You’re Doing WHAT? – Part 1 of 2

by Woody Minar
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2018 issue

There’s a common theme among pilots – we love to fly and we have a desire to improve our skills regardless of our experience or certificate level. After all, we tend to be Type A people who are goal and mission oriented. Whether it’s conducting initial training, flight reviews, insurance checkouts, endorsement or upgrade training, or routine tune-ups, there are some common widespread themes among pilots that become pet peeves of flight instructors and air traffic controllers around the country.

When I started to think about my pet peeves, I contacted several controllers and flight instructors in a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) discussion group on Facebook and I posted that I was writing an article on the subject and requested their input. Inside of three days, I had more than 300 responses! I’ll review a few of the more common pet peeves.

Be Prepared – “Joplin Tower, uhhh, Skyhawk 12345 at, uhhh, ABC Flight School with ATIS Information Zulu, and we are ready to taxi to, ummm, Runway 36 for, uhhh, departure to the east, no, sorry, west Skyhawk 12345.” How many of us have heard that? Controllers are very patient people when it comes to student pilots, as well as seasoned pilots with poor communication skills. Controllers tell me to “be prepared as to what you are going to say so you don’t tie up the frequency.” Write it down if you have to. Who you are; Where you are; What you want to do. Being prepared will also help with the nervousness.

Have a mental picture of who is in the traffic pattern. Oftentimes an aircraft will be on short final and another is at the hold short line, and the pilot who is ready for takeoff announces, “Joplin Tower, Skyhawk 12345, at 36, ready for departure.” Knowing that an aircraft is on short final, you know that the tower is going to come back with “Skyhawk 12345, hold short Runway 36,” so why not wait until the aircraft has landed, then make the call. It saves unnecessary transmissions. It’s all about situational awareness. Whether you’re on the ground or in the air, listen and get a mental picture of who’s coming in, who’s in the pattern, and even who’s taxiing. Know what’s going on around you. This also applies to non-towered airports. Finally, have you ever heard someone calling in asking what the active runway is? If they would listen to AWOS and listen to the traffic in the pattern, they would know.

Ground Distractions – The pilot religiously performs the checklist item by item and when the AWOS is tuned and the report is broadcasting, the pilot continues the checklist. Meanwhile, the instructor has heard the AWOS recording four or five times. Oh, and the checklist will be completed and the pilot will start taxiing with the AWOS still blasting away. “Uh, were you aware that the wind changed directions several times and we have to change runways?” “Huh?” Because there isn’t total attention to the task at hand, these distractions result in missed checklist items, missed radio calls, inattention to the adjacent aircraft, or a runway incursion. One task at a time!

The Taxi – Controller: “Taxi to Runway 21 via delta, alpha, cross 36 on alpha.” Pilot: “Taxi to Runway 21 via delta, alpha, cross 36 on alpha.” Wrong! It drives controllers nuts when the tail number isn’t used; it’s as if the pilot said nothing and the controller is required to repeat the request. A full read back for taxi instructions is now required. The tail number must be read back on every transmission. Be prepared and write down the taxi instructions. If you don’t understand an instruction, something doesn’t make sense, or you become unsure if you can cross a runway, ASK the controller to repeat. Controllers are human and sometimes they make mistakes. It could save a runway incursion or worse.

How many times have you had someone block the runway entrance doing a runup, programming the radios and GPS, and picking their nose while blasting those behind them? Do this out of the way of others. Be aware of your surroundings and be courteous. When taxiing off the runway, announce “Clear of the active runway.” What if there are two active runways? It’s helpful to state the runway you just left: “Clear of Runway 35.” Also, when taxiing across a runway, “Experimental 12345, crossing 35 at Charlie.” No one other than this pilot knows where Charlie is. Try saying “…crossing threshold of 35…” or “…crossing mid-field of 35…” Everyone knows where that is.

High-wing aircraft are susceptible to winds and the ailerons can flop up and down and break your hand if you’re hanging on too loosely. Too many pilots taxi with their hand off the yoke or don’t understand which way the ailerons should be positioned when taxiing. A good way to realize wind direction is to note the wind direction on the directional gyro (DG). The aircraft will rotate around the DG and it takes out the guesswork of aileron position. The 90-degree tick marks on the DG are an aid to aileron directional control.

Riding the Brakes – “I know this is a flight school plane, but it still costs money to maintain. You can ride the brakes if you want, but the rates are gonna go up.” I constantly see (and feel) the pilot adding power and applying more brake while taxiing and the cycle continues until there’s full power and full brake – well, almost. Then comes the takeoff and the pilot is riding the brakes. The pilot can’t feel it, but the passenger (me) feels like I’m being whiplashed back and forth with a student driver learning to use a clutch. Use just the right amount of power and brake for a smooth taxi and no brakes on the takeoff roll. The heels should be on the floor and toes down low.

Air Distractions – Whether a pilot is in training or a seasoned pilot who is airport hopping on a nice day, GPS and radio programming is necessary. Most pilots program the equipment on the ground. For some, “it’s just as easy to do it in the air.” As a result, the pilot is usually seen manipulating and staring at the equipment for minutes on end without even a glance outside. “Uh, did you see that King Air dodge us?” “Huh?” And let’s not forget about glass panels! They’re more fun to watch than the boring sky ahead of us that is full of aircraft. How about listening to AWOS when just entering or actually in the pattern? This distraction should be avoided at this time because the pattern is one of the highest risk times of flight. Obtain and memorize AWOS before entering the airport environment and keep looking outside the cockpit. A complaint by CFIs is hearing a pilot say, “requesting airport advisories” on UNICOM. Instead, listen to AWOS and monitor the UNICOM frequency.

Not All Pattern Altitudes Are Created Equal – Pattern altitudes are there for a purpose—to protect you from people coming in for crosswind or maneuvering traffic, and not all pattern altitudes are 1,000 feet. Doing some research in the Chart Supplements (formerly Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD)), it didn’t take me long to find non-standard pattern altitudes.

For example, Maple Lake (KMGG) northwest of Minneapolis is 800 feet AGL, and Albert Lea (KAEL) in southern Minnesota is 740 feet AGL. Hayward Executive (KHWD) near Oakland, California, has a 600-ft pattern altitude for 10R-28L, while 10L-28R is 800 feet! Ferguson (near Pensacola), Florida (82J), has a mere 500-ft pattern altitude. My home airport in Osceola, Wisconsin (KOEO) is 1,000 feet AGL, but glider pattern altitudes are 700 feet AGL. This difference should be obvious – airspeeds. There are other reasons for variations in pattern altitudes. Be prepared and be where you’re supposed to be.

Having said this, Advisory Circular (AC) 90-66B dated March 13, 2018 is worth reading. Recommended pattern altitudes are 1,500 feet AGL for large and turbine-powered aircraft, 1,000 feet AGL for normal general aviation aircraft, and 500 feet below powered aircraft pattern altitude for ultralights. Gliders are generally 200 feet below normal general aviation aircraft. These standards were detailed in a recent change to the Aeronautical Information Manual. The bottom line, check the Chart Supplements for the airport into which you are flying. Look, see, and avoid.

To be continued.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Woody Minar is a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), and a Master CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G, ASEL/ASES/AMEL/AMES based at Osceola Municipal Airport (KOEO) in Osceola, Wisconsin. Mr. Minar was the 2012 Flight Instructor of the Year for the Great Lakes Region and the FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year for the Great Lakes Region in 2013. Email:

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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