New Pilot

Manage Delays in Your Flight Training

August 1, 1994

Tales of students who've weathered plenty of angst for a pilot certificate

Every pilot knows of some unfortunate aviator whose training program fizzled out, the victim of weather, incompatible schedules, mechanical mayhem, and finally financial fuel exhaustion. All pilot-training projects experience setbacks, but many are more manageable than they may at first appear. Managing delays can be as simple as pounding the chief instructor's desk until you have his or her attention or, failing that, taking your business to the other side of the airport. But for those whose lifestyles require truly extraordinary adjustments to complete their training, or who reside in regions with few training options, designing a delay-management strategy should be as much a part of your training program as planning cross-country flights, studying for written tests, and figuring out how to pay for your training.

How does one avoid the common traps? Talk to other students. Ask yourself what could derail your training during its various phases, and develop contingency plans that can be activated on short notice to keep the project moving. Along with taking charge to quash delays comes an equally important resolution: Accept the fact that you can't control everything that might happen, and therefore, you won't fold up when things do go wrong. Up here in Maine, for example, the last two winters were periods when student pilots could count on canceling at least half their scheduled flights. Between the storms, the post-storm winds, and the bitter cold of some of our "nice" days, training would not have been productive or good for the airplane or even safe at times. Keep your spirits up and your options open. Just as you do when flying, consider a plan B each time an important training milestone approaches. Even in less severe weather than a New England winter, a badly timed low pressure system can weather out your flight test and the rain date. When your training project is finally completed, the rewards will include savoring an achievement you brought about in the face of setbacks that have caused others to abandon their efforts.

Some delays are easily anticipated. Extremely good weather is best for such events as introductory flights, first solos, solo cross countries, and check rides, but one can expect difficulties in finding the perfect conditions. It's the other kind of delay, the kind that comes at you when your guard is down, that can really knock you off stride. You arrive at the airport to fly, but the airplane's not there (the receptionist scheduled your flight for Tuesday the fourteenth instead of Tuesday the seventh). The aircraft is there, but the encoder is inoperative, and your cross country to the big airport in Class C airspace is off. Your written test score never came back from Oklahoma City. The fuel truck ruffled your trainer's tailfeathers. The airplane just went in for a 100-hour inspection. The aircraft's lights don't work; your night flight is a no-go. And there's always the old classic: "Guess what? They sold the airplane."

You don't have to tell one young pilot how tough it can be to earn your private pilot certificate when weather demons, mechanical gremlins, and quirky rural geography team up against you. Like many people I have met as they struggled against the forces of delay, Jason came into my life as a voice on the telephone. As the tale unfolded, it was obvious that the high-school senior was already well into a most aggravating adventure. He had begun flying with an instructor at an airport just a few miles from his home, in a rented Piper Cherokee. The Cherokee was soon sold, and he switched to a Cessna 172, with occasional rides in a Cessna 150 thrown in. The elderly flight instructor had recently become seriously ill, and because no one else was available to give dual instruction at the small regional airport near his home, Jason's erratic training had reached a dead end.

Training at the airport where I was then working would require him to embark on a 70-mile round-trip highway odyssey after school on weekdays. On weekends, he would have to juggle flight training with his work at his father's grocery store, which was located in a town some 30 miles away in the opposite direction. He even got a part-time job doing line work at the airport. But all this only solved his problems for a while. The budget was still tight, so I recommended that he join an area flying club. Flying the club's Cessna 152, based at yet another airport, would cost half as much as the local Skyhawks. So he joined, even though the decision added 30 more miles to his daily trek. Winter came, and on more than one occasion, Jason made the drive to the airport only to be greeted by unforecast outbreaks of snow. At such times, we would amuse ourselves by walking into the windowless automated flight service station (WAFSS?) on the field and asking the good-natured blokes who work there if anyone knew what the white stuff on our clothing was. The lightheartedness helped because it broke the depressing mood. Jason had decided to embrace aviation as a career and had been accepted for admission to a major aviation university, but to enter the program of his choice, he would need to appear on campus with his private pilot certificate already in hand. He often wondered if he would make it.

As the storms of February and March, and even April, canceled one flight after another, the stress of completing his senior year of high school also began to press in. So, to give him maximum flexibility to seize any likely opportunities that might come up to complete his solo cross-country work, especially the required 300-nautical-mile cross- country solo, Jason got checked out to solo a 172 at still another airport, this one near his father's store. The so-called "long cross country" is often the single most difficult hurdle in private pilot training because of the combination of the student's schedule, the aircraft's availability, and reliably good weather needed to bring it off. Had he not been able to pick and choose between several different aircraft and have access to several flight instructors who could approve his flight planning for the trip, more precious time would have slipped. Graduation and the prom came and went, but wind and weather played havoc with Jason until the very end. His first check-ride date arrived with fog, drizzle, and 300-foot ceilings, giving Jason one of several opportunities to experience the agonizing buildup and letdown of excitement that a weathered-out flight test can inflict on a pilot.

With college looming, "getting Jason finished" had become a community project. Other students competing for my time or aircraft time graciously yielded to his greater needs. Our local designated examiner, a working pilot who values the privacy of his weekends after flying all week, consented to be available the coming Sunday if the weather made the day a likely choice for administering Jason's flight test. And that's the way it turned out: Jason showed the man his stuff on a breezy Sunday in mid-August, passed, and began packing for school.

Even when training proceeds at a more leisurely pace, without the concrete deadline Jason faced, many folks find that finishing up a training program makes more of a demand on their time and attention than they can handle as part of their everyday work and family routine. So they tend to put off the big event until some vague time in the future when "things calm down a little." Things don't calm down, and soon, rust is visible on the piloting skills.

A successful strategy, if you are such a person, is an aviation vacation. Ask for your instructor's undivided attention for a few days, book the airplane from dawn to dusk for a week, and launch a concentrated assault on your goal, even if it means waiting for a few weeks to schedule the time. This plan contains some built-in allowances for weather and even minor mechanical problems, and the long-term weather outlook can be used to determine whether the project is a go. Remember, don't call the office "to see what has been going on" while you are trying to finish your training. I am adamant about this. Calling the office is disastrous to your concentration — and no beepers, please.

Unable to take a week off to fly? You can still insist on preferred treatment when trying to get finished up, and you should. Many students and instructors will gladly afford you priority as your big day approaches, allowing you to bump them from the schedule, even on very short notice. This could provide the breakthrough you need. Cooperation is part of the pilot ethic, so don't be shy about stepping to the front of the line. You'll have a chance to return the favor soon enough.

Even seemingly insoluble problems, such as the surprises listed above, usually aren't — they just test your creativity. A friend found that her written test results were several months overdue. With the check-ride date fast approaching, we made some inquiries. I learned that the Federal Aviation Administration would not tell us her score but would confirm that she had passed. This, in writing, was enough for her to get on with her flight test.

An inoperative Mode C encoder doesn't always have to scrub a flight into busy airspace. Air traffic control may permit a non-Mode C flight into airspace where altitude-encoding equipment is required by the regulations. I have requested such waivers on two occasions, once by telephone, once by radio, and it was granted both times. Going on a night flight? Call ahead and have someone check the aircraft lights before you jump into the car.

Pilots facing the requirement to fly a complex aircraft (flaps, controllable propeller, and retractable gear) for flight tests, such as single-engine commercial pilot and flight instructor exams, are vulnerable to problems of aircraft availability. As I write this, several local students' training projects are on hold because the only complex trainer available in the immediate area, a Cessna Skylane RG, was sold. The remedy a few instructors have come up with is to pool the projected flight time of these pilots in a package that we hope will provide an incentive for a fixed-base operator some 150 miles away to lease us his Cessna 172RG for a couple of weeks of revenue-producing rentals and check rides.

Complete your pilot training and contribute your story to the collection of tales about "getting through." You may not have an entire county on the edge of its seat, like Jason did, but you may find that your words of encouragement help keep a struggling student on track through thick and thin, probably the greatest reward of all.

Dan Namowitz is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot and CFII living, flying, and instructing in Maine.

How It Works: Com-mon Sense


We tend to take radio communications for granted. It's considered the norm to talk and listen to someone or something virtually all the time we're flying. Indeed, for those learning in areas where flight traffic is thicker than striped jerseys in a soccer match, learning the ways of the radio can be as tough as the basic task of mastering the airplane.

And there's yet another distinction — talking on the frequency and actually understanding how the radio works. By radio communications standards, our black boxes are quite simple. What you'll usually find is a combination box, called a nav/com. It houses, as the name suggests, navigation and communication radios; it used to be that these were in separate boxes in the airplane, and parts common to both, such as power supplies and speaker amplifiers, were needlessly duplicated. In the modern world, the nav/com is king.

Items left to the pilot's control in these radios are few. You get to select the transmit and receive frequency, set the volume, and, in some models, determine the squelch threshold. This merely adjusts the lowest level of the receiver's sensitivity; because there is always static on aircraft frequencies, setting the level at which the receiver mutes saves ears and tempers. Squelch control also can lead to some confusion. If you ever find that your transmissions aren't being answered, check the squelch. Rotate the squelch control until background noise, like eggs frying in a pan, comes through. Then rotate the control until the sound just stops. In radios without a separate squelch control, pull on the volume knob; in almost all cases, this overrides the automatic squelch. This way you know if your receiver's working. If there's no noise, then you either have the volume turned down, the audio panel incorrectly set up, or a bad headset, or, perhaps, the radio is simply broken.

Some pilots have asked why we still use the actual frequency for selection — wouldn't channel numbers be easier? ("Mooney 34N, contact Approach on Channel 17," for example.) This practice dates back to the days before crystal and microprocessor frequency control. Just like with an old 1940s home radio, pilots selected frequencies by hand, often matching a crystal transmit frequency with a variable receiver. Old pros can crank a Narco Superhomer to NASA tolerances while diagnosing a rough engine at 500 feet over alligator-infested swamps. We youngsters' eyes just glaze over at the sight of something without digital displays.

Not only do we have computers controlling tuning — with quite good accuracy and durability — we are used to digital displays and some neat tricks associated with them. The vast majority of modern radios have what's called flip-flop displays. The active frequency is stored in one position, while a standby is held in another; this allows you to pre-tune for the next frequency or keep the one you were just using in case nobody is awake at the next controller's position. A common problem occurs when the pilot cranks in the new frequency but forgets to hit the exchange button. Make it a habit to look at the active window before hitting the push-to-talk button. Also, in the unlikely event that you are given a contact frequency with 0.25-kHz spacing, such as 132.075 MHz, you should try pulling the small tuning knob before you think that the radio doesn't have "2s" or "7s" in the last digit. Other radio types include these frequencies in the normal spinning of the dial; you just won't see the trailing "5" on the display.

Listen before talking. Unlike telephones, our communication channels are simplex, or one at a time. Two pilots transmitting simultaneously will create a squealing for everyone else on the frequency.

Pilots sometimes call in on the wrong channel. Chances are, they just punched in the wrong frequency, but occasionally, there's some miscue concerning multiple radios. For the sake of redundancy, some airplanes have dual nav/coms. You can only transmit on one at a time, and the audio panel, usually at the top of the stack, controls which is in use. In some models, it's possible to listen to both radios at the same time, or even to inhibit the receive on the radio sending. Double-check the configuration if you're in doubt.

Remember, too, that aircraft radios work in the VHF band. (That's very high frequency, a term coined before the advent of microwave technology; they really reside in the lower-middle frequency neighborhood these days.) As such, the signal is line of sight. Don't expect to hear the ATIS if there's a wall of granite between you and the airport.

Radios don't fail all that often, certainly far less frequently than just a few years ago — but it happens. When you think the com is dead, first check the squelch to see if you can receive. Assuming you can, it's possible that you're not transmitting. Try another radio. We'll then assume one's all you've got. If, for example, you're coming in to land at a tower airport, try reaching the controller on the ground frequency; sometimes radios keel over on one or just a handful of frequencies.

If that's still a no-joy proposition, bone up on your light-gun hieroglyphics or reach for your hand-held. Many flight instructors scoff at buying a hand-held early on, but the purchase makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, it's there when you really need it, be it on the first solo cross country — and don't think it's never happened — or during instrument training later on. Plus, you can tune the receiver to local tower or approach facilities to get a leg up on the lingo, er, phraseology and quirky local customs. You'd be surprised how effective a few hours of eavesdropping can be for boning up on radio procedures.

Practice Area: Those Other People in Aviation


It's funny how compartmentalized we can get in aviation; it's as if general aviation, the airlines, and the military must work against each other or disappear. When I'm flying my airplane, I sometimes worry that some military or airline giant will sneak up from behind and gulp the Aerobat, leaving not a trace. When I am on an airliner (as a passenger), I worry about all those lightplanes that are waiting out there just to get a chance to fly in my window and get me. I guess you could say I worry a lot.

I started out flying at 15 as a civilian, washing, fueling, and starting airplanes at 40 cents an hour, while paying $8 an hour for solo flight time. The Korean War (Police Action) started in 1950, and I had about 800 hours of flying time with a commercial certificate and a flight instructor's rating (it was a rating then) when I reported to Pensacola, Florida.

I got my Navy wings, skipping some flights initially, but running into trouble with formation work because I had strong aversion to flying close to other airplanes. This aversion began in 1949 at my local airport (at the intersection of Runway 35 and 5) when a Ryan PT-22 and the Stinson 108 I was flying almost became intimately involved.

In any event, after a tour as a member of a night fighter team flying F4U-5N Corsairs, I returned to my squadron — TRANSTUPAC — (Transitional Training Unit-Pacific) to instruct in T-33s and fly as a chase instructor in F9F-6 Cougars.

On some weekends, I would go to a nearby civilian airport and rent a 65-horsepower Aeronca Champion, an airplane I had instructed in before reporting to Pensacola. Some of the pilots at the squadron had never flown small airplanes and wondered aloud why I would stoop so low as to fly a cloth-and-wood contraption that landed at 32 knots. Knowing that a 5-knot crosswind in a tailwheel Champ, particularly on a hard-surface runway, is as much of a challenge as landing a Cougar in a 20-knot direct crosswind, I answered that obviously they had never flown a Champ and worked on their airmanship that way, but they remained unconvinced.

The pattern at Naval Air Station Moffett on runways 30L and 30R called for a 3-mile straight flight in formation with a break (peel off) starting over the Camino Real (major highway), right at the southeast end of the runways.

The day in question was barely VFR because of haze, and I had the trainee in the other Cougar on my wing as we approached the runway and highway "break" point at about 250 knots.

There, right there over the highway at the point where all the military fighters congregated, was a northwest-bound Beech Bonanza with one of the worst paint jobs I've seen before or since. It was — well, in the brief view I had of it — a sickly green and red combination that somebody without a hint of artistic talent had put together. And in this brief flash, I also noted that the red-headed pilot's face just matched the green part of his airplane. ( And he had bloodshot eyes.)

I had only time for a "Pull up!" call before we were over and past him. After rejoining and landing, I was sure that the guy in the Bonanza had learned firsthand about the description "cleaning up the cockpit."

I drove to several of the small airports southeast of Moffett and didn't see the Bonanza but was told that pilots going to the San Francisco area in marginal weather followed the handy highway (through our break point) at 1,500 feet (our exact altitude) for "safety's sake" to avoid getting lost. My thought as I drove back to my home in Palo Alto was, those civilians don't have any air discipline!

Four months later, I was out of the Navy and flying a Bonanza for a corporation, a job requiring my flying from Kentucky to Louisiana (passing through Tennessee and Mississippi) on a fairly constant basis. Sometimes different airports were visited, which meant varying paths through that general area.

This trip, it seemed that I would have to go considerably out of my way to circumnavigate the rather active Greenville Air Force Training Base, and I really felt that passing through the general area wouldn't cause any hazard.

And so I saved time by cutting corners.

For an instant, I was number-three man in a two-airplane T-33 formation. Mind you, it was only for an instant — as they overtook my Bonanza (it was painted cream and red), and I too shortly learned the process known as "cleaning up the cockpit."

My thought as I proceeded (somewhat shaken for sure) was, those military pilots think they own the sky!

We would be in great shape in the industry and community today if it weren't for those other people in aviation.

William K. Kershner, AOPA 084901, is an aviation writer and flight instructor who has been flying for more than 48 years, has taught 433 students aerobatics, and received the 1992 National Instructor of the Year Award.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.