Sunday, October 26, 2008

Everybody soloes!

One of the strange things about aviation is the non-uniformity of events. Excepting regulatory matters, the space between events is random.

Take Steamboat Springs, Colorado. As a charter pilot I have been there three times. All in the same week, and for different customers! Monterey, California is similar. I used to be a regular there; I knew what to order at the airport restaurant, I knew where to go running on a layover, it even got to the point where my wife thought that it sounded like one of the women at the FBO was hitting on me. But that was over a period of a few months, and I have not been there for years. I had regular restaurants in Oakland, but really only went there for a year or so. Cedar City, Rock Springs, Montrose, go there a lot for a short time, then never again.

A lot of my flight instructor experience, probably most of it, has been training commercial pilots with instrument and multiengine ratings to fly IFR under 14CFR135, the charter rules. So the last time I soloed a primary student, the last time that I sent someone up in an aircraft all alone for the very first time in their life, was 1999. (I soloed a glider transition student this year, but he was already a private pilot in airplanes.)

Given the random nature of aviation events, it seems completely predictable that if there is a student ready to solo then there are going to be two students ready to solo, probably on consecutive flights. And that's what happened today. The details are far less important than the glow of achievement that filled the FBO lounge.

The thing is, flight instruction is in a parlous state right now. This week, I spent 16 hours or so at a Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic. In the USA, a flight instructor must renew his or her "certificate" every two years. There are several ways to do this. When I did 135 training the renewal was automatic, and last time I renewed by adding a glider rating. But the clinics put you into a situation where you can learn from your peers, something that I always enjoy. Besides, it was free, because the organizer from the state Transportation Department offered to trade my renewal for doing part of the teaching.

Anyway, the distribution of the ages of the flight instructors there was less random than anything else in aviation: one in his 30s; one in his (late) 40s; two in their 50s; two in their 60s; and 1 in his 70s. Including the leader and the FAA guy who gave a presentation, there was well over 50,000 hours of flight experience in the room. Fifty Thousand Hours!

But where were the young instructors?

It may be true that some of the more gung-ho young instructors are renewing another way, but I suspect that many of them don't renew at all. Why? They move on to that dream job, or to a job that might lead to the dream job. The reason they instruct is in order to build time.

But the people I studied with this weekend had transcended that. For me, I already had my turbine job. Before that, when I got into an airplane with a student, at least part of the purpose of the flight was to increase my experience. Now when I get into an airplane with a student it is 100% in order to enhance the student's experience.

So soloing two students means that I have made a lot of progress toward my goal as an pilot and instructor, which is to help people to have fun flying safely. Soloing them is kind of like soloing myself, because just as the solo student is no longer depending on my judgment about his progress, I am no longer depending on a chief pilot's or director of operations's judgment of my progress.

Lots of experienced pilots decide not renew their instructor's certificates. They whine about the schedule and the hotels and the food on the road and the pay. And they miss out on a day like today.

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