Friday, February 20, 2009


Before we get to what I had intended to discuss, one of my students said something today that is the kind of thing a flight instructor never wants to hear.

He had asked if he could borrow Ernest K. Gann's Fate is the Hunter. Sure, I said, just don't start reading it after dinner, or you'll be up all night. He had some solo practice planned this afternoon, and it's payday, so I decided to go out to the airport to deliver it. But he wasn't expecting me, so I called his cellphone.

"Hey Wilbur [not his real name], it's me, are you at the airport yet?"

"I'm on the runway."

I'm on the runway?

(Actually, he was taxiing, but when I got to the airport we had a little talk about priorities.)

All of a sudden we realized that the neighbors' dogs had stopped making a mess of our yard. Then we realized that their house was dark all evening. Then we realized that the RV and boat and four-wheelers weren't in the driveway. Had they moved? Why was there no "for sale" sign? I investigated: they had been foreclosed.

Your situation might be better, but admit it: you're flying less, aren't you?

With the current economic situation, we need to rethink our approach to keeping our flying sharp.

Here are some suggestions that I know work, but they require some discipline. Many years ago, I was a new assistant professor with a wife still in graduate school far away. My salary was low and my expenses (two households) were high, and money was tight! There was certainly no way that I could continue to put in the number of hours that I was used to.

I figured that with a little luck I might get to do one or two longer cross-countries each year. I decided to focus on currency and proficiency. So, once a month I found a buddy to act as safety pilot while I practiced instrument work (the rules for instrument currency were different then, and required a minimum number of hours of practice). Every couple of months I took an evening for night proficiency.

So far, I had flown 15 hours in a year, but I was always legal to take advantage of any flight opportunity that came along. So, when I was invited to talk at another university, I filed IFR and flew. I spent a few afternoons browsing journals that my university didn't get at another library 100 miles away. I was always ready to fly.

I was a private pilot at the time, so paid flying was out of the question, but I had a standard offer to my friends: I'll take you flying if you buy me dinner. A nice dinner. So, Tony and Wanda and Dean and Dave and Kendall and Buzz and others took me out to dinner after fun sightseeing flights. I paid for the flights, but the budget wasn't so stretched because they paid for dinner.

I spent a sabbatical year in Canada, and while I had a little more stretch in the budget money was still tight. I had a temporary Canadian private pilot license (no instrument privileges, though), but most of my flying consisted of touch-and-goes (oops, I mean circuits) in a Cessna 152. This was fun, and the callsigns (try saying India Oscar Sierra six times, fast) were a challenge. I did a little instrument proficiency, too, but in the whole year I made two cross-country flights.

But I did something almost as good. A local group, the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association, had access to four Harvards (the RCAF version of the T-6 and SNJ trainers), and offered a ground school at a nominal fee. There were some silly visa issues, but once those were taken care of I made my way to CHAA's hangars once or twice a week, either for ground school, or to unscrew inspection plates and clean parts or the like while the engineers gave the airplanes their annual inspection. I met some wonderful people and learned a lot about airplanes and flying, and even got a little stick time in a Harvard. (Silly trivia: I'm pretty sure that I was the only CHAA member ever to graduate from the eponymous university.)

So, if you're flying less, you need to make it count more. Trade instrument time with a friend. Stay night current. Be ready for any opportunity that comes your way (Young Eagles, business trips, distant errands, ...) But do more than just bore holes in the sky.

Enroll in a ground school of some kind; it almost doesn't matter which. If you are instrument rated, an IFR ground school will keep your sharp, and there's always plenty to learn about the rapidly changing world of IFR flight. (I'm offering an IFR ground school starting next month, and I think my job will be easier if a couple of instrument rated pilots enroll and share their experiences). A commercial pilot ground school will have something new for everyone; you'll learn about aerodynamics and navigation and regulations in more depth.

Plus, you'll get to hang out with pilots. Sounds like fun!

I got to the airport and watched Wilbur fly a couple of patterns. He was doing well, which made me feel pretty good, too. He taxied in with the nosewheel centered on the painted line, too. But next time we fly I will ask him to put his cell phone on "silent."

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At February 21, 2009 at 1:33 PM , Anonymous Sarah said...

Yeah, "Fate is the Hunter". I've been interested in aviation all my life and yet somehow never read it until last month.

What a life he had. I wonder sometimes if I was "born 30 years too late" and missed the golden age of aviation .. who knows.

Though it struck me how often he mentioned accidents of his peers - the dedication page on "Fate" is 3 pages long of "gone west" pilots. Not all of them were war casualties.

Here is a story of one of his peers. ( no doubt Ernest would never do anything like this - but there you go. ) It was a different age.

At February 22, 2009 at 7:32 PM , Blogger Dr.ATP said...


I reread the book every year or so. The accidents are actually the source of the title: Fate has hunted down his peers and, through luck, not him.

I didn't know that story about the control lock. I used to fly King Airs with a rather obnoxious guy who was always baiting people. One day when I was hand-flying the controls felt strange. "Trim runaway! Trim runaway!" I disconnected the electric trim and looked over at him. He was laughing.

"Did you run the trim nose-down?" I accused.

"Yes; I wanted to see how you would handle a trim runaway."

"Well, look," I said, "This is a real airplane and those are real passengers back there, and if you do something like that again I'll break your %%$%#* arm."

He did this to enough people that the company let him go.


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