proficiency or competency?

September 12, 2019

Currency and proficiency have similar definitions and they do complement each other, but neither one is a replacement for the other. Leroy Cook explains the difference

Are you a proficient pilot, or are you a competent one? How can you determine which you are, and what’s the difference? Proficiency is defined as becoming an expert in a field of endeavor. Competency, on the other hand, is more simply stated as being capable, or fulfilling all requirements for the job. Thus, one can become competent, i.e. attaining a type rating, without gaining the complete proficiency that should always be our goal.

In my case, I’m a reasonably competent pilot, at least sufficiently so that I’m able to discern failings in others, but my skills are quite often eclipsed by truly proficient masters of the craft. I’m left in awe of their ability to repeat a procedure with exactness, while I remain consistently inconsistent. I work diligently to check off the boxes in order to pass a flight check; they fly through them as a matter of course.


What makes the difference? Experience certainly counts, but it has to be the right kind of experience, applicable to the task before us. For instance, I can draw upon a half-century of acquaintance with conventional-gear (tailwheel-equipped) airplanes, which gives me an advantage when I must fly an antique fitted with a tailwheel. By comparison, a 10,000-hour pilot who’s flown his entire career on nosewheel-fitted aircraft will have to work a bit to become competent with the taildragger, and his proficiency will be a long way off.

On the other hand, when it comes to flying a helicopter, my smattering of experience under rotor leaves me far short of competency, and proficiency would have to wait for some years of rotor-wing flying. I may know what it takes to achieve a stable hover, but it will elude me until I practice, and practice, and practice some more. Meanwhile, my friends with years of helicopter flying behind them can pick the machine up with unvarying ease.


So, it helps to have many hours in type to guide your efforts. But true understanding comes with knowledge of the aircraft’s systems and how they work. Otherwise, you are likely to be fending off surprises as you chop and hew your way into competency. By applying yourself to the study of the necessary procedures, you can get ahead of the machine much earlier. It still has to be flown, but it will be easier when you know how the aircraft works, so you’ll know what’s coming and how to prepare for it.

Skill, or the ability to operate a complex apparatus with a predictable, successful outcome, is more easily attained by some than others. We equate skill with proficiency, and I frequently observe so-called “natural” flying talent among students and peers. I see some individuals make distressingly rapid progress toward a defined goal, when the average applicant struggles to become competent. And yet, skill is attainable by almost all who diligently seek it; it just takes longer for some folks.

Thus, competency, and eventually proficiency, requires a blend of all the proper ingredients: experience, knowledge and skill. Experience in type, or multiple similar types, gives one an edge toward proficiency. A transference of skills from previously-flown airplanes is noticeable, particularly if the cockpit suite in the new aircraft is a familiar one, such as Collins ProLine 21 or Garmin G1000. If learning not only a unfamiliar array of aircraft systems but a new integrated flight deck, the time required to acclimate will necessary be longer. We will be frustratingly competent at first, getting the job done with an occasional stumble, but never fear; true proficiency will come. It’ll just take a bit.

The Source of Proficiency

Whence cometh proficiency? It originates in the desire to get better, by refusing to accept mere competency as an achievement, instead seeing it as an initial step on the way to true mastery. You may have passed the course, and you can congratulate yourself briefly, but by no means should you deem yourself finished. Consider that you’re being allowed to go on, self-guided, with the knowledge thus far attained. Skill will build, consistency will come, but full proficiency is yet to be achieved.

I am frequently called upon to administer Instrument Competency Checks, a review of skills and knowledge that will reestablish instrument flying privileges for pilots unable to meet the minimum recent-experience totals. The IPC will demonstrate that the pilot “has still got it”, by completing a regimen of approaches, holding, circling-to-land and missed-approach procedures. Most of the time, the candidate will be a non-professional pilot who flies under IFR on an infrequent basis. He or she can meet the standards set by regulation, but only to establish competency. The individual may ask, at the conclusion, “Am I safe?” To which I respond, “I can only guarantee legal authorization; safety is your responsibility.”

In Quest of Perfection

Professional pilots must go further, seeking proficiency so that safety is achieved as a by-product of being able to bring the aircraft along a route in compliance with cleared procedures, not just to meet minimum standards, but with consistent, predictable performance. One gains such proficiency by being dedicated to the task, seeing it not as a barrier to be surmounted but a challenge to be met, taking satisfaction in meeting and exceeding the parameters of excellence.

Will perfect results always be achieved? Of course not; most of time we’ll fall somewhere in between mere competency and perfection. The secret to advancement as a professional pilot is to use shortfalls as a learning experiences. Rather than accept and ignore them, analyze each less-than-stellar performance to see why and where it went wrong, and use what you learn to do better next time.

Much of our “flying” in this day and age is not manual manipulation of the aircraft’s controls, but operating the automation. Getting it to play well can be an art, and much of the time we fail to understand why our autopilot didn’t couple as directed, or why it disconnected at a critical juncture. To avoid this hindrance to proficiency, you must study the system architecture and understand the automation’s logic.

Loading the FMS is equivalent to writing up an old-fashioned flight log; both are methods of staying ahead of the aircraft, knowing where it’s supposed to go next and how the flight is progressing—on, ahead of, or behind schedule. At each crossing point, the fuel remaining should be checked against targeted expectations, avoiding surprises if the destination weather folds.

Always Be Ahead of the Plane

Proficient flying is affirmed by one characteristic: Staying ahead of the airplane. On the other hand, mere competent piloting is demonstrated by a constant struggle to keep up with the plane, and incompetent operation is nothing more than being behind the aircraft. As an instructor once jokingly told a struggling transitioning type rating applicant, “You’ll never be in a crash in this aircraft. You’re so far behind it, the accident will take place long before you get there!”

Regrettably, the very automation that we depend upon to manage our flight can add to our workload, at the very time we’re trying to get ahead of the plane and keep building our skills toward proficiency. Make sure you’re backed up with fundamental flight management; know what the aircraft can do, how to get the most efficiency out of it, and where it’s supposed to be going next. If the convenient magenta line disappears from the MFD, where is your redundant information? Electronic Flight Bags are compact repositories of all wisdom, but their information must always be available in duplicate form, and there always needs to be fully-charged extra batteries on board.

Again, proficient flying means the pilot always brings the aircraft to a point in space, either hand-flown or by using the autopilot, with its energy state at the correct level. We must fly through a series of such points to complete the mission, staying ahead of the aircraft so its next turn or altitude change is anticipated, not hastily accommodated. A routing change is a true test of proficiency. Can you insert the requested re-route without losing your place in the big picture?

Juggling All Three

In professional flying, we’re actually expected to attain proficiency in three processes, simultaneously. The obvious first task is to be good at flying the airplane, whether in manual control or managing the automation. Second, it is critical to have a grasp of where we are, keeping ourselves oriented in the realm of the “big picture.” Third, we must interface with the air traffic control system, clearly understanding what is expected of us and how we’re achieving compliance with the instructions.

I see many individuals who can adequately perform one or two of these tasks, but fall short of proficiency, or even competency, in another one. Often, they will struggle with overcoming the deficiency in one area, to the detriment of one in which they’ve previously exhibited mastery, suddenly getting behind the airplane, losing orientation, or missing ATC’s expectations.

The goal is to never settle for mere competency as a pilot, but to always strive for the advancement that marks us as “proficient.” Always try to turn your competency into proficiency.