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I was a CFI at a small flight school.  This was some time ago, and I paid my debt to society and there has been no recidivism.

This school owned no airplanes—all the aircraft were “lease-backs,” by owners.  The school had no furniture, at least nothing good, so it really had nothing but office space, us instructors, a crummy coffee machine, and a crummy mini-fridge.

Speaking of airsick, I was interviewing for a CFI job at a flight school. The flight school had the usual humble name, something like “AAA Top Gun ATP Right Stuff Joe’s Flight Academy.”

On my one and only flight with the young flight school co-founder, he suddenly slammed the airplane into a 60-degree left bank and pulled aggressively, saying “What do you think of this?’’ as the horizon went whipping by the windscreen in a 60-degree bank.

steep turn

On my one and only flight with the young flight school co-founder, he suddenly slammed the airplane into a 60-degree bank.

I empty-headedly wondered what the actual heck he was doing, as the blood drained from my head until I tensed up my lower body.  I grunted against the two-three Gs he was pulling, laughing because I had regularly pulled a sustained six Gs in the T-38 in the Air Force, and I grunted out “I wouldn’t do this with a student.”

It didn’t occur to me that he was trying to show he could fly like a fighter pilot or something, because after all,  we were in a Cessna 172.  Then he rolled out of the turn.  About two minutes later, he asked if I could please fly, he didn’t feel well.  Even after landing and being on the ground for an hour, lying on his side like a dog on a couch in the flight school, he groaned, “My stomach still doesn’t feel good.  You’re hired.  Ohhhhhhh, auuuuugh…..”

Dude had made himself airsick—ha!  I felt sorry for him.   Nowadays, I feel even sorrier for him, because I see on Linkedin that he’s a first officer at a regional airline.

“Why would I feel sorry for him, isn’t that a great job?” a person may ask.  As my buddy, who used to be a captain for Trans States, said “Flying in the airlines is like driving a car into a garage with someone you don’t like and staring out the windshield at the wall for four hours.”

Speaking of airsick, “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 “fly” for half an hour.  This “flight” was exactly 0.5 hours, on the cursed Hobbs meter, so the half-hour “flight” included taxiing in and out.  (Read the Discovery Flight agreement fine print.)  I always, always, always managed to overfly the allotted 0.5 hours, by letting the customer fly and sightsee too much.  They’d be like “Can we go fly over our house? It’s near Chicago, is that a problem?”

My “record” Disco Flight was a 0.8 hours.  The president of the flight school forgot to give me an award for this record. He grumbled something about how the school “lost money on the long flights” or something and how “you never listen”—I forget exactly what he said, I was texting someone some important YouTube video clip or something.


I was the king of disco flights.

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 totally naive, I picked up a lot of Disco Flights.

My flight instructor buddies started calling me the “Disco King,” a title I secretly relished.  They all thought it was a goofy nickname, nya nya!, 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!  Did I wear the same kind of white suit John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever?  Of course I did, but hidden underneath my regular clothes so as not to alarm the customers.

One day I had a Disco Flight with a 17-year-old boy, a very quiet, skinny computer-programming-loving kid who looked about 12 years old, and his mom and dad.  I taxied the Cessna 172 out, took off, and approached the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River, like in John Denver’s song “Country Roads” except for a lot more propeller noise.  When it was “safe” (which technically is never on a Disco Flight) I let him fly, after some technical aviation instruction.

I told him “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!—pull the yoke back, the houses get smaller. OK, you have the controls,” I said, stuffing the left collar of my white disco suit back under my leather jacket.

He turned left OK, then right, which was OK at first.  Then he turned righter and more right, and suddenly we were in a right 35-degree bank, about 15-degrees nose-low, and a small mountain that I had never really seen from that angle entirely filled the windscreen.  I couldn’t really help but notice how very green everything in the windscreen was.  I turned to him, trying to hide my utter panic, and bleated out “What are you doing?!”

“I don’t know!!” he howled, a look of terror on his face, which may very well have matched the look on mine.

I took over the controls, and recovered to level flight, pulling what felt like twelve Gs, and landed us safely in the Potomac River, and all hundred and thirty passengers exited safely. No no!—just kidding! I used the Shenandoah River.  The Potomac River was a 0.8-hour flight away, and I wasn’t going that far again, and get scolded.

Actually no, we didn’t land heroically in the river, we just  returned to level flight, and were flying along all “fat dumb and happy.”  I let him have the controls again, my hands approximately one-sixteenth of an inch away away from the yoke, my feet surreptitiously 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, then he would have been really green around them.  He didn’t throw up, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

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 maybe a video game or pretty much anything besides going up in a little Cessna with Mom and Dad and getting airsick

As a new CFI, I had a flight student who was a doctor who often flew early in the morning before work.  He often wore those greenish medical scrubs that docs wear. I’m surprised he didn’t wear his stethoscope, so absolutely everyone would know that he was a doctor, since sometimes it was cold and he had to wear clothes over the thin scrubs.  But a stethocope—THAT you could hang outside a jacket.

He often brought along one or sometimes two pretty young women passengers—I thought maybe they were his girlfriends or medical assistants. Perhaps they were both, like if you put them inside a Venn diagram—a big one, I’m talking, big enough to hold people—they’d be in the intersection.

I pretended he was a really good pilot when they were on board, so he could “make points” with them.  Like I said, I was a new CFI, and, in the legal terminology of the FAA, an “idiot.”

I don’t think that doctor 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 new already, get off me! I thought he was studying, but nay.  One time, walking back to the FBO from the airplane after about what seemed like his hundreth dual flight, he turned and 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.”

He nodded sagely, and because he saw the look of shock on my face, thought I was having maybe a stroke, at least, and took my blood pressure and listened to my heart and lungs—he DID have a stethoscope in his pocket, I KNEW IT!, and told me to cough.  He said I was OK, but prescribed me Diet Coke and popcorn, which the flight school had.

I don’t think he knew what the ailerons or rudder did.  The way I could tell he didn’t know what they did is that he could only land if the wind was dead calm, when you don’t really need ailerons or rudder—though an elevator comes in handy, not he knew what an elevator was.

I bet if I told him the elevator was located in the back seat he would have nodded knowingly, and said “Uh uh, I know that, I’m a doctor.  Stick out your tongue and say ‘Ahhhh.’”

If there was even a puff of crosswind, the aircraft would drift left or right of centerline as the student (the “learner,” but the FAA term really doesn’t describe this guy) went into his landing flare as the crosswind blew us sideways, and he had no clue how to keep the airplane on centerline.  “Wing low, opposite rudder” is how I learned to fly in crosswinds in the Cessna T-37, the “Tweet,” but that advice didn’t stick to his big doctor brain.  “Aileron into the wind, rudder to straighten the nose” also bounced off his doctoral noggin.

I finally thought (thought!) he was safe enough to send up solo on a dead calm day.  Off he went solo, and all was well.  But after one or two landings or so, the wind picked up to a roaring three-gusting-to-four-knot crosswind.

Panicked, I raced in my car 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 quite tell how far from centerline he was.

I must mention that I was using a defibrillator on myself at this point, on account of my heart stopping and stuff.  Before I yelled “CLEAR” and hit myself with the defib paddles, though, I did see him jerk the aircraft aggressively to the right after landing, one wing rising.

My fellow flight instructor happened to be flying right behind my student on short final, and saw him land. On the ground back at the flight school, my buddy instructor asked me “Was that your student out there?”  I cautiously admitted that perhaps, I don’t know, maybe it was, and why?  He said “I thought he was going to go into the grass!”

So I took my student aside and gently told him he couldn’t go solo anymore, and canceled his solo endorsement logbook entry with extreme prejudice (using a Sharpie), and told him he had to do an online ground school starting ASAP (“stat”) before I’d fly with him again.  He agreed.

I never did fly with the good doctor again, because I moved to a foreign country, and changed my name.  I do hope he found out how fast a knot is and what the flight controls do.

I began to fly with other students, quite a variety of people.

I had an angry, older-than-average student, a man in his late fifties.  Very sharp and argumentative, he was a successful businessman, used to getting his own way.  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 tried to convince him that flying like that often led to sudden death, but he smirked at that.  He raced cars, he explained, so he knew about sharp turns.

I tried to explain that if you corner a car too hard, it may skid.  “Corner” an airplane too hard, it may stall, spin, and crash, in that order.  One day, I had him do a “high speed” (40 knots) practice abort on takeoff, and he stomped on the brakes—but mashed the left one harder than the right. We got pretty darn far left of centerline—I think I could read the words on the vending inside the FBO building—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 was standing on the brakes—Mr. Right Stuff had scared himself—and me—and was locked up on the brakes like a leg press at the gym.  I said quietly, “Could you please come off the rudder pedals.”  (Ya gotta allow a man to redeem himself.)  We took off, and he flew in a much more controlled fashion, no yanking and banking that flight.  He went right back to doing that the next flight.

I had another student—nice guy in his fifties—who always smelled like booze when he came to fly.  At first, I thought it was his aftershave.  Since we always flew in the afternoon, I thought he must shave in the afternoon, at 5:00pm.

Then I started thinking, “Who shaves at five?” But, still I gave him the benefit of the doubt—maybe it was five o’clock shadow—I said to myself.  Then I thought “Oh, I know—maybe it’s mouthwash.”  But after a number of whiffs of this guy, I came around to thinking, “That smells a lot like Wild Turkey Mouthwash, if Wild Turkey made a mouthwash.  Wait just a minute here…..”

He was always genial and chatty—like people get when they’re half in the bag (the FAA calls it “liquored up”) 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.

Oh, and this was fun, when taxiing, he’d “turn” with the yoke. I tried to teach him about how the rudders turned the aiplane on the ground and stuff, then gave up and just steered with the rudders for him/us, and let him “turn” using the yoke, as I cracked my window for oxygen.

airplane taxi

I finally gave up and just steered with the rudders for him/us, and let him “turn” using the yoke as we taxiied.

Dum dee dum dee dum—he’d fly happily, as I worked the radios, covertly adding rudder as needed, keeping him out of the Class B airspace and the SFRA by saying, “Turn left, now turn right, go straight, level off LEVEL OFF.”

I paid special attention to the Special Flight Rules Area (pronounced “Siffra).  Cross that little dotted red line defining the SFRA border around Washington, D.C., and there were lasers, missiles, Blackhawk helicopters, fighter jets, and—scariest of all—politicians.  My job seemed to be keeping my mouthwash-using student away the SFRA, from other airplanes, and the ground.

I was much older than all but a couple of the other CFIs at the school, the younger CFIs all “building time” to get a “real flying job.”  An airline job, The Holy Grail.  They chattered about class dates, sim training, and places like Indianapolis, Newark, and Dulles.

I told one of my buddies once, “This CFI job might be the most fun you’ll ever have flying an airplane.” This was as we came down final in a Grumman Traveler, sideways, in a 17-knot crosswind, winds 22 gusting 27.  I don’t think he believed me.

That guy soon got hired as a first officer at a regional airline, on account of him having:

  • a pulse
  • a First-Class medical
  • not all that many felonies
  • enough hours, which is a hundred and ninety-two nowadays.

When I next saw him after he had completed airline simulator training, I noticed he didn’t talk about how much fun he was having flying a jet.

Did I say “I told you so.”?  Yes of course I did, don’t be silly!

But to be polite, I used my inner voice.

Matt Johnson
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