An Aviation Mentor

It’s important to have one whether you’re a new pilot or an experienced one.

Mentorship can take place on trips to new airports—such as in the Bahamas, perhaps? Courtesy John Zimmerman

“We’re landing there?!” I shouted to my copilot. The narrow strip of pavement—runway is too strong a word—didn’t look like it could possibly handle our mighty Cessna 310, and yet, there we were on short final, just a few hundred feet over the turquoise water of the Bahamas. The only reaction from the right seat was a gentle nod, so we continued. The landing turned out fine—ahem, on second attempt—but the experience was like nothing I had seen before.

More than 20 years after that “guys flying trip” through the Caribbean, I can still picture the view out the front of that 310. More important, I can still remember some of the lessons learned. My companions were all multi-thousand-hour pilots with diverse flying backgrounds, and I received a priceless education over the course of that long weekend. Most of what I knew about flying were S-turns and wind-correction angles; these guys knew short-field landings, thunderstorm avoidance, flight-planning hacks, customs procedures and more. Even casual conversation contained valuable insights on flying in the real world.

There was certainly no syllabus there—lessons were delivered over grouper sandwiches, and our itinerary was determined by when we had our first piña colada—but it was a better flight school than any airline academy could offer. By the end of the trip, I could even tell a reasonably good flying tale (something I quickly realized was almost as important as making a good landing).

It’s easy to get nostalgic about such trips, but I really do believe this is the most overlooked part of flight training. Flight schools do a fine job of helping students pass the FAA tests, but they usually stop at the check ride. We love to recite the cliché that “a private pilot certificate is a license to learn,” but we rarely talk about how to seek that extra learning.

The best way to learn beyond the license is to spend time with other, more-experienced pilots. Whether you call it mentoring, initial operating experience (as the airlines do) or just hangar flying, this transfer of knowledge from old to young should be a deliberate part of your training plan. It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, but no matter the situation, it’s valuable to have someone you can fly with—left seat or right—to see unique airports, experience challenging weather and gain perspective.

As the Bahamas example shows, step one is to find a mentor who will push you outside of your comfort zone. I know too many 500-hour pilots whose personal minimums haven’t changed since their student days. That conservative mindset may seem like a smart move, but it can reduce fun and utility if taken too far.

This doesn’t mean you should find a daredevil and go penetrate a thunderstorm, but it does mean you should be open to slightly uncomfortable situations. If your crosswind limit is 15 knots, find a pilot to ride in the right seat while you see what 25 knots feels like. If you’re instrument-rated and have never flown an approach to 300 feet, go try it with a safety pilot. Otherwise, you either won’t expand your capabilities or you’ll do it by yourself someday, potentially with dangerous results.

A mentor is also valuable for delivering a reality check when you’re headed for a bad decision. But, remember, the reality check works both ways: Your decision-making process might be too cavalier (the typical example), but it also might be too conservative. A mentor can recognize a mismatch between skills and confidence, something that an anonymous user on an online forum can’t do.

Not all mentors are nice, which is why they aren’t called “friends.” The copilot for that landing in the Bahamas went on to be my instrument instructor, and while it’s no exaggeration to say his teaching saved my life, he also put me through the wringer. I heard others call him old-school. I certainly thought so one day in eastern Kentucky, when, 10 minutes after takeoff from an airport in the mountains, he keyed the mic and told ATC to cancel our IFR flight plan. I hadn’t flown the departure procedure correctly, and he was going to make an impression. We turned around, descended and parked at the FBO—with me stewing the whole time (definitely no grouper sandwiches or piña coladas this time). It was a little over the top, but I’ve never forgotten how important it is to fly the obstacle departure procedure in the mountains.

So, how do you find a mentor? This takes some work and some gumption. The best mentors I’ve had over the years didn’t think of themselves as one, and they didn’t exactly go around handing out business cards. It helps if you have a pilot in the family (thanks, Dad), but often relatives teach different lessons than other pilots.

Start hanging around the airport, whether it’s attending pilot meetings or just spending a few moments on the front porch of the FBO. See who’s doing your type of flying and who has a personality that is a good fit for you. Don’t pick the loudmouth or the know-it-all; pick the one with relevant experience and a good reputation.

Then find some way to be helpful. Don’t just ask for free advice; volunteer to clean the airplane, serve as copilot on an upcoming trip, or assist with some other task. In addition to being polite, this is also a great way to learn some new skills.

It’s not all on the new pilot. More-experienced pilots need to do a better job reaching out. Invite a newer pilot on a trip, provide suggestions, or simply answer the text when someone asks for advice. You don’t need to fly to the Bahamas to make a lasting impact.

This story appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

John Zimmerman grew up in the back of small airplanes and moved to the front at age 16. He flies a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44.

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