One popular proverb holds that “Good judgment comes from experience—which usually comes from bad judgment.” It seems self-evident that experience is particularly desirable in an instructor, and not just teaching experience but time spent flying around out in the real world, dealing with weather and navigation and terrain and fuel planning and all the other details that make light GA so exciting. The greater the volume and variety of flight time, the more wisdom ought to be available to impart to every student—and past exposure to a wider variety of hazards should only improve a CFI’s ability to protect student and aircraft alike.
It all makes perfect sense, and it’s the belief that underlies the occasional complaints about 300-hour wonders giving dual when they’ve barely learned to fly themselves. It’s hard to believe there’s a downside to experience, and maybe there isn’t, but even thousands of hours in the logbook don’t provide complete immunity from the odd mental lapse. Once in a while a high-time instructor gets into a situation that makes you wonder whether the process of training new pilots hadn’t become just a little too routine.
A case in point in August 2011 involved a 13,000-hour CFI and a Cessna 172. The instructor and a 24-hour student pilot took off from Parkersburg, West Virginia, with the student’s husband, a private pilot, riding along in back. They flew about 80 nautical miles to Elkins, where the instructor had the student do a single touch-and-go on Runway 14 and then climb above the next ridge. Once they’d cleared the ridgeline, he had her turn right into a canyon for a mountain-flying lesson. It was only after they entered that he realized that they weren’t where he’d expected to be; they had in fact flown into a box canyon and were heading directly for another ridge the Skyhawk couldn’t outclimb.
The CFI, whose more than 8,000 hours of dual given included 3,000 in 172s, took the controls. After maneuvering the airplane as close to the canyon’s left wall as he could, he made a hard right turn in an attempt to reverse course. When it became clear that they wouldn’t make it, he levelled the wings and aimed the airplane’s nose between the tops of two trees. The treetops cushioned the impact, the airplane came to rest on a steep slope, and the instructor completed an orderly shutdown of the engine, fuel, and electrical systems. All three walked away unhurt.
It’s hard to know what to make of this one. There’s little doubt that the instructor’s level head and quick thinking enabled them to survive an emergency that’s very frequently fatal, and not just survive but escape without injury. On the other hand, the decision to fly into a canyon without being sure where it led is hard to view as anything better than as a momentary loss of focus at a really unfortunate moment. The CFI told investigators that “he normally conducted mountain flying after departing from Runway 23, and was not real familiar with the area immediately off the departure end of Runway 14.” That would seem like a compelling reason to approach it cautiously, and it’s a good bet that 99 times out of 100, that’s exactly what he would have done. For whatever reason, though, this time things were a little slow to click.
Is it possible that after all those years and thousands of hours, another dual lesson in a 172 seemed so ordinary that he let his attention wander? The instructor hasn’t said anything of the sort, at least not in the public record. But it’s easy enough to understand how it could. And it’s hard to imagine that a new CFI—at least, one with any instinct for self-preservation—would have descended into a valley without first reconnoitering the terrain.
None of which suggests that age and experience don’t vastly improve the safety of flight instruction—merely that here, too, there are no guarantees.