TERRIFIC, TOM

For some people learning to fly turns out to be far easier than they imagined, their biggest impediment simply letting that be so. My favorite example was a PhD teaching at the Air Force Test Pilot School, who, unlikely as it sounds, had never taken flight instruction. In our first conversation he disavowed possessing anything like the natural talents of those Flash Gordon types he tutored on weekdays. He characterized his eye-to-hand prowess as “wooden,” apologizing that his only advantage would be, wait for it… technical. Oh well, good to know at the outset where my challenge would lie.

After several lessons he was doing fine on most skills, but not a single landing had been without problems, mostly due to lack of spatial awareness. He was so concerned with altitude and airspeed as numbers on the panel, he had no time to see where he was going and control pitch. He fully understood that being at some exact height may not help if you’re in the wrong place, and that chasing the airspeed indicator is no way to control velocity. But while dutifully espousing these truths in his own teaching, he had not yet learned to believe them.

As he entered downwind on our next flight I peeled my shirt off and handed it forward, telling him to drape it over the panel and cover the instruments. “Now look at the actual world all around, and straight ahead, and get your attitude right. Use your ears and your eyes.”

With his mind finally outside the cockpit and focused on what matters, his shoulders settled from ATTENTION to AT EASE, and the ship seemed palpably to relax as well.

“Once your attitude is stable, keep it there by holding the stick still while inspecting where you intend to touch down. Look close for some speck that might turn out to be a hazard, possibly a human one. Then follow your flight path backward, up the final approach and base leg to where you expect to turn.”

When his head moved his hand did too, involuntarily, so I snapped the stick back where he’d had it and nearly shouted, “Stick still!”

He muttered something to himself, self-defaming doubt.

“Nah, you’re okay,” I said. “This is how we get there. Notice that in the few seconds since that distraction with my shirt, you’ve double checked for traffic, confirmed where you need to be and enhanced your control of both the aircraft and the situation. How’s that for technical?”

“Got to admit,” he laughed, glancing again at the aim point.

“And keep looking straight ahead anytime you’re not looking somewhere else. If you hold that pitch steady on the horizon, you’re well on the way to your best landing yet!”

The hard part was remembering to keep his hands still, but by midway on base leg he’d accomplished that too, and gained so much confidence his head began to bob in recognition. A minute later he kissed his first spot landing with ease.

And the rest would soon become history. We both moved on to positions elsewhere, but I heard through friends that by the end of the next season he was himself a certified flight instructor. And, I’d be willing to wager, not a wooden one!