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10 things student pilots do wrong10 things student pilots do wrong

Are you making any of these errors?

Samantha Haslacker manages the U.S. Sport Flight Academy at Addison Airport in Addison, Texas, nine miles north of Dallas. She surveyed her flight instructors to determine the most common student errors, then she made a video for students with the results. Recently she talked with Flight Training to expand on the errors.
10 Things
Illustration by Dan Hertzberg

Samantha Haslacker manages the U.S. Sport Flight Academy at Addison Airport in Addison, Texas, nine miles north of Dallas. She surveyed her flight instructors to determine the most common student errors, then she made a video for students with the results ( Recently she talked with Flight Training to expand on the errors.

10. Checklists

The FAA puts so much emphasis on the use of checklists that the word appears 44 times in the Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards. Yet, many students fall short of consistent use.

“Basically, students are using the checklist for engine start, runup, and takeoff, and then they don’t touch it,” Haslacker said. Many students are therefore not doing the cruise checklist after reaching their planned en route altitude, and they are failing to use the prelanding checklist at the destination. When it comes time for the checkride, pick up that checklist to avoid failing. Examiners expect it, even during the preflight inspection of the aircraft.

9. Poor weather briefing

A private pilot student at Haslacker’s school was making required solo flights in preparation for cross-country instruction. The weather briefing indicated winds would be light and directly down the runway. Time elapsed before engine startup. At the runway, winds had increased to more than 12 knots and were 90 degrees to the runway, too much for a student to handle in a light SportCruiser from Czech Sport Aircraft. The student’s endorsement prohibited flight in those conditions. The student took off anyway. A discussion afterward revisited the issue of checking actual conditions against those previously forecast. There’s no limit on briefings. If you have questions about what a briefer is telling you or conditions don’t seem to match the briefing, log in or call to update the information.

8. Not enough rudder on takeoff

Students aren’t holding right rudder pressure during the takeoff ground run and climbout to counteract the tendency of most aircraft to turn left. Several forces—including engine torque, P-factor, spiraling slipstream, and gyroscopic precession (see “To the Left, to the Left”)—are responsible for this tendency, which could cause the airplane to run off the runway or drift off the extended centerline during the climb. Why is it important to counteract left-turning tendencies? Let’s say you are taking off on a right parallel runway. That means failure to use right rudder could drift you closer to operations on the other runway. Haslacker said this can be cured by repeating explanations from flight instructors as to why it is important to keep the aircraft on a straight path during takeoff.

7. Poor use of airport diagrams

This one applies not only to student pilots, but also private pilots off on their first adventures. Taxiway and runway layouts can get very confusing, especially at larger airports. A diagram in the cockpit is a great aid for the unfamiliar airport. The FAA calls potential problem areas “hot spots.” Those are areas on the airport where collisions on the ground might occur or where pilots might mistakenly enter a runway when they shouldn’t, known as a runway incursion.

That reminds me of a personal example. As I was landing at Dulles International Airport one day, the controller was very helpful in emphasizing that most of the turnoffs were under construction and I would need to exit at the one he mentioned. While on downwind I checked the airport layout below against my airport diagram, found the intersection, and landed ready to turn off at the correct location.

6. Rushing the preflight

“I think they rush because they see [more experienced pilots] rushing and think, ‘I need to be just like them,’” Haslacker said. “As a student pilot, you need to make sure you are being thorough. Even senior pilots need the same thing,” she added. Instructors at her school sometimes leave objects such as pens where they shouldn’t be to see if the students notice. They often don’t. Watch for instructor tricks. Arrive at the airport well ahead of the lesson for a relaxed preflight inspection.

5. Selecting cruising altitudes

When students advance to cross-country flight planning, many seem to ignore cruising altitude rules meant to separate them from other traffic. These altitudes appear on the knowledge test. The rules apply at 3,000 feet above ground level and above; one reason may be that many early lessons are at lower altitudes. There are many weeks to forget about cruising altitudes. When heading in an easterly direction under visual flight rules, fly at odd-thousand altitudes plus 500 feet. When flying in a westerly direction, the rule calls for even-thousand altitudes plus 500 feet. Guess where the aircraft flying solely on reference to instruments are? They are either 500 feet below you or 500 feet above. Here’s an exception: Approach or departure controllers at a busy airport may assign you an altitude that doesn’t comply with the standard cruising-altitude rules. You’ll use assigned altitudes in those cases.

4. Staring inside the cockpit

10 ThingsWith glass cockpits, it is easy to understand why both student pilots and advanced pilots may spend too much time staring at what appears to be a really interesting video game on the aircraft’s primary flight display. Often some of the information you’re looking for can be found more easily if you look outside or just listen to the engine and sounds of air rushing past the fuselage. Ask yourself what it feels and sounds like when you are slow, or nose high or low—as occurs with unusual attitudes. Instructors sometimes cover up the screens to teach flight clues that indicate aircraft performance. “You stare at the airspeed because you have been trained not to get too slow and stall [aerodynamically],” Haslacker said. If you’re looking inside, who’s looking for traffic? And the best source of attitude information is out the windshield.

3. Poor radio communications

Addison Airport is a busy airport in Class D airspace with a requirement to use approach and departure services. Communications are rapid-fire and students often seem reluctant to jump in when there is a quiet moment on the radio. “We have a script [of the call to the controller] and we want them to practice reading it out loud, and practice it with others. That is where they get ahead,” Haslacker said. “I learned at a nontowered airport and when I came to Addison, it was a transition for me as well.” She found learning to fly at a nontowered airport to be a detriment when operating at a busier airport. “The best thing that helps is practicing at home on the ground,” she said.

2. Overshooting final approach

“We see overshooting final being a big thing but once they get past that, they get it. It may take a few flights,” Haslacker said. The problem is lack of familiarity with the aircraft or an inability to react to winds aloft. Be assured that this is a problem that takes a few flights to overcome, even for advanced pilots transitioning to a different aircraft. Students getting out of a slower, lighter Light Sport aircraft and into a Cessna 172 often repeat the problem for a few flights. “The 172 feels to them like a [Chevrolet] Suburban. The picture changes, too,” she said.

1. Flaring too early or too late

“We like to say that you transition into ground effect, you don’t flare,” said Haslacker, who is nearly finished training to be an instructor. “They don’t really understand the meaning of the word flare. The instructors know you don’t start saying words that need explanation first.”

She said students have the impression that the flare is something dramatic requiring a huge pull on the control stick or yoke. Instead, they are taught that after the transition to level flight just above the runway, there is little “flaring” needed. “It’s not the space shuttle. It’s a Light Sport aircraft, or it’s a Cessna, or it’s a Diamond,” Haslacker said, referring to aircraft in the school’s fleet. FT

Alton Marsh

Alton K. Marsh

Freelance journalist
Alton K. Marsh is a former senior editor of AOPA Pilot and is now a freelance journalist specializing in aviation topics.

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