FIVE MISTAKES MANY GENERAL AVIATION PILOTS MAKE AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, AGI
We are all human. We all make mistakes, even though as pilots, we think we are pretty darn special, yet still make mistakes. Sometimes they result in damage to property, or worse, to us and those whom we take flying. The goal on every flight is to avoid these mistakes.
As we try to avoid harmful or dangerous incidents, I can’t help but notice that, in many cases, there are a few mistakes commonly made by general aviation pilots that can be minimized and, in many cases, avoided.
These are the top five of those mistakes that come to mind.
Having More Confidence in Your Ability than Your Proficiency Should Allow
We would all like to think our skills are at the top of the game. The reality is that most of us are average pilots. Worse, because there are some super-pilots out there, it means that if there are average pilots, there are some that are below average also. Sometimes, we are the below-average pilots. It is important for us to recognize when our proficiency level means we are less than average and mitigate that by being more conservative.
Many pilots have gotten themselves into trouble when they overestimate their ability to handle crosswinds, their proficiency in instrument conditions, or how competent they are in a particular make and model of aircraft they haven’t flown in a while.
Currency does not equal proficiency. Becoming overconfident in your abilities is one of the greatest mistakes any pilot can make.
Not Knowing Avionics in the Aircraft as Well as the Operational Environment Requires
Flying an aircraft with new avionics, or one with avionics you have not operated in a long period of time can lead to mistakes that cause problems. Mis-programing an approach can lead a pilot to non-compliance with ATC clearances or traffic or terrain conflicts. Not knowing how to manage an avionics system can lead to encountering airspace inadvertently. Getting bogged down “in the box” can make you miss other things happening around you.
If you are going to be operating an aircraft with avionics you are a little rusty in programming, or are new to you, you can mitigate the risks in many ways. You might choose to operate in less demanding situations (non-IFR conditions perhaps). Another option might be to take a safety pilot with you who can help manage some of the workload, especially watching for traffic. Or you could find a CFI who is familiar with the systems to get a little extra instruction and enhance your proficiency. Any of these might keep you safer on a flight and build more proficiency for future operations.
Believing the Weather Forecast
The weather forecasts are always accurate, right? Of course, most of us don’t believe that. The weather guessers do the best they can. But a healthy skepticism is a good thing for any pilot to have.
Just because the TAF says it will be 10,000 OVC doesn’t mean that things won’t change as you fly over distances. Nor does it mean that as times change, the weather conditions won’t as well. Many pilots seem to focus their weather briefings on less and less diverse sources. This leads pilots into positions to make decisions on limited input, sometimes on single-point weather forecasts.
Looking only at the TAF and METAR on your flight planning software isn’t enough if you are planning to fly out of sight of the airport. Use more tools to avoid making the mistake of taking off into changing weather. Or into conditions that don’t match up with the limited forecast and reporting data that many pilots choose to use.
I know it might sound crazy, but you can still call and get a briefing!
Take your weather briefing to the next level to avoid making the mistake of ending up in weather you didn’t want to be in. Incorporate the local and some nearby TAFs, look at METARs over a nearby area, not just the airport you are operating from, check the MOS, the Graphical Forecast Analysis (GFA), and even, dare I say, check out some Prog Charts.
Taking a bigger look at a broader spectrum of weather sources will give you a better idea of general weather trends. Not just what the winds are doing at one airport. That airport could have a station notorious for underreporting gusty winds from the southwest because the trees block that direction.
When you are inflight, get updates. Just because the brief you received said it would be great all the way to your destination, doesn’t mean it will be. If you see anything ahead that would give you a reason to question the validity of that information, call Flight Service, use onboard weather tools, or even ask ATC for more information. With better information, you can make better decisions and avoid the mistake of just trusting the forecast you got a while ago.
Knowing When to Go Around
A friend of mine likes to say that a landing is just an opportunity to go-around that you didn’t take. The point is that you don’t have to land. Assuming there’s not an emergency you can decide at any point if it doesn't feel right, and you’ll go around and try again.
Some of the most common reasons a pilot may want to consider going around include an unstabilized approach, overshooting the base-to-final turn, or encountering crosswinds or gusty conditions during the final flare or touchdown. Any of these has generated countless incidents and accidents over the history of aviation. In many cases, the mistake of forcing the landing instead of going around is what generates the worst of outcomes.
Stalling an aircraft or losing control of it during those final phases of approach leaves pilots with little or no time to react and make a correction. Forcing an aircraft on the ground too fast, or worse, stalling before touchdown and spinning, causes too many injuries and fatalities.
A landing that is forced can easily result in a ground loop, a porpoised landing, and a prop strike, or an overrun of the runway when approaching too fast. All of these can be averted by identifying an approach that isn’t going as desired and going around. Come back and try it again. If the conditions are the problem, it might even be the time to make the decision to divert to an airport that has less crosswind, better weather, or longer runways.
Not Breaking the Accident Chain
Most accidents are the result of a chain of events. A pilot mitigating any of the risks in the chain could stop an accident from ever happening. Identification of any of those risks is critical to mitigating them, and even more critical is making the conservative decision to avert the risk.
Don’t just continue a flight “hoping it will get better” or hoping you get lucky with the landing. Make positive changes in your flight operation to break potential accident-generating chains. You might land earlier than expected. You might choose to not fly on a particular day. It might be prudent to divert. Think about the big picture of what is happening and identify trends that seem to be leading away from safety.
Not all flights go exactly as planned. I remember picking up my Stinson in Texas with my wife a few years ago and having a great plan for the route we would take and airports at which we would use over the two-day trip home. In the end, we didn’t stop at any of the originally planned airports. We had a different route and spent six days instead of two. It became an adventure, but most importantly, we didn’t force anything to make it become a mistake, or worse.
No doubt there are endless other mistakes pilots can make, but perhaps sharing some of these with you, will put them into the mix of considerations you have when flying. Awareness of risks lets you mitigate them. I hope that reminding you of these common mistakes makes your future flying efforts a little bit safer. I know I keep reminding myself of them every time I fly.
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Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with a focus on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications, a full listing of which can be found at www.jasonblair.net.
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