Unusual Attitudes: A Time to Learn

Unlike a time gone by, one has to wonder if today's CFI requirements are enough.

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A big chunk of my first 6,000 hours was spent instructing ... possibly 5,000 hours too many. Yeah, it takes patience, but it's fun and spiced with occasional adrenaline moments, like when somebody is trying to kill you. It's also a little like logging one hour 6,000 times. When I found myself nodding off on final approach with pre-solo students (yes, really) I knew it was time to quit. I'm not impressed when I hear guys brag about never having instructed, as if they were clever enough to get real flying jobs without enduring the apprenticeship and drudgery of teaching. Congratulations, guys, but I think flight instructing is the best, if not the only, way to truly learn the art of flying an airplane.

I got the rating just before graduating from college with a degree in English lit. Few real colleges gave credit for flight training ... and I'd better stop right there. After one job interview as an advertising copywriter, I was close to tears (everything and everybody was, like, gray), so I got a job teaching at Cincinnati Aircraft at Lunken Airport. Al Passell, the chief instructor, believed you could teach nearly anybody to fly and that the "what if the student freezes on the controls" scenario was hogwash. Intimidation, sarcasm or intentionally scaring a student is silly and unprofessional, and if that were your style you'd be better off writing advertising copy in a gray office where you can't hurt anybody.

A wonderful guy and arguably one of the world's greatest flight instructors, Al didn't have the personality or desire to be "chief" of anything. With no syllabus or mentoring, I was on my own and inherited "The Problem," a student nobody else wanted. He was enrolled in the University of Cincinnati's ROTC flight program in which students had to solo in 10 hours or less, and when I acquired him at eight hours, he wasn't even close to slipping the surly bonds alone. Even with a couple hours' extension, it wasn't going to happen, and this introverted, sullen kid washed out of the flight program. But I wasn't off the hook. His father decided a pilot license would cure all personality and social problems. So I struggled on for an ungodly number of hours until I thought -- or desperately hoped -- he might pass an FAA check ride.

The GADO was on the second floor of our hangar, and about an hour after climbing the stairs, my applicant came back down with his tail between his legs and a message that Inspector Ropp wanted to see me. Dale Ropp (a great FAA guy) told me to never, ever recommend another applicant who was so poorly prepared, arrogant and uncommunicative. They'd barely even started the oral.

Wasn't I off to a great start!

Either I got better at it or the students did. Working for the remnants of Ebby's Midwest Airways in the mornings brought in a steady but small salary, and I made the rest instructing afternoons and weekends. If I could clear $100 a week, pay $100-a-month rent and eat $2 spaghetti suppers at the Greenwich Tavern, life was good. Understand, please, that we got paid only when the hour meter was running, so I'd run my student through one preflight check. After that, when the airplane was (probably) ready to fly, I'd run across the ramp, leap inside and get cranked as quickly as possible. We'd brief the lesson on the way to the runway and do post-flight critiques taxiing back. I made logbook entries with one eye on the taxiway and my toes poised above the brakes in case a "save" became necessary. I know, I know ... even I'm blushing.

Later, at my own flying school (how delicious to say, "No, Mrs. Sarannas, I won't teach Jamie to fly because it might enhance his self-esteem."), I tried to give some guidance and support to the new CFIs. You know about those noises I get in my head when lady aviators whine about discrimination or less than special treatment, but an inexperienced CFI -- especially a young girl -- starting out in a "good ol' boy" flying school is a setup for trouble.

It was years later, just before retiring, that I worked an accident - an especially ugly accident - at a small airport near Dayton, Ohio. It was a Saturday morning and a Cessna 172 had stalled soon after takeoff and burned on impact. The student pilot was killed but, amazingly, the instructor and two small kids in the back were pulled from the burning wreckage and survived. The kids, in fact, were pretty much unharmed, but the young gal CFI was pretty badly hurt.

Since the NTSB delegated the accident to our Flight Standards District Office, we did the scene investigation and on Monday morning I visited the flight school and the hospital. The instructor was doing well; she would recover but it would be a long time before she walked, much less flew, again. She was willing, even eager, to discuss the circumstances, and we talked candidly on that and other visits. She was so bright and pretty, so well-intentioned and honest, so naïve and ill-prepared. And the story that unfolded was appalling, chilling and very sad.

Fresh from a Florida aviation university with a degree in certificates and ratings, she'd come home to build time instructing at the local airport. This plain vanilla (Part 61) school had a training agreement with a local community college, but it was all pretty loose - part-time CFIs with a sort-of chief instructor who had very little idea of his responsibilities, regulatory or moral.

The new girl's first student was "The Problem," a great big guy who had a bunch of hours with other instructors but was still far from soloing. He arrived for this Saturday morning lesson on short-field landings with his two little boys, who were visiting for the weekend as part of a custody order.

"Can they ride along?"

Instead of, "Sure, but we'll just go sightseeing so they can see their dad fly," the instructor agreed to take them along on a short-field-landing lesson at XYZ airport. Nobody was around to evaluate that decision except the airport manager, who was mainly interested in renting the airplane.

At XYZ Airport, they made two passes at a 2,400-foot-by-30-foot-wide broken-macadam runway with trees off the departure end. The wind was calm; it was hot and humid, and they were full of fuel, near max gross weight. A jogger, also a pilot, stopped to watch, and he confirmed most of the instructor's statement. On the second final approach, marginally better than the first, they were still too high and fast. But this time she let the student continue and they forced it on deep in the last third of the runway. Then somebody decided to go around. The instructor said she was flying and thought they were climbing OK. The witness said they were barely gaining altitude and then settled slightly as the flaps came up. Still well below the trees, the nose pitched up sharply and the airplane stalled. It rolled left and pitched down, crashing into a field where the left wing tank ruptured and caught fire.

Obviously this accident began with a poor decision on the ramp at the flying school. The disaster quotient increased dramatically with a short-field-landing lesson at a marginal airport. And it was a done deal when they committed to land, despite excess altitude and speed on the second try. Think about it: At touchdown the only options left were to roll off the end with certain damage to the airplane or to go around with a snowball's chance in hell of making it over or around the trees. And be honest with yourself - whatever mistakes led up to it, that's a helluva decision to make.

Most chilling was the instructor's claim that on the go-around she knew she could make a 180-degree (plus) turn back to the runway even though they couldn't have been even a couple of hundred feet high. And she was certain the only reason they'd crashed was that this big man in the left seat panicked, overpowered her on the controls and tried to climb straight ahead. There had been similar experiences with this man when he'd wrestled the controls from her in stressful situations.

Wow!

I don't know how the whole thing washed out, and probably everybody is still suing everybody else, but two kids are without a father and a young girl's life is forever changed. I sympathized with her predicament in trying to handle a difficult situation with no support or guidance, but I have to think part of the blame lies with current CFI requirements.

Bear with me while I do one of those "in the olden days" things: Back then, just when ailerons replaced wing warping, you "got your privates" (as Larry Zetterlind insists on saying) and then had to rack up at least 200 hours before you were eligible for a commercial license and an instructor's rating. Most of us didn't get instrument tickets until we'd instructed a while and were making a little money.

But here's the thing. In those 200 VFR hours, you flew airplanes in different weather conditions, to new places and often by yourself. Nobody was looking over your shoulder; you made the decisions and when they were poor or rash or things just didn't work as planned, you were on your own. You learned that "pilot in command" could mean sucking it up and getting yourself out of trouble. And you had the greatest fun of your life. You started moving beyond the mechanics of flying into the art and beauty of it. You were so proud of being a pilot, and you wanted to be the best you could be. It was called "experience" and "self-reliance" and "gratitude."

Now we graduate from our "aeronautical universities" with the whole enchilada -- private, instrument, commercial, multi and CFI -- with as few as 215 hours total time, some of that in a box, and 10 hours alone in a real cockpit. And some of us never get any more "alone" time than that. Maybe we instruct for a few hundred hours until a regional carrier hires us and puts us in a simulator. Then, with 10 hours alone in a cockpit, we find ourselves flying jets full of people into places like Buffalo. ...