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Rite of Passage

Open those cages!

Not long ago I enjoyed a heart-to-heart talk with my old friend Mark, who was hired recently by a major airline. Mark and I had spoken briefly several times over the past few months, but this was the first time in several years we had the time and urge to share inner feelings about flying, and about life in general.

You have to admire Mark. From the beginning he knew he wanted to be an airline pilot, and he stuck with that plan through thick and thin until he got there, despite personal and professional obstacles.

"How's it going?" I asked. "Is working for the majors all it's made out to be?"

"Absolutely," Mark said. "I work with a super bunch of people. The equipment is top-notch, and I love everything about it. For the first time since getting out of college, I have plenty of free time - to enjoy my wife's company, to work around our new home, and to appreciate life in general."

"You deserve it after those years of struggling through three commuter airlines." I said, "Any regrets?" Of course I expected him to say no, or perhaps share minor complaints about trip schedules or difficulties of parking at the airport.

"To tell the truth," Mark said, "I do have one regret." The words came with gravity, like I ought to sit down before pondering their meaning. "Greg, I feel like I've let the last 10 years slip by me without having any fun. I love what I'm doing now, but now I think I should have tried to enjoy the flying more along the way."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well," Mark said, "I know you've always admired me for keeping my sights fixed on my goal of becoming an airline pilot, but sometimes I think I should have taken more time to savor the adventure along the way. Remember those times you invited me to fly a 172 somewhere for lunch, and I said no? At the time I felt that if I didn't need the hours, it would be wiser to invest the money in multi time, or toward a rating. But now I realize those years are gone, and maybe I missed something."

This conversation caused me to think seriously about my flying career, both what I've missed, and what I've gotten out of it. I've had great fun with flying - winging my way through Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon (back when it was still allowed); flying from Indiana to Winnipeg mid-winter to view an eclipse; and cruising over-water in light aircraft to Nantucket, Catalina, and Mackinac islands, and the Bahamas. Watching fireworks from the air and seeing snow-covered fields at night. Soaring in gliders. And, perhaps best of all, freeing innumerable souls from the ground through the gift of a first flight.

Do young pilots today still enjoy the adventures I had when I took my girlfriend along on my first flight as a certificated private pilot? In miles, the trip from Madison to Janesville, Wisconsin, is a short one, but never have I felt more like a captain than on that day.

Today's trends in our industry include increasing standardization, and establishment of ever-more-detailed flight training syllabi. Safety and pilot professionalism continue to improve, so we know these modern philosophies and methods are working. But, at the same time, I wonder. Now that many schools and instructors use preprogrammed cross-country training flights to the same destinations, are today's new pilots missing something?

A few evenings after talking with Mark, I dined with an enthusiastic young graduate of a prestigious university flight program. He'd just earned his flight instructor certificate and shared with me the optimism and the concerns faced by every budding professional pilot. We chatted about how and when he would earn his instrument instructor rating, and the projected course of his career. "Mind a question or two, just from curiosity?" I asked.

"Sure!" he answered, beaming.

"Jeff," I asked, "How many flight hours do you have right now?"

"In only 50 more hours," he replied, fairly bursting with pride, "I'll have 500!"

"That's great!" I said, "Since you began flying, how many 'just for fun' pleasure flights have you made?" With that simple question I was startled to see Jeff's face dramatically and unexpectedly turn pale. Had I anticipated the depth of his reaction, I would never have asked it.

"Greg," he said, after a pause, "I'd have to think about it, but I'm sure I could count the number of 'just for fun' flights I've made on one hand."

It took another moment for Jeff to get over the question, and for me to get over the answer. Sure, Jeff has enjoyed all of his training and loves flying as much as anybody, but until I asked that question he'd never thought much about hopping behind the controls of an airplane of his own volition, and taking off like St. Exupery or Richard Bach for destinations known only to him. Incredibly sad, I thought, and judging by his expression he thought so, too.

Knowing full-well that I'm an aviation romantic, after that dinner I pretty much wrote off those nostalgic feelings as nothing more than warm memories from the past, with no real meaning in today's more sophisticated world. Then, in the course of other business, I spoke with Jim Toombs, southern region coordinator for the FAA's aviation safety program, and we got into a discussion about the training challenges facing aviation today.

Jim shared his concerns about today's total-immersion training programs. "Pilots must be educated so they're aware of larger issues than just the left seat and the throttle," he said. "We must not become isolated in our little corner of the aviation world, and must attempt to understand, appreciate, and continue to learn about the full ranges of activities... shared by our community."

Or as Flight Training's editor said in a later conversation, "There's more to learning to fly than stick and rudder and passing the written. Each pilot needs to understand that he or she is just one small cog in the aviation machine."

How big is this problem? Obviously, many flight programs still exist where students build plenty of real-world flying experience. But clearly, pilots who train in insulated, highly-standardized programs are very likely to learn the mechanical skills of flying without interacting much with other aviation professionals out in the "real world."

It's now possible, maybe even commonplace, for pilots to earn their certificates and ratings never making an unassisted weather or flight-planning decision, never teaming up with a mechanic to solve a problem, never consulting with an FAA inspector for an opinion, never dealing with a difficult passenger.

How will such pilots perform once they're set loose in the system? That's what Jim Toombs is worried about, and as flight instructors, we should be, too.

So maybe a bit of flying about on your own serves a useful purpose after all. Perhaps this is one of the few areas where highly-standardized pilot programs still have something to learn from those that are less-structured.

Back in my multiengine time-building days, before the advent of standardized professional pilot programs, I scraped together every penny I could find, rounded up a flight student and a non-pilot friend, and we three set off to see the country over Christmas break. We rented a Piper Seminole in Terre Haute, Indiana, and took off for Pierre, South Dakota, to stay with my student's folks. After Christmas we flew to Denver to drop off his brother. Then it was on to Tucson to visit someone's girlfriend, with a lunch stop for dynamite Mexican food in Santa Fe. From Tucson we flew to College Station, Texas, to see the grad school where one of the guys had been thinking about attending. It was solid IFR all the way back to Indiana.

Not only was the trip a grand adventure, but along the way we were challenged by weather, minor mechanical difficulties, and hands-on experience with mountain flying and density altitude. Although I was a fairly new CFI, I was the senior pilot onboard, so every tough decision was mine. I don't need to tell you it was a great experience. This flight taught me an awful lot about being pilot-in-command, helped me grow personally, and was a lot of fun.

Without a doubt, today's structured flight training programs teach many things better than the way I had to learn on my own, and certainly safety has benefited. But, at the same time, I'm a better pilot today - and more enthusiastic than some, too - because of trips such as the one described above.

Maybe it's time to reincorporate some less structured "just for fun" flying into those flight training curricula that have gone the route of total programming and unyielding dispatch procedures. Let pilots again build some of that required experience for the commercial certificate on their own.

Make room for a rite of passage, an aviation adventure (call it a thesis project, if you prefer) where, during training, students put their newly-developed skills to good use on a series of personally-planned, personally-executed cross-country flights, to destinations of their own choosing. Let's require everyone to get out and have some fun exercising those unique pilot abilities in an autonomous manner.

Like us, most of our students chose aviation for the thrill and adventure of flying their own aircraft. Let's make sure they experience what led them to flying in the first place, knowing they'll learn plenty along the way. Prepare them well, but let them be pilots in the broadest and most glamorous sense. You know what I mean. Ask where they're going, give 'em the keys, take a deep breath, and set 'em free!

Greg Brown

Greg Brown

Greg Brown is an aviation author, photographer, and former National Flight Instructor of the Year.

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