Flight Instructors to Remember and Forget

By Robert Mark on October 2nd, 2017

After 40 years of flying, flight instructing and communicating throughout the aviation business, it’s almost impossible for me to remember that of all my flight instructors, I almost allowed my first ago to drive me completely away from the business. Although he’s long gone from aviation, the lessons are still significant enough to pass on today at a time when the industry’s hunting and pecking for every possible student pilot. Lucky for me, another CFI entered my life years later and completely turned my world around.

In 1966 I was a 17-year old freshman at the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation and anxious to learn to fly. I never doubted my goal … to be an airline pilot.

In those days, student pilots and instructors at the school were randomly paired and I drew a guy named Tom. We flew the mighty 90-hp 7FC Tri-Champ with the student in front and the instructor behind.

School began in late September with ground school and the “Box,” a name we’d all attached to the Link trainer we were expected to partially master before we took to the air. I never realized I was a bit claustrophobic until the first time Tom sat me in the box, closed the door and pulled the cover down on top of me leaving me in nearly total darkness.

Why Was Always a Big Question

We didn’t brief much before we began so not surprisingly, the sessions didn’t go well since I never really understood the point of moving a control stick inside a dark little room as dials and gauges spun like mad before my eyes. Looking back on it today, I realize Tom talked a lot, asked few questions and simply assumed I was following along. I wasn’t since I’d never even been inside the actual airplane.

Finally one day I flew.

I clearly loved every moment in the air despite being nearly clueless about what I was supposed to be doing, except for reminders from the back seat like … “what are you doing that for?” It was at about the five-hour mark that things started getting ugly because I just didn’t seem to be getting things to come together.

There was this landing practice session that still sticks out in my mind. Right near the runway on the first few, Tom started yelling … “Flare, flare, flare.” Crunch! The Tri-Champ was pretty forgiving despite hitting hard enough to knock the headset off my head a few times. After an hour of punishing flying, we taxied in and shut down. Tom grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard from the back seat. “Why didn’t you flare when I told you too?” Somewhat worn out I just stared out the windshield and asked, “What’s a flare?” was all I could muster.

I actually managed to solo the next week and was cleared to fly the pattern that helped my confidence enormously. But soon I was back in the Tri-Champ and the Link with Tom and the yelling began again. To make matters worse, he began slapping me along side the head and yelling when I screwed up. With 15 hours total time, I finally broke. At 17 I knew I would never learn to fly. I quit school AND flying and never touched the controls of another airplane.

Until …

Jump ahead five years as I arrived to my last Air Force duty station at Bergstrom AFB, now Austin Municipal airport. How I got there is too long a story right now. It’s what happened next that’s important.

Within a few days of arrival I found the base flying club. Outside the main door near the aircraft parking area they’d installed a small set of stadium seats. I’d sit there watching the Piper Cherokees come and go, some with two people inside, some with just one. I didn’t go into the clubhouse though.

One day, I headed to the flying club to watch airplanes and eat my lunch. A Cherokee 140 pulled up near the fence, but the engine didn’t shut down. The guy in the right seat seemed to be talking to the pilot in the left. Finally the door opened, the guy in the right seat hopped out and shut the door patting it a few times, maybe for good luck I though. As the airplane taxied away, the right seat guy passed me saying hi as he did. Half an hour later the Cherokee returned and that same guy left to greet him. Later I learned the pilot was on his second supervised solo and the fellow who’d waved to me was his instructor.

Maybe a week or so later I’m back out on the seats watching the airplanes when that same instructor comes out of the clubhouse door. He looks around and happens to see me so he walks over. “Why aren’t you out there flying on such a beautiful day,” he asks. “I’m not a pilot.” “Really?” he says. “You sure hang around here a lot for a guy who doesn’t fly. My name’s Ray. Stop in one of these days,” he said before turning away toward one of the airplanes. The gauntlet had been thrown down.

I didn’t go back to the viewing area the rest of that entire week. It was simply too scary to think of being close to something I really loved, but at which I’d already failed. The next week though, I did go back, but only back to the seats.

To this day I think Ray was watching for me because he came out of the clubhouse door and waved … “Well, are you coming in?” I sighed deeply but got up and followed him in the clubhouse door. And that, as they say, was that.

Over some coffee, I told Ray my story of failure. It didn’t even slow him down because an hour later we went out flying … and I never stopped again. I went on to earn my ATP and my own flight instructor ratings, fly for a couple of airlines, a charter company and a couple of Part 91 corporate flight departments. As an aviation writer, I even managed to grab a couple of hours in an Airbus A-380. It has all been just so sweet.

My instructor Tom nearly ended my aviation career, but luckily there was another fabulous instructor like Ray out there waiting to offer me a hand up with a little encouragement, which is all I apparently needed.

Dassault’s Falcon 8X cockpit

Today I wonder how many instructors like Tom are still out there. Trust me, one like him is one too many.

So here’s a suggestion. When you see someone watching through the fence, go say hi and offer a little encouragement to that budding pilot. These already-eager people are the low-hanging fruit for instructors and we can’t afford to lose a one of them.

Who knows, you might just be the one to change that wannabe-pilot’s life.

Rob Mark

 

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