Proficient Pilot: Flying lessons

March 1, 2008

Barry Schiff began writing for AOPA Pilot in June 1963.

World War II had ended only 13 years and seven months before the first edition of The AOPA Pilot was published 50 years ago this month.

To the dismay of a general aviation industry hungry for business, the anticipated post-war flying boom failed to materialize. Military pilots were not flocking to their local airports to fly civilian airplanes. The most common trainers remained tube-and-fabric, 65-horsepower relics, primarily Aeronca 7AC Champs and Piper J–3 Cubs. (Cessna 150 production began in September 1958.) If you want to start a heated discussion amid a gaggle of old-timers, simply state that one of these trainers was better than the other; it doesn’t matter which one you choose. Then watch the dust fly. (The Champ was the better trainer despite the greater popularity of the Cub.)

Many who learned to fly in 1958 were inspired to wash their wings in the wind by the heroic exploits of wartime pilots. I was encouraged to fly also because of the favorable impression I thought it would make on potential girlfriends. I can tell you that it did not favorably impress their parents.

In 1958, I was a 19-year-old flight instructor and charter pilot earning $5 per hour. This provided barely enough sustenance to maintain my status as a math major at UCLA. Trainers rented for as little as $11 per hour, including fuel, and aeronautical charts sold for 25 cents. Two nights each week when I should have been doing homework and studying for exams, I was teaching ground school instead. The only training aids I had were chalk and a blackboard.

Learning to fly was easier and at the same time more difficult than it is today. It was easier because there were fewer regulations, hardly any airspace restrictions, and much less traffic. I used to fly students into Los Angeles International Airport, park the “Airknocker” at an airline gate not scheduled for imminent use, and walk into the terminal for 10-cent cups of coffee. We would also visit the Weather Bureau there to watch hourly weather observations being taken and then disseminated on Teletype machines. On occasion we got to see the balloon launch of a radiosonde used to obtain weather data from aloft.

Learning to fly was more difficult because we still used four-course, low frequency radio ranges for navigation even though “omniranges” (VOR stations) were coming on line at a rapid pace. The notion of satellites, GPS, microchips, and moving-map displays were beyond imagination.

There were no flight instructor ratings per se. Instructors taught whatever they were capable of teaching. Ratings were an eventual by-product of the Federal Aviation Agency, which was formed later in 1958, a result of the TWA-United Airlines midair collision over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. The agency became the Federal Aviation Administration in 1966.

On occasion, simplicity increased difficulty. For example, the gyroscopic artificial horizon (attitude indicator) and directional gyro (heading indicator) were not yet required for instrument flying, so pilots had to learn using only “needle, ball, and airspeed,” what is now referred to as partial panel.

Turns to headings were made using only a conventional compass, so pilots had to fully understand turning errors and anticipate them accurately when rolling out of turns. Conventional vision-limiting devices like those we use today were impractical because a hood allowed the student to see outside the aircraft while referring to the compass, a frequent requirement. There was one hood on the market, the Francis hood, but it was used only when flying airplanes equipped with gyros.

Instead, and prior to each instrument training flight, we covered the insides of the windows with stiff, orange, plastic sheets custom-made to fit each type of airplane. The student would wear blue goggles. He could not see outside when looking at the compass because the combination of blue and orange resulted in black. There was no way to see anything outside the airplane. It was more effective than using a hood and made us feel as though we were really flying through dark, solid cloudiness. You couldn’t even see the wingtips.

This was difficult for the instructor because he had to stare through the translucent plastic to see outside the aircraft and look for traffic. The plastic was usually scratched. Straining to see through it when flying into the sun was especially difficult. The good news is that there was not much traffic to worry about, and I never heard of a midair collision resulting from training with such a system.

My first exposure to using “omni” (VOR) was during a flight from Santa Monica, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada, with three friends in a rented Cessna 170 equipped with a newly installed Lear Omniscope. The first steps were to tune to the desired frequency using a “coffee-grinder” and then aurally confirm the station. The rest was supposed to be simple. A little blip on a small green oscilloscope indicated the radial on which you were located. It was so simple that I got lost and wound up landing at an airport just to find out where we were. After that, I got some instruction in the use of omniranges.

My advice is to never step out of the airplane and ask the first person you see where you are. It is much less embarrassing to instead purchase some fuel and look at the receipt to determine the name of the airport and your location.