Flying is no joke

It dawned on me the other day as things are wont to when the mind stops and goes “huh?” You examine the surroundings and wonder, “Really?” One of those moments when you feel compelled to be in complete opposition to what you had imagined.

The gentleman of considerable means who claimed to have accrued about 500 hours in flight and 450 of those in a four banger had found himself for the past 50 hours in a turbocharged, six-cylinder, perfectly beautiful and sound aircraft. The smell of the upholstery still wafted in silence, bringing with it a comfortable sense of newness and performance.

As he taxied to “line up and wait,” something was amiss. Yet he and I both persevered in our thoughts of better flight to come. Shattered easily by the slipping nose wheel as the throttle was advanced, I pushed the right rudder a bit and felt the resistance from his feet, locked in a state of motionless silence. He must have felt it, for he looked over at me with a quizzical look.

We broke the surly bonds of earth, and the aircraft was free to climb and as it did, it started to feel the push of the slight cross in the wind.

Cirrus SR22T
Flying a high performance airplane requires total focus.

We did simple maneuvers that he seemed to muddle through. As the light faded and twilight fell heavily on the earth below, another strange thought occurred to me: “I wonder if he is night current.” But before that, I had to figure out if his instrument ticket was the real thing. Apparently on his FAA card, I had noticed he was rated. So I told him to track to a designated VOR nearby and hold on the published hold. The 530 and 430 kept us both informed about our position, yet on tuning the VOR and following the CDI to the designated point, he seemed perfectly helpless in the exercise.

Forget about holding, I thought, let’s check his spatial orientation. I gave him headings to all four quadrants around the VOR and asked him to track towards it. The tracking was more of a fishing expedition. Out of the four attempts he fared poorly at 0%.

One cannot give up. I figured at least let us get some night currency in. As he keyed in the ATIS and communicated with the tower, I noticed he had dropped down in his altitude over hills that seem to climb up to 1800 feet to kiss the clouds. He managed to drift along the valley between the peaks that would set him up for a long final for Runway 29 as instructed by the tower. Five miles out, he decreased the power and as heavier turbocharged do, we lost altitude.

The VASI was visible three miles out as they turned red on red, I had no intention of being “dead” (as per the Kings). I pushed the throttle to add thrust, so we and that perfectly beautiful aircraft didn’t get mangled up with the bramble bushes. Our hapless pilot, three-pronged the plane onto the tarmac and it bounced three times, requiring some gentle back pressure to prevent any damage.

The roll ended up to the departure end of a 6000-foot runway. He taxied off erupting in, from what appeared to be bottled, or canned, if you prefer, a flurry of excuses: tired, personal issues and fraught with anxiety. Some were real and some I couldn’t tell. So I asked him why had he decided in the middle of such mental turmoil and agitated state of being to go for a flight review? He said, he felt free when flying, from all the devils that had surrounded him in the real world. It was an escape.

Hmmm… I thought and then as gently as I could say, “Flying an aircraft requires professionalism, a unified focus with disciplined thought process, a reliance on an experiential reference and as complete as possible elimination of extraneous information.” Flying is no joke. It is not like riding a bicycle or for that matter driving a car. There are three dimensions and time to contend with and errors multiply at an alarming rate if a pilot is unfocused on task. I did say to him as we parted company, “This beast of machine kills without mercy if it leads you by the nose. Either tame it and stay ahead of it and practice, practice, practice till your eyeballs hurt and you can control it like a bucking bronco. Or sell it to someone who can.”

The next day he was sobered enough and apologized for his performance. We flew again for another two hours and made multiple landings. He earned his flight review with the performance but not the Instrument Proficiency. That is for another instructor for another day.

May he develop his abilities with ruthless dedication. Time, it seems, always manages to tell a story.

8 Comments

  • This could have been an interesting and instructive article, but your annoying writing style did a great job of obscuring any worthwhile points.

  • “Flying an aircraft requires professionalism, a unified focus with disciplined thought process, a reliance on an experiential reference and as complete as possible elimination of extraneous information.”

    If these were the actual words you used with this pilot then you are part of the problem. The cockpit isn’t the place to prove yourself superior with your PHD vocabulary. It is the place for clear and concise communication at a level where the other person doesn’t have to stop and try to figure out what you are saying.

    A simple statement of focus on what you are doing, remember what you have learned and leave all the distractions at home would have gotten your point across much better.

  • Thank you Christian…I’ll try to be less annoying.
    Thanks James…That was a statement of fact for the article not said to the student. Don’t have a PhD, either. But appreciate both your time and comments nevertheless.

  • Thanks for the clarification. The quotation marks in your article lead me to believe that was what you actually said. I am a bit sensitive about this because I have had several refresher instructors whose goal was not to sharpen my skills but instead to prove their superiority.

    In communication it is wise to first learn how the other person will best receive the information which is sometimes different than how we will send the information.

  • My brain glazed over around “unified focus” and I’m safely on the ground. Certainly you’re not his therapist or instructor but here was an opportunity to reach out effectively that seems more focused on your disdain and seemingly, clincal rigidity – I’ve flown with those too and they are seldom helpful or instructive in an effective way. Please forgive my perception if I have it wrong and thanks for your article.

  • The article certainly has a very important message. But the way it is written (the use of big words, often the wrong use, to sound smart and the multiple grammatical and spelling errors) makes the whole piece so hard to get through that the message of the article gets lost and becomes somewhat unimportant to the reader. The comments might seem harsh, but they are actually right.

  • I agree that Flying is No Joke; but from a purely “Lessons Learned” perspective, this story invites the following observations. I apologize for cutting out some of your text (shown in “‘s ) for brevity.

    “The gentleman of considerable means who claimed to have accrued about 500 hours in flight and 450 of those in a four banger had found himself for the past 50 hours….”

    He’s a rich guy with a Cirrus-is that germane? (I wish I was one too!)

    “As he taxied to ‘line up and wait’, something was amiss. He must have felt it, for he looked over at me…”

    If I knew he was stressed, tired and had personal issues, I would have canceled this flight already. More on this later.

    “We did simple maneuvers that he seemed to muddle through.”

    Your displeasure with his stick & rudder skills is obvious. It’s a flight review, not a check ride: There are many opportunities to teach during a flight review: Did you offer any instruction?

    “As the light faded and twilight fell heavily on the earth below, another strange thought occurred to me: I wonder if he is night current.”

    You should have KNOWN if he was night current-in that airplane-before you took off. This should have come up during your preflight briefing.

    “But before that, I had to figure out if his instrument ticket was the real thing. Apparently on his FAA card, I had noticed he was rated.”

    Did you assume he somehow forged his instrument rating? That’s a pretty serious charge!

    “So I told him to track to a designated VOR nearby and hold on the published hold. The 530 and 430 kept us both informed about our position, yet on tuning the VOR and following the CDI to the designated point, he seemed perfectly helpless in the exercise.”

    Is he current/proficient with his Garmin ‘suite’? Does he know/remember how to track a VOR radial? Use OBS mode on his GPS? Was this part of a planned profile, or did you just want him to react to your inflight directions?

    “One cannot give up…..”

    Are you talking about yourself or your student?

    “……..I noticed he had dropped down in his altitude over hills that seem to climb up to 1800’……. He managed to drift along the valley between the peaks that would set him up for a long final for Runway 29…….Five miles out, he decreased the power and as heavier turbocharged do, we lost altitude.”

    He’s giving you unambiguous indicators that he’s had enough already. This guy was clearly behind the airplane. I imagine, by now, that he was just as frustrated, if not more so, than you.

    “The VASI was visible three miles out as they turned red on red, I had no intention of being “dead”……. I pushed the throttle to add thrust, so we and that perfectly beautiful aircraft didn’t get mangled up with the bramble bushes.”

    Assuming it’s pure dark by now? Does he acknowledge that HE sees the VASI (we know that you do)? A silly question to some, but does he know/remember how to ‘interpret’ a VASI? Did you offer up any techniques to ensure you’re lined up with the right runway, at or above a safe glide path, like backing it up with an instrument approach?

    “Our hapless pilot, three-pronged the plane onto the tarmac and it bounced three times, requiring some gentle back pressure to prevent any damage.”

    I’m not sure what your pain threshold is for sitting through a poor, unstable(?) approach and botched landing-especially at night-without offering some guidance. If one or two verbal inputs don’t result in a quick correction, I’m going to direct a go around-or take the airplane.

    “He taxied off erupting in, from what appeared to be bottled, or canned, if you prefer, a flurry of excuses: tired, personal issues and fraught with anxiety.”

    This is my main concern: A question as simple as “Are you sure you’re good to go tonight?” might have saved a lot of grief, and money. You can always reschedule.

    Part of our jobs-our responsibilities-as flight instructors, is to “read” our students. Regardless of how they say they feel, you should be able to tell from their ‘body language’, if it’s a good idea to fly, before you even get in the plane.

    “So I asked him why had he decided in the middle of such mental turmoil and agitated state of being to go for a flight review?”

    Great question: Should have been asked before the flight.

    “Hmmm… I thought and then as gently as I could say, “Flying an aircraft requires professionalism, a unified focus with disciplined thought process, a reliance on an experiential reference and as complete as possible elimination of extraneous information.” Flying is no joke. It is not like riding a bicycle or for that matter driving a car. There are three dimensions and time to contend with and errors multiply at an alarming rate if a pilot is unfocused on task.”

    Everything you refer to, in regards to his performance, are all things YOU should have known, or at least anticipated, before you got in the airplane with him.

    I did say to him as we parted company, “This beast of machine kills without mercy if it leads you by the nose. Either tame it and stay ahead of it and practice, practice, practice till your eyeballs hurt and you can control it like a bucking bronco. Or sell it to someone who can.”

    OK; a bit harsh, given his actual circumstances. I tend to avoid giving people ultimatums.

    “He earned his flight review with the performance but not the Instrument Proficiency.”

    Was this planned as a combination FR and IPC? At dusk/night? With a guy who sounds like he wasn’t night current? In a high performance airplane? Who clearly had-or at least claims to have- issues that might distract him just a bit? How did you address all that in the brief?

    “That is for another instructor for another day.”

    Agreed.

    I agree with your point that ‘flying is no joke’; but if you’re trying to correlate that with his stated reasons for flying: “he felt free when flying, from all the devils that had surrounded him in the real world. It was an escape”, I’d have to disagree. I believe a lot of folks fly for exactly those reasons. I just hope they don’t take a lot of extra ‘baggage’ into the air with them, like this guy clearly did.

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