SMALL PICTURE, BIG FRAME

It happens about every week, someone who’s never been in a glider comes to the airport and the first thing they ask is, “How soon can I get a license?” I did the same thing in 1975, and it’s as dumb now as it was then. Newcomers who’re already professional pilots say, “How quick can I get a commercial?” My response is the same each time: you can get the rating lickety split, but it’ll be worthless until you learn to soar. Inability to simply stay aloft is made even more embarrassing by advanced rank. I know, firsthand.

Ask yourself what you really want from this time-consuming and expensive trifle. If it’s the purifying joy of natural flight, fulfillment of learning new perspectives and skills, you have my enthusiastic support. If it’s about status or some other egoistic self-indulgence, you’re sadly missing the point. Consider submarine racing instead.

In my world, soaring is it’s own motivation. It defines motivation. From the moment I first heard of this magical art, all I wanted was to be up there floating on air. The one benefit of a private license is the honor of soaring with friends, developing uniquely personal ways to share the whole miracle while skills compound like interest. But I’d been a mediocre student, and the pinch of weekly tows and rental was making me a lousy pilot.

Then a brainquake: pile up fifty more landings and go straight for the commercial. Give paying rides and grab twice as much flying for free! (If you had a small road apple for every schmuck who’s thought of that before and since, you’d need a fleet of dump trucks to haul us all away.) The commercial didn’t endow me with any more capability than the private, surprise surprise. All it did was heighten legal vulnerability and pressure to perform, neither of which work in anyone’s favor.

This aeronautical version of the Peter Principle grows even more perilous when beginners get certified to instruct. Sharing knowledge of the sky can be the highest of pleasures — if one has something to teach. But writing in other people’s logbooks is a solemn and permanent responsibility whose gravity seems to deepen with every signature. I also got myself sucked/pushed into playing the role of CFIG before I knew what I was doing, and today must cringe at how many seasons my ‘work’ amounted to little more than unsupervised OJT. Got away with so much occupational moydah, I can only plead the pardon of those long-suffering students from my early daze, and pray there’s a statute of limitations on ineptitude. Turns out actual mojo in soaring and teaching develops at its own glacial pace, accumulating not so much with numbered hours, as over TIME…

When folks new to soaring go all rabid about the next higher rating (or snazzier ride) my advice is… relax! Enjoy where you are now, with an eye to optimizing it. Then when you reach an obvious plateau and the learning curve flattens, that’s the time to pursue an upgrade. Proceed organically, and when you’re really ready the check ride (or pricey purchase) won’t be stressful, it’ll be a celebration. The goods will slip into your pocket where they then belong, and imbue your flying with justified confidence, not anxiety.