The people you meet in aviation – some good, some bad

There will be few pilots, professional or amateur, who will not remember the good instructors with whom they have flown. These instructors will usually be remembered with everlasting affection. Conversely, those instructors who have denigrated your best efforts and in doing so destroyed your self confidence, are invariably remembered with a cold contempt usually reserved for one’s worst enemy.

Ansett Airlines of Australia have a novel way of weeding out the undesirables amongst their captains, and every airline has a few of these types who have slipped through the system undetected. The rostering policy permits first officers to select not to fly with any particular captain, with no questions asked. It soon becomes evident that there is a problem with a certain captain when many first officers bid not to fly with him.

Airline pilot
If you hate the guy in the left seat, it’s hard to fly safely.

At that point, he is quietly interviewed by management who endeavour to find out more about his personality. The riot act may be read to him on the basis that unless he gets the message that he should change his ways, sterner action may be taken. Check pilots of this type of character may be taken off checking duties.

On the basis that all first officers cannot be wrong, then this policy is an excellent way of recovering harmony on the flight deck. With a large airline the system works well but obviously is more difficult to administer with a small operator where fewer crew numbers mean less flexibility.

I consider myself fortunate that I was blessed with kind and gentle flying instructors in the vital formative hours of ab initio training on Tiger Moths. Forty six years on, I still remember the quiet, well mannered gentleman that sent me off on my first solo after 7.5 hours. His name was Bill Burns, the flight safety manager of QANTAS airline. Bill had been a squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force during the War, and it was he that encouraged me to apply for the RAAF.

Again I was fortunate to have another gentleman instructor for my RAAF basic flying training on Tiger Moths and Wirraways. He was Flight Sergeant Vernon Jackson who patiently taught me how to navigate, to do safe crosswind landings, and barrel roll around clouds. When I hammer headed out of botched stall turns or held off too high, his quiet admonishment was given with humour and tact and I was grateful for this.

On to the final stage of advanced flying training at the RAAF base at Point Cook, and there I was rostered to fly with the flight commander Squadron Leader Caryl Noble, affectionately known as Nobby Noble. Nobby was a decorated Mustang pilot, who had fought against the Luftwaffe in Europe and had just returned from the Korean war.

This was my first flight at Point Cook, and this was also the first time I had landed on a runway – all my previous flying had been on all over grass fields. It was a cold windy winter day and Nobby asked me to demonstrate a crosswind landing. At that stage I had around 100 hours in my log book, with 60 hours on Wirraways.

With the wind at 20 knots across the runway I felt it would be a downright disaster in the Wirraway, which was a vicious swinging beast even in calm weather. I timorously suggested that he show me a demonstration landing as I was unfamiliar with the aerodrome. Landing from the back seat of a Wirraway in any crosswind was really Air Force Cross material, but Nobby did not hesitate. Unfortunately he held off too high and the left wing stalled first. There was clash of wing tip on runway and we were fortunate not to ground loop. As we taxied towards the tarmac with the left wing tip bent upwards, Nobby said cheerfully; “You were right, Laming, the wind was a bit too strong”.

Flight instructor in cockpit
The good ones are priceless; the bad ones can take all the fun away.

Unfortunately for me, Nobby was heavily tied up with administrative duties as the flight commander and was unable to fly with me again. Instead I met the first of several instructor pilots, both civil and military, who are listed in my little black book entitled “Bastards That I Have Known.” These types exist in every work place and in aviation have caused careers to be ruined and many sleepless nights of self doubt.

Sufficient to say that this particular chap was a non stop screamer whom it was impossible to please. The term Stockholm Syndrome had not yet been coined when I flew with this fellow, but I was shocked to find myself feeling absurdly grateful when I received a gruff, “Not a bad landing, Laming,” after continuous verbal battering in the air. His first name was Ted and he wore an iron grey moustache, walked with a cocky gait, and shouted orders like an Army sergeant-major. Ted was a Flight Lieutenant and had spent most of the war years as a flying instructor. God knows how many young trainee pilots he had scrubbed.

He certainly had me terrified, and in later years when I too became a qualified flying instructor, it was through him I learnt how NOT to instruct.

Twenty five years later, I came across Ted at the bar of an Officer’s Mess in Melbourne. He had long since retired and was a lonely irritable old man who used the Mess as his club. He was slightly drunk when, feeling guilty about my abiding contempt for his type, I introduced myself as one of his former pupils. He looked at me through rheumy eyes, not knowing my face, then shook my proffered hand and said in slurred tones; “Nice to meet you lad, and tell me – what was I really like as an instructor?”

I did not have the heart to tell him my real thoughts, but instead assured him that he was indeed one of the best…

He seemed happy with my reply and I never saw him again.

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9 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing. I’m a student with 20 hours and recently had a horrible experience with an instructor after moving from the coast of NY to the Sierras in Reno. I had about 12 hours in an analog Alarus before moving to Reno. In addition to the terrain & altitude adjustment, the new school had Cessnas with glass panels. A lot of change for me as a young student.

    In my 2nd lesson with the school, the instructor was making remarks about how little I knew about this or that. It made me nervous and self-conscience. On the 3rd lesson, he started making these remarks again as we were taxiing to the runway. I got so nervous about keeping on center line that I almost blew through the hold short double line of an intersection. The instructor got angry very quickly and then fired me on the spot, saying he’d never want me flying his airplanes.

    I was devastated. How else is a student to learn if they cannot make mistakes? This was NOT a ‘safe zone’ for learning.

    I quit flying for 2 months and have since found a new instructor who is patient and knows I’m still a student. I am better off for it, but will never forget the original instructors treatment of me.

    Now, I’m more determined than ever to prove him wrong.

    • I feel for you, cause I had exactly the same experience in the beginning of my flight training. The only difference – I stood up and kept flying, but only because he suddenly got a new job overseas, so I was forced to find a new CFI. But just before that happened, I completely gave up and decided to quit.
      Actually, after just a few lessons I was told, that obtaining my PPL “will take a bit longer, than other students”, but in reality he meant, I’ll never GET it at all! With only about 2 years of instructing experience, he was absolutely confident about my skills, which he described in my PTR. Here is an exact quote from it:
      “- Too much attention on cockpit operations, needs to improve lookout
      – Incredible slow reaction while adding power and maintaing nose attitude
      – Constatntly lost
      – Poor situational awareness
      – English is too poor for training”

      Needless to say, that with the new instructor, I got my licence in the reasonable amount of hours, with NO complains regardless the stuff I listed above and with marks higher than average for both writing and practical exams!
      So, the lesson learned:
      1) Good specialist is not always a good teacher too
      2) Don’t trust to any opinion about yourself and double check
      3) Don’t give up too soon

  • John, you were very kind to old Ted, which shows your fine and generous character. I’d have been tempted to tell him the truth, or at least try to find a verbal shiv to put slyly between his ribs. My WWII P-38 pilot examiner for the PPL and instrument rating was a mild-mannered and soft-spoken guy in the office, but a notorious screamer and banger of control yokes in the air. I think he was harder on some people than he was on me, but it was nonetheless an incredible rush when he said, as we taxied in after my PPL checkride, “I’d let my family fly with you.” I don’t recall another word of praise from him in all the years I knew him, but that one lasted a long time.

  • Hi John,

    Your article is rather timely. I was just thinking about this. I would share my stories but I’m a afraid my “Monster” CFI might be larking about reading these comments. I still see him nearly nearly every day.

    I am glad you brought up this topic. One bad CFI can change the entire path of potential pilot(s). For these who’ve experienced it… you know what I mean.

  • The best instructors I’ve ever flown with are the ones who get to know my skill level, and then push me to go outside my comfort zone to improve. For example, in my early gliding days my instructor, a great guy named Ed, asked what the slowest and fastest I’d ever flown was. We spent the next half hour riding the buffet, and then several minutes of high speed descent. It was a lesson I always passed on to my students after I started instructing.

    The worst I’ve flown with was my flight test examiner. A miserable little curmudgeon named Roger. We hoped into the C152 I’d done my training in and he immediately told me I needed a seat cushion (I’m 6′-1″), because he boosted his 5′-3″ self right up to the headliner on half a foot of cushions. Of course this threw my familiar viewing angle through the windshield completely off, so not a great start to the flight. His worst habit though was to reach over and yank my hand off the yoke to see if the airplane was trimmed. I was able to get a bit of revenge on this one though – the third or fourth time he reached over for my hand I death-gripped the yoke, so when he pulled (and I may have assisted a little), we got a bit of impromptu unusual attitude training.

    Still hate that man.

  • Having had the privilege of meeting John, albeit briefly, I can attest that he is one of the good that you meet in aviation. The have been many like him in my time in aviation and, unfortunately, some of the others but thankfully they are far far fewer in number.

  • John,
    I recently discovered this website, and have been very interested in your articles. As a young pilot in training for the USAF, this article was of particular interest. I was wondering if I could email you a couple questions that came to mind after reading this article?
    Thank you,
    Ben.e.jones91@gmail.com

  • Early in my flying career, I had a new instructor who gave me a thirty-minute transition checkout from a 90-hp Aeronca Champion to a 95-hp Cessna 140. He was clearly a bundle of nerves, and every landing saw him leaning over the yoke with one hand atop the instrument panel. I told the school’s director that I’d rather not fly with that instructor again.

    Within two months, and while he was ferrying a Cessna 180 through Canada to Alaska, the windshield apparently blew out. He died in the ensuing crash. I’ve often wondered if he had thought to open the side windows to relive some of the ram air caused by the missing windshield? In any event, I thought he was too nervous for me . . .

  • I’m sad to report that the instructor mentioned in my Sept 30 2015 comment was PIC in a fatal plane crash and passed away on Aug 30 2016.

    He was carrying one passenger on short final to RNO.. rumor among aviation community was that windshear from a UPS heavy turned his Bonanza upside down. Very sad story.

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