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Proficiency: Lessons from a CFI

When things don’t go exactly as planned

“What business do you have  becoming a flight instructor?” The question caught me off guard and with my instrument hood on, I couldn’t look at Bob in the right seat to see if he was kidding.
P&E March 2021
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Photography by Catherine Cavagnaro

“Sorry?” I replied. Hearing the same question again with the same tone left no doubt that he was serious. “I enjoy teaching and I love flying, so I would like to share that joy with others.” He continued, “Well, have you ever been scared in an airplane?” “No, I can’t say that I have,” I replied. “Then what experiences can you possibly share with your students?”

Although the delivery was a bit harsh, I got Bob’s point. He takes pride in his own flight instructor certificate and has more than half a century of experiences to share with his students. Sometimes it seems that aviation has it backward. For example, my job as professor at the university came after several years working toward a doctorate in mathematics and it wouldn’t have happened without it. But it’s common for pilots to get their flight instructor certificates in order to build time for other endeavors in aviation. Since the flight instructor certificate was my end goal, I continued with my training and passed my CFI practical exam just a few weeks later. Still, Bob’s point wasn’t lost on me. I’ll share a few experiences I’ve had since then from flights that didn’t exactly go as planned.

On the evening before my CFII practical exam, I returned to land at the Sewanee—Franklin County Airport around dusk. As I started the flare, I caught sight of a deer feeding on grass just to the right of the runway. Deer, like squirrels, tend to run the wrong way, so I input full power and pitched up to start the go-around procedure. My heart sank when I felt a powerful thump.

I caught sight of a deer feeding on grass just to the right of the runway. Deer, like squirrels, tend to run the wrong way, so I input full power and pitched up to start the go-around procedure. My heart sank when I felt a powerful thump.After gaining some altitude, I looked around the Piper Cherokee but couldn’t see any damage. If the landing gear had been compromised, it would be helpful to know which part before I attempted to land again. So I grabbed my cellphone and called the Sewanee Police Department to see if one of their officers could come out to the airport while I performed a fly-by. As night fell, I circled the airport until I saw the searchlight coming from the airport ramp. After I completed two low passes, the officers reported that the gear appeared intact but they could not tell if there was any damage. After what turned out to be a smooth and uneventful landing, I exited the aircraft to find that my right flap was bent and the passenger step, along with the sheet metal to which it was attached, had been pulled away from the fuselage leaving a gaping hole there. When I got back home, I called Bob to report that I had finally been scared in an airplane. I let him know how much I valued what he shared with me on the flight two years earlier.

Last summer I flew my Beechcraft Bonanza to Murfreesboro Municipal Airport (MBT), possibly the busiest nontowered airport in Tennessee. As I entered the 45 for the downwind leg to land on Runway 18, my windscreen filled with black and a streak of red. I turned onto the downwind leg as the realization of what just happened sank in.

I performed a right 360-degree turn off the downwind so I could weigh my options. I would land soonest by rejoining the downwind but the pattern was teeming with aircraft and here I was with a reduced capacity to see them. I could also fly back to Sewanee where I was almost guaranteed to have the pattern to myself, but that would require more time behind my newly modified windscreen. In the real world there is often no one right answer, and this was certainly one of those cases. After I determined the remaining windscreen was sufficiently secure, I pulled her manifold pressure back to 15 inches, made my way home, and tucked the Bonanza back in her hangar.

Lest you think the moral of these stories is to warn of the dangers of deer or birds, I’ll share an experience that has nothing to do with wildlife. My home airport has no instrument approaches so I am conservative when I choose to fly. Mostly, I only depart when I’m virtually certain to be able to return in visual conditions. On a rare day, I found myself with few responsibilities so I departed on an IFR flight plan and entered the clouds just a few hundred feet above Sewanee. With low forecasts that day I was certain I wouldn’t be able to land back home so I had secured a ride from a friend who was able to collect me wherever I ended up. I had nowhere to be and all day to get there.

After shooting a VOR approach into Shelbyville (SYI), I requested an ILS into Smyrna (MQY), tucked under the Nashville Class C airspace. Because the conditions were uniformly low across Tennessee and Southwest Airlines enjoys priority over a Piper Cherokee, air traffic control put me in a hold over the Shelbyville VOR with an expect further clearance time of 45 minutes later. Although I could have requested to head back to my final destination, I continued to hold, completed my approach into Smyrna, and then flew back for an approach and landing at Tullahoma Regional Airport (THA). Not only did I extend my instrument currency but dusted off my skills flying real-world IFR.

So what is the common thread among these flights? In each case, I ended up flying a good bit longer than I had originally planned, and that’s something I share with my students and practical exam candidates. I want to ensure they know FAA regulations but also that they have an appropriate safety buffer that goes beyond them. FAA legal and Catherine comfortable are two very different things. For day VFR flight, the FAA requires a minimum of 30 minutes reserve fuel for planning purposes. I cringe when I hear a student or candidate say, “I’ll plan on 45 minutes reserve instead of 30 minutes because I’m not very experienced yet.”

My own thinking on fuel reserves follows a tried-and-true thumb rule I’ve used for years when it comes to home projects. Whether it’s installing tile in my kitchen, hanging drywall downstairs, or replacing my roofing shingles, I love to work on my own house. In figuring the time and the budget for the project, I carefully perform an estimate then add 10 percent. And then I double the result to get the final estimate.

Similarly, my rule for flight planning is to at least double the FAA minimums. In gorgeous weather, I plan to land with more than one hour of fuel in my Cessna 152 and more than 90 minutes in my Bonanza. In each of the above examples I had more than two hours additional fuel upon landing, even after extended flights. In doing so, I bought myself the option of circling for the police, flying back to a quiet airport, and learning more about the realities of flying IFR.

Accidents related to fuel exhaustion are some of the most preventable, yet they occur with depressing regularity. When everything goes exactly as planned, the FAA minimums might be enough. But if you fly long enough, you’ll have your own list of less-than-ideal flights and you’ll be glad you didn’t cut it close.

If my experiences cause enough pilots to increase the padding on their fuel reserves and prevent just one of these senseless accidents, then earning my flight instructor certificate will have been well worth the effort.

Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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