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Heck's First Landing

One Small Triumph

I recently experienced - for perhaps the two-hundredth time since I taught my first flight student in the fall of 1946 - one of the sweetest reasons for being a CFI. My student made his first approach and landing without my help. For him, it's one step on the road to earning his wings. For me, it's a soaring of the spirit; it's the enormous pleasure of realizing that your system of teaching a wingless neophyte really works.

My present student is a 52-year-old. Let's call him "Heck" so as not to embarrass him. In his seventh hour in my Cessna 172/180 SuperHawk he made that first approach and landing on Runway 27R at Melbourne Airport in Melbourne, Florida. There's nothing re- markable about that. Or is there? He, of course, was ecstatic. I think he might very well have been able to take off and land without the airplane.

I felt much the same way. What gave me the greatest pleasure was to see the cumulative effect of teaching and practicing climbs, glides, power and pitch, slow flight, flap coordination, patterns, turns, stalls, and 17 hours of my 40-hour ground school program.

True, it was just one small step leading to solo and on to the private pilot certificate. That may seem like nothing remarkable, especially if you, like me, have taught some 200 students to fly over the course of 56 years. But at age 83, I know that the world of primary flight training can be laborious and boring unless you love your work with a passion and have infinite patience and understanding. Upgrading from the private certificate to a commercial one, or adding instrument or multiengine ratings, is nothing like the thrill of teaching a land-based human to cut the bonds tying him or her to the Earth and soar into the wild blue yonder. The thrilled student is a pleasure to watch and the most rewarding work for this old CFI.

Like so many pilots, Heck's was a dream deferred. He had grown up in Ohio and joined the U.S. Army after high school graduation, hoping to become a pilot; bad eyes shot down that goal. Instead, he went to school and trained as a helicopter mechanic. He did two tours of duty, serving first in Korea and then in Vietnam. Returning to the United States, he used the GI Bill to go to A&P school. That year he married his high-school sweetheart, now a nurse at a Florida hospital. His first civilian job was with Bell Helicopters working in Iran - that offered little opportunity to pursue his flying dream. Returning to the United States, he worked as an A&P at various FBOs until he decided to strike out on his own. Starting a business took all his money and time, and again he put off his flying dreams.

When Heck's daughter Laura was born, his dream of flying had to be put on hold again. Laura grew up to be a championship soccer player in high school, wining a first-year scholarship to the University of Central Florida. Any extra money went toward supporting Laura, not to pay for flight lessons.

I'd known about his dream for several years. I had watched his struggle to make a success of his business. Each year we talked while he performed an annual inspection on my Cessna SuperHawk. It was this year that I decided to help Heck achieve his dream. At first, I worried because he'd been away from textbooks for over 30 years. Could he remember how to be a student? Would he be able to dedicate so much time before and after work?

He could, and he did. Heck was apprehensive about his ability to pass the private pilot written knowledge exam, so we arranged to fly from 7 to 8 each morning and study at my house from 4:30 to 6:30 every afternoon. The written is 60 multiple-choice questions culled from some 713 possibilities. I insisted we learn all 700 questions. I say "we" because, in spite of teaching through five decades, I am always boning up on the latest safety material as changes are introduced.

As Heck's CFI, I am as excited and happy as he is about his accomplishments. Each small step forward on the long road of training is my affirmation. I am fully aware that the latest step-a landing he can call his own-doesn't amount to anything more than a single line in his logbook. Is it as important as the first solo or passing the checkride? Yes! Each and every step is part and parcel of the foundation of the rest of his flying career. As I look back over the past 50-plus years of teaching, I like to feel that I was the one who laid the foundation for hundreds of careers. That is my reward, from the smallest step to the big ticket.

All CFIs acknowledge that the student teaches the CFI. A CFI is a better pilot for the lessons each student has to teach. The challenges can be daunting. We who love to fly and love to teach - not to build hours to qualify for the airlines but for just the sort of thrill Heck gave me today - are grateful to our students. Heck will continue to thrill me - his first night flight, his first cross-country flight, his passing the private pilot written exam, and his final checkride with the examiner. That's what teaching is really all about.

By Robin Perry

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