Taking Wing: California Couch-Surfing

The first time I saw Brackett Field it was late afternoon and the airport was draped in the warm, languid light of a Los Angeles sunset. Lengthening shadows creased the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, unusually verdant after the winter rains. The other peaks that ring the LA basin were hidden in smog — though when it's so soft and pink in the still of dusk, you more charitably call it haze. The field had two parallel runways, east to west, flanked by neat rows of hangars. On the far end was a leafy park with a lake and a hillock crowned with big Spanish-style villas. Overlooking the north side was a whitewashed control tower, and to the south rose a large green hill with a driving range hidden among the cypresses. If I hadn't just walked through an industrial park, it would be easy to imagine this airport as it existed when it was surrounded by orange groves. It was beautiful.

I had nearly missed my stop; only seeing the control tower from the Metrolink alerted me to get off the train. I wasn't quite sure where to go from there, so I simply followed the airplane noise. This was a fairly half-baked plan, I had to admit. The flight school manager didn't know I was coming. I had emailed him a few days prior inquiring about doing CFI-I and multiengine instructor training once my TWA internship was over, and whether I might then secure a flight instructing position for the summer. His reply was detailed regarding the training but evasive about the job. At 19 years old and possessing more enthusiasm than experience, I took the aggressive approach and flew out to LA for the weekend. Now, as I paused along the airport fence, a Piper whirred overhead and floated down to a soft touchdown, silhouetted in the setting sun. I watched it taxi to a large tan hangar with dozens of aircraft parked out front. This, I decided, must be Air Desert Pacific.

I found Mark Webster in his cluttered office. An Australian with an unflappable temperament and a perpetually bemused smile, Mark ran ADP with his able wife, Noeleen. Our first meeting was short. He seemed completely nonplused that I had flown in from St. Louis and showed up on his doorstep unannounced. He scanned my resume for a few seconds, said "Yup, I think we have a place for you here," and asked me when I'd like to start the training. I told him in four weeks, once the internship was over. Mark wrote it down and then abruptly looked up and said, "You know, we've had instructors cause problems by refusing to fly certain planes. They're all perfectly safe, mind you; some of 'em just look a bit dodgy."

It seemed a strange thing to say. I guessed Mark was referring to my University of North Dakota background, assuming I was used to pristine late-model airplanes. I had already seen those in the fleet; they were a ragtag lot indeed, with faded and cracking paint, threadbare interiors and old analog radios. On the back lot a few planes sat forlornly on their tail skids, engines missing. Even more rusting hulks in various stages of salvage were stored in an impromptu boneyard alongside the hangar. But there were airplanes coming and going even at this hour. For a hungry new flight instructor who needed to build flight time above all else, this was a promising sign indeed. I would be perfectly happy to fly ugly airplanes.

Later on, I would find that Air Desert Pacific had a notorious reputation in southern California, and it was only partially due to the appearance of their airplanes. There had been a string of well-known crashes, several fatal. Local aviators darkly joked that ADP stood for "Another Downed Piper." However, the fatalities weren't really ADP's fault; all were pilot error accidents. ADP's specialty was accelerated training at rock-bottom prices, and this attracted both a certain clientele and rookie flight instructors like myself. The most recent wreck involved a student in a Seneca with a brand-new instructor on board; they lost sight of the airport during a circling approach at night and, rather than executing the missed approach, continued to blunder around in the murk until they struck the San Gabriel foothills.

I hadn't heard any of this when I hired on at ADP, but it likely wouldn't have made a difference. Like most young men that age, I had little sense of my own mortality, and with 250 hours and a fresh CFI license, I didn't even know what I didn't know. It is one of aviation's great ironies that many of those who teach our future pilots are those who themselves have the least experience. In a business with chronically tight margins, many flight schools choose to pay their instructors little money, essentially compensating them with the flight time they need to land a better-paying job. The result is a perpetually green instructor corps, and one that varies widely in motivation, knowledge and teaching ability. Time-building instructors have garnered a poor reputation throughout general aviation, but relatively few students have shown themselves willing to pay the instructor fees that experienced professionals charge. ADP paid new instructors $10 per hour and had no shortage of newbies like myself willing to work for such low pay. Some were good instructors — and some were not.

One month after the interview, I drove to LA in a rusting Oldsmobile carrying all my earthly possessions, which didn't amount to much. I didn't have any living arrangements when

I arrived. Initially I stayed at "The Residence," a chaotic hostel that catered to ADP's international students, especially a rowdy young group of Spaniards who enthusiastically maintained the late hours of their homeland. The partying didn't seem to ­affect their flying — they seldom walked through ADP's door before noon — but I wasn't getting much rest, so I looked for another place to lay my head. That's how I ended up sleeping on the couch at The Bachelor Pad, a two-bedroom apartment shared by several Israeli students, gregarious British instructor Dave, and Brent, a colorful local who sometimes manned ADP's front desk. It was dirty and crowded, but the lumpy couch cost only $150 a month, a SoCal bargain!

I immediately began training in the twin-engine Piper Seneca, of which ADP had 10. They were old and a few were pretty ratty, but they rented for an incredibly low $109 per hour. The two dozen Piper Archers and Warriors cost only $65 per hour. Scheduling was done in a gigantic ledger that lived on ADP's front desk. When students booked accelerated courses, Noeleen would pencil them in with an airplane and instructor for multiple two-hour blocks per day until their optimistically pre-scheduled check ride. The schedule lacked ­allowances for weather and maintenance cancellations, and for the longer blocks needed for cross-country flights. When students showed up for training, the very first thing their instructor did was attack the ledger with pencil and eraser to hammer out a workable training plan. Every time there was a delay or a plane broke, they'd again shift things around as best they could. More than once I witnessed flight instructors nearly come to blows when one caught the other rescheduling his student onto an airplane that had been offline for weeks. When all else failed, Mark or Noeleen could be called upon to sort out the chaos.

The CFI-I/MEI course was fast and furious, taking less than a week to complete. Like all of ADP's accelerated courses, advance preparation was the key to success. Students who showed up unprepared had zero chance of finishing on such an ambitious schedule. This was much different from the ponderous building-block approach at UND, where it took two semesters and far more money to earn a CFI-I and MEI. Likewise, whereas UND's curriculum and procedures were heavily standardized, ADP left both up to individual instructors. At the time I found the faster pace and greater freedom of Part 61 training to be a refreshing change. Over the summer I would come to see the downside of such a laissez faire approach.

On May 16, 2001, I passed the rigorous check ride with Norm Robinson, a local Designated Pilot Examiner with a well-earned "tough but fair" reputation. His parting words were "Be careful out there. Students will try to kill you, and you need to let them go just far enough to learn from it." As a new commercial pilot who had never held a flying job, and with all of 15 hours' experience in LA's congested airspace, swarming air traffic and mountainous terrain, I was suddenly deemed competent to instruct prospective private, instrument, commercial, multiengine, and even airline transport pilots. It would prove to be a frantically busy, occasionally frightening and often eye-opening summer spent teaching — and learning — in the sunny, hazy skies over southern California.

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Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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