10 things I wish I had known when I was a student pilot

Cirrus SR22 I’ve been flying for nearly ten years. Today, I have a CPL, an instrument rating and I fly a lovely Cirrus SR22. I even review planes and airports on this site. But I started out doing basic manoeuvres in a PA28 just like everyone else. Here are ten things I wish I had known back then:

  1. Flying with an instructor is ‘real’ flying. Don’t be in a hurry to end your training. A lot of my friends talk about learning to fly as if the training were only a means to an end. It’s not. Flying with an instructor is still flying. You’re at the controls and you get to aviate. The only difference is that you are paying for a skilled teacher to come with you. I still do currency training with an instructor every couple of months and it’s some of the best flying I do. I always learn a lot and I enjoy flying with an old friend.
  2. Learning is a skill. Learning how to learn is a vital life skill and flying is a great way to teach it. Think about what kind of student you want to be and how you want to relate to your mentor (and, indeed, anyone else who can help you learn).
  3. Some instructors are better than others. If you don’t get on with your instructor or you don’t feel you’re learning efficiently, discuss it with your instructor. If that doesn’t help, talk to your CFI and change instructors or even change schools. Sometimes, a change can be helpful. When I was beginning instrument flying lessons, I had a strict disciplinarian who was great. But as I approached my test, he didn’t let up and began to make me nervous. He and the CFI sensed this and switched me to a more relaxed, amiable instructor for my final polishing and mock checkrides. The combination was better than having either one or the other equally good instructors.
  4. Checkrides are fun. Well, no. Mainly they are nerve-wracking. But if you have a good attitude and you are thoroughly prepared you won’t be over-stressed or perplexed. I’ve had a couple of really enjoyable checkrides, including my CPL checkride. The better prepared I am, the more relaxed I am and the more I enjoy it.
  5. Remember the important stuff. Some things you have to learn because you’re going to be tested, some things you have to learn because you need to know them. Understand the difference and make sure you really learn the important stuff.
  6. Mechanics can be instructors too. I’m not very mechanically-minded so I found it very helpful to spend a few hours with a mechanic going over disassembled aircraft. This really helped me to visualise the aircraft systems (rather than memorising stuff from the POH with no context).
  7. You learn more from mistakes than from successes. So don’t be embarrassed by them or feel cross with yourself. If you pull off a perfect landing but don’t know how you did it, you’re no wiser. However, a poor landing followed by a careful analysis will teach you a lot.
  8. When you pass, go solo first. I immediately started flying with passengers and actually it takes a while to build up your confidence as a solo pilot before you start dealing with passengers. In fact the only real diversion I ever did was on my second passenger flight. Very stressful for all concerned.
  9. Fly with other pilots. You can learn a lot about how to handle passengers and the realities of real flying (rather than instruction) by flying with other, more experienced pilots. The first few hundred hours after you pass are the most dangerous so you need to get as much experience as quickly as possible.
  10. Combine flying with other hobbies. In the UK, 75% of pilots don’t renew their licence after five years. I love flying but I blog about it, I use it to help me learn Dutch by flying to The Netherlands every month, I have a mailing list of friends who like to go flying with me and I like to fly with other members of my Cirrus syndicate. The more you can do to embed flying into your life, the more flying you will do. Don’t treat your PPL checkride as a hurdle to clear but as a doorway to enter.


4 Responses to 10 things I wish I had known when I was a student pilot

  1. Hani May 6, 2009 at 08:37 #

    Good review!

    As the saying goes, "the PPL is only a license to learn"

    One other thing I find useful: read accident reports. It may sound macabre, but it teaches you humility (or should!).

    • Matthew Stibbe May 6, 2009 at 08:52 #

      Hani, that's a very good tip. My wife can't understand why I read accident reports so avidly. She thinks it is macabre but I think it is a good way to learn. And yes, it does teach humility too!

  2. martijn moret May 6, 2009 at 11:21 #

    One more:

    Fly frisky weather: you can only know your limits and learn from it if you fly in other than CAVOK weather. So look for days that make you doubt whether to go up there: crosswind, rain showers, LowVis. Fly solo preferably or if you feel it might be just on or above your limits, bring a co-pilot or instructor.

  3. Matthew Stibbe May 6, 2009 at 11:39 #

    Martin – that's a very good point. It's much better to fly in marginal weather with an instructor than to encounter if for the first time as a newly-qualified PPL. As you say, you need to know where your limits are and perhaps push the boundary a little.

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