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Things I'm glad CFIs taught meThings I'm glad CFIs taught me

I’m glad that CFIs put up with me during my training for the private certificate at Epps Air Service at Dekalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta 45 years ago. At first, I had all the bad attitude problems. Embarrassing as they are to this day, let me confess them.

I wasn’t all that interested in really learning to fly at first. As a small-business person, I just wanted to fly for business. It seemed to me that, once they approved me for solo, I should be able to fly on business trips around the Southeast in a Cessna 150.

Laugh if you will, but I did do that—once. As a student pilot, I rented a Cessna 150 (from another operator) and took off on a 500-mile overnight business trip. The business call was quite successful. The flying was not. To make a long (and scary) story short, let me just tell you that on the return leg I got a mite lost. I finally found an airport, landed, and filled the tanks to within less than one gallon of the 150’s usable fuel.

That little fiasco may have saved my life. It took me about an hour to get up the nerve to crawl back in the 150 for the rest of the flight. After that trip, my ego fell like a rock, my confidence went with it, and my know-it-all attitude went to hell in a hand basket. It dawned on me that flight instructors knew what they were talking about, and I did not. I had a long chat with my CFI at Epps, during which I bared my soul and listened for a change. He did not approve of my flight, and he explained it very quickly and quite well. I groveled, and he didn’t kick me out as a student.

I did get the private pilot certificate, became enamored with flying, went to work insuring aircraft and airports, and moved on to selling airplanes, writing for aviation magazines, and speaking to aviation groups—and I developed a great respect for CFIs.

Dick Branick, the CFI who trained me for the commercial certificate and instrument and multiengine rating, taught me so many things that I’ll never remember them all. The most important was to have the emergency procedures so well mastered that they became automatic.

Over the years I had several engines quit in flight. Not one of them was catastrophic and all of them restarted in flight. Most of them were in brand-new airplanes. (A great aviation journalist once wrote that perhaps every airplane buyer should pay someone to fly the first 100 or so hours in the new airplane.)

The first engine failure was at low altitude over Mississippi in a 1968 Cessna Cardinal, which definitely was not new. To my surprise I did all the right things automatically. The engine restarted. Those correct steps had been done without thought. Lord, my appreciation for Dick Branick was high that day. It turned out that the airplane leaked water into the tanks when parked in the rain. Yes, I had sumped the tanks, but the water hid somehow in those nearly flat Cardinal wing tanks.

Dick and I were in an airplane together the next time an engine quit in flight. We were test-flying a brand-new Piper Arrow we had picked up from the factory. One step of the test flight was to operate the engine on each of the two fuel tanks. I suggested we do it while out in the boondocks; Dick suggested we do it over the airport. We did. Right on top of the airport, Dick switched tanks, and the engine quit. Blap!—the same automatic routine—throttle, mixture, and electric fuel pump. The engine restarted. Neither of us had said a word.

I chalked up another lesson from Dick: Change tanks over airports. It costs nothing and adds a lot of options in case of engine failure.

The final engine failure, by the way, was in a brand-new Piper Cherokee Six. I picked it up at the factory, then picked up my son—then younger than 10 years old—at my mother’s house and we headed home. Over the middle of Georgia at 6,000 feet, I switched to the right tip tank, which held 17 gallons. About 15 minutes later the engine quit. While thinking that I needed to check my son’s seatbelt, I went through the same routine, including changing back to the previous tank, and the engine—guess what?—started up again. Turned out that there was a bulge inside the composite tip tank, so the tank did not hold 17 gallons, but much less.

CFIs, you do make a difference. What you teach really does keep your students alive, and their respect for you will increase greatly as the years pass and their flying hours increase. They will remember the tough things you made them learn, and the strict rules you enforced.

One request: When the students with the bad attitudes show up, don’t automatically kick them out. Instead, refuse to bend your standards. You have the power to force them to your way of thinking. Let them know that if they don’t go by your rules, they’ll be out of there.

I still remember one student of Dick Branick’s who buzzed his girlfriend’s house. I found out about it and told Dick, who chewed that student out big time. Dick told the student how he would behave henceforth if he wanted to keep flying with Dick’s company. The student listened and learned. Today, he flies jets for a big corporate aviation operation—he says I helped him get that job, but all I did was tell him who to call.

One of the great events in the life of any CFI is having a former student fly up in the latest whiz-bang airplane and explain how much the CFI meant to him. It does happen.

Ralph Hood (www.ralphhood.com) is an aviation speaker and writer who lives in Erwin, Tennessee.

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