Common Mistakes in Training (and Flying)

By James T. McKenna | April 1, 2006

Flight instructors offer insight on the most common mistakes that hold back flying careers.

We each have our own way of learning skills and techniques like those required to fly. It's fairly certain that learning to fly a helicopter will expose the best and the worst of these idiosyncrasies.

Aside from each of our individual flaws, pilots share common shortcomings that may be most apparent when an instructor or check airman is in the other seat. Rotor & Wing asked some seasoned trainers about the most common mistakes that they see in pilots in training and in regular operations. It may surprise some of you that many of these mistakes are common to pilots whether they are green or have thousands of hours under their belts. Nearly all of the common errors, apparently, boil down to fundamentals.


"Really and truly, almost all mistakes go back to basics," said Wayne Brown, assistant chief flight instructor at Bell Helicopter's new Customer Training Academy at Fort Worth, Texas' Alliance Airport. "People need to have good, building-block learning behind them so they can become their own best critics and maintain good discipline about the fundamentals of flying."

As an example, he cited the 180-deg. autorotation. "It is probably the most complex thing that we do in VFR," he said. "But it's nothing but a combination of basic things like good turn control, trim control, attitude control and situational awareness."

An essential way to keep on top of this is subscribe to and read the Helicopter Assn. International's accident reports, said Roger Sharkey, president of Lebanon, N.H.-based Sharkey's Helicopters, which includes a flight school. "You may see yourself in many of them, except you broke the chain before the accident happened."

Some common mistakes are really fundamental--like the shoes on your feet in the cockpit. To a person, the instructors with whom we spoke said your shoes should have smooth soles, which let the pedals slide with little friction up and down your foot. Thinner soles help you better feel that movement.

"If you wear jogging shoes that you could climb a mountain with, all it does is snag on the cleats on the shoe," Brown said. "So people are often creating subtle pedal problems and they don't even understand why."

Joe Sheeran, president of Vortex Helicopters, said he'll often see student pilots at his Gulf Coast flight school wearing sandals or flip-flops, which he'll make them change. "It's almost a pet peeve of mine."

Other fundamental errors, said Bell Chief Flight Instructor Marty Wright, include how you hold the controls (which should be gently) and the position to which you adjust the foot pedals. "I get guys with several thousand hours that, as soon as I get in the aircraft, I'll say, "You know what? Let's try something a little different here. See if you like this."

Moving on to less pedestrian problems, a key one for Sharkey is the use of preflight checklists, or--more to the point--the lack of their use. "The preflight is one of the most neglected aspects of a safe flight," he said.

This was a central point in the "Back to Basics, the Human Factors" seminar that he presented at Heli-Expo 2006 with Bayard duPont, Enstrom Helicopter's director of product support and the backing of the insurers AirSure and AIG. "Pilots have strong egos," duPont said. "We believe our memories will substitute for a written checklist." Familiarity with the aircraft breeds complacency, he said, and a pilot's preflight tends to become faster and less intense over time.

"I personally feel that a checklist should be used for each and every preflight," Sharkey said. To reinforce that he recounted a preflight experience.

At his company, he does very few preflights, which are usually done in the morning by mechanics. On this particular day, the Bell 407 preflight was deferred until the next morning because the mechanics were busy with other work and the aircraft wasn't scheduled to fly.

But then a call came in for the 407 to make a pickup. Sharkey was the only qualified pilot on hand. With all the 407 mechanics busy, he grabbed the checklist and went to the aircraft. Things went great, faster than planned, until he got to the left engine door. The checklist said, "Fuel and Oil Bypass Indicators Check Retracted."

"I couldn't find them even with the checklist," he said. "If I were not using a preflight sheet at all, they would never have crossed my mind." His director of maintenance got a good laugh out of the boss' predicament, then showed him right where to find the indicators.

When it comes to getting in the air, Wright said, too many pilots rush to take off without giving thought to the optimum profile for their aircraft and current wind, weather and ground conditions. "That's a very, very common problem," Sheeran said. "People just want to pull pitch and go."

"All helicopters should be picked up like an old lady," Sharkey said. That is especially true for the first hover of the day, but it's a good rule in general. Accident reports are filled with accounts of pilots surprised by sudden, strange and catastrophic movements of their helicopters once they are hovering, he said. "The next thing I knew I was on my side" is a sad but frequent refrain.

"If we all gently pull into a hover so as to allow time to reduce pitch if we don't like what's happening, we can solve all of our problems--especially problem No. 1 of saving our pride."

Another takeoff tip is knowing and using the wind. "I don't think many pilots would say they take off and land down wind, but we all do," Sharkey said. "It usually starts with 2-3 kt. of wind. Then after about six months, it becomes 4-6 kt. A year or two later, with all still going well, we graduate to 10-plus kt. of wind. All of us get away with it for years without incident. Any down wind is too much" if it can be avoided for takeoff or landing, he said.

In the air, Brown said, many pilots don't keep their eyes in the right place. "Invariably, people look too close in when they're doing any kind of ground-reference maneuvers. They're looking down between their toes."

It doesn't matter if you are a 1,000-hr. pilot or a 20,000-hr. pilot. If you don't practice good discipline about that sort of thing, you're going to have problems. "That's the biggest mistake," he said. "If I were going to write a book, it would be in the preface.

"You lose cues," he explained. "If I'm looking out in front of the aircraft, I've got the big picture. But as I begin to come down and look closer and closer in, I'm giving up all of that. So it becomes more difficult to judge altitude and to keep the helicopter in a good hovering condition."

Too often, pilots fail to properly manage their confined-area operations.

"We see this on a regular basis," Wright said. "Guys doing confined-area landings and doing a poor job of their recon of the zone, then setting up their pattern to the zone and being too slow in the pattern. That leads them into an area where they're close to loss of tail-rotor effectiveness."

Sheeran again agreed

"Everybody tends to rush into confined areas, and into forced-landing areas," he said. "You have to really point it out to people--what are the more dangerous zones and the less dangerous zones. Some people just want to take off over the highest obstacle in the area. I'll show a student a confined area and then ask them to point out the more dangerous zones and the less dangerous ones.

One last problem, for now, is coming in too fast during a normal approach, Wright said, and not being aware of the possible effects of vortex ring state or settling with power.

"This is a problem for new pilots and old hands," Sheeran said. "Just the other day I saw a guy who I had trained coming in on approach and he was just smoking. I asked him about it later and he said, "Yeah, I probably shouldn't have done that."

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