CFI To CFI: Passing It Along
What CFIs And Students Give To Each OtherIt never fails to astonish me how events in aviation come back around to touch you. Sometimes this can be felt in negative ways. But there are the times when something comes around and gives you a totally unexpected lift.
My primary flight instructor was a veteran World War II instructor who had taught countless cadets to fly in PT-19s and -23s. John Hull was the exact opposite of the stereotypical harsh military instructors I had heard so much about. Although at the time I wasn't sure whether that was because of his nature or because he didn't feel he had anything to prove, I later came to understand that it was both. I'm certain that John's patience and quiet calm boosted my confidence, shorted my learning curve, and influenced my own future teaching style. During my early instruction, I was sure I was the slowest student to ever come along, and that I would be listening to his encouraging instruction for years to come. The litany all students endure: Line up on the centerline, right rudder as the power goes in, smoothly, just enough back pressure to keep the nose wheel barely off the runway, right rudder, hold that center line. Now best rate of climb, look for traffic, fly the airplane, relax. When John demonstrated it, the Cessna always behaved as if it were heeding his words. But when I took control, so to speak, it always seemed to me the airplane wasn't hearing a thing.
To my amazement - then and now - all that changed one beautiful morning. We had gone to the practice area, done the obligatory stalls, slow flight. and Dutch rolls, and then returned for some pattern work in our reliable (not old then) Cessna 150. John was a stickler for the take-off and landing phases of training. I was never quite sure if this was because of the safety aspect or because he loved that segment of flying. But we did go-arounds, soft-field, short-field, and when possible, crosswind takeoffs and landings, on virtually every flight. I learned normal landings using carburetor heat abeam the intended touchdown point and power to idle abeam the numbers.
This was just another clear, crisp morning, and I was doing my best but feeling that I still had a long way to go. After landing and returning to the taxiway for another trip around, I stopped and verified that all was in order. I looked to John for instructions on what he would like me to do on this next one. What I saw was his door opening and John climbing out. Before I could say, "What's up?" he said, "Shoot three," and the door slammed shut. I sat there thinking, "Shoot three? I only have nine hours, where do you think you're going?" But he was walking away. And he was not looking back.
After I spent some time looking for traffic and verifying three times that all was ready to go, I made the unicom announcement and tentatively headed for the centerline of Runway 23. I was nervous and concerned about the outcome until I had the throttle in as far as it would go. And then it happened. It was as if John was still sitting there. "Right rudder," I heard. "Hold the center line. More back pressure. Relax."
I was flying! Alone! Wow, the Cessna really could climb!
No matter what checkrides and other accomplishments I have completed since that first flight, nothing compares to the moment that those wheels left the runway. The radio calls, the pattern, the landings are all a blur. I don't remember much except for the moment that I became airborne. Even after more than 1,600 hours, I still enjoy the split second that the aircraft is transferred from an earthbound vehicle to a craft of the air.
It's been more than 20 years since I joined the ranks of pilots, but I still hear John's voice, especially on takeoff and landing. "Right rudder; keep it on the center line." I guess I always will. I guess all students hear, or maybe feel their instructor's presence.
The other day I found myself repeating this process at the same airport where I soloed - but from the right seat. Although I have soloed students on many occasions since becoming a CFI, this particular one struck me surprisingly deeply.
My students will attest that I require them to be able to handle the airplane on takeoff and landing in a way that shows they are in charge - not just once in a while, or on a good day, but consistently.
I recently had a student who fit that bill. From the first hour, he flew smoothly and made good decisions almost every time. I almost soloed him on several occasions; however, considering the current regulations and liability concerns, I err on the side of caution. But finally I felt that it was time. After some air work and returning to the field for some takeoffs and landings, he stopped on the taxiway for the next takeoff pre-check. I already had loosened my harness and taken off my headset. I quickly exited the seat, said "Shoot three," and shut the door. I only glanced up for a second and saw the look of "Where is he going?" come across his face. As he eventually pulled onto Runway 24 (at some point the FAA made the decision to correct the runway heading from 23 to 24 at Don Doersoms' airport), I walked around behind the Cessna 152. He lined up right on the centerline. Power went in smoothly and, yes, was that the rudder sneaking over to the right? I stood there watching from directly behind, with the blast of air from all the power that Lycoming engine could muster blowing in my face, knowing he could do it and yet willing the airplane to be nice to him.
Straight down the centerline the aircraft tracked and just a hint of daylight peeking out from under the nose wheel. And then it happened - flight! There was daylight under all three tires, and he was climbing out - alone! It was at that moment it hit me. How could I have forgotten? It was almost exactly 20 years ago that I had soloed from the same airport and the same runway. I had stopped my student and gotten out of the airplane at exactly the same point on the taxiway that my instructor had chosen for me. The parallels seemed almost unreal.
As I walked over to the hangar area and he touched down for the first of three very nice landings, my thoughts drifted back to my first flight alone. What would my student remember of this day? Did he feel ready? Did I ever dream that I'd be sitting here 20 years later, passing it along? Where will he be in 20 years? Will he still be hearing my voice, giving subtle instructions for years to come?
Whether he becomes an instructor or simply chooses to be a safe general aviation pilot, I hope that he uses his knowledge and experience wisely - and that he continues as John and I do...passing it along.
Tim Lower works as an aviation technical specialist for AOPA and is a CFI.
By Tim Lower