Earning your Private Pilot License (PPL) is one of the biggest achievements many of us have done in our lives. You have spent many months of studying, flying, working hard and spending a lot of money to earn this little piece of plastic that says you can go fly. You walk out of the check ride, dripping with sweat and exhausted from the hard work and stress. Then you realize, no one really prepared you for what to do next.
Your License to Learn
Your Private Pilot License (ahem, certificate… We will cover that difference in another article) is nothing more than a license to learn. As cliche as it sounds, nothing is more true in Aviation; with only 40-60 hours of flight experience you still have a lot left to learn. So much so that we have started this blog to give you ideas of areas to focus on.
What to do on your first few flights?
The primary thing you should do on your first few flights is keep it simple! It may seem like nothing has changed since your last training flight to your first flight as a true Pilot in Command. In reality, you will be shocked at how different it really is. No one is watching over your shoulder to check that the flight you are about to do is safe, you are now making that call. Most likely all of your friends and family have been listening to your stories of earning your license and now are ready to go for a flight with you. This will be the first time you have a non-pilot in the right seat with you.
Here are some suggestions for your first few flights:
Change one thing at a time
Try and stay close to the same kind of flying that you have been doing in training. Keep using the same procedures, pre-flight and check lists that you used through training. When you take a non-pilot as a passenger, take them to one of the airports you flew to during your training, perhaps repeat one of your cross country flights. Slowly add new things and new airports to your list. If your first few flights are dramatically different than what you’ve trained on, you may find yourself over your head.
Limit your Passengers
Even if you had backseat passengers during your training, limit the number of people who fly with you. The airplane behaves differently when loaded at max gross weight. Work your way up to an Aft (but legal) CG and max gross weight. This recommendation comes from experience. My first flight as a PPL, I loaded three of my friends into a 172 and flew to an airport 55 miles away where I proceeded to bounce down the runway on landing. Although I was able to recover the landed and stop safely, it wasn’t until years later that I realized how wrong I was to attempt that flight.
Take a good friend and put them in the right seat and go repeat a mission that you have already done.
Brief your Passengers
You will quickly find out how much your CFI has been helping you even when he/she wasn’t touching the controls. Your passenger doesn’t know when to be quiet and when it is safe to talk. Before you get in the airplane, talk to your passengers and explain the radio communications that you expect to hear. If you are leaving from a Class D or Class C Airport set up a no talk zone. Also be sure to brief them on a hand signal (I just lift one finger into the air) of when you need them to be quiet so you can talk to ATC.
Passengers can quickly become a distraction while flying. They may be curious and ask questions, they may be uncomfortable or even scared. Your CFI knew what they were getting into when they stepped in the airplane with you, your passenger is blissfully unaware. Do the following to help out:
- Talk about the mission before you get into the airplane
- Involve you passengers in your preflight weather briefing, preflight check lists and talk through all of the steps you are performing. Not only will it help keep them calm by being aware of what is going on, but it will help you as a new pilot solidify the processes you were taught in training.
- Bring a large zip-lock baggie or some other “I’m sick containment device” and have it handy. Personally, I don’t tell my passengers that I have it because I don’t want them to be predisposed to thinking they might get sick. But if you look over and see them getting green, hand it to them.
- Give your passenger a “Job.” Ask them to hold your checklist or your Map. (Does anyone still use maps? Let them hold your iPad).
During the Flight
As we already talked about, your first few flights should be familiar to you. Give yourself a few familiar flights before you plan your first long cross country to a new place.
If your instructor had some limitations on you as a solo student in regards to weather or crosswinds… Keep those limits in place and slowly adjust those limits based on your experience. If you’ve been flying with a 5-10kts crosswind limit, try 12kts before you jump to higher. Every flight should slowly increase your limits and ability.
With your passenger riding along with you, keep talking to them. Tell them what you are about to do, do it, then tell them why you did it. Ask them to do simple things for you. Some good examples are:
- Turn on the fuel pump to change tanks
- Turn on/off the landing light
- Make a small power change from climb to cruise or cruise to descent
Best of all, let your passenger fly a little while in cruise. Many people ask, “Is it legal to let a non-pilot have the controls?” Short answer is yes, but you are ALWAYS Pilot in Command. As a new pilot, control the situation. Get the aircraft to cruise, trim the plane out and then let them fly a little bit. Have them make shallow turns and try to hold heading and altitude. If they go a little bit out of where you want them to be, take the controls back.
After you have landed have your passenger help you post flight the airplane, then ask them what they thought of the flight. Have them walk through the entire flight from the start to end telling you what they liked and what was scary for them. Use this feedback for future flights to do a better job briefing your passengers.
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Real World Examples of What Not to Do
Since I published this article, I have received lots of feedback and examples of what some pilots did on their first flight as a Private Pilot. I decided to share them here, including my own story.
I took off to the KRAS form KAUS on my 1st flight, proceeded to depart night VFR home into a very slight bit of overcast I didn’t know was forecast. Proceeded to fly under it at about 1200′ before realizing it was very thin and I could punch through. Looking back, not a very big deal, but it was to a 60 hour pilot!
I also got in over my head trying to land in Fredricksburg in a direct 18 kt xwind on a date. After 2 failed attempts I put my tail between my legs and we went to San Marcos….
On my first flight as a private pilot, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. So I loaded three of my friends up in the C172 I learned to fly in and went flying. I went to the same airport that I did a couple of my cross countries in. I guess between showing off and not really understanding how an airplane flies differently when loaded at Max Gross weight… I wasn’t prepared. I managed to bounce down the runway at my destination enough times to earn my passenger currency. Luckily I was able to salvage then landing. Knowing what I know now, I would have handled it much differently. Go around, less people, etc.
In your haste to show off to the buddies you brought to come flying with you, don’t forget to check the weather. For my second flight I took off from KAUS with a buddy (an AF instructor pilot at the time) on a severe clear Thanksgiving morning only to discover that Houston Executive was MVFR. We were able to find a hole over the airport and get below the clouds to a nice landing, but I was still shaken up at my oversight. My buddy was IFR rated and a skilled jet pilot, but didn’t know squat about programming a KLN 94. He was trusting me and since neither of us subscribed to an EFB at the time, we didn’t have readily accessible plates. I spent all of my Thanksgiving meal worried about how we were going to get out with the forecasted low ceilings, and we departed Houston earlier than planned. After that episode, I decreed that no private pilot license is complete without an instrument rating, and have been recalling the lessons learned from it to all my newly minted private pilot students ever since.