Making The Save
A CFI Is Always On DutyAs flight instructing goes, today's mission falls into the category of a cushy job. Powerful airplane. Warm cabin. A good friend and experienced airman at the controls. Smooth ride. A broken cloud deck that is breaking up but still enough of a presence to let us appreciate the instrument procedures we are practicing. As we make the turn outbound in the hold at CAVIL intersection, I compliment the pilot on his technique.
It's astonishing to us both that our first visit to CAVIL was five years earlier, when he was earning his instrument rating. That flight had been in this same airplane, a powerful taildragger that seemed a bit much for a new pilot back then. But the owner had proven his ability to handle the machine, flying it unabashedly into windy mountain airports and using it frequently for business travel.
I can help him with his instrument flying, I think to myself, but I wouldn't presume to give him advice on tailwheel technique or flying his own airplane unless he sought my opinion on a point of interest. This is both diplomatic and proper under the circumstances. I may "outrank" him in certificates and ratings, but he is definitely pilot in command of his machine.
The entry and hold at CAVIL have gone well, so we shoot the VOR-DME approach, then request vectors for a concluding ILS at the home field. There's a choppy surface wind blowing with just enough of a crosswind component to keep life interesting. When it comes to landing a tailwheel airplane in these conditions, half the pilots I know would choose to "wheel it on" - landing on the main gear in a flat attitude and holding the tail off with forward pressure as long as possible for better directional control on the ground. The other half would perform a standard full-stall landing. The wheel landing is a more sophisticated technique, requiring touchdown at an almost nil descent rate to avoid bouncing. It's a good idea to be in recent practice before trying one under tough conditions. I, for one, am not in recent practice.
Presumably my companion is. I know he likes to practice wheel landings as a matter of routine in his flying. Judging by his configuration and airspeed on final - now that he has discarded his view-limiting device and ended his practice approach - it appears he has chosen this option. No, I am wrong. He lowers flaps and raises the nose above the attitude required for a wheel landing. But he'd better act fast. We're becoming ensnared in an uncomfortable speed-and-attitude combination - too nose-high for a wheel landing and too nose-low and fast for a stalled touchdown.
And touchdown is what happens next - much too hard. The spring-steel main gear legs catapult us back into the air. The wind is still playing its tricks. He is a busy man as the airplane descends again toward the runway. I think he is going to be all right this time, but suddenly the nose veers left, the beginnings of a classic groundloop. The pilot utters an odd vocalization that I recognize instinctively as a call for help. I am no longer a privileged spectator. When the airplane touches down again, I am holding my yoke hard back and have come in aggressively with right rudder and brake. I can feel the airplane's momentum straining to fling us around to the left. But as suddenly as they grabbed us, the forces of evil relinquish their grip, and we muscle the craft to a straight-ahead stop on the runway.
I taxi us clear. The discussion is brief, marked by grins and nods. Once again a taildragger has taken two confident pilots and turned them into honest men.
As I had surmised, my friend had finished the instrument approach, opted for one landing technique, and then changed his mind in favor of the other - a little too late. Yes, he had practiced wheel landings recently, but not at the end of an instrument approach, with its final-approach airspeed of 90 knots or so that is considerably faster than a 65-to-70-kt final in the VFR traffic pattern. The difference, combined with the wind, was just enough to distract him.
Making a save was not something I had expected to do that day. But flight instructors, like doctors and police officers, are never off duty. Each has the obligation to step up when needed; for CFIs this means staying on top of the situation, even if doing so requires nothing more than unobtrusively monitoring the goings-on.
Making the save is an essential skill for a flight instructor, but it warrants virtually no attention in the flight instructor's training curriculum. Nor are the mock sessions of "instructing" another flight instructor who is playing the role of student any preparation for the surprises that await in the training environment. Not only are student pilots full of surprises, but most saves come at the threshold of trouble - too much so for comfort when merely practicing. It's when we are on the job that flight instructors learn the real challenges of keeping pilots and property safe while letting the student err enough to get an education. As an instructor you must expand your envelope gradually, because in this environment both your student's errors and your own will be charged against you in the High Court of Second Guesses.
Where are there the vulnerabilities? Those presolo hours teaching takeoffs and landings have obvious risks but less-than-clear-cut margins of error. Rough landings and directional inaccuracies must be permitted so that their repercussions can be fully appreciated - but never enough to bring on an incident. At the very beginning, you and your student will be making your landings as a committee. Shortly thereafter, most saves in this realm will consist of gentle corrective taps on rudder pedals, some back-elevator pressure (applied with explanation to your student), or just enough body English to bring a forgotten procedural step back to mind. Some saves may be merely verbal, as when a go-around is needed and the student must be talked through it step by step. (Getting the go-around right seems to be the most common problem of pilots long after they have completed training. Typically the error is to raise the flaps or reach for the microphone before adding climb power - a poor way of climbing out of harm's way. If you go on social flights with former students, be ready.)
Crosswind takeoffs and landings will keep both you and your student sharp. Let it be understood in your cockpit that, under these circumstances, intervention will be quicker to keep things from getting out of hand. Let the student make the save when possible by going around. But if control inputs must be added, get right to work, especially to maintain directional control. One of the common errors for trainees practicing crosswind landings and takeoffs is forgetting to hold aileron into the wind while the airplane is rolling on the runway. Overcontrolling during strong gusts is another. You will make many wingtip-preserving saves if you spend much time teaching crosswind operations.
For the instrument instructor, making the save enters a new dimension. We have just entered the clouds while outbound for a procedure turn on one of the local NDB approaches. It is a bit bumpy, but the trainee is doing a good job controlling the rented Cessna 172 and tracking the course as he transitions from visual to instrument flying. There is a back-seat passenger aboard; after a few minutes I glance back to check on him. He's fine, but I look back at the instrument panel and somehow, in just seconds, we have entered a steep descending left turn of which the pilot is unaware. I restore us to level flight. The pilot apologizes for having let the need to glance at his approach plate distract him - one of those learning moments that only real-world experience can provide.
Experience, acquired during week after week of instructing, lets us look those few extra seconds or minutes ahead and foresee an outcome that a trainee is too busy, or inexperienced, to visualize. Then we make the decision whether to intercede or let that rough landing, uncoordinated stall entry, or unusual attitude on instruments run its course. The potential severity of the error is one consideration. Another is the skill and temperament of the person sitting next to you. Will he or she react in a way you cannot overcome?
We also must build the confidence of trainees during those difficult stages of learning. This may mean declining to make the save and instead speaking an encouraging word, even when the student may be imploring us to help carry off a task that is difficult but not really risky. Sometimes there is an element of theater to all this; imagine how a student's morale would be impaired if he or she sensed that you were waiting to uncoil from your relaxed posture at the slightest inaccuracy. So we strive to maintain a relaxed demeanor - even when our wariness meter is heading for the red zone. As one of my old instructors likes to say, we "learn to sweat only on our right side." Mastering this casual air is a skill some raise to the level of art.
Which is what I tried to do one gusty day. The narrow grass strip must have seemed even tinier than usual to the fellow in the left seat after almost a year's absence from flying. He was nervous. He rolled out on final and said, "Follow me through on this." I smiled but made no effort to unfold my hands from my lap. My toes rested lightly on the rudder pedals. "You're doing fine," I said. But how this would end was anyone's guess.
He fought off the last gusts like the wily veteran he was, touched down lightly, and braked to a stop. Perfect. But I was gratified to know that my old instructor, now medically disqualified and a bit rusty, had trusted me to back him up as he had done for me so many times in the long ago. Probably more times than I ever knew.
By Dan Namowitz