Flight Instructors Carry an Awesome Responsibility

By Robert Mark on August 28th, 2007

Today’s an anniversary of sorts.

It was just over 30 years ago today that I told a student named Jeff something that kept him from becoming an accident statistic. It didn’t seem like such a big deal then, but it does now.

Looking back on this today made me think again about how important the responsibility of a flight instructor is and how seldom we appreciate their efforts.

During a VFR trip to the Bahamas in a Bellanca Viking, the engine quit while this young man – heck I was just a kid too – and a passenger were out over the water. Unable to restart the big 300-HP Continental engine, the airplane hit the water and sank within a few minutes, completely busting the myth that the Viking’s massive wooden wing would surely keep a BL-26 on top of the water if the two ever met.

This man and his passenger escaped and inflated the liferaft I’d insisted they carry on the trip from the U.S.

“And make sure you put the raft where you can reach it easily if you need it, “I told him. “It won’t do you any good if it’s sitting in the baggage compartment if you go in.”

He listened.

He and his young lady passenger were adrift on the raft near Eleuthera for two and a half days before they were found by the Coast Guard. With no food or water on board the raft, the two would not have survived long under that Caribbean sun.

Smart Student or Smart Instructor?

While I’m certainly not trying to be flip, I always wondered whether I was that good an instructor or Jeff was that great a student. I’m convinced the chemistry between us both is what allowed him to hear what I was trying to tell him. That saved us both. I’m not sure all instructors search out that fit with their students, but they should.

Having trained Jeff as a student on, he impressed me early in the learning process with not only the intensity he seemed to feel about flying, but the need to learn more. We all know not every student arrives at a flight school that ready to learn.

But in my own defense, I have always taken teaching seriously. It may be a subtle difference, but I don’t tell many people that I’m a flight instructor. I tell them I teach people to fly. There’s a big difference to me.

Instructor sounds like someone you meet at a weekend course on making sense of Windows on a PC, admittedly, a hopeless task. It’s a great skill, but hardly a profession.

Maybe if we start thinking of our flight instructors as teachers, as people who might one day save someone’s life because we taught them something valuable, we might raise flying teacher’s profile with students and everyone else in the industry.

So maybe instead of ATA trying to save their necks by making general aviation the scapegoat for their failing business plans, they might start to realize they need us to help feed their end of the industry as much as we need them.

During the checkout in the Viking, I also remember telling Jeff to make sure he popped the door just before the airplane hit the water just in case the fuselage should deform and keep the door from opening.

He said he remembered that too. I read that in Flying magazine I think.

Not bad for a kid like me who can’t even swim.

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5 Responses to “Flight Instructors Carry an Awesome Responsibility”

  1. Bill Palmer Says:

    How gratifying to be able to point to a specific life saving lesson that proved itself.

    I also recall that each students secret mission is to try to kill the instructor, and one must remain ever vigilent in order to prevent that. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a C-150 or a B-747.

  2. Mal Gormley Says:

    Great story! You deserve to feel very proud of your teaching abilities. And thanks for busting the “wooden airplanes float” myth.

    I haven’t taught anyone to fly since 1986, but I often wonder whatever happened to the many students I was (mostly) fortunate to allow me to be their airborne mentor. I know I always gave it my best, but also always wanted to be better at doing it.


  3. PlasticPilot Says:

    Hi Robert,

    talking of life rafts, I just want to share some tips my own teacher (guru ?) gave me. My initial naive view was just to carry the raft and throw it in water if needed.

    In fact, it’s a bit more complex:

    1) Get the raft’s rope and attach it somewhere while the plane still floats
    2) Get the raft on the wing, and inflate it (remeber, a folded raft won’t float, hence the rope)
    3) Board anything you need in the raft
    4) Detach the rope from the plane, before it sinks (the plane, not the raft)

    I must admitt that I did not imagined all of these steps as a frehsly rated PPL.

  4. Todd Says:

    I often think back to primary instructor and a few CFIs that have flown with me for check rides and think about the important lessons they have shared with me. But, have never thought about how they look at their relationship with the student.

    I know my instructor showed great pride when I earned my license. But it must be something much more powerful knowing that a student acted based on training you provided in a way that might have saved their life, that must be a good feeling.

    I have flown with CFIs that really care about safety and others that are more lax. I think you should be proud that your message got across to that young man.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    I was always proud of all my students, from the first solo on. It’s a funny thing though. You know you’re teaching people important live-saving skills, but we never called it that necessarily.

    And then when something like this happens, it seems like a surprise althugh it should not be.

    Thanks for you thoughts. Seems we fly in the same neighborhood. I’m out of PWK too.

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