The Day I Became A
“Pro” Pilot and Knew It All…”

By Gary Reeves, ATP, Master CFI, CFII, MEI


I’m a master instructor, ATP, and national public speaker with over 6,000 hours. I’m so good at IFR, I have people from all over the country come to train with me. They all say how good I am and I started to believe them! Have you ever noticed, when you start to “get good” at flying, reality likes to step in to smack you in the head? One Saturday morning, I had planned an easy IFR flight from Long Beach (KLGB) to Santa Rosa (KSTS). My airplane is a very well-equipped Cessna 206 with a Garmin 430W, Garmin 300, and an iPad wíth ADS-B and AHRS. It is a nice stable platform to make an easy three-hour trip in. My clearance was exactly what I filed with the standard, “Climb 3,000 expect 8,000 in 10 minutes” that I get every time.

After departure, I was told to proceed direct to the LAX VOR and expedite climb to and maintain 6,000. That seems pretty easy, hit direct to on the GPS and trim for 1,000 FPM and sit back with my sugar-free energy drink. It was a very peaceful morning until SoCal Approach yelled at me for being at 7,000 feet and climbing into the flight path of a B737 restricted above me. Whoops! Power back, nose down, and mumble “Sorry. Correcting” into the mic. How did I miss such a simple thing?

There are two reasons I blew through my assigned altitude: Expectation bias and complacency. Expectation bias is common to all pilots, beginner and “pro.” Nearly half of all general aviation accidents are caused by loss of control in flight1 and complacency is a factor in LOC.

Expectation bias is when your mind follows an established pattern, habit, or what it expects, rather than what you should do. I filed my flight plan for 8,000’, I had received 8,000’ in my clearance, and I had always been told to climb 8,000 on the other times I flew this route. I heard the controller say 6,000 and I acknowledged 6,000, but my brain was fixed on 8,000. Think about when you fly into your home airport and every time you enter the pattern you fly left traffic. It’s all fun and games until the one time a controller asks you to make right traffic and you enter left traffic by habit cutting off another airplane. This is normal and happens to everyone because the human mind will fight to stay with and follow familiar patterns.

Complacency is the repeat offender of aviation mistakes. It sneaks up on you again and again. A good early warning sign is when my headset starts to feel tight from my swollen head and ego. The first time it happened to me I had 300 hours and was a “pro” commercial pilot. I couldn’t figure out why the airplane wouldn’t taxi out from the tie downs. I kept adding power and it still wouldn’t move. Hint, “tie downs”, I was so good I didn’t use the preflight checklist and forgot to untie the tail. The next time it happened, I was a “pro” CFI with 600 hours. While trying to teach a student pilotage, I actually taught him how to violate class Bravo airspace, by not using a map. How could a “pro” ATP with 2,000 hours enter a hold on the non-protected side? It’s not hard to do when you start to relax when it becomes easy.  Take a moment and review the numerous articles that highlight the dangers of complacency, in general aviation as well as commercial. Chief among them is the NTSB “Most Wanted List” which calls out complacency as just one factor that contributes to loss of control.1

Expectation bias and complacency are easy things to prevent if we stick with the basics, follow checklists, and stay focused. Maybe I can relax when I become a real pro pilot with 10,000 hours. What are the biggest mistakes you made when you became a “pro”?


Gary Reeves is an ATP, Master CFI, CFII, and MEI. A well-known national speaker, he has over 7,500 hours and is the 2019 FAA National Instructor of the Year.  In addition, he has issued over 10,000 FAA Safety Wings Credits. Gary is also the only Avidyne and Genesys (S-TEC) National Training Provider. As the top national expert in Single-pilot IFR he offers Master Video Training courses for autopilots, GPS (Avidyne and Garmin), ForeFlight and, Single Pilot-IFR. For the few pilots that really want to fly at the Mastery level, he offers 3-day Mastering Single-Pilot IFR programs both in Texas and private classes wherever the owner/pilot lives. For more information please visit <>  and <> .

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