After receiving my pilot’s license in 2015, my instructor told me that my first 150 hours of flight would be my safest hours.
At the time, I didn’t quite understand the logic behind the comment. How could I be at my safest as an inexperienced pilot with few hours? I think most people would argue that more time behind the yoke yields a safer pilot, but is that always true?
As I recently surpassed my first 150 hours, I began to think back on this topic again. Why would a pilot be less safe at 200 hours versus 100 hours?
On the ramp it’s easy to pick out the newly certificated pilot. This pilot is checking the air pressure in the tires, tapping on the muffler, putting three fingers in front of the nose wheel strut, swinging the ailerons back and forth, and you may even catch him looking at each rivet of the plane with a magnifying glass!On the other hand I’ve seen some seasoned pilots preflight very differently. They walk up to their plane, check the oil, look in a fuel tank, and by the time you can throw your hand up to say hello, the propeller is already spinning.
In retrospect, I did preflight differently as a new pilot. The process took me twice as long as it does now.
Though I am able to preflight faster now, I do not think this makes me a less safe pilot. I simply have a better flow, I understand my plane better and I can pick out potential problems more quickly.
As a new pilot I obsessed over things longer. A drop of oil on the ground would lead to a 15 minute “where did that come from” inspection. Nowadays, I expect to see a drop of oil on the ground and would be more alarmed if I didn’t see it.
Therefore it doesn’t matter if it takes you 10 minutes or 45 minutes to preflight. The goal is to be competent in preflighting and know what to look for.
It is also easy to pick out the newly certified pilot in the run up area, holding up traffic. I used to be guilty of losing my place on the checklist and having to start over because I thought I had missed something. Maybe it was overboard, but I wanted to err on the side of caution.
Meanwhile I would see the “experienced” guys roll up and be lined up on the runway in less than a few minutes. At the time I wondered if they had just become that efficient or if they had just become complacent as a higher time pilot.
As a newly certified pilot I was glued to my checklist. I started with the paper checklist and eventually moved to the iPad checklist. The iPad checklist was easier to use as I could check off each item as I went through the list and avoid losing my place.
I had a checklist for preflighting, run-up, take-off, cruise flight, landing, and so on. Going through each line item of the checklist usually took about 30 minutes but I was trained to use checklists so that’s what I did.
Then one day, my friend Arthur, a more experienced pilot, was with me in the cockpit. We were sitting on the ramp in the dog days of the Georgia summer heat as I went through my extensive checklist.
After about 10 minutes of sitting in the plane with sweat pouring down our foreheads, he gave me a time-saving secret that I have used ever since.
Instead of going through each line item of the checklist, he showed me how to do a flow and use the checklist as a reference. Basically for each phase of flight, I start at the bottom of the airplane panel and work my way up and across.
Using this method I have cut my time in half for takeoff. I am a lot quicker and more efficient, just like the “experienced” guys.
From a passenger perspective, I may have seemed like a more thorough pilot when I was going through each line item. However, I have found the flow technique to be more thorough and I am less likely to miss an item. I think the flow technique has made me a safer pilot compared to my old checklists.
So what factors could make me seem like a less safe pilot after 150 hours?
One thing that comes to mind is personal minimums expansion. When I was a new pilot, I would only fly if the sky was clear and the winds were calm.
As I gained more hours and experience, I slowly began to fly in more challenging conditions. The legs of my cross-country trips became longer. I flew into more and more unfamiliar airports. I flew into shorter, narrower, and even mountain airports.
During private pilot training, I thought I would never fly at night, but eventually I started flying at night. The natural progression of expanding my flight envelope seemed to peak around the 150-hour mark.
All of the factors came with a level of risk. Depending on your interpretation of skills versus risks, you could argue either point. I would like to think that I am a safer pilot due to the experience and skills I have acquired by challenging myself. In doing so, maybe I did open myself up to more risks than when I was flying in blue skies and calm winds.
For instance, I remember one of my first cross-country trips as a newly minted private pilot. I was flying to Jacksonville, Florida, when I opted to climb above a scattered layer of clouds. This was something I had never done before.
About 30 minutes away from my destination, I decided to descend below the scattered layer. Below the scattered layer, visibility was reduced significantly due to haze. At the time I thought I was flying into a layer of overcast.
I immediately requested a lower altitude, but ATC advised me that I could not go any lower due to the restricted area below me.
With my heart now pounding, I started going through my options. After requesting a weather advisory from ATC, they told me other planes were reporting scattered conditions above my current altitude. The view out of my front windshield didn’t seem to be consistent with what I was hearing on the radio.
The only option that made sense to me at the time was to get on the ground immediately.
Looking at my ForeFlight, I found a nearby airport right outside of the restricted area. I turned immediately for the airport and made a hasty landing.
Faced with similar conditions today, I would have reacted differently. I’ve learned to stay higher longer for better visibility and to descend when closer to the airport.
I am more comfortable flying in haze and better able to distinguish it from overcast.
So, on that day, I was the pilot who sought blue skies and calm winds and was ready to bail when the conditions changed. My inexperience led to undue stress and a hasty landing when the flight could have been completed safely.
On the other hand, the conditions could have easily worsened if I had pushed on.
Therefore, there is a thin line between gaining valuable experience versus being a risk taker. How you balance the two defines what type of pilot you are.
I think the key is in how you manage the risks. One way that I am managing my risk is by getting an instrument rating.
Having an IFR ticket would make me more comfortable in conditions that I consider to be close to my personal minimums with just a private pilot certificate. However, flying in instrument weather certainly comes with its own set of challenges and risks.
At over 200 hours, I believe I am a safer pilot than I was at 60 hours. I believe the 150 hour mark is not an actual number, but an ideological zone. It is the zone where we get complacent or take unnecessary risks. It’s the zone where pilots mistake luck for skills. It’s the zone where we get rusty from lack of flying. It’s the zone where we forget to practice emergency procedures.
No matter how many hours we have, we are all susceptible to being in the 150 hour zone.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you have 60 hours or 2,500 hours. It doesn’t matter if you fly in blue skies or dark skies.
What matters is that you know your capabilities and always remember that a pilot’s license is a license to learn. That is what yields a safer pilot.