Some things are better done without an audience

In June of 1970, my grandparents flew into town to visit with us for several days and it just so happened that I had a flying lesson scheduled for the following Saturday afternoon. After lunch on the appointed day, my dad suggested that we all take a ride out to the municipal airport so they could watch me do touch and go landings. My instructor, Mr. Hillman, had recently informed me that I was about ready to start the cross-country portion of my training, which I was eager to do, but he wanted one more session of traffic pattern practice.

After arriving at the airport, Dad said they’d all remain in the car up on the little hill above the office where the view of the entire field would be good. I walked down the trail to the hangar; shortly thereafter Mr. Hillman and I taxied away in the 150 to begin the lesson for the day.

Cessna 150 flying
Careful who’s watching those patterns…

On the way to the runway Mr. Hillman leaned close to my ear and warned in a serious tone of voice: “Now, David, sometime in your flying career you will experience what we call ‘an upset condition’ while you’re on a final approach to a runway. Something will happen, such as a wind shear, or wake turbulence from other traffic, or a flap may fail causing the airplane to skew itself into a dangerous position. You will need to react quickly and accurately to extricate yourself from this condition before the airplane stalls. From that point you’ll have about five seconds to continue living. Remember: power and attitude, power and attitude. Power and attitude!! Also, if you initiate some action and the airplane reacts negatively to it, then quickly undo what you just did. Remember these things!”

He went on to explain just what should and should not be done, and in what order. I listened attentively to his instructions.

We took off and continued around the traffic pattern like we had done, seemingly, hundreds of times before. While on the downwind leg he said: “I’m going to take the controls when we get close to the runway, and I’ll put us into an unusual attitude. I want you to take your hands out of your lap and take the controls when I say the word ‘recover,’ and then I want you to recover to a normal approach attitude immediately by doing the things I have just talked about. Do you understand?”

I answered “yes.” However, at the same time, I began to wonder about Mom and Dad’s reactions to seeing my airplane roll itself into such a rakish position at such a vulnerable time. I briefly toyed with the idea of telling Mr. Hillman that my folks were watching us; but there again, I didn’t want to upset the timetable of my training curriculum. So not having any more time to worry about it just then, I put the thought out of my mind.

We turned onto the final approach leg in a stable, trimmed, no flap condition at seventy-five miles per hour with the throttle closed. Everything looked fine until we crossed the highway near the threshold. At that point Mr. Hillman suddenly and forcefully hauled the yoke all the way over to the right while simultaneously pulling it as far aft as it would travel. He stomped the right rudder pedal all the way to the floor. The little Cessna heaved a surrendering sigh as if air were being forced out of a Tupperware bowl. The stall-warning horn began its reedy squall as the nose went up higher and higher. The world went sideways in a multi-colored blur. Then it became deathly quiet; all sound curiously vanished. We were only seconds from meeting our maker at that point.

“RECOVER….!” He ordered, breaking the eerie calm.

I reached instinctively for the throttle and yoke, pushing the throttle lever as far forward as it would go into the panel and moving the yoke briskly back over to the left. Simultaneously, I kicked the left rudder pedal and pushed the nose over. With less than perfect coordination the Cessna responded quickly to counter the threat. I then realigned the airplane with the runway to complete the touch-and-go maneuver. With Mr. Hillman there beside me I never felt like we were in any real danger, but we really were; too much hesitation on my part would have put us in serious jeopardy. We took off again to practice the maneuver five more times that afternoon before we called it a day.

As we taxied in, my mind returned once more to the thought of my parents and grandparents sitting patiently in the car on the hill, cheerfully awaiting my arrival. It was not until Mr. Hillman had endorsed my logbook that I informed him that we had had an audience the entire time.

“Holy cow!!” he said with his eyebrows heading north as he pushed his Humphrey Bogart fedora hat to the back of his head. “You mean to tell me your family was watching that circus the whole time?”

“Yes, sir. I believe they were.”

“You should have told me that; we’d have done something different today. You’d better get up there and check on them right now.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

I skedaddled up the hill to the car where the four of them were fidgeting with obvious apprehension. Dad lowered his head so he could bore over the top of his glasses, and then clearing his throat he asked uncertainly: “How’d it go today?”

“Fine,” I said as calmly as I could. “We practiced bad-landing recoveries.”

Before that moment I had never witnessed adults groaning in perfect unison, except perhaps at sporting events when the home team has lost the game–having just missed the last chance to pull ahead for the win. It never occurred to me that my mother, bless her heart, had spent the last thirty minutes with her fingernails buried in the headlining of the car crying and wailing. Dad had attracted somewhat of a crowd while standing outside the car shouting thunderously, “Come down here! Get down here right now!!” his arms flailing about. My grandmother had quietly bowed her head and prayed for half an hour. Granddad had taken ahold of the headrest in front of him and had begun shaking his head continuously back and forth, side-to-side while reciting the 23rd Psalm.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want….”

17 Comments

  • If the situation actually unfolded as the author of the blog said it did, then that instructor is ridiculously over confident in his own abilities, to the point of moronic disregard for the preservation of his own life, and his students. To be pitched and slowed to the point of stall warning, whilst being in a high bank situation, what if the student applies aileron to roll level, and this causes the downside wing to stall? You get a wing drop stall, that’s what. And at >500 feet…

    If the instructor keeps up that practice, he will be dead before to long. It only takes one time.

    • Yes, William, the events described happened precisely thus. And I’m happy to report that the instructor retired at the ripe old age of 86 many years ago after having taught more students in his state than anyone in history. He had been an instructor for the U.S. Navy during WWII, and those guys were at lot more aggressive in their teaching and flying. He retired with over thirty-two-thousand hours logged. …and I do recognize that most folks nowadays are afraid to bank an airplane more than 15 degrees when less than 1000 feet AGL.

  • David:

    Regardless of the actions of your instructor, the subsequent reactions of your family was priceless. The whole event probably added a few gray hairs to all concerned, but you have a family story on which you can eat for years!

    John

    • John,

      Yes, you’re right. Although my parents and grandparents have all passed away, I do remember many suppers spent around the table discussing the events that day with various levels of dismay and joviality displayed during them. My dad always said that he had been only seconds from marching me down the hill and removing me from the roles of the school if I couldn’t fly any better than what he saw that day….

  • Im glad he managed to suvive his career.
    Back when I instructed I was happy to conduct and to monitor maximum rate turns in the low flying/ poor vis exercises. So my issue is not high AoB at low alt, it is the combination of factors that you gave in the story. Low altitude, extreme AoB, zero power, high nose attitude to the point of stall warning… That combined with your reported first actions to push the throttle forward (wise) and to roll hard left (likely to get you killed due to wingdrop stalling).
    I can only assume that the situation was not quite as dire as you painted it as otherwise the actions you claim to have taken would have only increased the danger.

    • William,

      Perhaps you are correct. The event happened almost 44 years ago, and I only remember what I saw, felt, heard, and did at the time – not the technical aspects of the aerodynamics that we were faced with because of the maneuver. I can only assume that Mr. Hillman knew exactly what he was doing. I do know that, because of that training session, I walked away unscathed from an actual event many years later when a prop went into reverse pitch while in the flare.

  • A good instructor knows just how far he can take or let a student go and still be able to save the situation. If he reacts too soon, the teaching moment is lost. It’s like in teaching tailwheel flying, the CFI has to know just how far the nose can swing before he takes corrective action to save the situation. Sometimes that line gets blurred.

    Jim

  • Jim,

    I believe you are correct in your assessment, and only a very good, very conscientious instructor would know that. So you must be a good one….

  • Nice story.
    To set the record straight we have to mention that Pitch is first then power if available.
    Pitch should reduce the angle of attack with correct application.
    Never, ever play this game again at low altitude.
    Practice at least 1500 AGL.
    Happy and safe flying.

    • Chris,

      Thanks. It was a humorous event that happened long ago; don’t expect to ever ‘play the game’ again – unless an upset happens for real. I’ve experienced two very low altitude extreme upsets in my career – one mechanical, one wind shear. Would dearly love never seeing another one, too….

  • Sorry, you guys. I can’t fault that instructor for his work with this student pilot. The instructor sounds a lot like Alaska’s George Kitchen, who had a certificate from the old CAA for having safely soloed more than 10,000 students. And that was AFTER his years as a USN flight instructor. I think Dave was fortunate tot have had such an experienced instructor, as most of them these days are only logging hours for a different job somewhere, usually with a commuter or one of the big iron companies.
    I’m only sorry that Dave didn’t try to duplicate the situation at about 3,500 feet AGL. It would have taught him a lot about what he and his airplane could really do – – – – – safely!

    • Mort,

      Yes, things were different years ago. The lessons taught me that day served me well during my years in aerobatics and military. We did a lot of things many years ago that no one would come close to doing today – and that’s probably a good thing. The instructor is now honored in the aviation hall of fame – as well he should be. Safe flying….

    • Thomas,

      I don’t know if the act was ‘stupid’ or not, but the reality was stark and shocking. My reactions at the time, remarkably enough, mirrored almost exactly the reactions I energized years later during two actual sudden dire emergencies at very low altitude. I was able to look back both times and silently thank the instructor for the specific lessons he taught me. His words of ‘that day’ propelled themselves with great haste to the forefront of my mind. Oh, and the instructor retired many, many years ago. Safe flying, my friend.

  • The instructor, although experienced, was a fool. He had obviously done this to his students hundreds of times over the years and got away with it. He had become complacent. Never mind this time his student managed to recover from the unusual attitude at such a low altitude.

    In Australia a few years ago, a highly experienced former military instructor cut the mixture control on a Duchess seconds after the aircraft got airborne at night and the student (himself a 15,000 hour Boeing 767 captain) had just selected gear up. This action was entirely unexpected by the student who, only an hour earlier, had voiced his objection when the testing officer instructor told him that a simulated engine failure would take place at some time in the circuit. The Regulations stated that simulated engine failures were not permitted at night unless in cruise flight.

    As the aircraft yawed at slow speed, the student called urgently to the instructor to restart the engine as the aircraft was barely climbing and trees were ahead. A wing tip clipped tree branches further degrading airspeed and with the gear up the aircraft flew into gently rising terrain just as the instructor managed to restart the engine and skidded to a stop but not before a steel fence breached one wing causing immediate fuel spill which ignited.

    Both pilots were unhurt in the crash landing but were caught by the fire as they exited the cockpit. The student survived with severe burns while the instructor died in hospital of severe burns. The instructor was well known for his cavalier attitude yet many of his former students praised his instructional technique which they said was realistic and that they had learned so much from him. Others disagreed and said although he was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructor and former 737 captain, they but avoided flying with him again after several close calls with simulated engine failures close to the ground. Overconfidence in his own ability to recover from student mis-handling near the ground was his final downfall. It could happen with any aircraft even a Cessna 150.

    • John,

      Goodness, gracious… All I can say is I’m glad I endured this ‘dual’ experience many, many years ago when folks were still training that aggressively and not today when they’re not. Happy flying.

      Dave

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