The day I became a “pro” pilot and knew it all…

I’m a master instructor, ATP and national public speaker with over 6,000 hours. I’m so good at IFR, I have people from all over the country come to train with me. They all say how good I am – and I started to believe them!

Have you ever noticed, when you start to “get good” at flying, reality likes to step in to smack you in the head?

Clearance
Oh, just the usual. Nothing to get worked up about…

On a recent Saturday morning, I had planned an easy IFR flight from Long Beach (KLGB) to Santa Rosa (KSTS). My airplane is a very well-equipped Cessna 206 with a Garmin 430W, Garmin 300, and an iPad with ADS-B and AHRS. It is a nice stable platform to make an easy three-hour trip. My clearance was exactly what I filed with the standard, “climb 3,000; expect 8,000 in 10” that I get every time.

After departure, I was told to proceed direct to the LAX VOR and expedite climb to and maintain 6,000. That seems pretty easy, hit direct to on the GPS and trim for 1,000 fpm and sit back with my sugar-free Red Bull. It was a very peaceful morning until SoCal Approach yelled at me for being at 7,000 feet and climbing into the flight path of a B737 restricted above me.

Whoops!

Power back, nose down, and mumble “sorry correcting” into the mic. How did I miss such a simple thing?

There are two reasons I blew through my assigned altitude: expectation bias and complacency. Expectation bias is common to all pilots, beginner and pro. Complacency is one of the biggest causes of accidents and mistakes with “pro” pilots.

Expectation bias is when your mind follows an established pattern, habit, or what it expects, rather than what you should do. I filed my flight plan for 8,000, I had received 8,000 in my clearance, and I had always been told to climb 8,000 on the other times I flew this route. I heard the controller say 6,000 and I acknowledged 6,000, but my brain was fixed on 8,000.

Danger expectations
It happens to all of us.

Think about when you fly into your home airport and every time you enter the pattern you fly left traffic. It’s all fun and games until the one time a controller ask you to make right traffic and you enter left traffic by habit, cutting off another airplane. This is normal and happens to everyone because the human mind will fight to stay with and follow familiar patterns.

Complacency is the repeat offender of aviation mistakes. It sneaks back up on you again and again. A good early warning sign is when my headset starts to feel tight from my swollen head and ego. The first time it happened to me I had 300 hours and was a “pro” commercial pilot. I couldn’t figure out why the airplane would taxi out from the tie downs. I kept adding power and it still wouldn’t move. Hint: “tie downs.” I was so good I didn’t use the preflight checklist and forgot to untie the tail.

The next time it happened, I was a “pro” CFI with 600 hours. While trying to teach a student pilotage, I actually taught him how to violate class Bravo airspace, by not using a map. How could a “pro” ATP with 2,000 hours enter a hold on the non-protected side?

It’s not hard to do when you start to relax when it becomes easy.

Expectation bias and complacency are easy things to prevent if we stick with the basics, follow checklists and stay focused. Maybe I can relax when I become a real pro pilot with 10,000 hours.

What are the biggest mistakes you made when you became a “pro?” Share your stories and feedback in the comments below.

18 Comments

  • I did the leave the tail tied down thing too…except I was about a 10 hour student pilot! Making a mistake in aviation is easier than falling off of a log. It just requires constant, never ending, laser like attention to detail and FOCUS!

  • I typically leave the fuel strainer and dipstick on the cowling during pre-flight and make putting them away the last thing I do, sort of an “official” end to the walkaround. One time, I was in a rush. I got in and even had the master switch on, before I realized they were both still sitting there on the cowling. I switched the master off, retrieved the goodies, sat back down, took a deep breath and repeated the Engine Start checklist from the beginning.

    Good on you for putting this out there. It’s never fun to admit when we goof.

    Blue skies!

    • Glad you saw it before you started. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped students before starting because the oil inspection door was open.

  • For me it’s the flaps. I just recently started to take off with one notch dialed in (heavier airplane) , and I keep forgetting to bring it back after takeoff.

    After take off checklist here we come!

  • Early in my flight training I missed a wheel chock on my pre flight walk around. CFI didn’t catch it either when getting in. Made it to the brake check on the checklist but she just wouldn’t move. Lesson learned, haven’t missed it since.

  • Good stuff, Gary. The older I get the more I see that it’s getting easier and easier to become distracted while climbing and descending. On the airline we’re sterile below 10,000 feet, but I need more than that. I have adopted a lame slogan of sorts to help me because of my aging brain and our ever-present fatigue factor caused by the new Part 117 rules. It has served me well over the past few years, and I use it every time I go out on a trip. You could probably come up with a better one yourself, but here’s mine: “If I’m climbing or descending, everything else is ending.” In other words, if you’re not in straight and level flight, tune everything else out. No distractions, no exceptions.

    • Thanks Dave! Not only do I like the slogan there is a really high chance of me stealing it and using it in future articles and classes!

      g

  • Human beings are error machines. The science of studying and predicting human errors and the rates at which we make errors is well established. Whether with or without systematic error-prevention systems (including check lists, cross-checks, mnemonics, co-pilots or even knowledgeable passengers) to check what we’re doing as pilots, we are just as susceptible to making errors as any other human.

    In general, absent any error-prevention systems, we humans make somewhere between 10 and 30 errors per 100 opportunities to act, or not act. Even in highly managed workspaces (such as the flight deck of a large passsenger airliner, with a co-pilot next to the PIC and in communication with ATC, and numerous pilot aids built into the avionics), we humans will still make between 5 and 10 errors per 100 opportunities.

    This cannot be changed. It is in our nature to be so error prone.

    Therefore, the best means of reducing (but never eliminating human error) is to carefully calibrate and manage our risk margins. With bigger risk margins our susceptibility to the consequences of a single error is reduced. Errors cannot be eliminated, but they can be limited in frequency and severity with proper flight risk margins.

    Use error-prevention systems also – checklists help, as does flying with another pilot in the right seat, or even with just a knowledgeable non-pilot passenger who is willing to question our actions from time to time, as well as simply provide another set of eyes and ears.

    Get refresher training more often than your required BFR … every few months go up with a quality CFI/CFII and have him/her critique your performance, with a particular emphasis on detecting and correcting bad habits. If that seems like a pain, then I come back with “how is flying and getting better at flying a ‘pain’?” More flying is a feature, not a bug, of being a pilot.

  • Hi. Do you think this happens more as we get older? We have “experience” in all sorts of life situations, and we’ve come to expect certain results? I’m going on 46 and am also finding it harder to learn…leading to a on instrument rating. I’m finding myself more distracted with being more productive than when I was younger, which seems to affect my multi tasking?

    • I would agree with that, Raleigh. I just turned 40 and I can say I’m more focused on efficiency than I ever was when I was younger. I find myself striving to make sure I make every minute of my learning count, and as a result, I believe at times I try to be so laser-focused on something that I actually miss out on part of the lesson to be learned or the knowledge to be gleaned because I don’t have my ‘mental’ head on a swivel in the same way my physical one is, if that makes sense.

    • Multi-tasking is defined as doing two or more things badly. No human can ever really be as good doing one thing at a time. Unfortunately flying and especially single pilot IFR requires it. It’s not your age, you need to slow down and get better organized. I have a video on pilotsafety.org called IFR Made Easy. Also ask for more simulator training. IFR is easier to learn when you can hit a pause button and ask questions then in a moving airplane.

      Best Wishes!

      g

  • As a new pilot with 100 hours I thought I was the bees knees. I was flying across Australia, I encounter clear air turbulence I went through a critical engine failure in a piper mojave. So the day I took my daughter and two of her friends up in a rental Cessna 172 for a birthday flight I thought nothing of it. Three little 11 year old girls. We did the briefing I did the pre-flight and we started the take off run. Wheels up 100 feet and the stall alarm starts to sound. I never considered two little girls in the back would load up a plane enough to warrant flaps to help the take off. Thankfully training took over and I levelled out and picked up more speed before continuing my climb out.
    I can assure you after this I took nothing else for granted.
    Lesson learnt. Thank you for your wise words.

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