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The indelible mark of 'my instructor'

What legacy are you giving to your students?

Not long ago, I was admiring the full-IFR panel in my friend's Lancair 360 from the right seat while he briefed me on its features. Its sleek paint job, ultra-plush leather interior, and instrument panel that rivaled a Boeing 757's all spelled perfection. We had attempted to fly together several times before, but circumstances always prevented it. But today, the sky was clear, our schedules matched, and I was ready to get airborne. The Lycoming came to life with the swing of a blade, and we secured the canopy. I was pumped! Oddly, just as we prepared to taxi, I noticed a former student of mine parking his airplane next to us. I was unable to catch his attention and watched him disappear through the FBO doors. I couldn't stop thinking of him as we received our taxi clearance.

It had been years since we'd flown together, but suddenly I was back in the right seat with him. I was his instrument flight instructor, and we shared many interesting experiences together. Not all were good, but that's why I was there. My job was to teach, not evaluate. I remember those flights with agonizing clarity, but most of all, I remember that it was his constant references to "my instructor" that struck a nerve, for it wasn't me to whom he was referring.

I couldn't believe the influence of his previous flight instructor. Here I was, teaching this student how to fly blind through the weather, yet it was his primary flight instructor's voice sounding off in the back of his head. And that wasn't good. I could talk my student through an instrument approach, but getting the airplane on the ground was always a struggle for him. If only his instructor had taught him the basics.

In a thunderous roar, my friend slid the Lancair's throttle forward, and our shiny experimental capsule leaped off the ground. There was a slight thump as the gear retracted. I looked back at the FBO, still musing over the events of two decades ago. My friend's voice called me back. After his GPS navigated us through the Class B airspace, he turned over the airplane to me. The Lancair handled like a jet, climbing effortlessly through 4,000 feet. The airspeed was an impressive 200 knots at cruise-20 kt faster than my buddy's Cessna 310 on half the gas. I admired the Sonoma Valley tapestry through the Lancair's full-view canopy with my thoughts still on my former student. I had taught him well. Twenty years later and he's still alive. Congratulations to me. But did he ever learn to land?

I left the Air Force in late 1979, a time not unlike today. Airlines were furloughing. It wasn't a good time to be looking for a flying job. I was elated when Delta Airlines called in January 1980, inviting me to Atlanta for some Southern hospitality. I didn't even balk when they said I was being interviewed for a job that didn't exist. No sir. I was damned glad to be there-even if it did cost me a hotel room. As promised, there was no job. Delta was screening pilots for a hiring pool. Nothing more, nothing less. So, as a newly separated and former Air Force fighter pilot, I accepted the first job that came along. I became a civilian flight instructor, paid strictly on commission.

There were many days I made nothing, yet I was expected to be there. Still, it kept me in the flying game, and looking back, it was one of the most rewarding flying jobs I've had. My last job in the Air Force was as a T-38 instructor. Back then, I thought I knew about teaching. I had flown airplanes since the age of 13, and I also thought I knew about flying. But 38 years in the cockpit later, I now realize I will always be a student. And there are always things about flying to pass on.

A lot has changed since 1980, yet in many ways, history is repeating itself. Political downsizing stripped our military forces to a pittance of what they were, and the pool of experienced military pilots dried up. But by the mid-eighties, the economy turned around. Even three years ago there was an endless flood of new air carriers and an aging pilot force. Civilian flight academies were cranking out pilots as fast as they could to meet the demand. Then came September 11, 2001. Airplanes were grounded. The economy sank. But history is cyclic. Eventually, the airlines will recover as they did in the 1980s. And one benefit of a slowed economy is the temporary effect of retaining more experienced CFIs.

Of course, there is no solution to the experience level of new CFIs. Flight instructing is and always will be an entry-level position. After all, liability concerns ward off experienced part-timers. But if flight instructors are to produce a new generation of pilots, it is critical they stay involved, and put the issues of temporary flight restrictions, homeland security, and background checks in perspective. There are plenty of eager students out there. And there will always be pilot jobs.

But my concern over quality remains. Technology has changed the focus of flight training to that of cockpit management rather than hands-on flying. Glass cockpits are wonderful, but they are no substitute for basic flying skills. Instructors must evaluate how much time glass-cockpit students are spending inside the cockpit. Are they relying on GPS, or can they still navigate using a chart? Do they feel as confident flying into a nontowered airport as they do a tower-controlled field? Are they learning judgment? Can they land? Technology is nothing more than an enhancement. If the basics aren't being taught, then I would expect to see more students like mine where "my instructor" failed miserably.

I have read several articles regarding the students' role in preparing for a lesson. It's a great concept. Students should arrive prepared. But by the same token, all instructors must make the same commitment to their students. They must do everything possible to prepare themselves and their students for the flight. Anything less is wasted time and tainted hours in a logbook. Students are sponges. They blindly absorb whatever they are told at face value. They must, because they have no other frame of reference. They rely on you, not only to get them down safely, but also to teach them how to do the same.

My flight had been great, and it was time to land. I eased the power back and slowed the Lancair, my student not far from my thoughts. An electric motor lowered the flaps and added a little nose-up trim. Gear down, more trim. A little more flaps, more trim so the controls stayed feather-light. The airplane glided into ground effect, and I added a little more backpressure. Nice landing. Just another airplane. My instructor had taught me well. My instructor understood how to mold me into a competent pilot. My instructor understood his obligation to teach me well. My instructor understood that flying meant more than hours in a logbook-that it was my life he was taking into his hands. He focused on teaching. Now, after many decades of working in another profession, he has returned to the skies as a master flight instructor. He has so much to give, and I thank him for his service.

One may ask why I'm harping on this issue. After all, I have my airline job. But it's the young airline pilots who are flying me to work on a regional jet. And when they gain experience and the opportunity arises, they will be flying me in the bigger jets, or they will join me in the cockpit of an MD-11. So for selfish reasons, I prefer flying with pilots who remember "their instructor" as being professional, accurate, and confidence-building.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for Federal Express. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark Danielson

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