Taking Wing: Frozen at the Controls

** With proximate high terrain, complex surrounding
airspace and plenty of air traffic, Brackett Field was
a challenging place to start out as a young CFI.
(Photo by Stuart Stein)**

The Los Angeles basin stretches a hundred miles from the sparkling Pacific to the scrub-brush slopes of San Jacinto Peak. This sprawling plain of concrete and stucco is further bounded by the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and the Santa Anas to the south; these ramparts encompass 18 million souls and all the associated detritus of modern civilization. Surrounded by sea and desert, the metropolis is a self-contained universe with aqueducts, power lines and interstates fanning out beyond like life-sustaining roots. Occupying such an isolated corner of the continent, LA is heavily dependent on air travel and has been a hotbed of aviation from the beginning, once boasting such storied names as Douglas, Lockheed, Northrop and Hughes. The aerospace industry spawned southern California's famous car culture, as well as a sport aviation craze that sprinkled the basin with airports big and small. More than 30 remain despite endlessly encroaching development, from funky little Flabob to bustling Van Nuys to heavy-metal behemoth LAX.

Brackett Field, my home airport as a new flight instructor, lies on the northern edge of the basin, deep within the shadow of 10,000-foot Mount Baldy. It is nestled under Ontario's Class C airspace; to the southwest the LAX Class B rises abruptly over Interstate 10. Chino and El ­Monte, both towered airports, border Brackett's own control zone. West and south, Burbank and Orange County merit additional Class C complexes. Confined by the terrain and funneled via the complex airspace, an astonishing quantity and variety of air traffic transits the area: trainers, homebuilts, warbirds, helicopters, corporate jets, traffic spotters, banner towers, mosquito sprayers, gliders and even hot air balloons and sky divers. The terrain and traffic are both frequently obscured because the basin traps moist ocean air and pollutants alike in a semipermanent inversion, creating conditions varying from thick fog and low overcasts to smog or haze. This was the environment in which I, at 20 years old and 250 hours with a fresh CFI ticket, was given a full slate of student pilots and entrusted with their safety and education.

Apart from the unique challenges of flying in SoCal, flight instructing is a demanding, sometimes dangerous gig, and there is a steep learning curve for newcomers. As the examiner who signed my CFI-I/MEI ticket warned me, students try to kill you with alarming regularity. I didn't have to wait long to find this out firsthand. In my very first hour of instruction, I gave a mock PPL checkride to a young Egyptian named Said who seemed to be suffering an acute case of checkride nerves. He kept flaring way too high, so on our fifth landing I got on the controls during the flare. "Fifteen feet, 10, five," I counted down, "OK, now land!" As soon as I removed my hands, Said hauled back viciously on the controls, instantly ballooning the PA-28 skyward. "My airplane!" I yelped, firewalling the throttle and pushing the yoke forward. The stall horn blared and the wings rocked menacingly; I couldn't figure out why the nose wouldn't come down until I glanced over to find Said's hands still locked on the yoke, his face contorted in fear. He was unresponsive to my shouts until I swatted him across the shoulder; then he gasped in shock and let go. We mushed down the short runway and gained just enough speed to clear the brush at the end.

This was a small taste of things to come. My first multiengine student, for example, attempted to crash twice in the space of five minutes, putting the airplane in an unusual attitude in IMC and then aggressively diving below approach minimums in close proximity to high terrain! Making mistakes is an inevitable (and invaluable) part of learning. Flight instructors must learn to let their students make mistakes, while developing the judgment to intervene before the situation gets too dangerous. They must remain continuously alert, while outwardly appearing to be relaxed and confident in their student. They must adjust to cultural and language barriers, and the inevitable fact that a noisy, jostling light plane makes a poor classroom. They must sense when their student is becoming overwhelmed or fatigued and then lend a helping hand, while otherwise resisting the impulse to take control. Likewise, words must be chosen wisely and used discreetly, because unclear or excessive advice is often worse than none at all. These are all essentially people skills that are starkly different from the flying skills that a new instructor has previously relied upon. These aptitudes seldom come naturally; they develop over time, and at first many instructors struggle to find the right balance. I freely admit that I made a lot of missteps as a rookie CFI, and that students suffered as a result of my inexperience. I learned, though. Not all instructors do.

Some of my foibles involved embarrassingly basic airmanship. About a month after I started I gave a renter a PA-28 checkout, which always included high-altitude landings at Big Bear City, elevation 6,752 feet. At the last minute my student was assigned a 160 hp Piper Warrior, instead of the 180 hp Archer I had been cautioned to take to Big Bear. It wasn't too hot out, though above ISA, and by interpolating off the chart I talked myself into believing we would have positive climb performance. In fact, the takeoff run was excruciatingly long, and then the airplane refused to climb above 10 feet. We struggled over power lines a half-mile past the end of the runway, and then flew the length of Big Bear Lake in ground effect. We narrowly cleared the dam at the western end of the lake and flew down the canyon to San Bernardino. It was a really stupid flatlander mistake, and I should have known better.

Though I probably should have, I never felt terribly threatened by my students' mistakes or my own stupidity, because there was a much more obvious danger: the risk of a midair collision. There are only a few uncontrolled areas around LA that are suitable for use as practice areas, and back then there were a lot of training airplanes using them. Near misses were an everyday occurrence. I counted 15 very close calls the first summer, which I defined as "close enough to scare me." The worst was a Piper Arrow that flashed by in the middle of a steep turn, a half-second ahead. Even filing IFR was no panacea; one day while cruising along V186, a much slower C-150 climbed out from under our cowling. After an aggressive dive to go under him, my pointed query to SoCal Approach was met with the bored reply, "Numerous VFR targets in the vicinity, maintain visual separation." My worst fears were realized that November, when two training aircraft collided over the Long Beach Harbor practice area, killing all four aboard. After that the FAA finally published official practice areas and frequencies on the terminal area chart, and close calls became much rarer.

That first summer, though, I was so busy that I had little time to dwell on the danger. From the very start I had a full schedule and was teaching from sunup to sundown, and sometimes well after. I went seven weeks without a single day off, scarfing down vending-machine lunches and getting what little sleep I could on the lumpy couch of my chaotic bachelor pad. When I finally took a weekend off to fly home, my roommates borrowed my decrepit Oldsmobile, overheated it, and blew the head gasket. With no money for repairs, I began rollerblading the 2 miles to work. One day I arrived late, wet as a drowned rat, having skated through a rare summer downpour. My new commercial student, an older LAPD cop, was not amused and let me have it with both barrels, excoriating my lack of professionalism and essentially accusing me of being just like every other time-building CFI who had ever blighted general aviation. That hurt deeply; I was giving it everything I had under what I thought were pretty trying conditions.

Three busy months spent aloft in southern California's crowded skies passed before I knew it, and in August 2001 I returned to the University of North Dakota to finish my degree. I finished the summer with 400 hours of dual given and a 100 percent pass rate, landing me a job as a UND student instructor for my senior year. I didn't know it then, but I would return to California less than a year later. Looking back on those days as a broke young CFI living on a couch, life was hard and often hectic, but I learned a great deal about both flying and myself. Like most instructors, I got better with practice, and I ended up really enjoying the job. Flight instructing, while tough at times, can also be incredibly rewarding, and I'll write more about that aspect next month.

This column was published in Flying's October 2014 issue.

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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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