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My toughest student

Flying with Mom

My most challenging flight student was the one I wanted most to succeed: My mom, Wilma Melville.

My toughest student

My most challenging flight student was the one I wanted most to succeed: My mom, Wilma Melville.

When she decided at age 73 to get back into flying after a 22-year hiatus, I figured she’d knock the rust off, memorize some new airspace regs, discover the wonders of GPS navigation, and feel at home again at the controls in no time. She’d already obtained a new third class medical, and a flight review in a Cessna 172.

Next she started shopping for an airplane, a used Grumman Tiger, and all she needed from me—her CFI son—was a checkout. Mom was a 700-hour private pilot with complex and high-performance endorsements, and the 180-horsepower, fixed-pitch Tiger was a model she knew well. Several friends and I were helping with her Tiger hunt when she called to let us know she had found her airplane.

“Turns out it’s not a Tiger,” she said. “It’s an RV–10.”

I was impressed that she had found an RV–10 in her $80,000 price range. The 260-horsepower, constant-speed-prop, kitbuilt airplanes usually sell for double that, or more. “Well, it turns out it’s $180,000,” she said. “But the deal is done. I’ve already sent the money.” Mom’s always been decisive. But as she’s aged, she’s become impatient, too.

We arranged to meet in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the RV–10 and its builder were located. She could get familiar with it during our 1,300-nm ferry trip to her home base at Santa Paula Airport in Southern California. I was totally comfortable with the RV series and owned a single-seat RV–3 at the time.

But there was no denying the RV–10 was a big step up in power, performance, and technology from a Tiger. There were six big cylinders and a constant-speed prop to manage, a fuel injection system, glass panel, and a Garmin GNS430 that was new to her. She also said she wanted to get started on her instrument rating, fly some approaches on our way home, and log as much time as possible under the hood.

Already, this seemingly simple airplane checkout was getting complicated.


Mom became the first pilot in our family when, in 1968, she earned a private pilot certificate in a Cessna 150. Her motivation was self-preservation.

My dad, an eye surgeon, was threatening to learn to fly at that time, and he had a fantasy about loading his wife and four children into an airplane for trips throughout the West. Mom, a physical education teacher, was the pragmatic spouse, and she dutifully learned so that she could back him up.

Dad never fulfilled his flying ambitions, and Mom discovered she really liked aviation. Her unflappable demeanor and hawklike hand/eye coordination made her well suited for it. Two years later they divorced, however, and flying was pushed aside as Mom worked fulltime while raising four boys. Eventually, she remarried—this time to an aerospace engineer, John Melville—and her interest in flying was rekindled.

My stepdad built a Rutan-designed Vari-Eze in our garage, and Mom did much of the fiberglass work. They flew it for the first time in 1978, and then travelled all over the country. She was the pilot. He was the navigator, flight engineer, and crew chief. In the early 1980s they bought a partnership in a Bonanza, and eventually stopped flying when that airplane was sold.

They were a team for 33 years until John died from cancer in 2003. Three years after that, Mom decided to jump back into flying, a move that surprised me because flying seemed likely to flood her with memories of her late husband, traveling companion, and biggest cheerleader.

When we met in Tulsa and inspected the RV–10, it became clear to me how much she had relied on him. The airplane itself was exceptionally well built and documented. But as the builder and I pored over details of the avionics, electronic ignition, and standby electrical system, Mom drifted off.

“These are the kinds of things that John used to take care of,” she said. “I’ll learn them, eventually, but not all at once and not today.”

At dinner, we discussed the next day’s departure for California. The weather forecast was good and headwinds were mercifully light. True to form, Mom had a plan. She wanted to buzz around Tulsa, get the feel of the airplane by landing at a number of local airports, and then log some hood time. I listened for a few minutes before slipping into my autocratic flight instructor role.

I told her we weren’t going to waste a good weather window making circles over Oklahoma. We would fly west in a straight line and make as few takeoffs and landings as possible. This was a ferry trip. We’d concentrate on flight training once she got home. Mom doesn’t change plans easily, but she swallowed hard and went along.

Family lore

I filed an IFR flight plan for the next day’s trip so that Mom could get some practice being in the ATC system. I was in the right seat and made our first takeoff at the narrow strip where the RV–10 was based, then immediately handed over the controls to Mom and checked in with ATC. I was impressed with the smooth but firm way she handled the controls. Once we leveled off at our assigned altitude of 8,000 feet, I asked her to engage the autopilot while I made notes about engine settings, temperatures, and performance.

“How about I do some turns, climbs, and descents to get the feel of the airplane?” she said. We were already radar identified and on an active IFR flight plan.

“How about doing what I ask you to do?” I answered with an edge that surprised us both. “Please, just hold 8,000 feet.”

I was still making notes 12 minutes into our flight when Mom chimed in again.

“Do you really expect me to just sit here?” she said. “I learn by doing. Not by sitting.”

ATC offered a shortcut but we’d have to climb to 10,000 feet to get it. Mom assured me she could cope with the thin air.

“I just had a physical and the doctor told me my blood oxygen level is excellent,” she said. I patted her on the shoulder and told her to climb to 10,000, where she hand flew for a few minutes before engaging the autopilot.

This would be a four-hour-plus leg, so I decided to forgo snacks and drinks while Mom dug right into her goodie bag. “I’ve got raisins, Cheese Nips, and—check this out,” she said. “Chocolate chip cookies.”

Family lore has it that my mom was painfully shy during her youth, but she’s been overcompensating for it during the five decades I’ve known her. As she’s aged, she’s become more forceful, and she swears like a soldier. When I asked what she thought of her new airplane, she said, “It’s sure not a bleeping 172!” And when she dropped a pen, she filled the intercom with a blistering string of profanity.

I’m no prude, but I prefer succinct, even terse, cockpit communications limited to the tasks at hand. This tight-lipped style has served me well during thousands of hours of flying, and I didn’t find Mom’s cussing descriptive or insightful, so I asked her to knock it off.

“I know I’ve got to watch what I say around your kids,” she said. “But they’re not here, so what’s the big deal?”

Mom’s seat was scooted all the way forward, but even so, at five feet even, she needed a seatbelt extension so her feet could reach the rudder pedals. As the day wore on, the hot desert air beneath us rose and we started getting rocked by occasional turbulence.

I made a comment about the Southwest’s stark beauty. Mom, who grew up on the East Coast, declared the region unfit for human habitation. “I don’t see how anyone lives here,” she said. “No trees, no rivers. No green.”

I loosened my seatbelt to keep it from pressing on my bladder, while Mom chatted about everything that had to do with water. “What’s the name of that big reservoir down there?” she asked. “I bet they have a lot of flash floods in this area.”

We crossed over the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and began descending toward our overnight destination of Prescott. The desert winds were gusting to 20 knots and variable up to 90 degrees in direction. A sudden spike of turbulence shook the airframe and Mom swore, then looked over with a little-girl grin.

“Can’t help it,” she shrugged.

I didn’t want Mom’s first landing in her new airplane to take place in such challenging conditions. I took the controls, landed, then taxied to the tiedown. It was late afternoon, and I was pleased that the first leg of our trip had been free of surprises. The RV–10 was a reliable and efficient long-distance traveler.

But as I carried our bags to the FBO, Mom tugged at my elbow and said I was walking too fast. When I turned around, her normally rosy cheeks were ashen, and she seemed suddenly frail. It had been a mistake to keep her at high altitude for so long. “I think I’m going to have to sit down,” she said. “I’m not used to this thin air.”

Checkout OK

Mom was her scrappy self again the next morning. She wanted to handle the radio and the navigation as well as the flying on the next leg, which would bring us to her home airport at Santa Paula. I vetoed that idea. She still had her hands full flying the airplane. Master that and I’d let her do more.

She lined up with the runway and tracked the centerline on takeoff, then guided the airplane west. Her spirits soared as we crossed into California, and the sky stayed crystal clear to the coastal mountains, where fog from the cool Pacific Ocean lapped against them. We overflew Santa Paula in clear air at 3,500 feet and Mom spotted the 2,713-foot Runway 22 directly beneath us. We spiraled down and entered a left-hand traffic pattern for her first RV–10 landing. A dozen friends and family members were waiting for us.

Mom’s approach was high at first, then she chopped the power and we dropped.

“You’re low,” I said, looking for corrective action that didn’t come.

I reached over and added power, and Mom reduced it to near idle again.

“Now you’re low and slow,” I said.

“It’s a short runway,” she shot back.

This was no time for debate. “I’ve got the controls,” I said, shaking the stick to confirm I was taking over.

Mom was disgusted by her sloppy approach and humiliated that I’d intervened. She couldn’t put it out of her mind during the impromptu party to celebrate her return. I told her not to worry about it.

“The ferry flight is behind us,” I said. “The flight training starts now.”

The fog rolled in overnight and it didn’t clear the next day. Mom and I spent hours making and revising checklists, then practicing them in the stationary aircraft.

I’d read the procedures for start, taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, and descent, and she’d go through the motions with her hands and feet. We went through emergency procedures until she knew them cold. She practiced tuning the GPS and entering and modifying flight plans.

The next day—my last in California—the fog lifted barely enough for us to fly. We went around the pattern again and again, and I kept my hands in my lap the entire time. Santa Paula can be a particularly demanding place to fly, and Mom stayed consistently on speed and on glidepath. She really does learn by doing.

Mom’s persistence had paid off again. This time, it allowed me to make my first-ever entry in her logbook, the same one that she has maintained since I was a young boy.

“RV–10 checkout: OK.”

Postscript: In the eight years since relearning to fly, Mom has flown her RV–10 across the entire country. At age 77 she added an instrument rating, and she’s followed up with a tailwheel endorsement, seaplane, and glider ratings.

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