Teaching flying over the years, part two: dealing with the students

Flight instructing was a big part of my flying life from the day I got my instructor’s rating in 1953 until I became a member of the United States Army in November of 1955. Then it picked back up in 1956, when I was attached to an Army flying club. After I got out of the Army in 1957, I was a corporate pilot for a while and then, in 1958, I started out in the magazine business and was no longer an active flight instructor though there were moments which I’ll address in a bit.

I logged 1,390 hours and 45 minutes of dual given. When I started, the pay was $2 per hour and it might have gone up a little after that but the dual I gave while I was in the Army was, for the most part, free because it was my duty. So my active instruction was done mostly in a relatively limited period of time and without great financial reward.

In the magazine business, I did a lot of informal instructing because when staffers would go with me on assignments, I would let them fly and try to teach them how to really use an airplane. More on this in a minute.

When someone would come to me to learn to fly, the first question I would ask is why they wanted to take to take up flying. You want to guess what response I liked best?

Because I always thought I wanted to fly was my hands-down favorite. Folks who came to flying with that thought in mind were always the best (easiest) students.

GI Bill
The GI Bill sent a lot of soldiers to school – including flight school.

Because the Korean GI Bill was still in play when I started instructing, some would answer they were there because it was free. I did not get many of those because I was young, had yet to serve in the military, and they wanted to have more in common with a flight instructor. I don’t remember a reason for learning to fly given by one Korea vet, but I did follow him into the future. A buddy brought me a Wanted sheet from the post office with his picture on it. He hadn’t done anything to hurt people, other than to relieve them of money, but I always wondered if he used his flying in fleeing various heists.

There was one answer I never got but it was easily perceived after a short time with the student. I wanted to prove something. I always thought that was a terrible reason to do anything and I found that students with that attitude tried so hard that they got tied up in a knot and couldn’t prove anything.

Another answer I never got but that was easily deduced had to do with pressure from above, from a relative or employer.

The best example of this came when a local physician bought a new Tri-Pacer and asked me if I would teach him, his daughter and his three nurses to fly in the Tri-Pacer. I told him I was flying charter and had other students but would try to make it work.

Early-on I could tell that he was going to be a difficult student, requiring a lot of time and special attention, and that his daughter and three nurses were definitely not doing it because they always wanted to fly.

I made a deal with the four reluctant aviators. I would give them lessons but when the time came to solo, they had veto power. If they didn’t want to, I would try to explain to the doctor that they just were not cut out for it.

I was surprised when I mentioned to them that they were about ready to solo and all were, well, not eager but willing to keep going. All soloed and did a good job.

After that, attention waned and while I think I recall that one got a private certificate, a year after they started none were still flying.

The doctor progressed to the point where I thought he could safely use an airplane and we became life-long friends. After the Tri-Pacer he got a 250 Comanche and flew it successfully for the duration. He died of natural causes as did every other student I had, as far as I know.

My most interesting student was Hugh Downs, who was the host of the Today show on NBC at the time, in the early 1960s. He came to me as a student through a late-night phone call from my father.

Cessna had made a deal with NBC to teach Downs to fly, with the lessons showcased on Today. This got off to a disastrous start when the first instructor tried to give Downs a lesson when it was too windy for a Skyhawk. Nobody was hurt but the Skyhawk was a bit worse for the wear.

Dwane Wallace was the head of Cessna at the time and this came to his attention. He and my father were close personal friends so Dwane called my father and explained the problem. I think he wanted my father to do it but he didn’t have an instructor’s rating and felt that disqualified him. He volunteered me and that was the subject of the late-night phone call. I had a new student, even though I had a full time job at Air Facts. 

I had visions of potential problems and had heard horror stories about teaching celebrities to fly. Lucky me. Hugh turned out to be a nice guy who had always wanted to learn to fly. He was a fast learner and was eager to spend the required time preparing for the private written, as it was called then. But while Hugh was the ideal student, the TV part was a pain.

The producers wanted to film every lesson up to solo with a cameraman and the requisite equipment in the back seat. TV filming at the time was nothing if it was not big, bulky and heavy. The NBC crew beat me to the airport before the proposed first filmed lesson. When I arrived, everything was in place and the 172 was resting on its main gear and tail tie-down ring.

Hugh Downs
Hugh Downs was a celebrity when he learned to fly, but he was also a fine student.

It was harder to explain weight and balance to a TV crew than it had been to explain it to Hugh, and I understood that the video quality would be better with the more exotic equipment, but I finally convinced them that it could not be done unless they found a skinnier cameraman and used more compact and lighter weight equipment. I still always thought that Hugh might have been the only person to learn to fly in a 172 with the CG near the aft limit most of the time.

A bigger clash with the producer came as the time for a first solo flight approached. We had been flying out of Linden Airport in New Jersey because it was closer to my base and within easy reach of Manhattan (in the chauffeured Bentley NBC provided as Hugh’s airport car). They wanted to do the solo at Westchester County airport with press coverage and an appropriate amount of hoop-dee-doo. They also wanted the cameraman aboard and filing on that first solo. More explaining.

I talked to Hugh about all this and we agreed that it would be too much pressure on him. He was about to go on a nautical vacation, which would include a stop at Martha’s Vineyard. He called when he got there, I flew up in the 172, and the next day I soloed him with absolutely no fanfare. I had wondered if anyone would recognize his voice as he dealt with the tower, but if they did, it was never mentioned.

The final product was nine segments on Today, one for each of eight lessons before solo plus a wrap. I was asked back a number of times when something controversial was going on in the aviation business. I also helped Hugh with a centerline multiengine rating in a Cessna 337 and we kept in touch for a long while after that.

It was hard work, but fun. Then Cessna asked me if I would teach Johnny Carson to fly, same deal. I didn’t really want to do that but thought I would ask Hugh what he thought. I never heard him speak ill of anyone, and he did not in this case, but the fact that he didn’t answer my question told me all that I needed to know. My TV instructing days were done.

In total, I flew with Hugh for 9:50 before his first solo and for another 29:35 after that which included the completion of his private pilot training and his multiengine rating in the Cessna 337. Those times were pretty typical for all my students, though in Hugh’s case the distraction of filming, all of which was done before his first solo, might have added a little time here and there.

To show that all this was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I’ll tell you an answer I never got as a reason for learning to fly: because I want to be an airline pilot. There were simply far more World War Two pilots with heavy airplane experience than there were jobs.

Another answer I never got was because I want to be a crop duster. Some did go on to that work but it wasn’t what they had planned, even before it was learned that breathing DDT wasn’t good for you.

The most fun I had with instructing came when I was not actually instructing. When I became editor-in-chief of FLYING, I developed a staff of relatively young pilots who could also write, some quite well as it turned out. In running the traps in my P210, which I got soon after becoming EIC, I would frequently take staff members along on trips, and, guess what, they wanted to fly and I let them, in fair weather and foul.

I wanted them to learn how to use an airplane because I had some budget to let them rent airplanes to go on various assignments. Primarily, I wanted them to operate with as little risk as possible and, secondarily, as representatives of FLYING, I didn’t want them to attract any unfavorable attention. You might say that I wasn’t teaching flying but was trying to teach them how to use an airplane for transportation, and to help them learn about weather as it is actually encountered in an airplane.

CFI with student in Cessna
An instructor’s job is to make pilots safe, not to be their friend.

Some were bold and some were timid. The latter, I didn’t worry about. While they might never learn to get much transportation value out of an airplane, they also wouldn’t get in much trouble. The bold ones were more of a challenge. My job was to convince them they didn’t know quite as much as they thought they knew.

One other factor was at play. When it came to their flying, I was a perfectionist. I pointed out the slightest transgression. After any flight, I would go over a list of the things that they could have done better on the flight. It was not much consolation for them that I did the same thing to myself after every flight. The last thing I ever wanted any of my employees to think was that it must have been okay because I made it.

If you think I came through this unscathed, think again. Three staffers penned articles about my relentless pursuit of perfection. I surprised two of them by running their articles, unedited by me, while I was still EIC of FLYING. The third was published after I moved on. I thought they deserved a prize for this. It is not easy to say my boss is a picky asshole without actually saying it but the message was still pretty clear.

The thing that drove me hardest was the desire for my students, formal or otherwise, to die a natural death. As far as I know, I succeeded though a lot of them are still at it.

The reason this drove me was the fact that when I had been flying for 50 years, I had lost 50 friends or business associates in private airplane crashes. That is one a year and as this number mounted over the years I tried both to understand why my friends had come up short and to pass the message along that flight could be frightfully dangerous if not approached with wisdom and caution.

I did the same thing in writing and always thought of readers as students of a sort. No, I wasn’t directly responsible but maybe something I had said along the way might have kept them out of trouble.

I had one friend who was never a formal student of mine tell me that when he was plowing through weather on a dark and stormy night with minimum fuel, he wondered what I would say if he killed himself that night. After a moment of contemplation, he made a precautionary landing at the nearest suitable airport. One for the win column.

In Part One on this subject, toward the end of the post, I went on a bit of a tirade about autopilots and electric trim and how there is still a lot of misunderstanding of the subject by pilots, instructors and educators.

Not long after that post, I read of an accident in a Cessna 441, flown by an airline transport rated pilot, where the pilot was quite obviously discombobulated by a trim problem that he couldn’t solve. No final report yet, or for a while, so nobody knows whether this was some exotic trim failure or a pilot out of sync with an autopilot. It is food for thought, though, and yet another indication of an area where we need to double-down on thorough instruction on the basics of the equipment in our airplanes. I didn’t know the pilot but that is still one for the loss column.

So, fly on, carefully.

11 Comments

  • Another great article, as usual. In the stories about flying with you, I have found a common theme, awe and respect for your skills and attention to safety. I have noticed a few comments of sweating, close attention to deviations, nail your pattern altitude and speeds every time(consistently good landings) and a demanding mentor who cares that they fly precisely now and in the future rather than become a NTSB statistic. You seem to instill a knowledge of how quickly inattention to flying precisely can turn to unsafe and dangerous flying. Thank you for your efforts to keep pilots aware of the pitfalls of complacency in their everyday flying skills.

  • The ones you preferred to instruct are also the ones I prefer to share airspace, pattern and hangar flying with. The ones out to prove their superiority, not so much, they’re not very good at sharing!

  • Funny that you mentioned no one ever said they wanted to be a crop duster. Well, here I am. After beginning flying in 1967 on the GI Bill (one of the first to be approved for it), I changed to a goal of being a corporate pilot.

    I remember reading your articles when I was a flight instructor myself. I never did teach a celebrity, but I did checkout an ex-WWII Luftwaffe pilot in a Piper Arrow.

    My passion for flying pushed me toward the airlines where I retired as a check airman on a B-747 with a few post retirement years at NASA flying their DC-8 and B-747 SOFIA.

    Thanks for all the informative and motivating articles over the years. When you’re too nervous to steal or too lazy to work, be a pilot. Never worked a day during my career when I went to “work”. Thankfully, the wife, dog and I have a 185 for post-retirement passion pursuing. Hmmm…I wonder if the local duster needs a pilot?

  • What an amazing article. Dick – thank you for sharing the personal reflection. I enjoyed it very much and loved the part where your friend decided to land instead of succumbing to getthereitis, he may not have formally been your student but he obviously thought a lot of you.

  • Great article. I learned to fly from an old friend but he was always the instructor. I was a crew member on a C-54 in the Air Force and learned that consistency was the best teacher. Years later I worked air shows with Gordon Baxter and we shared some stories. The best compliment I ever had was after flying for years my cousin, who was a B-52 instructor flew with me and said “amazing, you fly like a student”. Never forget the basics.

  • Richard, I enjoyed this article on any number of levels. I grew up as the oldest child and only son of a retired Marine and avid aviator who was a professional pilot in every sense of the word except by profession. He had about 14,000 hours and owned multiple aircraft, including a Baron, SNJ-6, Stearman, several C-180/185’s, etc. He was a rated air show pilot as well as ATP with Jet and DC-3 ratings. All this to say that as I grew up, it was a given that I would take flying lessons and become a pilot. When I turned 16, I got a summer job as a lineman on the 6-2 shift at the nearest big city FBO. I would then take flying lessons after work. I was probably like the nurses of the doctor with the Tripacer; this was just something I was expected to do. It wasn’t my idea, but I wasn’t against it either. Just as you described the different types of students you encountered, I encountered a number of instructors over the course of getting my private, commercial, instrument, and multiengine ratings. The first one however stands out. He was a chain smoking retired Air Force pilot in his 50s with a flat top. We would fire up the Cherokee 140 and launch out to the practice area in the mid afternoon Alabama sun over the south Alabama black belt, where I would go through the various maneuvers we were working on for about 30 minutes. He would then occasionally say (probably out if boredom) “I’ve got it!” and then perform a few simple acrobatics like barrell rolls and loops. I can remember getting to the top of the the loops, running out of airspeed, and falling out the backside. I had done aerobatics with my father in his Stearman which was a totally more reassuring experience! He would then have me practice emergency landings. I’d get down to about 100 feet over some big cowpasture at which point he’d take over and start herding the cows! I think he was a capable pilot but these kind of thrills gave me a certain trepidation about flying. By this time I had worked up to about 30-40 hours and was within range of getting a private. I told my mother at the end of the summer that I really didn’t like flying and wanted to quit. Whatever my parents’ shortcomings were as parents, making me finish anything I started wasn’t one of them. I ended up getting my private and then began flying on my own, which changed my whole perspective on the situation. I then really began to enjoy flying, and pursued my other ratings, eventually owning a couple of C185s myself.

    The other point I picked up on was your being a stickler as an instructor. I went on to become a general surgeon, and trained in the pre 80 hour work week as a surgery resident in a big city hospital. We were held to very demanding standards and you had to perform or you would not complete the program. If you made mistakes, they were pointed out and you were held accountable. We all made plenty of mistakes, but you damn sure learned to be compulsive and deliberate in what you were doing. After 5 years, you came to expect a lot from yourself and to do what needed doing , even when you were tired and nobody else was watching you. You learned a good way to do something, and you tried to do it the same way every time.

    I’ve always felt that surgery and flying have a lot in common. To be good and to be safe requires physical ability, judgement, skill, and dedication. Experience is a hard teacher. You have to learn how to get out of trouble, but more importantly learn how to stay out of trouble in the first place. “Plan your flight, and fly your plan!” So Richard, I trained under a few hard asses as well. I learned something valuable from everyone of them.

    NFMIII

  • Richard, there is no way to prove it, but I believe your countless articles, books, and videos have over the years saved many lives (and airplanes). That is a fine body of work, a life well lived. Thank you and congratulations.

  • I looked up Hugh Downs (always a gentle spirit on TV, plus he was born in Akron, as was I, albeit three-and-a-half decades later!) on Wikipedia, as I didn’t remember when he passed away. I remembered correctly, he hasn’t passed away!
    I have been away from flying for a decade, but am rejoining “the club” shortly as a I retire. I’ve learned a lot of stuff from Richard’s writing (I used to have a huge stack of Air Facts!) and I hope to die of natural causes.

  • Incredible article Richard, this was an immense joy to read.

    I love hearing people’s careers within the aviation industry as it’s something I have grown to love over many years.

    I just hope I can accomplish even half of the incredible feats you have managed to achieve.

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