The one good thing about making mistakes is that we have the opportunity to learn from them, provided the consequences of the mistake aren’t deadly. Your instructor expects you to make mistakes during your flight training, and ideally, you will learn from them and not repeat them. For example, when you decide to fly with a slight cold and upon reaching pattern altitude, your sinuses hurt so bad you want your mother, learning will likely take place.
Some mistakes fall into the “we’ve all done it” category, such as accidentally leaving the master switch on and draining the battery or dropping the fuel pipette into the fuel tank. No one wants to do this, yet these particular mistakes are often treated as a rite of passage and paid for by giving the mechanic who fixes the issue—recharges the battery and fishes the pipette out of the fuel tank—a case of their favorite adult beverage.
Some mistakes are expensive. If you accidentally damage an airplane that belongs to a flight school or FBO, expect to pay for the damage. Read the fine print on your rental contract because, in addition to paying for repairs, you may be charged for the time the aircraft is out of service. Often incidents like this lead to procedure changes at the business to avoid a repeat of the mistake. These changes become part of the school’s safety culture, and vary from school to school.
For example, when an unsecured towbar put a large crack in the rear window of a Cessna 172, the flight school made a rule that all tow bars had to be strapped into place during flight. It was a fairly low-tech solution, as a bungee cord and cat collar were used to keep the tow bar beneath the backseat. Verifying the position of the towbar became a checklist item.
Sometimes the safety culture can be confusing to the learner pilot. I worked at a flight school that did not allow soft field operations in their aircraft. As the business owner explained to me, someone in the past had damaged an aircraft during a soft field landing. It was a prop strike during a scheduled off-airport landing, which resulted in a very expensive engine teardown and propeller replacement. The CFIs were still required to teach soft field technique, but we did so on hard-surfaced runways. One learner was very confused until I compared it to learning how to perform CPR. You learn how to do it on a mannequin, but when the day comes to use it on a person, you are equipped to perform the task.
Common Mistakes at Flight Schools
There are mistakes common to flight schools, such as forgetting to check the Hobbs number in an aircraft before the flight or forgetting to copy it down after the flight. Adding lines in the checklist like “verify Hobbs and Tach numbers” and “copy down Hobbs and Tach numbers before leaving the aircraft” can help prevent this. So can installing pens in the dispatch books in case the renter/learner or CFI does not have one.
Another common situation involves checklists and aircraft keys that sometimes go home with a renter. If the flight school has a policy requiring the renter to verify the keys and checklists are present in the dispatch binder, you can be sure it has happened before.
Accidents and Risk Mitigation
When there is an accident or incident, a slip or a mistake, it often involves the classic chain of events that bring risk into the operation. If the hazards are assessed, risks identified, and measures for lessening risk created, the chain can be broken.
Often it takes an accident to bring a risk to light. For example, a renter slips off the strut of a Cessna 172 during self-refueling. The flight school responds by assessing the need to address the risk —the client suffered a few bumps, but the owner of the school recognizes it could have been much worse.
To mitigate the risk in the future, the flight school makes it a rule that all self-refueling be accomplished with an appropriately-sized ladder, or by a properly trained line technician.
A slip is when a person means to do the correct thing but accidentally does the wrong thing. For example, adding the wrong type of oil to an aircraft, but the person who does it isn’t aware of this.
Slips are an excellent opportunity to develop strategies to prevent them in the future. First, identify why the slip occurred—was it a lack of training? Confusing instructions? Identify a way to fix it, which could be as simple as making a photocopy of the label of the bottle of proper oil for the aircraft and putting the photocopy on the front of the dispatch binder. Point it out to the renters and CFIs, and include a reference to the photocopy in the renter checkout test.
Hazardous Attitudes = Poor Decisions = Mistakes
Pilots are required to learn about the FAA-identified hazardous attitudes and their antidotes because often these lead to poor decisions and mistakes. Your CFI wants you to be able to recognize these hazardous attitudes in yourself—and other pilots you are flying with—and be able to apply the antidotes.
The hazardous attitudes: anti-authority, impulsivity, resignation, macho, and invulnerability, are present in most pilots at least once or twice during their career and often in combination.
You may know a pilot who is the poster child for anti-authority, invulnerability, and macho. This is the pilot who willingly and knowingly breaks the rules and makes poor decisions —like the pilot who owns an airplane but doesn’t possess the certificate or rating to fly it legally, but does so anyway. Or it is the pilot who, although he lacks an instrument rating, flies IFR to the airport with cheap fuel, runs out of fuel on downwind, and thinks it amusing when he has to push his airplane to the fuel pumps.
These pilots can be very polarizing to the aviation community. Some will want to talk to the pilot to offer guidance or caution, and others who want to report the pilot to the FAA and let it take action, and who warn of dire consequences to the pilot who ‘rats someone out,’ suggesting instead they ‘stay in their own lane.’ The easiest thing to do is simply avoid the troublesome aviator—even if it means turning away revenue by refusing to rent an aircraft to that pilot.
The price for poor decision-making can be high. You have probably seen it. There’s a reason student pilot certificates started carrying the warning “carriage of passengers prohibited.” There have been cases where a student pilot willfully violated this regulation. In 2008 a student pilot out of Atwater, California, was killed when he tried to avoid getting caught.
Per the NTSB report, in November 2008, two student pilots did an illegal cross-country flight together in a Cessna 152. The student who was PIC had his CFI look over his flight planning and sign him off. The PIC waited until the CFI left the airport, then allowed another student to climb aboard for the flight.
Per the NTSB report, “At the completion of the final leg of a cross-country flight, the two student pilots taxied the airplane toward the ramp. Prior to reaching the parking area, the student pilot seated in the right seat, concerned about being seen by flight school personnel, instructed the other student pilot to taxi the airplane to the designated parking area, where he would exit the airplane. The student pilot seated in the left seat reported that after the student pilot seated in the right seat exited the airplane, he ran toward the front of the airplane and was struck by the turning propeller.”
You are working too hard to be a pilot—don’t let a stupid pilot trick mess things up for you.