Lessons from a Ground School Instructor

Staying connected to former colleagues in the classroom

Aircraft screen
When it’s not ideal to be cleared for ILS 33L, maintain 180 knots until 5-mile final at KBOS.Flying Mag

The ILS 33L at Boston Logan Airport looked decidedly uninviting. The red echoes of rain straddled the approach course and the wind at 3,300 feet was close to 270 degrees at 39 knots, while the wind reported at the field was 350 degrees at 22 knots gusting to 30. The wind shift of 80 degrees was just part of the fun; the wet runway, heavy rain and congested traffic completed the diorama.

Instructed to maintain 180 knots, we could see the Southwest jet on TCAS, right in front of us at 5 miles. We couldn’t see anything but cloud out the window. First officer Rob, better known as “Slick,” completed the before-landing checklist callouts. Into the breach we did cavort.

Just as we entered the heavy rain, the controller noticed that the distance between the Southwest airplane and us had diminished to less than 5 miles. He couldn’t know that this was because of the wind shift and that we too would soon slow our path over the ground and a 5-mile separation would be restored. So, he called for us to go-around.

The new assigned heading took us into some nasty stuff. Rob, poised as ever, told the controller we couldn’t accept his offering. After some plea-bargaining, we got run back out for another try at the ILS. This time, we told the controller that we expected our groundspeed to decay as we entered the wind shift. It was unpleasant, but we landed without incident. There’s a reason this guy’s nickname is Slick. I called Rob’s father that night.

To his Dad, I said only this: “Your son is the best pilot I have ever flown with. He has amazing smoothness and great situational awareness. Let’s get dinner again soon.”

I had always enjoyed dinner with Rob Senior, sometimes called “Slick Senior” at our Part 135 company. Senior is a great raconteur and he’s a well-rounded airman.

Thinking back, our first dinner together was on the eve of my first flight as captain after finishing upgrade operating experience. At a fancy watering hole in Austin, Texas, Slick Senior had complimented me on upgrading. Despite the fact that he was typed in the DC-8, 9, 10 and 11 and the Boeing 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787, and I was a retired surgeon just recently come to professional flying with my trifocals, he was to be the FO the next day when we flew to Ohio. I protested, saying that my promotion was merely a matter of seniority not ability. He demurred. “No,” he said. “You deserve this.” I suggested we hail a waitress and describe our flying experiences and see whom she thought ought to be the captain. She picked Slick Senior.

Long before I upgraded, I learned another lesson in airmanship from a charismatic Englishman named Paul. Early in my days as a first officer, I watched with a mixture of awe and fear as Paul and I carried an elderly couple in a CJ3 from Boca Raton, Florida, to White Plains, New York — almost.

We knew the weather in New York was iffy and we knew we’d be pretty close on fuel when we got there. In my private flying life, I’d have never even thought about making this trip — no matter what the equipment — but now we were being paid to provide a service. Before we began the lengthy arrival to KHPN that can include a visit to the tip of Long Island before you get to head back toward New York, I picked up the latest ATIS, which proclaimed White Plains was, well, closed. The airport was below minimums and they were plowing snow. I knew we didn’t have fuel to loiter.

Trying to be helpful, I told Paul that the Albany, New York, weather was VFR and that we could easily get there with our fuel load. “What about Stewart?” he asked. I checked this New York airport and found it to be just above minimums. As a rookie, I was all for high tailing it to Albany, but Paul had more faith in us. “Yeah, but, listen, mate. These people are paying to get home, not to Albany. We shoot the approach and go missed and still get to Albany with reserves.”

We flew the ILS to minimums, got a limo for our clients and watched with satisfaction as a parade of diverting business jets landed behind us in a snowstorm, validating our decision-making. First in, first out, meant that we were deiced before anybody else and got to Philadelphia before I could even comprehend what expert situational awareness I had just witnessed. Get the job done, safely, Dick. Paul had confidence in us and the airplane.

Sometimes these stories give me renewed pleasure now that I am not flying professionally anymore, but what does this have to do with ground school? It has turned out that I do get to keep in touch with the company, JetSuite, where I get a chance to go to Dallas every so often to fill in as a ground instructor. Though nowhere near as much fun as flying, instructing has kept me in contact with some of my heroes and friends who still work there. Many others, of course, have gone on to airline jobs.

These days I show PowerPoint presentations and review our General Operating Manual and our Operational Specifications. I pass along our tolerance for snow — 1/2 inch wet; 2 inches dry — and what we need for a RVR 600 takeoff: two qualified crew, PIC has 100 hours in type, airport lighting (HIRL and CL), two RVRs and so on. Somehow, I don’t get tired of it.

Last winter, on a dreary Dallas weekend, the stars lined up. You couldn’t see any in the sky, but when I got the email about dinner, I knew somebody was looking out for me. When I got to the restaurant, I saw Slick Senior. He gave me a big hug and said, “They are across the street. There’s only beer and wine here. They’ve got a martini waiting for you.”

And so I dodged the Grapevine, Texas, traffic, found Paul and Slick Junior and had that martini. You know the kind of hugs we give, right?

Then it was back across the street to tell each of these stories again, along with Slick Senior’s ability to get a table at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami during high season with only 10 minutes’ notice. Aviation just keeps on giving that way.