Teaching a Homeless Man to Fly

decathlon-inverted

Question: When you’re in a room with other people, how can you tell if one of them is a pilot?
Answer: Simple. He’ll tell you.

Aviators are a proud lot, and with good reason. Ours is quite an exclusive club. Despite that fact, I’ve long believed that learning to fly actually has wide appeal among the general public. From my earliest days in the industry, those who discovered I was a pilot would invariably show great interest in my aeronautical activities. More often than not, I would come away from the conversation with the feeling that they were envious of my ability to defy gravity and soar with the birds.

The question then is why more individuals don’t (as they say at Nike) “just do it”. For starters, it requires a lot of money. Then there’s the logistics, the time commitment, and the challenge inherent in weaving one’s way through the modern flight training maze. Changes in instructors, weather delays, antiquated tests and teaching techniques, and so on. Many look skyward, but few take the bull by the horns and see that dream through to completion.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s those who are the least well equipped to succeed who make it to the finish line. Ward Welvaert, a professional contract and ferry pilot, recently wrote about how he taught a homeless man to fly:

Something was different about Patrick but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I was young(ish) and struggling to make a living as most all flight instructors do. I didn’t feel like it was my place to decide who should be taking flight instruction or who should not – as long as the person is safety oriented and shows good judgment. I don’t remember who told me but someone pulled me aside in the lobby of the FBO and asked if I knew Patrick was spending the nights sleeping in his car out in the airport parking lot. Apparently people had noticed Patrick sleeping in his car and asked if he was OK. Patrick seemed to be more comfortable talking to the line men and he had confided in one of them, told them he lived out of his car, he’d spend a week at the airport and then go to work as a road construction laborer for a few weeks. Every time he’d go away to work he’d save his money and then come back to the airport to fly.

Ward’s post reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten: that I too once taught a homeless person to fly. In my case, the student was a fairly young man in his early 20s who already held a private pilot certificate. James ended up on my schedule because he wanted to fly acro. At our first meeting, there was no immediate indication that he was at all different from any other student at the FBO. His clothing and mannerisms were completely conventional. He was quite energetic about the aerobatic course and talked at length about how the ultimate goal for him in aviation was always the freedom and excitement of all-attitude flying.

As with any new student, the process started with a bit of paperwork. When the forms were handed to me, I noticed he had left the “contact” section completely blank. No phone number, e-mail, or address. I asked about that and James said he didn’t have any of those things. He was couch-surfing in order to conserve every dollar possible for flying. He didn’t even own a car. This guy biked to the airport and worked in the pilot shop to earn money. How’s that for single-minded dedication?

Couch-surfing is not illegal. Nor is riding a bike or lacking a cell phone. So eventually the training began, and as I recall, James was a pleasant and upbeat personality in the cockpit, not to mention a good stick. Every CFI craves students like that. You know, the ones that make you look brilliant without having to do too much work?

Anyway, he was making respectable progress through the 10-12 flight hour course when suddenly things came to a screeching halt. He completely disappeared off the schedule, and despite asking around, I couldn’t figure out what happened to him. The guy just vanished into thin air. I was truly disappointed. Had my instruction been inadequate, I wondered? Did he finally run out of cash? Was he popped for selling meth or something?

It wasn’t until a month or two later that someone informed me that he’d heard James was hit by a car one day while riding his bike to the airport. The only reason they knew that much was because James had taken the time to call the pilot shop and say he wouldn’t be able to make it in to work. Nobody had details, like which hospital he’d been taken to or how badly he’d been hurt. That was as close as I ever got to figuring out where he went.

I’ve known other itinerant people, souls like kites who were simply meant to travel in whichever direction the wind carried them, but given the resources and support required for successful flight training, I was impressed with James’s dedication to a very challenging goal. It never entered his mind that it was unachievable, nor did I ever hear him complain about the lack of creature comforts in his life. He was flying, it made him happy, and that was all there was to it.

In retrospect, his status may have been an advantage because James had no family or financial commitments to consume his resources or energy. He didn’t have much, but everything he did have was directed toward flying.

I’ve no idea whether he ever completed aerobatic training, but unless that car seriously and permanently disabled him, I can’t imagine the answer would be “no”. It just wasn’t in his character to be deterred. How can you not admire that in a person?

James, like all memorable students, wasn’t just a learner but a teacher as well. He taught me a valuable lesson about persistence and dedication, two very American qualities which have become the exception rather than the rule in our society. Whenever someone tells me they could never possibly find the time or money to pursue flying — or any dream for that matter — I always think about James, and I know the truth: if there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Breaking the Rules: Teaching Snap Rolls

Pitts S-2B

Every instructor knows that airplanes make poor classrooms. The noise, vibration, cramped space, communication challenges, interruptions from ATC, and the need to watch for traffic while monitoring location, airspace, and aircraft systems all conspire to prevent effective learning. Oh, and let’s not forget the exorbitant cost of operating this aluminum schoolroom.

Well if it’s true for the docile trainer, imagine the high-performance aerobatic airplane. They’re even worse than a standard aircraft because aerobatic steeds are designed for performance above all else. Those creature comforts you’re used to in a typical GA airplane? All gone.

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Reinaldo Beyer Aerobatic Scholarship

reinaldo-beyer

Sunrise Aviation recently announced an annual aerobatic scholarship in memory of Reinaldo Beyer. This program is close to my heart for several reasons that I’ll touch on momentarily, and I think it might be of interest given that my previous post on aviation scholarships has proven to be one of the most popular on the site (currently holding the number three position on the list).

The Details

The total amount of the award will be at least $1,250, to be used at Sunrise Aviation toward aerobatic instruction at their location at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA. The award could be more, depending on how much is available for the scholarship. For 2014, there is $4,350 in the fund, however that could be split among multiple pilots.

If you’re interested in applying, the deadline is January 31, 2014 and the application form is available here.

That $1,250 could go a long way. At about $250 per hour, it represents five hours of flying. If the winner was able to spring for an equivalent amount (not required, of course), that 10 hours might be sufficient to get through a full Sunrise primary aerobatic program covering spins, loops, aileron rolls, Cubans, split “s”, barrel roll, and a tailwheel endorsment. I went through that course myself after completing my private pilot certificate at Sunrise in 1998. Of all the flying I’ve logged in the ensuing fifteen years, nothing has done more to increase my skill level, safety, and confidence in the air. This is an excellent program and I can say from personal experience that it will make you a better pilot.

Unlike many of the scholarships I’ve encountered, this one does not come with any age, gender, or geographic restrictions. Nor are there any associations that one must be a member of before applying. The qualifications are simple: 1) hold at least a U.S. private pilot certificate, and 2) have some previous flight experience which includes professional spin and upset recovery instruction.

The purpose of the spin and upset recovery requirement is to “evaluate basic suitability for aerobatics”. I’d like to help them find the best candidate for this scholarship, so I asked Sunrise who the ideal candidate would be. In other words, what will the committee be looking for?

The ideal candidate is the pilot(s) who look most promising for long-term aerobatic interest, given a healthy boost. Previous competition is a factor, but not more heavily weighted than others: enthusiasm, prior general aviation experience, character, etc.

If I could choose Reinaldo’s clone, that would be perfect.

If you’re not familiar with the name Reinaldo Beyer, let me tell you a bit about him.

A Man of High Standards

This scholarship is named after one of the most hard-working and talented pilots I’ve come across in my flying career. “Accomplished” doesn’t even begin to describe Reinaldo’s life either in the air or on the ground. To start with, his work as an interventional cardiologist literally saved the lives of a few pilots I know, and countless more individuals we’ll never hear about. He was a tremendous resource for pilots who had health concerns and never hesitated to offer his services in that regard. True aviators are like that.

Beyer was also a very successful aerobatic competitor and member of the U.S. National Advanced Team as well as a National-level judge. Reinaldo was one of those people who demanded excellence from himself and others, and just watching him fly made me a better pilot because it confirmed that such quality and exactitude was possible. I never saw him do anything sloppy; it just wasn’t in his character to allow it. Even the simple act of standing in the desert and looking up at the sky somehow had a precision to it. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to see that kind of ethic at work in the world — and I was far from the only one who noticed it.

Few errors escaped Reinaldo's notice when he was on the judging line! I learned to love that about him.  When he gave a "10", you could be assured it was a damn good figure!

Few errors escaped Reinaldo’s notice when he was on the judging line! I learned to love that about him. When he gave a “10”, you could be assured it was a damn good figure!

He used to open his Advanced freestyle with a common figure called a humpty-bump. He’d begin with this incredibly long upline (perfectly vertical of course) and then a downline with four half-rolls of such crispness that you’d swear they were some sort of computer generated imagery. Reinaldo’s flying was a reflection of his personality: it was about precision, not flash.

Reinaldo’s scoring of my flights used to drive me up the wall because he always seemed to zero my snap rolls and grade my sequences more harshly than any other judge. I eventually realized that he held everyone to that standard — including himself — and was in actuality the most accurate and consistent of judges.

True story: a few years ago, a relatively new competitor at the Borrego Acrofest sought me out to ask why I zeroed his snap rolls. I was about to explain the technical reason (no pitch before the autorotation) when Reinaldo stepped out of a port-a-potty about 50 feet away. I jerked my thumb in his direction and said, “Blame that guy.” It was supposed to be a joke, but by the time I turned back to give a serious answer, the competitor was gone, already trotting after Reinaldo to get an answer.

Hopefully this scholarship will help ensure Reinaldo’s legacy lives on for many years to come and bring more people into the wonderful world of aerobatics. I think he’d like that.

Team Aerodynamix

They DO own the night!

While I’ve always maintained that physical ability — better known as stick-and-rudder skill — should take a back seat to “judgement” when determining where a pilot is worth his or her salt, there’s no denying that some of us are aviators while others are simply airplane drivers.

That’s not to denigrate those who pilot simple aircraft, aren’t instrument rated, or don’t get into the air that often. On the contrary, I’ve witnessed truly artful flying from low-time pilots who didn’t have two nickels to rub together and were as far away from, say, formation aerobatics as you could get.

But it’s hard to argue with beauty and skill demonstrated by groups like Team Aerodynamix. Check out this video, for instance. Not only are they zipping around in formation, but they’re performing formation aerobatics, at night, in exceptionally large groups, in airplanes that they built with their own hands. I don’t care where you’re from — that’s impressive.

“Am I Nervous?”: An Aerobatic First Solo

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One can’t help but feel a bit like a proud papa watching a student make his or her first solo flight. The feeling never gets old. It’s akin to teaching your kid to ride a bicycle: one moment you’re there along side them, and the next you’re not. No encouraging voice, nobody to make sure Bad Stuff doesn’t happen. It’s all on them. An exhilarating moment for both parties, but while one is out having fun, the other is left behind, ground-bound and hoping he did everything right.

The main difference is that crashing is a wee bit more expensive in an aircraft than on a bike. Or rather, that used to be a difference. Today, some airplanes are getting less expensive (twins, LSAs and homebuilts, I’m looking at you) while the price of a high-quality bicycle seems to reach ever more frequently into five figure territory. I wonder what Wilbur and Orville would have thought about such a thing.

When you’re signing off an acro pilot, there’s a lot more to worry about than with your typical single-engine GA aircraft. To start with, they’re not heading out to do a bunch of straight-and-level flying. Aerobatics is by definition a more full exploration of the aircraft’s performance envelope. They’re going to be operating with high angles of attack, extreme and (for most people) unusual attitudes, full control deflections, spinning, and zipping around the sky with several times the Earth’s normal gravitational force.

The airplane itself has a landing gear configuration so unstable that, for the most part, they don’t make it anymore. Simple objects like loose keys, coins or pens aren’t much of a hazard to most pilots, whereas in an aerobatic airplane they can fly around the cockpit, jam the controls, and make your life generally unpleasant. Don’t ask how I know that. The same goes with seat belts and cushions, which can get wrapped around or block the second set of controls. For extra fun, those controls are behind you and totally inaccessible in flight.

By the time they solo, the student has recovered from a plethora of botched aerobatic figures. They’ve fallen out of loops, rolled their way out of nose-low attitudes, and fixed inadvertent spin entries. But there’s no way to experience every possible combination of botched control inputs or emergencies. What if this, what if that. The possibilities are endless.

A few weeks ago I had seven or eight upper cowl fasteners fail all at once on one of these airplanes, and the high pressure inside the cowling (which is designed for engine cooling) left a big hole where the cowl should be tightly attached to the airframe. Instead of looking over the cowl, we could look through it. Who’s ever rehearsed that one?

Anyway, recently the first-solo honor went to a tailwheel and primary aerobatic program graduate from Sunrise Aviation with whom I worked. Graeme is about as dedicated as they come, because he lives and works south of San Diego. Any further south, in fact, and he’d be in Mexico. There should be some sort of award for braving that much traffic, especially since we’d get into the airplane and travel right back in the direction he just came from!

As is becoming the norm among the up-and-coming generation of whippersnappers, Graeme worked triple duty as Pilot-in-Command, videographer, and narrator on his first solo, later editing the raw footage into what you’ll see below.

Didactic benefits of videotaping training flights aside, how fantastic is it to have high-definition footage of stuff like this? Decades from now he’ll be able to re-live the experience in all its glory. When I was in his shoes, the best we had was a Polaroid Instamatic camera.

I got a good laugh out of his opening comment: “Am I nervous? No. Terrified.” I know exactly how you feel, my friend!