|Out Of The Nest!|
I can sometimes sense that a student doesnít really want me to leave the cockpit so they can do some work by themselves. But I know they have to go out alone if they are ever going to become pilots. My method is to take another airplane and fly off their wing two or three miles behind them and up some, too, just in case they need a little help. It works, Iíve done it dozens of times over the years, and all those pilots are still flying. It isnít unsafe and it isnít cheating--itís just that they need a little more reassurance than other students do, and Iím willing to give it to them. My goal is the finished product, and Iíll go to any lengths to get them there safely.
Sometimes just a little push at the right point and the right time will make all the difference in the world in the end result. I decided to write this article after having lunch with a former student who reminded me of a funny story from a few years back. He was well on his way to becoming one of those dreaded ďPatch PilotsĒ because he simply did not have the nerve to go on a cross-country by himself. He asked me to fly off his wing just to give him a burst of confidence. I really thought he was ready to go it alone, but I agreed.
We designed a mini cross-country that would take him to five other airports in the same area, all within 25 miles of the home airport, all with different runways, radios, pattern altitudes, VORs, and NDBs. Then he and I flew it. He did a great job with not one mental mistake, good altitude, good heading, and great radio work, but still he wanted me to fly off his wing.
Okay. My deal was that he would take off first, fly the entire route at 2,800 feet, do all the landings and the radio work, and I would fly at 5,000 feet and about three miles to the rear. Agreed. Under no circumstances would he require my help, I reiterated. ďAbsolutely not,Ē he stated. Next, itís off to the airplanes. He will be first off, then three minutes later off Iíll go. Off he went so I got out of my airplane and climbed up on a fuel truck for 90 minutes of peace and quiet and some sunshine, handheld radio at the ready!
Twenty miles away he calls Unicom, gets the weather, flies upwind, crosswind, downwind, left base and long final. ďPicture perfect,Ē I told him, ďjust like we practiced.Ē ďSafety first,Ē he agreed. On the second trip everything went great again. Iím still basking in the sun on the truck, but I asked him if he really needed me anyway. He said no, that I was right and he just needed to get out there and fly. ďBut,Ē he said, ďsince you are already on the route, we might as well finish what we started.Ē
To make this article even shorter than usual (and to make my editor even madder), here he comes back to home base. Perfect altitude, two minutes ahead of schedule and right on target with his radio. Courteous guy that he is, he asked if I wanted to land first since I had been up there so long without a break, being the nice instructor that I am. I said no, you go ahead so that I can watch you make one more great landing.
I told him after landing to taxi up to the fuel truck for a top-off so the next student wouldnít have to fill it up, and watched as he held it off and squeaked it in, turned off at the first exit, and started toward the pump. The closer he came, the bigger his eyes got, until finally it soaked in that, yes, it was me sitting up there on the truck and, no, I had not been with him for 88 minutes on this cross-country and, yes, he was going to kill me as soon as he could get the airplane stopped.
By now a crowd had gathered and he didnít want any witnesses to a cold-blooded murder, which is probably the only thing that saved me. The lessons to be learned: Never trust anyone but yourself and believe in your ability, especially if your flight instructor tells you that you are ready.
The last thing he told me at lunch was, ďYou know, I actually saw you two or three times and wanted to tell you to go back, but I was afraid it would make you mad after putting so much pressure on you to go with me.Ē Still friends, he paid for lunch, and he flies anywhere he wants to go. We are getting ready to start on his Instrument ticket. I can hardly wait for the long cross-country. Wonder where he wants to go?
If nothing else, I hope this little story illustrates how hard I work at what I do and what measures I am willing to take to bring out the pilot in someone, if I think it is in there. Nothing unsafe, nothing dangerous, nothing that a student at this level of training cannot handle, but sometimes just a little push at the right point and the right time will make all the difference in the world in the end result. I am very proud of all my students, and I think at the end they are glad they chose me because they know I make every effort to not only get them through the checkride and get them their certificate, but I also instill in them the fact that they are pilots and they should fly like one.
Iíll see you at the airport! Always remember, pilots who donít fly have no advantage over people who canít fly. Whatís your excuse?
Written permission from the author required to reprint this copyrighted article. (2009)
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