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Training Tip: Fixate and forget itTraining Tip: Fixate and forget it

What would you include on a list of five things you could do right now to make yourself a safer pilot?

Miscommunication is one of the leading causes of altitude-compliance problems. Photo by Mike Fizer.

For many student pilots, the list would read like this:

  • Get better at holding altitude, especially when other cockpit tasks start to pile up;
  • Get more comfortable with slow flight and stalls;
  • Overcome anxiety about communicating with air traffic control;
  • Make better landings, especially crosswind landings; 
  • Overcome reticence to fly when it’s windy.

About that first item: Maybe it would surprise you to know that you have a lot of company. And not just student pilots. The FAA considers altitude compliance, defined in one study as “aircraft operating at unexpected or unintended altitude,” a regular concern for improving safety in the airspace system—including up there where the fastest, most sophisticated aircraft fly.

No surprise, really. Student pilots learn fast that even if you are now an ace at holding heading and altitude in cruise, the altimeter tends to misbehave when you are busy looking for a checkpoint, spotting traffic, talking on the radio.

In 2018 the FAA convened a focus group and examined almost 300 altitude-related events involving general aviation and commercial flights to identify common themes. Paraphrasing a summary, miscommunications or incorrect readbacks of air traffic control instructions topped the list in both groups. For GA pilots, other common triggers included departures from assigned altitudes that violated instructions; difficulty maintaining altitude; turbulence, weather, or equipment factors; and not complying with restrictions on procedures.

A report card doesn’t accomplish much without recommendations, so the focus group offered suggestions. It said pilots should train to use “active listening”—that is, don’t act on instructions intended for someone else. A note from personal experience: Once when arriving at a towered airport in a Cessna 172, tail number N84275, a Piper twin with the number N84375 was also inbound.And it did get confusing.

Another suggestion was to use reminders about when to change altitude and what altitude to climb or descend to. Although these recommendations mainly addressed pilots flying sophisticated aircraft on IFR clearances, it’s good practice for any pilot to adopt techniques such as “stopping conversations until the descent begins.”

When flying your trainer, the best way to prevent altitude deviations is to develop great technique establishing and trimming for level flight, and to avoid fixating on distractions that could spoil your good work.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Navigation, Pilot Training and Certification, Student
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