Ever get asked: “How many hours do you have?”

It’s a question you’ll hear throughout your flying career, and as student pilots we’re usually hungry to add more to our total. Most of us will jump at any chance for some left seat time and another entry in the logbook. For better or for worse (mostly for worse I think), we judge pilot ability on total time.
two pilots in cockpit

But ask any experienced pilot and they’ll tell you: not all your aviation experience shows up in the logbook, and not all your learning takes place in the left seat. In particular, there is a lot to learn from riding in the right seat with other pilots. Some of my most memorable and educational flights were with me as co-pilot or observer, far away from the lesson plan or the pattern.

Why is right seat time so valuable?

  • It’s free, so you’re not rushed. When you’re paying by the hour for an airplane and instructor, it’s natural to want to be efficient. But sometimes this drive for efficiency can hurt, as you practice maneuvers in an unrealistic way or take shortcuts. When you’re not paying the bill, you can slow down and look around. And if you’re riding along on a cross country, you can get the complete flight profile–instead of simulating an approach and landing, you can see the real thing.
  • You’re not “on stage,” so you’re relaxed. No matter how well you get along with your flight instructor, you’re probably at least a little nervous during your flight lessons. It’s completely natural, since in a way you are performing. But just like some patients get “white coat hypertension” at the doctor’s office, not all pilots learn best under pressure. When you step back and simply watch someone else fly, you might be surprised at how easily some things sink in. We’re sometimes most open to new information when we aren’t expecting it.
  • You’ll get new perspectives. Seeing different pilots and airplanes fly is almost always good for your learning. For example, I had a terrible time understanding crosswind landings as a student pilot, but after a flight in the right seat of a Cessna 310 (a high performance airplane I knew nothing about), it just clicked for me. I just needed a different view of the same maneuver, with a different pilot flying. So many of the things we do as pilots are universal–they work in a Gulfstream and a 172–so don’t worry if you don’t know much about a particular airplane. It may have a lot to say.

So how do you find these opportunities for right seat time? Obviously, friends or family are great options if they are pilots. Beyond that, there’s no magic formula, but being creative and outgoing is a good place to start. Most importantly, hang around the airport and be engaged–get to know the local pilots at airport events and join aviation associations. Some pilots like to have another set of eyes as they fly, and these are great opportunities to get some right seat experience. You can help by reading checklists, helping with the preflight and even talking on the radio if you’re comfortable.

Likewise, many local pilot organizations and flying clubs have regular fly-outs to airshows or the nearby airport diner. Hitch a ride on one of these flights and offer to buy breakfast. It can be a great way to see how other pilots fly and learn about different airplanes. You might make a new friend along the way, too.

Another option that many flight schools offer is for you to ride along on a lesson with another student. This may not be “right seat” flying, but it can still be very valuable. Again, you’re not paying and you’re not on stage so you can take a more detached view of flying. Ask your flight instructor if this is allowed in your flight school.

Smart student pilots know that you can learn a lot beyond your regularly scheduled lessons. That may mean reading a book, watching a video or flying right seat with someone. Whatever it is, be creative about your flight training and never be afraid to learn from someone else.

What are your ideas for getting some right seat time? Add a comment below.