Learning from Mistakes & Bad Decisions…

The sentiment that the first 500 hours are the most dangerous for a pilot holds true a lot of the time. I prefer to say that you learn at a higher rate, or at a faster pace during your first 500 hours as a pilot, as you stretch your wings early on in your flying!


Cockpit organization is a key to good “piloting,” how does that tie into learning from bad decisions? You’ll see…

Sometimes though, it takes those hours and years of flying to gain perspective to see that some of the things we did during our early flying weren’t actually the best of ideas… Every pilot has a story about how they’ve learned a valuable lesson by doing something dumb. A good pilot, not only learns from their mistakes or “dumb moves”, but also learns through observing others and learning from their mistakes too.

Every pilot does “dumb” things, but what makes a great pilot is the ability to take something away from each experience and learn from it. This means we  have to understand that what we did was dumb, understand why it was dumb and make a change in our behavior because of the experience. Note: This is the definition of learning… A change in behavior as a result of experience.

I’d like to share a story of something I did early in my flying that at the time didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary or the wrong thing to do, but looking back… It wasn’t the brightest idea.

Let me set the stage, I started flight lessons at 13 years old. I made my first solo flight on my 16th birthday and progressed through the solo and cross country phases of my training during high school.

I was 18 years old when I took the practical exam for the Private Pilot certificate. I was confident in my abilities and young enough not to worry about anything. It was also before I started professional flight training and was alert to the importance of having a ‘clean’ check ride record for the airline pilot interviews sure to come in my future.

I met the examiner on the appointed date and thanks to a heavy rain storm, we were only able to complete the oral examination. In all honesty, I don’t remember a single thing from the oral exam other than the heavy rain that caused the flight to be cancelled.

A few days later I met the examiner again at the airport. She was a regular in the airport community, owning an airplane with her husband based at the field. I felt comfortable with her since I had spent time at the FBO table with at various times her before the exam, so I didn’t face the usual “unknown examiner” hesitancy known by many other private pilot applicants. As I completed the run-up checklist that day, she instructed me that we would begin with the cross country portion of the check ride.

Here comes the “dumb” thing… It didn’t seem strange then, but now, looking back, especially through the lens of being a flight instructor, it clearly wasn’t a great exhibit of my decision making abilities…


The two-panel lap desk offered more real estate to keep flight documents organized…

Throughout all of my flight training to that point I had used a conventional knee board to organize my paperwork in flight, as GPS navigation wasn’t as common place at the time as it is now in light general aviation aircraft. I explained to the examiner that even though I has used a standard knee board for all of my training, I would not be utilizing it for the check ride. I had just purchased a really cool lap desk from Sporty’s to use during my instrument training in the collegiate professional pilot program that I would be starting shortly and I was going to use it today to get as much experience with it before my instrument training started. However, since the lap desk didn’t strap to my leg, I requested to have an opportunity to store it before the maneuvers portion of the flight.



A standard knee board, which I used throughout my training… Clearly it can’t hold as much as the lap desk, but it was what I was used to using and had built my own cockpit management around!

Looking back, I was clearly not concerned about not passing the check ride, willingly changing my cockpit management habits without concern. As it turned out, I passed the check ride that day with praise. But looking back, I realized how stupid what I did really was. Instead of demonstrating the cockpit management practices I developed over the course of my flight training, I opted to try something new, on the one flight where experimenting really isn’t a great idea.

In case you’re wondering, yes the examiner took the opportunity to place the aircraft in an unusual attitude for me to recover from as I stored the lap desk after completing the cross country portion of the flight test… Should have seen that coming…

2 Lessons:

  1. For Pilots – Learning requires understanding that what you did was not the right thing and changing your actions based on that. Note: I never experimented on a check ride again, I also never failed a check ride with an FAA designated pilot examiner either!
  2. For Student Pilots – Take your check ride seriously! It is your opportunity to demonstrate the skills and abilities that you’ve developed throughout your flight training. Remember, check rides are not a time for experimenting and “free lancing”…

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s