was no question as to what to do. There was never any thought of turning around and we handled it just like any other landing would have been conducted.

Perfect Ending to a Beautiful Day

This lesson was focused on refining landings as my student was preparing to solo.  I had planned on having him perform a simulated emergency landing while in the pattern. On this day we experienced the real thing and were lucky enough be able to debrief a successful outcome and underscore the meaning of the Impossible Turn and why we must always have a plan, which is formulated prior to take off and during every phase of flight.

For more information on the impossible turn please visit the following links: