Top 5 mistakes you WILL make during your first 250 hours

3 min read

None of us are perfect. I’m probably less perfect than most, but by the grace of God, good training and procedures, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the joy of flight for more than a decade. Along the way, there have been many bumps in the road. A very smart instructor once told me, “You need to learn from the mistakes of other pilots because you may not live long enough to learn from your own.” While that may sound frightening to most people, there is a lot of truth in that statement.

While sitting around a hangar telling flying stories, I realized that many of us have made the same mistakes – sometimes more than once. I compiled a list of five mistakes that are common and can be very serious or even life-threatening if not managed quickly and accurately. Hopefully the worst outcome is a hand to smack the forehead of many pilots. Please heed the warning so as not to repeat what many before you have experienced.

  1. 100514tipTaking off on one magneto. This is much more common than I originally thought. Many of us don’t want to talk about it, but by a show of hands one evening, we found the percentage of pilots that have made the mistake of not having the ignition set to both magnetos to be very high.
  2. Not retracting flaps after take off. So you got a sign-off for a cross-country flight. Lots of stuff going on and you take off, communicate on the radio, turn off the landing lights, turn to the correct on-course heading, start the trip/fuel timers, etc. And then you fly 38 minutes and while downwind abeam the numbers, you go to drop that first notch of flaps and realize that they are already down. Face palm.
  3. undercloudlayerInadvertent flight into IMC. Normally, this happens because you are focused on something else besides looking out the front of the airplane. Common distractions include setting up the navigation radios or GPS, looking at the ground for reference maneuvers, or texting while flying. It’s going to happen. Keep calm and fly the airplane. Trust the gauges, engage the autopilot (if equipped), retreat toward alternate VMC weather and don’t be shy of asking for assitance.
  4. Forgetting to remove chocks or tie-down rope. This is probably the most common. You do the preflight, but it’s windy and you need to run inside to get the window cleaner so you leave a chock down to keep the airplane from being blown away.  Upon return, you’ve forgotten about the chock, clean the windshield, hop in and try to taxi. Wow, it’s taking a lot of power to get out of the wheel rut…[insert favorite expletive].
  5. unnamed (1)Landing with low fuel. The FAA’s definition of “low fuel” and mine are completely different. For VFR flight, you are only required by regulation to have 30 minutes of extra fuel on board. This is ridiculous and, in my opinion, ranks as the absolute WORST mistake you can make.

The point is you’re not alone. Any mistake you can walk away from relatively unscathed should be viewed as a valuable learning opportunity.

Care to add to the list?

37 replies
  1. Jordan Villar says:

    Regarding number 5, if you find having 30 minutes worth of extra fuel on board from the estimated fuel consumption for the entire flight ridiculous. May I know what would your definition be of landing with low fuel? thanks


    • Doug Ranly says:

      I always want to land with at least 1 hour of fuel on board. Less than one hour starts making you second guess yourself. Were my tanks all the way fuel, or was it an inch low? Is that gauge right? I didn’t lean it out right away, so am I down an extra gallon? The headwind component is more than predicted, should I land earlier…. Anything that takes your focus off of safely landing the aircraft is a negative. Stack the deck in your favor: always land with an hour of fuel.

  2. Janet Brasfield says:

    I was guilty of forgetting a tie down once, and the seat belt thing too. I was lucky to be in an Air Force Aero Club, no shortage of stories there.

  3. fly boy says:

    WelL I have yet to do it but forgeting to turn your radio on at an uncontrolled airport is far more common then you would think and can Couse a last minute go around for the plane that you didn’t look for …

  4. dc says:

    Forgot to lock the baggage door on my Mooney, and it flew open immediately after takeoff. Someone else had closed it, which broke my routine. I haven’t climbed in the airplane since without pulling that handle to verify that it’s locked.

  5. Joy says:

    Parking a rental between two spaces and using one rope from each side and not noticing until you are already in your car and saying “what idiot parked like that?” and slowly realising it was you. D’oh!!

  6. Gamal Sadek (C182Q) says:

    Tow bar! Tow bar! Tow bar!
    First story was in Egypt: Night flight from Cairo (HEOC) to Hurghada (HEGO). ATC kept asking to expedite takeoff before sunset (HEOC doesn’t work at night). Found out after landing that the tow bar was never removed… Just the thought of what could’ve happened over the desert at night made me really sick…
    Second was in Burlington ON (CZBA). Parked next to the pumps, used the tow bar to pull the plane closer, after refueling pushed the plane back away from the pumps when two nice gentlemen stopped by for a quick chat then left, started the engine with the tow bar on! Cost me a prop overhaul (0.5″x 0.5″ bend at one of the tips)

  7. Stan says:

    A little over 200 hrs and I haven’t done any of these yet. But, I’ve taken off with full flaps because I hadn’t used the checklist to retract after preflighting and forgetting to turn off carb heat. Duh. Another mistake is forgetting to have the on course heading ready when you leave the pattern. More Duhhh.

  8. John Carter says:

    I used to refuel aircraft for my flying club. One day I got a call from a student pilot who had stopped on the taxi way and asked if I would come down and give her a hand, she had just returned from a NAV flight. I was there for a little while putting fuel into the A/C…both tanks were bone dry!

  9. Brad says:

    1) seatbelt out the door
    2) carbheat on at take off – this is a one time only mistake
    3) carb ice on landing
    4) signs of hypoxia
    5) flaps flaps flaps
    6) fuel pump left on after takeoff
    7) wrong runway at takeoff
    8) window airvent open at takeoff
    9) transponder on standby
    10) traffic patten R not L… Opps.

  10. Larry Bailey says:

    * Take off on a hot day in a Cessna with a window open
    * Enter squawk on ground but leave xponder in standby. The transition from KHEF class D to SFRA did not go as well as it could have…

  11. Jason says:

    Not setting the altimeter before takeoff, calling out the wrong runway in the pattern all the way to touchdown, no flap takeoff when first notch is required. Checklist…checklist…checklist!

  12. Dave McDowell says:

    I sumped fuel out of A piper warrior before working on instrument approaches with my ATP rated CFII. I didn’t confirm that the sump valve closed properly. Almost 20 gallons drained out of the right tank which of course is which tank I was flying on when I landed. I had 2 gallons left in that tank when we landed.

  13. Gustav Basson says:

    I am a very low hour pilot. I had a palm to face moment on one of my solo GF exercises. I did the preflight, took off, got to the 5 mile marker did my Checks only to discover I was only on the right tank. Not life threatening but it was a good reminder not to become complacent in the cockpit.

  14. \rico says:

    Nope. only no#5 once. never again. after 2600 on light a/c. Just treat the little ones like the big ones, and you won’t be a statistic. (no guarantees though).

  15. \rico says:

    Nope. only no#5 once. never again. after 2600 on light a/c. Just treat the little ones like the big ones, and you won’t be a statistic. (no guarantees though).

  16. Ethan says:

    During training, I was flying one of my solos into to Fayetteville, TN (FYM). I was coming in to land on runway 1 (one) from the south on a long approach. A guy was taking off on the other direction and called runway 19 (one-nine). I only heard the 1 (one) and thought he was heading with my direction. I only noticed the guy when I was descending into runway 1 and he was climbing out from runway 19 and flew past my right. I instantly facepalmed, throttled up and said ‘Cessna NXXXXX at Fayetteville. Student pilot entering pattern for Runway 19 (one-nine) at Fayetteville.’

    After that, when approaching any airport to land, I would make it a habit to call beforehand on the field’s CTAF asking if anyone was there and moving.

  17. Frank says:

    After engine start and taxi call, I started taxiing and thought “geez this plane takes a lot of power to move” then instructor says the handbrake is still on. Face palm moment. Damn it!

  18. Steve Lackscheide says:

    Just got my ticket in June; counting training I’m just under 100 hours. On a recent lunch run, after a distraction I managed to leave my seatbelt out my door all the way through taxi and initial takeoff roll. The clanking stopped me from launching.

    At my home base, the plane is hangared until it’s in use and we don’t use chocks. On my checkride, the FBO attendant had chocked the plane and with the instructor looking over my shoulder during preflight, I managed to overlook the chocks and get all belted in before a little bell went off and I remembered the blasted chocks, fortunately before start-up & taxi.


    The Moral: Avoid Distractions!

  19. Wendy says:

    My door blowing out on me on the 140 made me crap myself. I’ve had electric failure and gyro failure. Joys of aviation. Check check double check!!!

  20. Fred says:

    Twice in 1000 hours, Not retracting landing gear after T/O into Black Hole VFR at night, clue:- why is cruise airspeed so low, reason attention focused on instruments.

  21. Sam says:

    Left the left wing tied down during preflight. Was hurried instructor was running late and was rushed.
    Practicing touch and goes, touched down, rolling. Full throttle, aircraft lifts off at 45, trying to keep her down! Why are we in the air?! Oh left the flaps full 40 deg. DUMPED EM! Oh boy what a sinking feeling that was. Oh yea you should have seen my instructors face, priceless. Not understanding the severity of my double mistake until my instructor could breath again. I love flying

  22. Jon Sisk says:

    Yep, done all those and more. Regular training, use of checklists, and task flows help. Good article Doug.

  23. Jack says:

    Anyone forget to set the HI to the compass and take off in IFR conditions with atc calling heading changes…..

  24. Scott Stewart says:

    I have a tendency to be a little high on final, way too high once, decided to go around. Aggravated with myself raised flaps before throttle was advanced, sure glad I was high that time.

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