No One Will Teach You To Be A Safe Pilot

Do you think flight training is about choosing a flight instructor and then sitting back while knowledge is stuffed into your head? If so, let’s clear out that head of yours right now.

In my book Flight Training: Taking the Short Approach, I suggest how to go about choosing a flight school, certified flight instructor (CFI), books, tools, etc. I won’t regurgitate here what I wrote there, because I always get myself into trouble when wrestling technologies as complex as copy & paste.

But there is one thing I will copy from the book, because I think it’s so important:

No one will teach you to be a safe pilot. No one will teach you to be a good pilot. The pilot you become will reflect the personal commitments you make.

So, given this, I must not think flight schools or their CFIs play much of a role in a student pilot’s success—good or bad, they’re all the same. Right? Let me put it this way: flight schools and CFIs come a dime a baker’s dozen, and far too many of these “baked goods” offer little more than empty calories.

Not to pick on schools and CFIs specifically, though, I actually feel this same way about books and other educational resources too. In fact, a CFI is nothing more than a single “book” in the arsenal of resources that will feed your aviation knowledge. Choose a good book and you’ll get a great read; choose a bad one, and you’ll waste time. Either way, if you decide to read only that one book, you’re seriously limiting your knowledge.

“Hi, I’m your surgeon. I’m going to do a great job today, because I once read about this surgery stuff!”

For serious subjects like staying aloft and staying alive, one must consult many resources before making that first “incision.”

But, how do you know what you don’t know, when you don’t yet know it?

Your CFI becomes your guide, but that’s really all. And, like any primer you might use to learn something new, you want to make sure it’s well written, in a language you understand, and it’s enjoyable to read. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time together.

In subsequent articles, I’ll discuss a number of the things that are probably on your mind with regard to your flight training, including:

  • What sort of flight school should I attend?
  • What should I consider when choosing my CFI?
  • Which books should I buy?
  • Which tools will I really need?

Don’t waste time and money on the things that don’t matter. Trust me, the things that do matter will cost you enough of both.

I would love to hear your comments. Write to me in the box below.

About David

David Diamond is a writer and 3D illustrator focused on aviation, who lives in Northern California. Visit his blog and portfolio at

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  1. Jeanne
    Posted April 10, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    “But, how do you know what you don’t know when you don’t yet know it?”

    That’s the question of the day. I would have loved having you as a student in my classroom, I think? Did you always ask such thought provoking questions? As I train for my private I am constantly thinking of what would I do if… This past week I was thinking about entering the traffic pattern and how I think that I know how I will be told to enter it as I return to the airport and then the thought entered my mind, what if it was different than I expected it to be, would I know where I should go? The last thing I want to do in the traffic pattern is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    I just received your book in the mail this week and I’m about half way through it. I appreciate your comments especially in the About Your Airplane section where you ask questions like…”What did the system do and how do I compensate for its absence?” I realized after reading that question that I needed more time on each of the systems. I now know after reading the portion on electrical systems to think twice about lowering the flaps for landing if my electrical system is failing or failed. It requires me to have a good landing the first time if I put the flaps down because I may not be able to retract them for a go-around if I need to if the battery is dead.

    Thank you for adding your book and blog to the “arsenol of resources” of aviation knowledge. They are both great reads and well worth the time spent reading them. It really is up to us to become a safe pilots and I want to make sure that how I fly doesn’t make it unsafe for another pilot by making poor choices or cutting corners.

  2. David Diamond
    Posted April 13, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment, Jeanne! And thank you for buing and reading “Short Approach.” I’m really happy to hear what little tidbits you’re taking away from it. This is exactly what I was hoping for while writing it. Things like the use of flaps after an alternator loss are things not always mentioned to students, largely because a CFI can’t account for absolutely every possibility. But when I instinctively lowered them and heard the motors grind to a premature stop, I knew that landing had to work, because there was no go-around. So, today, when I do pattern work, I always do no-flap landings, just to remind myself they are always an option.

    Regarding my behavior in school: Yes, I always challenged my teachers. Some of them responded favorably, but not always. 😉 You know, as I look back now, I think the ones who were okay with it were the ones who were teaching from the heart, and not from a lesson plan.

    Also, it’s funny you mentioned the traffic pattern, because that was another one I argued with my CFI no end. I know we’re supposed to enter on a 45 degree angle to join the downwind leg. And they tell us this, because they say it offers us complete visibility of other aircraft in the pattern.

    Blah, blah, blah…

    But what about a 45-degree entry to base? I always imagined if I approached the downwind/base “corner” on a 45-degree angle and then just turned slightly to join the base, I’d have fewer turns to deal with, I’d keep the pattern free of “unnecessary” traffic, and I’d have a frontal view of the entire pattern for the entire approach.

    And you know? To this day, no one has been able to explain to me exactly why that’s not a good idea. Sure, there are a few obvious concerns:

    1. Other pilots don’t expect you to enter the pattern that way.
    2. The pattern, itself, is a sort of “protected” airspace around the airport, so you know you can fly it safely.

    But #1 we could work on and, as for #2, I would still feel safer making a head-on approach to an airport area than to perhaps have to overfly the field, and turn into the pattern right after I’ve executed a massive turn to establish myself on the 45 for downwind.

    Call me crazy, but had I been in the FAA boardroom when that rule was defined, I would have set down my doughnut and made a fuss!

  3. Jeanne
    Posted April 13, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Just got home from spending the morning at the airport. It always feel so illegal to not be at work on a workday. But hey I work six days a week and a lot of evenings, got to fly sometime. I know I liked my teaching schedule a whole lot better than this owning your own business stuff.

    I just finished your book last evening. I’m thinking about a lot of things in different ways since I read it. I can’t wait for your next book. This morning I practiced crosswind landings with my instructor. I felt like I was learning everything all over again. Its been almost two weeks since I’ve flown. After about 1 hour he asked if I felt up to doing some soloing again. I said sure. I went up and did 4 take offs and landings and they went alright. I parked it because I thought I was out of time and he met me at the plane and said you know if you take it back up for 2 more we can cross that off your list of things to do. So I did. Wouldn’t you know after a morning of left traffic pattern the tower calls right traffic for me. Okay, I guess I need practice on right turns as well. Midfield downwind they clear me to land 2nd behind a Mesaba. I do not like wake turbulance or the threat of it so I extended my downwind quite a ways and then turned base and then final and landed good but not great. Now where was it that Mesaba landed?? Am I above its glide path???

    Remember my comment about where I should be in the traffic pattern? When I landed my CFI said where did you go?? I saw you and then you disappeared. I said I went downwind farther so I wouldn’t get close to the Saab and he laughed. I asked him what would he do-He said extend his downwind if he wasn’t comfortable with the separation. Well, I got to get to work to pay for flying. Thanks again for the new perspective. For the record, I like students who made me think about what and how I was teaching. I used lessons plans as a guide but there is so much you can learn and teach from students questions.

  4. Jeanne
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about yesterdays discussion about the traffic pattern while I was driving this morning. I don’t know when the traffic pattern rules were set up and why but I think the FAA might have a little insight to human behavior. If the easiest and fastest way to do something is available, everyone will want to do it that way.

    Take for example, merging traffic on the freeway, if everyone takes turns like teeth on a zipper to merge then it goes fairly well and traffic keeps moving. If on the other hand someone speeds past others to merge well ahead of others so they can merge farther up the line then things slow down. A couple of years ago I saw a TV interview of a women who had done just that in merging traffic, raced ahead of everyone else. When the interviewer asked her why she essentially butted in line ahead of everyone else her answer was “She has a husband and children to get home to and her time is valuable with them.” The interviewer asked her “What about all the other people you just passed trying to get home to their families? ” She just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. She obviously felt her family was more important than the other people with whom she shared the road and so her actions were justified in her mind.

    What’s this got to do with the traffic pattern? I think it is where the FAA rule for right of way for landing comes from. You can not use the rule for right of way to your advantage and overtake another plane or drop to a lower altitude to “beat” someone for a turn to land. Maybe pilots are better behaved in the air than drivers are on the road. I don’t have enough experience in the air to have an opinion at this point in time.

    I know this isn’t an answer as to why but just a different way of looking at it.

  5. David Diamond
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Jeanne, you need to run for office! “Doing the right thing” often falls by the wayside when we imagine there’s benefit in doing something else. Your traffic-merge example is a good one, but pattern entry is too.

    There’s an airport near my home base (OAK) called Half Moon Bay (HAF). Because of hills on one side, and the ocean on the other, a straight-in approach to this un-towered field’s massive runway is so alluring! (The runway parallels the shoreline.) I often find myself approaching the field knowing that I could be on the runway in no time if I just did the straight-in. And I must confess, each time I radio in and hear no one else in the pattern, I’m tempted.

    But I have not ever done it. I have seen other pilots do it; but for me, the perceived benefit far outweighs the actual benefit: I’m either on the ground in 2 minutes via the straight-in, or I’m on the ground in, maybe, 5 minutes, by “doing the right thing.”

    But the main reason I won’t take the straight-in?

    For exactly what you mentioned: If everyone plays by the rules, the rules tend to work better. When things go wrong, it’s often because someone didn’t play by the rules. And if we need to change the rules, how will ever know if no one is playing by them?

    I also won’t walk across an intersection when the light’s red. You should see how this infuriates my San Franciscan friends, many of whom don’t even notice lights to begin with until I stop at them, like a stubborn puppy who plops down, reusing to be lead on a leash. 😉

  6. Jeanne
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    No political aspirations here. I’m the daughter of a state senator(14 years) and wife of a school board member(15years) besides too many skeletons in my closet to run for political office. Try teaching in a school where your husband is on the board at teacher negiotations time or attending high school when all your friends have to walk by yard signs with your name on them because your dad is running for political office and all you want to do is disappear.

    As a student pilot I like that there are rules for the traffic pattern as well as other areas. I’ve got too many things to think about without having to worry about the traffic pattern. At this point in time I’m pretty confident about where I should be around my airport and others near by. I like that the rules apply basically the same at other airports with the exception of noise abatement plans for different airports. Maybe when I have more hours in the air and have been different places I will feel that some rules are ridiculous or antiquated but for now they make me feel safe.

    I love the visual image I have of you sitting curbside refusing to cross the road. We’re pure country here. Upsala, MN is a town of 424 if you enter from the north or population 400 if you enter from the east. Garrison Keillor would have a field day with that. We don’t live far from his fictional Lake Woebegon. No traffic lights here or Starbucks.

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