tips and info

7 hard learned lessons most new pilots quickly learn from

Windsock with cloud backdrop

Currently, we are in the midst of a pandemic and us flying folk are grounded. If that’s what it takes to get through this as quickly as possible, then I’m all for staying in and residing to peering out the window … at this wonderful sunshine, we’ve had since lockdown began. I mean really? Was mother nature literally waiting to lift that horrendous winter just when she knew we couldn’t take advantage? Anyway.

If you are using this flying timeout to crack on with studies, get the exams done and so forth, well done – remember Matt and the team have lots more to offer for students in our member’s area. For those of you who have been cloud surfing for some time, perhaps this will bring back memories. If it does, I should very much like to hear about them please and perhaps publish them for the benefit of everyone, especially our newer pilots. We’ll keep them anonymous where you so wish but please, do share your ‘learned stories’. Send them through to tower at and Matt will send them onto me. If you’re happy to be identified, please include a chirpy image of yourself and you’re chariot to accompany it. Thanks!

Learning through experience

It is a mistake to think that your learning is complete once you have that converted licence in hand. In fact, I’m sure few would argue, this is where the learning begins. During your studies and training hours, you learn the fundamentals. You learn the basics, the minimum, the stuff that has to be known. What you don’t learn, is everything else! Once you start your solo career, that’s when the learning starts. Here’s a top 8 list of hard-learned lessons, most of us, experience during the first 100 hours of flying.

Weather learnings

According to EASA’s 2019 air safety report, ‘flight planning and preparation’ was the third biggest cause of air accidents next to stalls/spins in first place and loss of control second. It’s quite simple to connect the dots and see what significant part weather is likely to play here.

Ease safety report 2019 - identified safety issues
Source: EASA Flight Safety Report 2019

Apart from other aeroplanes, the weather is our biggest ally and our biggest enemy. It must be treated with the up-most respect. In a recent edition of Flyer magazine, I read an interview with a chap called Mike Dentith who flys a Boeing Stearman for Wingwalk Buzz and has over 5,200 GA flight hours. One of the questions he was asked was, “what’s the most valuable career advice you’ve had?”. In his answer, he quoted:

“There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots”.

He said this saying is very true and that the most threatening thing to his flying is bad weather. He says the best advice is that even if the weather isn’t terrible but only average and despite any personal or commercial pressures he will turn around.

I thoroughly respect that.

I’ve made the odd weather miss-calculation, the biggest one being documented here and that was made entirely due to a lack of pre-flight planning. I’ve since gone on two aviation weather school courses, highly recommended, to help my understanding of flying and invested in some additional reading including the very good ‘Understanding Flying Weather’ by Derek Piggott.

Anything I can do to understand the weather more intimately to stay safe and enjoy this hobby is a plus. I’ve also taken advantage of flying with more experienced pilots at our club to expand my experience and my own confidence in flying in different weather. Ultimately, having experience in flying in less than ideal conditions will make you more familiar and prepared for an occasion when you find yourself in it.

Weight learnings

In the microlight category for fixed-wing aircraft, our maximum allowed take-off weight is 450kg without the BRS recovery system (although I am looking forward to that hopefully changing to 600kg). This means that with pilot, passenger and fuel, that weight and balance sheet can be quite difficult to, erm, balance. Getting into the habit of checking that calculation before every flight is a legal requirement, but also simply good common sense. If you don’t appreciate what a difference weight can make to the handling of an aircraft, there are many reports available for reading that clearly state what difference it can make.

Like with most things involving experience, you get a ‘feel’ for it. For example, I know I can have two people in a C42 of 80kg with 30 litres of fuel and have a happy W&B calculation. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still check. Get into the habit before every single flight and it will become a habit. It’s also worth remembering the 90kg passenger weight limit too. There’s rarely aileron trim on microlights and having a weight bias toward one side will be noticeable in keeping the wings level and may have a significant impact in a stall condition.

Plus, as part of your NPPL skills test, you will probably be asked to demonstrate doing one before the check flight!

Fuel calculations

This one I find tricky sometimes. The POH (pilot operating handbook) will give you some fuel burn numbers, for example, an engine which burns 13 litres per hour. That means then, basically, if you have 26 litres of fuel, that’s about 2 hours flying, right?

Probably not.

Not all aircraft are made equally, or rather engines. I’ve been in aircraft which are the same age, have the same make of engine and the same model of aircraft with a similar configuration of weight to find fuel burn varies by 3-4 litres an hour. There are also many other factors that play a role too; wind speed and direction, air density, temperature, RPM and a bunch more.

Always add a safety margin. So if your aeroplane burns fuel at 13 litres an hour, base your calculations on 15 litres an hour. This way you’re covered for unforeseen circumstances like delays and re-routing.

When you are in the air, integrate a fuel burn check into your 15 minutes FREDA checks (fuel, radio, engine, direction, altimeter) or perhaps once every 30 minutes. If you know 30 minutes ago you had 25 litres in the tank and now you have just under 20 litres in the tank, fuel burn is around 6 litres every 30 minutes and likely 12 litres an hour. From there, you can calculate or get a logical idea of how much flight time you have left.

While you are flying if you happen to notice a problem, always turn back or find an alternative airfield that is closer. I had to do exactly that last summer. I had planned a flight around the Isle of Wight and back. I had completed a FREDA check just before crossing the Solent and noticed that my fuel burn was higher than I expected. I continued my flight to the Isle of Wight checking every 5 minutes. I was definitely depleting fuel quicker. After approaching Bembridge I had calculated that fuel burn was higher than usual. Based on how much I had left I knew I could comfortably make it back to Popham but only if I turned back now. So I turned around and on the way back I continued to monitor the fuel loss as well as keep an eye on alternative places to stop if the need arose. At 10nm or so from Popham, I noticed that the fuel burn had returned to normal. I landed fine but had cut my trip short. I put it down to not checking the spring-loaded fuel sump valve may have stuck open a little after fuel testing before flight causing fuel to dribble out. A bump may have been enough to knock it back into place on the return to Popham. Regardless, a few lessons learned!

Radio hick-ups

The radio is understandably a pretty scary bit of kit for some and you’ll make a fine collection of mistakes to be proud of. A beautifully illustrated video of a ‘radio hick-up’ can be found on our Facebook page, no idea who the plonker in it is though …

If you’re starting your licence be sure to get your radio licence as soon as possible. Sign up to AirBourne’s FRTOL course and you’ll get it done in two days, plus we have some other blogs including everything you need to know about the FRTOL.

The key is continuous and brave usage. Yes, you’re going to mess up sometimes but accept that and keep at it. Soon, you’ll be reeling off boundless taxiway instructions like a JFK ground controller!

Be prepared and have a clear idea in your head about what’s going to be said before you press the PTT button.

Another tip – always have a kneeboard and a pen/pencil in your hand. the many times I would send off a stunningly articulated basic service request only to completely miss the instructions that followed because I was fumbling around for a writing instrument.

Personal minimums

It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here.

This saying is so true. Set yourself personal minimums and never exceed them. Or if you do, do it slowly and stay close to the airfield. This is a system that works well. I originally set myself a personal minimum of 2000 feet cloud base, wind 12 knots and very good visibility. This allowed me to build my confidence and gradually reduce them. Before you know it, you’ll be incrementally enjoying a much more varied selection of flying, equally safe but more adventurous. The weather is variable though, right? A fine day may look great on the ground and look good on paper, but 500 feet up and turning south you can’t see anything under the nose because of the haze and suddenly you feel very uncomfortable. Play it safe and go back down. You could always ask someone with experience to come with you and help you get used to flying in the new conditions.

A hazy flying day

Going beyond your personal minimums is risky. Looking at the sky and the weather reports and just saying ‘it’ll be fine’ isn’t a good idea. As mentioned at the beginning and highlighted in the safety publication by EASA, the weather is something not to be messed with.

Saying no to flying

There are times when it’s hard to stay on the ground, even though the best part of you is saying you should. Listen to it. You know the scenario, you’ve invited friends along, you’re on the way or at the airfield and you realise the weather is no good for cloud surfing. So you’ve got to let everyone down.

No flying today

Saying no to flying sounds easy, but can be much harder in practice, especially if you feel under pressure. There’s always another day and ultimately, you won’t enjoy it knowing you’re taking a risk (no matter the size you initially perceive that risk to be!) anyway, so why do it?

Failures in the air (and on the ground)

At some point, something will go wrong. Hopefully, it will be something simple, like a popped fuse or something you missed on a checklist. Sometimes, just sometimes, something more serious happens. That’s where the essential training is done during the NPPL syllabus. Once you’re on your own, that’s where the practice needs to continue.

I make sure I practice all sorts of procedures every 3 months if possible. It’s very easy to do and absolutely important you keep on it to maintain solid airmanship.

You can dedicate an hour or two to doing them locally or integrate it into a flight between two places or even 20 minutes during a local leisure plod.

Here are some ideas for what to practice (but make sure to ask an instructor for their opinion too):

  • Engine failures & procedures
  • Lost procedure
  • Standard stall recovery (in various configurations, with power and without)
  • Practice forced landings

I also practice the following from time to time which is both fun and helps keep things challenging.

  • Climbing at a low speed
  • Descending at a low speed
  • Transitioning from climb to level to descending while maintaining a low speed
  • Maintaining height at a low speed

This will also help make those 2-year check flights far easier!

Slow flight practice
Practising flying at low speed while maintaining a set altitude.


Disclaimer: This article was written for information only and was up to date at the time of writing. Please always ask a qualified instructor for more information and discuss airfield operations and the use of aircraft equipment with a suitably qualified person.