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.

A Ball of Blue

The United Kingdom’s air traffic control entity, NATS, recently published the third in a series of computer-generated videos depicting a typical day’s traffic in the skies controlled by the National Air Traffic Service.

The first two, Europe 24 and North Atlantic Skies, were impressive enough. But this one, which focuses on air traffic over the British Isles, is of particular interest because I’ve flow in and out of the London area on many occasions. I can imagine myself as one of those tiny dots (“which one am I”?), zipping around the skies of southern England like a 35-ton firefly or launching westward toward America in the manner of a sleek metal bullet being fired across a placid lake.

This clip, entitled “UK 24″, is also worth watching because it breaks down the traffic by type: military, commercial, helicopter, light GA, and so on. After watching the video a few times, I was struck by the paltry ratio of general aviation to airline activity — the polar opposite of what we’ve traditionally seen in the States. Perhaps that’s because the airplanes operating without ATC services are not modeled in this video. Either way, it’s a sad (and unintended, I’m sure) commentary on the state of grass roots general aviation in Europe.

I wonder if the FAA provides a similar visualization of flights over the continental U.S. It would certainly be an interesting comparison. I imagine it would make a dramatic statement about the size and scope of traffic in the national airspace system. NATS controls an average of 6,000 flights per day in U.K. airspace. According to the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System, the U.S. sees ten times as many flights over the same period. And that doesn’t include non-participating VFR targets which, unlike our British cousins, outnumber IFR operations by several orders of magnitude.

A visualization of all American air traffic would probably be so overwhelming that portions of the map near major metropolitan areas would be nothing but a vibrant ball of blue. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

Who’s the Best?

topgun

You probably remember that tongue-in-cheek scene from Top Gun where Tom Cruise scans a briefing room full of hot-shot pilots during his first day at the famous Naval Fighter Weapons School and wonders “who the best is”. Top Gun was a fictional tale, of course… but I know the real-life answer to Maverick’s question. I’ve met the best aviation has to offer, and their names most certainly do not occupy a plaque in the ladies room.

They’re called “volunteers”, and our community is filled with them. Pilots may comprise only 0.12% of America’s 319 million citizens, but they have a big impact not only on that population, but the rest of the planet as well. This list of aviation charities should give you an idea of just how thoroughly the spirit of volunteerism is ingrained in the world of general aviation:

  • Air Care Alliance
  • Air Charity Network
  • Challenge Air for Kids & Friends
  • Children’s Flight of Hope
  • Civil Air Patrol
  • Corporate Angel Network
  • Emergency Volunteer Air Corps
  • Flying Samaritans
  • LifeLine Pilots
  • LIGA International
  • LightHawk
  • The Flying Doctors
  • Mercy Medical Airlift
  • Miracle Flights for Kids
  • Northwoods AirLifeLine
  • Orbis
  • Pilots-n-Paws
  • SouthWings
  • Volunteer Pilots Association
  • Veterans Airlift Command
  • Wings of Hope
  • Wings of Mercy
  • Young Eagles

This isn’t a complete listing by any stretch of the imagination. You’ll find tens of thousands of volunteers laboring at non-profit groups dedicated to preserving and flying old aircraft, restoring historic airplanes, promoting aviation, funding flight training, and more. Even the organizations that don’t fall under the “charity” umbrella were often founded by and run on the effort of unpaid volunteers who do their thing out of sheer love. One such example would be the International Aerobatic Club. Aerobatic contests would be impossible without the selfless donation of time and effort by volunteers to man the entire contest staff (which is sometimes as large as the competitor list itself).

I’ve noticed that the giving goes beyond aviation. Most of the folks I know from the flying world donate their time and money to charitable causes that have no connection to it. I probably do less than most people, but my wife and I donate to the Hoag Foundation. Don’t let the funny name fool you — they were incredibly helpful when she had needed emergency surgery at a time when we were both a bit low on the income scale. Our insurance didn’t cover much because of a huge deductible and Hoag simply waived the rest of the bill. Amazing.

Hoag is also the best hospital I’ve ever seen both in terms of the physical plant and the care provided by the staff. I remember the surgeon coming in on his day off just to check on her and ensure we had his personal cell number in case any questions or concerns arose, regardless of the time of day. The hospital has valet parking, and a cafeteria that feels more like an upscale restaurant.

On the flying front, I logged quite a few hours for Angel Flight when I had a four-place airplane. Nowadays I’m more into the aerobatic & experimental world, which they don’t have much use for. If I had an appropriate airplane I’d be back in a heartbeat, though. It’s so rewarding!

As much as I dump on the airlines for the difficult lifestyle so many of it’s pilots must endure, the majors are quite generous with Angel Flight. A tremendous number of in-need passengers travel on airlines, and that only happens because of the company’s kindness. I don’t know if this is still true, but at one time the majority of Angel Flight’s beneficiaries got from point A to point B on an airliner.

Young Eagles volunteers contribute their time, money, and aircraft in order to give kids a chance to see what aviation is all about.

Young Eagles volunteers contribute their time, money, and aircraft in order to give kids a chance to see what aviation is all about.

Each of us gives in our own way. I still instruct, and plan to continue doing that. It’s important. Experienced instructors are vital, and it’s getting hard to find local CFIs who meet specific needs. Instrument instruction in a tailwheel, for example. Experimental transition training. Or formation flying. I also try to mentor upcoming pilots as they work their way through the morass of certificates and ratings. It’s tough out there today with the high cost of flying and questionable career prospects for the next generation of professional pilots. They need all the help they can get.

One final way I give back is by not charging other CFIs for my time. When I got started as an instructor, I was at a flight school where they had a dozen different types of airplanes, and I had to get checked out on my own dime in each of them. Almost all the instructors comped their time, and that’s something I’ve always remembered and tried to pass on as both a professional courtesy and an acknowledgement that while instructing doesn’t pay very well, their services are critically important to a healthy GA community.

So how do you give back? That’s the topic for the Blogging in Formation group this month. And true to form, I notice that our ensemble has a high ratio of volunteers. I’m sure the team would agree that it’s one of the most rewarding parts of what’s already been a very blessed career. Doesn’t helping others leave you feeling like you get far more than you’ve given? Aviation is like that — and so is the heart of a volunteer.

Liability: The Price We Pay

courtroom

As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.

The $100 screw. The $9.00 gallon of fuel. The $5,000 part that costs $50 at a local hardware store. We’ve all seen it. I recall the day a friend told me the seat back for my Pitts S-2B, which is literally a small flat piece of ordinary plywood, cost something like $600. I’m not averse to parts manufacturers turning a profit, but that left my mouth hanging open. My friend? He just shrugged and walked away, as though this was ordinary and normal. The saddest part is that I realized he was right. It is.

Liability concerns are a major expense and motivator for many industries. That’s why Superman costumes come with warnings that “the cape does not enable the wearer to fly”, Zippo cautions users not to ignite the lighter in your face, and irons are sold with tags advising against ironing clothes while they’re being worn. But for general aviation, this sort of thing is dragging the lot of us down as surely as a cement block tossed into the murky waters of the East River.

The classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in the high cost for new products like airplanes. Look at the sharp rise in the price of a new Skyhawk over the past thirty years. The first one was built in 1955, so the research and development costs for this model must have been recouped decades ago. A new Bonanza is a cool million. Low production volumes and high liability costs — a chicken and egg pair if there ever was one — are prime culprits for that inflation.

In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry essentially stopped producing new piston airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that nearly every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 helped somewhat. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. But the liability problem never went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound, grinding away at our diminished world like a wood chipper consuming a sturdy log. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?

I often wonder, what would an aircraft like the RV-6 cost if it was certified? You can buy one for as little as $45,000 today. Speaking of Amateur-Built aircraft, liability is one of the primary reasons advancements such as electronic ignition proliferate in the E-AB world when they’re almost unheard of in aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate.

Mike Busch has penned many articles about the ways liability concerns drive decisions in the maintenance business. The result? Lower efficiency, higher cost, and at times even a decrease in the level of safety that is supposedly paramount. But it goes beyond that. Many products which would otherwise be brought to market are not because liability issues tilt the scale away from taking that risk in the first place.

Even proven, well-established products are sometimes lost to this phenomenon. Seven years ago, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:

Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.

This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.

Even if you don’t own an airplane, you’ve probably noticed that aircraft rental is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Companies like OpenAirplane are trying to make a dent in this formidable problem, but many aircraft types simply cannot be rented at all for solo flight anymore. Seaplanes, aerobatic aircraft, twins, turbines, and many other types might as well not exist unless you have the cash to buy them outright. And those that are still rented require extensive checkouts, form filling, and a large expenditure of time, money and energy. Why? To check every possible box off when it comes to liability. The manager of one FBO here in Southern California told me in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t matter if Bob Hoover himself walked through the door, he wouldn’t get one iota of consideration in that regard. Does that sound right to you?

There’s an obvious answer here. If you’re thinking tort reform, you’re only half-right. Suing manufacturers for accidents that are clearly not their fault simply because the plaintiff knows they’ll settle is only ensuring the next generation won’t be able to fly. The real solution is to — in the words of a pilot I know — put on our big-boy britches and come to terms with the fact that life in general, and aviation in particular, involves risk. From the Doolittle Raiders to the folks at Cirrus Aircraft, history shows over and over again that risk is a part of every successful venture. We’d all love to live in a world where there is no risk, where following the dictates of Title 14 would ensure nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever gets hurt. It’s a fallacy.

Crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.

Sure, with Experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate. This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.

Liability concerns hurt everyone in aviation, not just those with reciprocating single-engines. I’ll give you one example from the corporate and charter business that I work in: time and time again, thousands of dollars of catering from one of our charter flights will go untouched by the passengers. We’ll land at our destination with a eighty pounds of beautifully packaged and prepared food. Five-star presentation of the highest-quality and healthiest food you’ll see anywhere.

At the same time, just beyond the airport fence are people who go to bed hungry. Logic dictates that we might want to put two and two together. But because the operators and customers of these aircraft are high net worth individuals who would certainly find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit at the first indication of food poisoning or other malady, load after load of this food goes into the trash every single day all across the country. Over the past three years I’d imagine the total weight of the food from flights I’ve flown that went into the trash would total a couple of tons.

While lawsuits and courtrooms have their place, I personally think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. That’s the cost of the society we’ve built. Is it worth it?


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

No Apologies

A simple Cub and a grass runway.  This is flying!

Did you know there are more PhDs in the United States than there are pilots? It’s true. Few individuals with a doctorate are apologetic or shy about their achievement. On the contrary, many of them go so far as to attach this educational status to their very identity, adding it to their name, email signature, business cards, and more. It’s a big deal and they’re all too happy to let people know about it.

Since earning a pilot certificate places one in even more rarefied heights, it always surprises me to hear an aviator speak in apologetic terms about their flying. Typically it happens when they’re with others whom they perceive to be of higher achievement — an airline or military pilot, for example. They’ll say “oh, my plane’s just an old 152″. Or “I only have a sport pilot certificate”. I hate to see that. Whether the subject is their aircraft, training, or experience, there’s no cause for apologies. Quite the opposite. Don’t be fooled by the number of ratings on a pilot’s certificate, or assume they’re a better aviator because their logbook has more hours than yours. The worst physician in the world still managed to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree.

Brent Owens (aka Fixed Wing Buddha) recently wrote about this:

Let me go on record. If you are flying, no matter what kind of airplane, you should hold your head high. You are among a tiny population of people and you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is ludicrous to think otherwise. In a sea of grounded mortals, we have a very special skill that lets us command the air. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aerial conveyance you choose.

In fact, I’d take it a step further. The “higher” a pilot goes in the food chain, the less actual flying they’re likely to do. I bet a low-time rag-wing tailwheel pilot could land my Gulfstream a lot better than the average jet pilot could land that taildragger. But for some reason we create this pecking order which is dictated by the size, cost, and speed of the aircraft we fly.

It’s human nature to equate bigger with better — the advertising industry is based on it — but it’s completely illogical. In fact, as the years go by I find my affinity for smaller, simpler, less expensive planes only grows. The Cub, the Citabria, the RV-3. These airplanes provide a more visceral connection between man, machine, and nature. They’re simpler and less expensive to buy, own, and maintain. And they’re not used for practical purposes so much as just enjoying the art of flying. A stick and a throttle. That’s it.

There was a story — I can’t seem to find it now — about an instructor bumping around the pattern with a student in the summer heat in a modest Cessna. He looks up, sees a turboprop flying thousands of feet above, and muses about how lucky those guys have it to be in smooth, fast, air conditioned comfort. The guys in the turboprop notice a 747 flying overhead, up in the stratosphere, and can’t think about much beyond moving up to a “real airplane” that flies a lot faster than 250 knots. Oh, to have lavatories, flight attendants, and travel the world! The bored 747 pilot, on the other hand, looks waaaay down at an airport below, sees a little Cessna flying around the pattern and says to his co-pilot, “Boy that guy’s lucky — I can’t wait to retire and get back to some REAL flying!”

Larger airplanes are just that: larger. Sitting in pressurized comfort at FL450 might seem like the end all/be all to those who fly more “modest” equipment, but I assure you it’s more system management than actual hands-on-the-controls flying. It can take on an antiseptic quality.

And doing the same thing day after day after day? I’ve met more than a few burned-out jet pilots for whom flying is no longer a passion or joy. It has been reduced to a job, nothing more. It’s sad, because they started out with that fire in their belly, that urge to hang out at the airport all day every day. And now? There’s nothing they’d rather do than get away from it all. That’s why I was extremely careful when I started flying professionally. It’s easy to allow the enthusiasm for a shiny jet to lead a person down that unfortunate path.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. I see a lot of pilots who are always looking to the “next thing” rather than enjoying where they are right now. When they’re in a single, they’re totally focused to jumping into a retractable. Once they fly one, it’s all about moving into a twin. If they’re flying a recip, life seems like it will be “perfect” once they start flying the turboprop. Once they’re flying that, they’re already obsessed with a jet. It makes me sad, because their career will be over before they know it, and they’re well on the path to missing the whole thing.

So no matter what you fly, and whether you do it recreationally or professionally, be proud of your steed, and most of all enjoy every minute in the air. The clock is ticking; every day brings us closer to our final flight. We may not know when that door will close, but rest assured it eventually will. What a shame it would be to reach the end of the road and realize we never savored the journey.