Features  / 10.13 /

The oops list

10 causes of pilot embarrassment and how to avoid them


Photography by Chris Rose

We all know the feeling. That ah, I hope nobody saw that sensation when you walk into (and quickly out of) the wrong bathroom at the mall. Or when you sit down in the wrong classroom on the first day of school. We hate it when things like that happen, and yet they do. As new or student pilots, we’re confronted with a unique environment, full of rules and etiquette that create hundreds of ways to embarrass ourselves if we’re not careful. We can’t cite hundreds here, but we can provide a top-10 list that will at least get the juices flowing and, hopefully, help to avoid the red faces that come when smart people do silly things. To minimize the chances of the abject humiliation we pilots are all subject to on a daily basis, never....

1. Try starting the engine with the mags off or mixture lean. Anybody who says he has never done this either walks on water or is lying. This is an easy one to avoid. Use the checklist. Every written checklist reminds the pilot to turn the key to Both and push that red knob over there on the right all the way in.

2. Hog the run-up area. Most run-up aprons will accommodate several airplanes. That is, unless somebody decides to park right in the middle, leaving pilots coming in behind to do their pretakeoff checklist on the taxiway. If still more airplanes come taxiing in behind that person, it’s easy to see a traffic jam developing. It’s particularly irritating to the turbine pilot burning lots of Jet A while waiting for the guy in front to move up in line. Don’t be the pilot who causes the logjam. Always taxi to the far end, leaving plenty of room behind for others.

3. Turn the radio volume off. Nobody, not even the most ardent fan of punk rock, enjoys the high-pitch squeal of two pilots transmitting at the same time. One of the more common causes of this affront is having a radio turned down so far that the pilot can’t hear when somebody else is talking. Do us all a favor—make sure you have the volume up so you can hear, and listen for a few seconds before keying the mic to verify that all conversation has ceased. It’s not polite to interrupt and, in an airplane, it’s grounds for 20 hours of community service.

oops4. Start the engine with the throttle too far in. Want to see neighboring pilots' heads turn and shoulders crumple? Just start the engine at 2,000 rpm. Every pilot within earshot will be thinking the same thing: Well, there goes 20 hours off the TBO. The mind boggles with the thought of rings rubbing against cylinder walls with little or no oil yet smoothing the way. Please don’t do that.

5. Forget to tie down the airplane. OK, obvious, right? Wrong. Most airport bums (and there are thousands of us out there) have personally witnessed airplanes rolling away from their moorings because the pilot forgot his or her Scout knots. Although it’s fun to watch two or three hangar rats chasing a Cessna 150 rolling toward a transient Pilatus, the reality of an incident is a lot less amusing. Make tying down the airplane and chocking the wheels the last item on the shutdown checklist, right after “Insert Control Lock.”

6. Leave the master switch on after shutdown. Want to really peeve the next renter pilot taking the airplane? Just leave the master on so the battery drains and the starter won’t turn. There is nothing more aggravating than loading the airplane with stuff and people, turning the key, and having nothing happen—because the last pilot left the red switch on. Follow the checklist and you will never be that pilot.

7. Attempt to pull out of the parking space with the chocks or tiedowns still in place. This is a particularly bad one. Why? Because we call attention to ourselves by revving up the engine to get out of that little rut that we must be in. Well, if that little “rut’ is really a chock or chain, we get to turn off the engine (use the checklist!), climb out of the airplane, remove the blocks or tiedowns, then begin the engine start checklist all over again. Really cool pilots take a bow when the bystanders start clapping. Most of us just cringe and try to look like somebody else.

8. Make straight-in to a busy nontowered airport. Long, straight finals are frowned upon at all nontowered airports. The best procedure is to always enter on the 45-degree angle to the downwind leg of the pattern. Second best is some variant of a crosswind entry. Straight-ins aren’t recommended because it throws off the timing of the traffic pattern and makes other pilots try to sequence themselves around the lazy pilot on a three-mile final. There are occasions where straight-ins are appropriate, such as when doing an instrument approach, but VFR pilots should practice a little courtesy and enter the merry-go-round like everybody else.

9. Think of yourself as “just a student pilot.” All kidding aside, your decision to become a pilot puts you in a unique place, with considerable responsibility and accountability to others. While it’s true that flying creates freedom, it also imposes burdens on you to keep things safe and be a role model for the others sharing the air- and taxiways with you. Remember, your place in the greater scheme of things is profound; people have wanted to take flight for thousands of years. It’s only you and those like you over the past century or so who have been able to fulfill the dream of flight safely. It’s truly a cherished privilege to live in the times we do. Take it seriously, have fun— and, in the words of my old flight instructor Gene Whitt, “Don’t do nothin’ dumb.”oops

10. Leave the seatbelt hanging out the door during takeoff. This should never happen. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a metal buckle banging against the fuselage to get everybody’s attention. Again, this is an easy one to avoid: Use the checklist. Not only does a loose seatbelt put the pilot and passengers at risk, but it also can cause confusion and loss of concentration as the pilot tries to figure out what all that racket is about. Besides, nobody wants to pay to repair chipped paint. Confirm that everybody is buckled in before starting the engine.

William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California.