Waypoints: Family affair

November 1, 1996

The normally enthusiastic student pilot plunks into the recliner. "I can't do it!" she exclaims. "I'll never be able to make a landing. I can do takeoffs and fly around, but the landings are impossible. You make it look so easy."

"I've been doing it for nearly 20 years; you've been at it six weeks now and 10 flight hours," I remind her. I try to be reassuring, but for the first time since she started flying, I am concerned that she might give it up. Here is the very first person I took for a ride after I got my private certificate—someone I desperately want to share piloting duties with, even after all these years—and she may well be about to give up. While I can understand her feelings, I think I am more frustrated than she for not being able to proffer a simple solution to landings.

No one was more surprised than I when, last summer, Brenda, my wife of 13 years and the love of my life for 20 years, declared that she wanted to learn to fly. Ever since May 6, 1979—six days after I took the private pilot checkride—when I first took her up in the Cessna 150 I had used all through training, I had wanted her to experience the same thrill of piloting an airplane that I had learned. She enjoyed the ride that day and has spent many hours since then flying beside me, but she's never shown any interest in piloting the airplane. She has always liked the utility of an airplane but has never been one to want to just go up and bore holes in the sky with me.

Often on clear weekend days, I suggest that it's a nice day to go fly around, maybe get some lunch somewhere. She looks at me in a puzzled way and reminds me that I have just returned from a week of flying around on business. "And you want to go again?" she queries.

My stock answer: "Yes, and I'll want to go again tomorrow if the weather's good; and the day after, too."

I used to encourage her to take the controls and to think about learning to fly, but she never acted interested, so I settled for just having a willing partner. In fact, I felt fortunate to have a spouse who would fly with me and even allow our children to go along too. Some pilots aren't nearly so lucky.

Nonetheless, I am surprised and thrilled when, on a quiet summer evening, she announces her intention to learn to fly. Within a couple of days, she stops by the local flight school on her own and picks up some materials. She calls Lois Boyer—the wife of AOPA President Phil Boyer, and a recent student at the same school—for advice on instructors. Lois sets her up with one to match her temperament, and less than a week later Brenda has her first lesson. She comes home all smiles and for several weeks seems to be enjoying herself immensely. The training provides a perfect diversion from her part-time nursing job and full-time mothering duties. She schedules lessons on her morning off each week, and I take the kids on Saturday mornings or afternoons so that she can head out to the airport for another session.

Our house is about five miles north of the airport and right under the VOR approach path; on a busy Saturday, it's not unusual to have three or four airplanes in sight at once. With each and every airplane's passing, our 3-year-old daughter proudly proclaims to all the kids in the neighborhood, "That's my mommy flying up there."

Brenda quickly masters straight-and-level basics, puts up with stalls, and says that she even earns praise from her instructor for turns about a point. She asks me what that maneuver is all about, and I confess to not having a good answer. "It'll help you plan your turns in the traffic pattern on windy days," I reply, trying to sound authoritative.

In the evenings, she sits in bed with her Jepp Private Pilot Manual propped on her legs, highlighter in hand. More often than not, she has a question for me when I come to bed.

"What's a crab?"

"You, when you don't get enough sleep."

(Sarcastic look) "How's it fit into a crosswind landing?"

The reason I'm not a CFI becomes perfectly clear to her and me as I struggle to explain something that I've done hundreds of times. Nonetheless, her training is good for me, forcing me to dredge up memories of my own lessons and to think through procedures and maneuvers that seem to happen automatically. When is the last time you thought about putting in the proper wind correction when on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern? Quite a while, if you're like me. Instead, when you note a bit of a drift away from the runway, for example, you throw in a little correction without any conscious effort.

Just noticing the drift is a challenge for the student, never mind dialing in the right correction, checking for traffic, announcing on the radio, completing the checklist, and simply keeping the airplane upright.

By the time Brenda progresses to touch-and-go landings, I am becoming quite excited about the prospects of having another pilot in the family. It is then that she hits the "landings slump." The frustration drives this normally independent, self- confident woman to near tears. In the midst of it, her instructor, Dave, gets married and goes off on a month-long honeymoon. "What's he thinking? Doesn't he know I need him here?" Brenda asks.

At first she isn't comfortable with the instructor who's filling in for Dave. "He expects me to know so much; he's very demanding." But soon she realizes that this is an opportunity to learn something new and to have any troubling subjects explained in a different way.

Despite any new techniques from the substitute CFI, the landing slump continues. I assure her that I went through the same thing, as did every other student. "One of these times, it will all click. You'll make an excellent landing all by yourself, and from then on it'll be easy," I encourage. She doesn't seem convinced and I worry she's about to quit.

While I'm busy contemplating eternal life as an only pilot, a colleague tells me about a family in Wichita that's intent on making flying a truly family affair. Pamela Anderson takes lessons twice a week and is about to solo. Son Robbie, 12, goes once a week with the objective of getting a private pilot certificate with a glider rating at age 14 and soloing a powered airplane on his sixteenth birthday. You can bet the single-engine, land endorsement will be added on his seventeenth birthday.

Daughter Jennifer, 14, also has a lesson once a week and will begin her glider flights soon.

Work commitments restrict husband Jim to only a couple of lessons a month, but he's soloed already, having had a head start years ago in college.

Robbie's avid interest in the subject spurred the family into buying a Cessna 172 last spring. Since then they've all gotten involved. While they've been away from aviation most of their adult lives, aircraft ownership isn't at all unfamiliar to Pam and Jim. Pam's father was a World War II pilot and also owned a 172; Jim's mother flew his family's Piper.

"It gives us something in common with the kids," Pam says of the family's new avocation. "We'll go out to dinner and sit around and compare our experiences. Everyone will talk about their landings or what the wind did to them lately. If it weren't for this, I don't think we and the kids would communicate nearly as well.

"Our friends can't believe we even go up in a small plane," she continues. "I tell them it's different when you're in control. And then they can't believe we let our kids go, but I'm perfectly comfortable with it."

Although the ink is barely dry on the 172's registration papers, the family is already thinking of moving up. "Something like a 182 would make a terrific family airplane; we'll need it when we're all flying," observes Pam.

While I'm pondering the good fortunes of the Anderson family, Brenda revives my hope that we'll be a flying family, too. She asks me to take her up so that she can observe some landings without having to worry about flying the airplane. Now the pressure's on me to make it look easy.

Of course, I botch the first landing. On the climb-out, she remarks, "Tell me again how long you've been doing this."

Then again, this family flying stuff may not be all it's cracked up to be.