After 40 years in both the flying and communicating side of the aviation business, it’s almost impossible for me to remember that I almost allowed my first flight instructor to drive me completely away from the business many years ago. Although he’s long gone – I hope – the lessons still seem significant enough to pass on today at a time when the industry’s hunting and pecking for every possible student pilot. Lucky for me, another CFI entered my life years later and completely turned my world around.
In 1966 I was a 17-year old freshman at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation and anxious to learn to fly. I never doubted my goal … to be an airline pilot.
In those days, student pilots and instructors at the school were randomly paired and I drew a guy named Tom. We flew the mighty 90-hp 7FC Tri-Champ with the student in front and the instructor behind.
School began in late September with ground school and the “Box,” a name we’d all attached to the Link trainer we were expected to master before we took to the air. I never realized I was a bit claustrophobic until the first time Tom sat me in the box, closed the door and pulled the cover down on top of me leaving me in nearly total darkness. We didn’t brief much before we began so not surprisingly, the sessions didn’t go well since I never really understood the point of moving a control stick inside a dark little room as dials and gauges spun like mad before my eyes. Looking back on it today, I realize Tom talked a lot, asked few questions and simply assumed I was following. Another was that I hadn’t yet flown the airplane. Finally one day I did.
I clearly loved every moment in the air despite being nearly clueless about what I was supposed to be doing, except for reminders from the back seat like … “what are you doing that for?” It was at about the five-hour mark that things started to get really ugly because I just didn’t seem to be coming together. I remember landing practice. Right near the pavement on the first few, Tom started yelling … “Flare, flare, flare.” Crunch! The Tri-Champ was pretty forgiving despite hitting hard enough to knock the headset off my head a few times. After an hour of that we taxied in and shut down. Tom grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard from the back seat. “Why didn’t you flare when I told you too?” Somewhat worn out I just stared out the windshield and asked, “What’s a flare?”
I actually managed to solo the next week and was cleared to the pattern alone which helped my confidence enormously. But soon I was back in the Tri-Champ and the Link with Tom and the yelling never ended. To make matters worse, he began slapping me along side the head and yelling when I screwed up. With 15 hours total time, I finally broke. At 17 I knew I would never learn to fly. I quit school AND flying and never touched the controls of another airplane.
Jump ahead five years as I arrived to my last Air Force duty station. How I got there is too long a story right now. It’s what happened next that’s important.
Within a few days of arrival I located the base flying club. Outside the main door near the aircraft parking area sat a small set of stadium seats near the fence. I’d spend time there watching the Piper Cherokees come and go, some with two people inside, some with just one. I didn’t go into the clubhouse though.
One day, as one of the airplanes pulled up near the fence where I was eating my lunch, the engine didn’t shut down. The guy in the right seat seemed to be engaged in a conversation with the pilot. Finally the door opened, the guy in the right seat hopped out and shut the door patting it a few times after he did. As the airplane pulled away the right seat guy came over to the seats saying hi as he did. Half an hour later the Cherokee returned and the guy next to me left to greet him. Later I learned the pilot was on his second supervised solo and the fellow who’d waved to me was his instructor.
Maybe a week or so later I’m back out on the seats just watching the airplanes when that same instructor comes out of the clubhouse door. He looks around and happens to see me so he walks over to the fence. “Why aren’t you out there flying on such a beautiful day,” he asks. “I’m not a pilot.” “Really?” he says. “You sure hang around here a lot for a guy who doesn’t fly. My name’s Ray. Stop in one of these days,” he said before turning away toward one of the airplanes. The challenge glove had been thrown down.
I didn’t go back to the viewing stand the rest of that week. It was simply too scary to think of being close to something I really loved but had already failed at.
The next week though, I did go back, but only back to the seats. To this day I think Ray was watching for me because he came out of the clubhouse door and waved … “Well, are you coming in?” I sighed deeply but got up and walked over and in the clubhouse door. And that, as they say, was that. Over some coffee, I told Ray my story of failure. Didn’t even slow him down because an hour later we went out flying … and I never stopped again. I went on to earn my ATP and my own flight instructor ratings, fly for a couple of airlines, a charter company and a couple of Part 91 corporate flight departments. As an aviation writer, I even managed to grab a couple of hours in an Airbus A-380. It has all been just so sweet.
My instructor Tom nearly ended my aviation career, but luckily there was another fabulous instructor like Ray out there waiting to offer me a hand up with a little encouragement, which is all I apparently needed.
Today I wonder how many instructors like Tom are still out there. Trust me, one like him is one too many.
So do us all in the industry a favor and offer a ride to that kid sitting outside the fence if you have the chance. You might just change their life.