Safety Publications/Articles


Aero pro bono

Give something back

Nothing could be cooler in this whole wide world than teaching people to fly. Really, that's about as cool as it gets. A life gets changed, and you get the credit. Sitting in that cramped cockpit or that cozy classroom, you make one new friend after another. Some of these friendships are casual, and fade after the close association between instructor and students ends. Others seem a good bet to continue for a lifetime.

Occasionally time passes and roles get reversed, with the former student becoming the instructor; I've been on both sides of that turnaround. It can be an eye-opener when some of your own techniques for getting the attention of a student is suddenly used on you--all part of the fun.

It's an attention-getter of a different sort--and a sobering one--when a thirty-something airline captain whom you soloed when he was 16 calls to thank you for a long-ago lesson about safety that you drilled into his thick head. Next he tells you that an airliner full of folks who will never know your name had you to thank for getting to their destination safely today. Wow. If that doesn't put a new spin on what we do for a living....

Like him, many students had memorable personalities or quirks. Some learned the easy way, some learned in their own special way, and a few had to learn almost everything the hard way. Only one or two never really learned at all; all the ones I know of are now ABTNF (alive but thankfully not flying).

Teaching has always been fun, and solving whatever problems stood between a student pilot and a certificate were always a duty to discharge faithfully. And in that connection, I think the thing I have always liked best about being a CFI was spotting those informal opportunities to teach and learn, and matching them with that student who most deserved, or would most benefit from, a new and unexpected chance to fly.

Flights like that were their portal out of the confined realm of training, placing them squarely into the real world of flight. Often it was an unfamiliar cockpit or even just a privileged passenger seat, but it was a seat. Sometimes grubby, frequently hectic, always exciting, each of those missions was a real one. Whether the student was going along with an expectation of getting some stick time, or merely to watch, knowing that it was real made a world of difference. I knew the value from personal experience, having been fortunate to be on the receiving end of this kind of aeronautical largesse. (Once I was lured away from my office at a Maine newspaper by my aviation mentor calling me out for lunch. I was a little late getting back to work because he failed to mention that lunch would be in Easton, Maryland, and that we'd be getting there via business jet.)

So passing on the tradition was the least I could do. There has also always been a selfish motive for finding a student pilot to come along with me on non-training flights: I hate flying alone. Always seemed like a waste of one or more seats--and empty seats feel like a crime against nature, considering how much people spend on learning to fly.

Which is why I urge you, if you are a flight instructor with access to opportunities, please don't keep them to yourself. And we're not talking here about turning them into profit opportunities--that isn't in the spirit of this discussion; in fact, it misses the point entirely, and could run you afoul of the FARs or company policies.

My first flight as a certificated flight instructor gave me a chance to start "giving back." The day of the checkride I flew my rented Cessna 172RG Cutlass about a hundred nautical miles to the scene of my flight test. The weather was not supposed to hold up very long after the time of my ride, and it went seriously down, right on schedule. I rented a car and drove home, planning to put everything back in its proper place the next day. A student pilot friend blessed with enthusiasm and flexible work hours--he owns a business and nothing makes his employees happier than kicking him out of the place for the day--wanted to come along. Presto--instant company for me on the two-hour drive, as well as on the one-hour flight home. Maybe it was bad revenue karma, giving my first flight lesson free of charge. But as memory serves, he did buy me lunch afterward. And he got to try flying something new, watching the world slide by outside a little faster than it ever had in his Cessna 150 trainer.

Airplanes being left in inconvenient places, usually by people other than myself, often became the opportunity to call up a flight student and secure a companion, and thus a workhorse, for a flight. If as a hungry flight instructor it rankles that I insist you keep these flights gratis to the invitee, consider this: It was one of those getting-an-airplane-back-home flights requiring an ILS approach to the destination that gave a new private pilot his first taste of instrument flying and led to his signing up for the program. Thus one free ride translated into months of paid lessons. But I had no such agenda. I was just glad to have company.

Although the economics of being a CFI are shaky enough without giving away the store, aero pro bono does have surprising spiritual gratifications. One gusty afternoon I showed up at the airport and ending up flying on the spur of the moment with not one, not two, but three pilots of various experience levels who wanted to try out their skills in the day's breeze, but only with someone more experienced aboard. I guess I could have cleaned up financially that day, or at least made grocery money. I gained more in the long run in trust and friendship by "just riding along"--although a flight instructor within reach of controls is never really just riding along.

I took an impoverished student pilot along as an observer on a short one-way night flight with a friend of the boss as my passenger. Having her start up, find her way out to the runway between the blue taxiway lights, and fly herself and me back home, saved her money, logged her a few tenths of an hour of valuable night flying, and nurtured enthusiasm. Bringing a pilot friend along when delivering another pilot's Cessna 182 to a strip along the coast made a fun afternoon out of a "repositioning" flight. Taking a journalist friend for a quick circumnavigation of our area in a Cessna 172--just because it was summer and we felt like it--is part of the folklore of our friendship. And one nonpilot newspaperman now knows a little more than most about general aviation.

There's another way, as a CFI, to make it all memorable. If someone wants to go with me for an airplane ride, it's no matter whether they are officially in flight training. I offer her or him the left seat and state, "I am not taking you for a ride. You are taking me for an airplane ride." Few decline the terms. I keep my interventions to a minimum; I want this person to feel that she or he has not just flown in--but has flown--an airplane. If the left-seater likes the idea, we log it as intro--and he or she gets an AOPA First Flight certificate to prove it.

And it's all because I get lonely. Luckily, I still have a long list of names of people who can make the loneliness go away.

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.

By Dan Namowitz

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports