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I was once scolded by the co-founder of the flight school where I was working as a CFI.  He was a young man of about 25, but he looked older because of his fierce mustache/goatee combo. And he chewed me out for flying with a student when there was rain nearby. “You don’t want to teach that it’s OK to fly with bad weather near,” he said. I was up doing pattern work at Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK) in Frederick, MD, and the storm was approaching Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO) in Leesburg, VA.

After verbally beating me like a rented mule, he promptly took off in a Cirrus and flew directly right up to and skirted the edge of a massive, deadly thunderstorm coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. The same storm he was warning me about—the storm that was some fifty miles from the field. Yup, I couldn’t believe it, scolded me like a redheaded stepchild and then flew right at it until he had to turn. Yikes!

thunderstorm cloud

After verbally beating me like a rented mule, he promptly took off in a Cirrus and flew directly right up to and skirted the edge of a massive, deadly thunderstorm.

Later, he got fired from that flight school that he co-founded (and paid himself a healthy salary at). I realized maybe he really didn’t know jack.  Or squat, even, or diddly. On my one and only flight with him, when he was interviewing me for a CFI position at the school, he suddenly put the airplane into a 60-degree left bank and pulled aggressively, and did a 360, saying “What do you think of this?’’  I grunted against the two to three Gs he was pulling, laughing because I had regularly pulled a sustained six Gs in the T-38 in the Air Force, and said “I wouldn’t do this with a student.”

I wondered what he was doing as the blood drained from my head a little and I tensed up my lower body. Then he rolled out of the turn. About two minutes later, he asked if I could please fly because he didn’t feel well. Even after landing and being on the ground for an hour, he said “My stomach doesn’t feel good.” Dude made himself airsick trying to show how a good a pilot he was. I felt sorry for him, but nowadays, I feel even sorrier for him because he’s a first officer at an airline. Why would I feel sorry for him, isn’t that a great job?  As my buddy said, who used to be a captain for Trans States Airline, “Flying in the airlines is like driving a car into a garage with someone you don’t like and staring at the wall for four hours.”  Ha!

I was much older than all but two of the other CFIs at the school, the younger guys and gals all “building time” to get a “real flying job.” An airline job. I told one my buddies more than once, “This might be the most fun you’ll ever have flying an airplane.” He soon got hired as a first officer at a regional airline, because he had a pulse and enough hours, and when I next saw him after his simulator training, I noticed he wasn’t ranting about how much fun he was having. Did I say “I told you so.”? Yes, but to be polite, I used my inner voice.

Never a dull moment at the flight school. One of my fellow CFIs, an older and I thought wiser former US Air Force fighter pilot, took off when a massive thunderstorm was just about to hit the field. On board were a father and his 11 year-old daughter. I was looking out the first floor big windows of the flight school watching the incoming black death of the thunderstorm, thinking “Isn’t this nice, to be able to look at the black storm approaching from the safety of an indoor room,” when suddenly a Cessna 172 went roaring by, climbing out against the pitch-black background.

I went next door to the other flight school and talked to a couple of their instructors, and asked why they dared to fly with towering black death so near. They said “No, no that’s one of your airplanes—we couldn’t believe you guys are flying in this!”

So I looked on ForeFlight, watching the aircraft’s ground track, watching the radar returns of the storm.  That CFI and his passengers got “stuck out” for hours and hours, unable to return to our field. Why? Oh, the four inches of rain we got at the field that started about 16 seconds after he took. It was a deluge. You couldn’t see even a quarter-way down the runway. The rain fell so hard, it sounded like hammering on the roof. And it turns out our flight school had two leaks in the ceiling. And ants, too, but I digress.

I had an angry, older-than-average student, in his late fifties. He was very sharp and argumentative. This guy would aggressively slam the aircraft into a 45-degree bank in the traffic pattern, turning from downwind to base, for example, with a maniacal grin on his face. I suspect he was a successful businessman, used to kind of getting his own way. I tried to convince him that flying like that often led to sudden death, but he smirked.  He raced cars, he told me, so he thought you can yank and bank an airplane around the sky showed that you had the right stuff, that you were aggressive and whatnot. I tried to explain that the difference between a car and an airplane is, well, there are a lot of differences.

If you corner a car too hard, it may skid. “Corner” an airplane too hard, it may stall, spin, and crash, in that order–with no airbags. I had him do a “high speed” (40 knots) practice abort one day on takeoff. He stomped on the brakes, but pushed the left one harder than the right. We got pretty far left of centerline and came to a stop. I said, my heart racing, “OK, I have the controls,” and tried to taxi back to the centerline to takeoff, but the airplane wouldn’t move. He had his feet jammed on the brakes. Mr. Angry, Mr. Aggressive scared himself—and me—and was locked up on the brakes. I used the time-tested technique of mentally shouting, then saying quietly, “Please come off the rudder pedals.”

I had a student—nice guy in his fifties—who always smelled like booze when he came to fly. At first, I thought it was his aftershave, but since we always flew in the afternoon, I begin to think it was perhaps not his aftershave at all. So, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I said to myself “Maybe it’s mouthwash.” But after a while, I came around to thinking, “That smells like Wild Turkey Mouthwash.” He was always genial and chatty—like people get when they’re half in the bag. And he always just wanted to go out and kind of steer the airplane around the sky, like one would drive a car around a big empty parking lot. Dum dee dum dee dum, as I worked the radios, the rudders (secretly), and kept him out of the Class B airspace and the Special Flight Rules Area, and away from other airplanes and the ground, the “cumulo granite.”

I had a student who was a doctor who often flew in the morning before work in those greenish medical scrubs doctors wear. He often brought along one or two of his pretty young girlfriends or medical assistants. Perhaps they were one and the same, like if you put them in a Venn diagram—a big one, I’m talking, big enough to hold a person, they’d be in the intersection. Perhaps. I pretended he was a really good pilot when they were on board, like he could really land well and stuff. I don’t think he read one single thing, ever, about aviation during the time I flew with him.  This is, of course my fault, as an instructor. I was a new CFI—I though the was studying, but alas, nay. One time, walking back to the FBO after about what seemed like his hundredth flight, he asked me, “How fast is a knot?”

I stopped dead in my tracks, shocked.  I turned to him, and said in a low voice, “Dude, don’t ever ask anyone that question again. And a knot is 1.15 miles an hour.”  (I know, I know, it’s really 1.15078 miles per hour for you purists.

I don’t think he knew what the ailerons or rudder did. The way I could tell he didn’t know is that he could only land if the wind was dead calm, when you don’t really need ailerons or rudder, just an elevator, not that he knew what an elevator was. If there was even a puff of crosswind, the aircraft would drift left or right of centerline in the landing flare, as the crosswind blew us, and he had no clue how to keep the airplane on centerline. “Wing low, opposite rudder” is how I learned to fly in the Cessna T-37, but that advice didn’t stick to his big doctor brain. “Aileron into the wind, rudder to straighten the nose” also bounced off his noggin.

Pilot on final

If there was even a puff of crosswind, the aircraft would drift left or right of centerline in the landing flare.

I finally sent him up solo on a dead calm day, thinking he was safe. But after one landing, the wind picked up to a roaring four knot crosswind. Panicked, I raced out to the parking ramp where I could see him land and pulled out my binoculars to watch. I watched him land on what looked like the left side of the runway, but I couldn’t tell how far from centerline he was. Idid see him jerk the aircraft aggressively to the right and I saw the underside of the right wing. Or maybe the left, I’m not sure, because I was using a defibrillator on myself from my heart stoppage and all. However, my fellow flight instructor was flying right behind my student on short final and saw him land.

On the ground, my fellow instructor asked me, “Was that your student out there?” I admitted that it was. He said, “I thought he was going to go into the grass!” So I took my student aside and told him he couldn’t go solo anymore and canceled his solo endorsement logbook entry. I told him he had to do an online ground school starting ASAP before I’d fly with him again. He agreed. I never did fly with the good doctor again. I assume he found out how fast a knot is and what the flight controls do.

“Discovery Flights” were something our flight school offered. For $175.00, a person could get a half-hour flying orientation briefing on the ground, then go “up” for half an hour—exactly, on the wretched Hobbs meter so the half-hour was partly taxiing. We called them “Disco Flights,” us witty flight instructors did. For some reason, probably because I hung around the flight school and had a lot of free time and was friendly, cheerful, and stupid, I picked up a lot of Disco Flights. My flight instructor buddies started calling me the Disco King, a title I secretly relished. They thought it was a goofy nickname, ha ha, but I thought it was awesome, since during the disco era I never dared to get out on the dance floor under the glittering disco ball and dance like John Travolta. But just look at me now! Some days I’d have two or three Disco Flights.

One day I had a Disco Flight with a 17 year-old boy. He was a very quiet, skinny computer-programming-loving kid who looked about 13 years-old. I taxied the Cessna 172, took off, and approached the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River like in John Denver’s song. When it was “safe” (which technically is never on a Disco Flight) I let him fly, after some technical aviation instruction: “If you want to go left, turn the yoke left, and to go right, turn the yoke right. Push the yoke down, the houses get bigger, ha ha!, and pull the yoke back, the houses get smaller. OK, your aircraft.” He turned left OK, then right, then righter and more right, and suddenly we were in a right 30-degree bank, about 15-degrees nose-low, and a nearby small mountain that I had never really seen from that angle filled the windscreen. I couldn’t help but notice the all the trees and terrifying green leaves right in my face. I turned to him, trying to hide my utter panic, and bleated out in what I hoped was a voice that didn’t scare him, Mom, Dad, and me, “What are you doing?!”

“I don’t know!” he said, a look of terror on his face which may have matched mine. I took over the controls and recovered to level flight, pulling what felt like 12 Gs, and we landed in the Potomac, because, well, Sully did it and it looked cool. No no!—just kidding—it was the Shenandoah River. No, no, balderdash!—we were back to flying straight and level, all fat dumb and happy, and I let him have the controls again, my hands approximately one-quarter inch away (0.635 centimeters) away from the yoke, my feet lightly on the rudders.

He took the yoke, but soon said, “Can you fly, please?”  I looked at him. He looked greenish. If he had had gills, he would have been green around them. He didn’t throw up, but almost. His parents had bought him this Disco Flight for his 17th birthday—it wasn’t his idea. I suspect his birthday gift idea would have been to do anything besides going up in a little Cessna with Mom and Dad and getting airsick.

Matt Johnson
Latest posts by Matt Johnson (see all)
41 replies
    • Joe
      Joe says:

      I got a Lancair story for you. Got my rotorcraft rating in my Schweizer 300C then got my private fixed wing and with only 60 hours or so of fixed wing (10 in a Baron C55) I bought a Lancair IVP and have been flying it for about 25 hours now. VFR

  1. Nigel Paul
    Nigel Paul says:

    What an awesome early morning read. I’m a very visual person and was cracking up, visualizing what you wrote.

    I say, we need more of this!

  2. Lynn A Pease
    Lynn A Pease says:

    Nice. I’m stealing that line about “Flying in the airlines is like driving a car into a garage ……..” Did that for 30 years and now teach new pilots who expect to go (most do) to the airlines. Flew with Shul as well, made an impression on me as a 23-year-old 2nd Lt.

      • Jim Preston
        Jim Preston says:

        He’s the guy who talked me into flying the Hog. He came up to Willy from D-M with some great gun camera film that sealed the deal.

        Yeah, he passed away right after giving a speech. A shame…a great man!

  3. Pat
    Pat says:

    Absolutely love these stories. I did a lot of instruction so I can relate. I hope Matt writes more articles. I’m sure he has some great T-38
    flights to tell us about.

  4. Ron
    Ron says:

    First of all, Thank for you for your service!
    It is great you have a generous since of humor to keep you sane.
    This is a great read and need more of them!

  5. Anderson
    Anderson says:

    I got to take my first discovery flight and the young CFI was very pleasant and helpful. I’m older than 40, double his age but have studied ground school about 8 times through while waiting for my medical (which I just got a special issuance).

    Anyway it went great, he let me fly the whole time because he could tell I wanted to and was being safe and listening. He did comment though that one day he’d like to fly in a less dangerous scenario. I asked what was dangerous about CFI and he blurted “Every Student You Take Up Is Trying To Kill You!!!”

    I think he was a little embarrassed but also I appreciated his honestly

  6. Steve D
    Steve D says:

    Oh my gosh, I love your articles. And how is it that each one is funnier than the last? The satire is so rich, yet instructive at the same time. I, for instance, need to start using more similes in my writing. It’s like adding a literary laugh track. You should really write a book, but maybe you are not that motivated. If I every fly to North Dakota (I won’t), I’ll definitely look you up and offer to buy you a beer, after you are done teaching for the day of course. Keep making all of us smile. Thanks so much!

  7. Gary Allen
    Gary Allen says:

    Good stuff. Most of my 1000+ hours of Dual-Given were at Ohio State (excuse me, The Ohio State University ) in the late 1960’s and there were only a couple of times any student really scared me – usually because I, not the student, did Something Stupid.
    Example: in a few instances with hood students, I’d have them under the hood, maneuver us into a wide downwind for a then-new airstrip near Marysville) and have them demonstrate slow flight at MCA. While they did this, I’d pull the mixture control and wait until the prop stopped. Then I’d pull off there hood, point at the runway and say, “There’s your airport. Land it.” Once the shock wore off, I’d restart the engine and hold the throttle fully closed.
    The last time I did this, the student (future AF pilot) was a little short in his setup and I could see he’d hafta flare on short final and float to the threshold, but it would work. Unfortunately he began sneaking the nose up and bleeding off airspeed. This was a Cherokee 140 with the Hershey-bar wings; in a Cessna, it might’ve worked.
    I began adding forward pressure to the yoke, saying, “Nose down, Rick, nose down!” and felt him resolutely increasing his pull against me. He then yanked the wheel full-back. I slammed the throttle to the firewall and fortunately, the engine quit cold.
    The Cherokee did its usual approach-stall flutter just as it did when practicing this maneuver at a safe altitude, gave an aerodynamic sigh, and down we went.
    We hit the ground on the mains, HARD. So hard I honestly thought we’d probably driven the main gear struts up into the wings. The ground was soft and we rolled to a stop in maybe 50 feet, about 100 feet short of the threshold.
    Cringing, I looked out the side windows. No visible damage. I got out and looked at all three struts and they were fine.
    We fired it up and flew back to KOSU. Rick, my ROTC student, was almost uncontrollably contrite. I told one of our mechanics to check the gear as we’d had a hard landing. No damage was found.
    I told myself (and Rick) I was done with my little forced-landing test. I also conceded to myself that while I didn’t like the aesthetics of flying the stubby-wing Cherokees, they were rugged little buggers.

  8. Olga Mitchell
    Olga Mitchell says:

    I enjoyed these stories and can relate. I was a flight instructor in two flight schools and a Flying Club in New Jersey. It’s great to be able to listen to the article rather than reading it. However the reader should be told that a Cessna 172 should be called a Cessna one seventy two not a Cessna one hundred and seventy two. Keep them coming.

  9. RC
    RC says:

    Great article!!
    I could have sworn some of the antics you mentioned occurred 85 miles ENE of there, with a rather legendary FBO owner. BTW, I am one of a number of MDs who finally made it into the air – but unforgettable was one lesson with him when HE requested 720’s, promptly either passed out or fell asleep, and woke up when I chose to return and land – he managed to make it into his office and slept some more.

  10. John Wade
    John Wade says:

    Some great stories and fun to read. Sounds like you have a book on the subject in you!
    I have to clarify something about airline flying though. I flew for a commuter in the 70’s , non sked freight in Electras, post deregulation upstart airline and finally 32 years with a Major airline flying the Pacific in widebodies. Safe to say I flew with all manner of personalities and have truly fond memories of the many great people I flew with. Some became lifelong friends others left me with some good stories but I never saw them again. Can’t recall anyone that left me with a sour taste no matter how unique their perspectives were! By and large one of the great things about a career as an airline pilot is the people you shared a cockpit with and the chance to get to know some great characters. I flew with Pilots from all walks of life, many had some incredible stories in their past, but we all had the common denominator of aviation to connect over. I’m thinking your friends airline experience may say more about him then the people he flew with but regardless, there are healthier perspectives on airline flying out there.

    • Ken Roberts
      Ken Roberts says:

      I couldn’t agree more with John’s remarks. I have 2000+ hours instructing on the way to a 37 year career with a major airline and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Great people, great memories.

  11. Michael Beare
    Michael Beare says:

    Excellent article! I identified with many of the CFI-student stories shared. Great tips too. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Wayne Van Andel
    Wayne Van Andel says:

    During your years at Beale, I’m guessing you came across a “sled” pilot I had the privilege of flying with several times at UAL—Jack Madison. Great pilot with great stories.

  13. Skip Stagg
    Skip Stagg says:

    Love the story takes me back to my days CFI- ing and running flight schools. All of which caused me to really hate the C-150 and tolerate the 172. quite a let down from an A-4. In your bio you said “He writes too which is troubling.”
    To quote the science fiction writer Robert A Henline “Writing is nothing to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterward.”


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