The things I wish I knew before I started my aviation training

This article first appeared as a guest post on the highly recommended GolfHotelWhiskey aviation blog.

When I entered my aviation training I was already an atypically well-prepared student. I’d been following aviation and the flying community off and on since childhood.  I’d flown in the right seat plenty of times, already understood basic aerodynamics, and generally knew a lot more than most people who walk through the school’s front door.

In retrospect, however, there are a number of things I know now that I wish I had known then. In no particular order, here are some of the more relevant bits of knowledge I’d like to pass on to the next person about to take the plunge into general aviation.

  1. Do not impose any artificial deadlines. If you are a pilot-in-training, the overwhelming odds are you’re a goal-driven, type-A personality. You will be predisposed to mentally calculate hours, divided by training days, equalling “X” date as your projected certification date. It’s just who you are. The problem is, you will begin to fret if this date slips or changes in any way; you can’t help it, it’s in your makeup to set and meet goals. Your instructor will throw a wrench into your carefully crafted mechanism when he informs you that you need an extra lesson on landing proficiency, and your natural reaction will be to resent him for altering your plans.
    You should make every effort to live in the “now” of your training, and avoid looking too far ahead. For one, the training today is enjoyable and rewarding — so do enjoy it! For another, you’re imposing artificial stress in an already stressful curriculum. So focus on today’s training and leave tomorrow’s for tomorrow.
  2. As a corollary to #1, don’t plan on going anywhere around your checkride date. I had a 10 day vacation planned and reserved weeks in advance; as I got closer to my checkride and realized it would likely fall just days before my vacation, my stress soared. Would I complete the check before I left? Would the weather cooperate? If I missed it or blew it, how much would it cost to regain my edge after two nonflying weeks? You really don’t need this kind of stress, especially around checkride time. Just plan on being in town and flexible with your schedule.
  3. Equipment really does fail, so don’t get lazy. If you aren’t absolutely familiar with General Aviation planes already, you can be forgiven for imagining them as cars with wings: crank up and go, and things just reliably work. But the fact is, airplanes — especially training aircraft — lead very arduous lives, and despite being fawned over by attentive A&P mechanics they do break. You’ll train for equipment failure, of course, but it doesn’t really sink in until you actually see things fail in flight. Some of the equipment failures I personally have witnessed over time include a GPS flatly refuse to receive signal; a gyro heading indicator go haywire and fail to indicate; a complete radio stack failure; numerous illumination outages; an intermittent transponder; an in-flight vacuum pump failure. And yes, you probably will check your drain sumps a hundred times and get nothing but clean fuel every time, but I’m here to tell you that you will one day see water come out — so conduct your preflight with diligence every single time, and be mentally prepared for the day that something stops working.
  4. PIC responsibility is real. (…and the magic word “unable”) This one takes a while to sink in, even though you’ll be drilled on it again and again. You must learn and truly grasp that you — not ATC, no one else — is responsible for the safe conduct of your aircraft.  You are in command.
    You are in a partnership with ATC, so by all means understand and respect how their authority works, but recognize that the voice on the radio is not some Magical Sky God possessing omnipotence.  They are human; they sometimes err; they may ask or suggest something you are not comfortable with; and in the end, they cannot fly or land the plane for you.  This does not mean they are your enemy, it merely means that you are in charge and must always consider what is best, for your risk is greater than theirs.
    As an example, at one point I was doing solo night landings for proficiency using my airport’s large, well-illuminated, 9000′ runway.  It’s the natural choice for a pilot learning night work.  For jet traffic reasons, the tower requested that I move to the airport’s narrow, short, not-as-well-illuminated runway.  I agreed, but after having a look I decided that I was more comfortable on the large runway.  It was a simple matter to radio the tower and negotiate a quick nearby orbit to kill time while the traffic cleared.  Bottom line: it was up to me to determine what was safest and to request that. The tower, by the way, was perfectly happy to oblige me, but don’t let “offending someone on the ground” be a reason to remain passive in the case of doubt.  You are PIC: remain actively in control of your flight and do what it takes to conduct it safely.  The magic word “unable” is in every experienced pilot’s (and controller’s) toolkit — use it if you’re asked to do something incorrect or unsafe.
  5. Leverage AOPA and the FAA Wings program.  Membership in these two should be mandatory for every new student pilot.  AOPA is working overtime to ensure your privileges as a general aviator are protected.  And believe me, these privileges are under constant attack.  The vast majority of people don’t fly recreationally, and if they think of GA planes at all, they probably regard them as noise nuisances.  AOPA stands between GA and the masses who would like to turn our prime airport land into developments; they lobby against user fees; they publish great rafts of useful training and safety information.  They are our sole bulwark against a very bleak GA world.
    If you are in GA, in the United States, and not an AOPA member, you should be completely ashamed of yourself. Run, do not walk, to their website and sign up right now.
    The FAA Wings program goes hand-in-hand with AOPA, and in fact they partner with each other to disseminate truly fantastic safety training materials.  I’ve gained a tremendous amount from their courses and seminars — the production level on these things is absolutely stellar and they pour a tremendous effort into making them informative, enjoyable and just plain good.  (Besides, when you complete various levels of the program you get little metal wings to pin on.)  Unlike most things in aviation, this is completely free to join and use, and you can elect to be notified of seminars in your area.  Through FAA Wings I got early notice a facility tour at Seattle-Tacoma International (that was quickly filled to capacity).



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