Top 10 Pilot Mistakes: the view from the tower

What are the top 10 pilot mistakes?

Ask any pilot or flight instructor and they’ll have their own lists. But what do air traffic controllers see as the biggest problems?

Controllers laid out what they think are the top 10 mistakes at this year’s AirVenture in a Letterman-styled list:

#10: Not Knowing Where You Are.

“You laugh, but it’s a real problem,” said Chuck Adams, a controller at Grand Forks International Airport (GFK) in North Dakota, as the crowd responded to the first mistake with laughter.

“Please pay attention to where you are,” Adams advised. “Situational awareness is imperative.”

That awareness begins on the ground, he said. If a controller tells you to go somewhere and you are unfamiliar with the airport, ask for help. Controllers are happy to give progressive taxi instructions or any other help you may need, he added.

9: Not listening before talking.

Adams noted that GFK is a busy tower with thousands of operations each day thanks to students from the University of North Dakota. “We’ll issue an IFR clearance and while we’re waiting for the read-back, a student will jump on the frequency and start talking,” he said. “Know your radio etiquette.”

8: Doing what you THOUGHT the controller wanted you to do.

“Never assume,” he said. “If there is a question about what we’ve asked you to do, say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t completely understand that.'”

But what about those intimidating controllers? “We don’t mind answering a question that’s important,” Adams assured the crowd. “Your safety is key — we’re a team.”

#7: Not using your full call sign.

“The more we can stick to standard phraseology, the less confusion there will be,” he said, telling the crowd about a Citation 10 pilot who, when asked to read back his full route clearance — which had been completely changed by ATC — responded only with TT, the last two letters of his call sign. “Give your full call sign, or at least shorten it to only the last three.”

#6. Not reading back instructions or incorrect readbacks.

“If I assign you a runway, I need you to read back the assigned runway and the hold short instructions,” Adams said. If you don’t, the controller will have to go back and get you to read them back, wasting time. Realize, also, that towers these days are filled with trainee controllers, who are being taught to follow exact FAA procedures, so they are going to require you to follow those procedures.

#5: Landing on the wrong runway.

As the audience of pilots could be heard murmuring “no one would do that,” Adams said “it happened this week.”

The best landing Adams said he ever saw was a student pilot who landed on the wrong runway at GFK — a runway where a Warrior had just been cleared for takeoff and another plane was on short final. “She landed in the opposite direction with a 25-knot tailwind,” he said. “She greased it.” She ended up pushing her plane to the taxiway to get out of the way of the Warrior that was taking off.

#4: The only thing you remember about ATIS is “Alpha.”

“All the pieces between ‘Alpha’ and ‘Alpha’ are not there,” he noted.

He told the tale of one pilot who didn’t listen closely enough to the ATIS — and ignored construction barriers — and made his way onto a taxiway where new concrete had just been poured. As his plane sunk into the soft concrete, he called the tower: “I think I have a problem.”

“It took three hours to get that plane out,” Adams said, shaking his head. “Listen to the entire ATIS. It has pertinent information in there.”

#3: Trying to think like a controller.

“This is a pet peeve with a lot of controllers,” he said, noting it is mostly regional airline pilots who do this.

Want to make a controller mad? Key the mic on your initial contact and say something like “I’m #4 in line, holding short of the runway and cleared for takeoff.”

#2: Believing you are No. 1 — and flying like you are No. 1.

Let the controller tell you where you are in the sequence (see #3).

#1: Not having a plan.

“Before you key the mic, know what you are going to say,” Adams said.

Practice beforehand. There are programs out there, including a seminar from AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation called “Say it Right! Radio Communication in Today’s Airspace” that will give you tips on how to talk to ATC.


Realize that controllers, like pilots, have different personalities. Some will want all five letters of your call sign, others will be happy with three. Give them what they want — don’t clog the radio arguing about it.

If you are told to call the tower after landing, listen to the controller’s tone of voice before going into full-scale panic. “Sometimes I just want to ask a question about the airplane,” Adams said. “But you also should realize that you’re probably not being asked to call the tower because you made an outstanding landing.”

Be patient. Realize that controllers are very busy, but they are aware of your presence and you will be answered.

Be concise. “We need certain information, but we couldn’t care less about your grandma’s maiden name,” he said. “We’re very good at training our new guys to say stuff by the book. By the book keeps everybody out of trouble.”

Be proficient in what you are flying. Be alert and be sharp.

Lastly, if you are in trouble, tell the controller. Safety is their No. 1 concern.


All controllers need is the Three Ws: Who you are, where you are and what you want to do.

To illustrate the point, controller Darren Gaines told the story of Bob, a student pilot on his first cross-country, who had been drilled by his CFI in the Three Ws. One night, while working the tower at Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio, Gaines hears this over the radio: “Akron Approach, this is Bob, I’m over my grandma’s house and I want to land.”

The controller, stifling a laugh, finds Bob on the radar and helps him get to the airport, ending their conversation with: “Bob, when you land, come on up to the tower and let’s talk.”

Eight years later, Gaines is working the tower around 11:30 p.m. with one regional jet in his airspace when he gets this call: “Akron Canton: This is Bob, I’m over my grandma’s house and I want to land.”

“Bob,” the controller admonished, “give the captain back the microphone and get back into your seat.”

It turns out that Bob had become an officer with Comair, proving that even a rough start in aviation can lead to high-flying career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *