For the love of flying. John Lampson is a CFI for the simple reason that he loves the gratifying experience of teaching.
It's that time of year! Spring be sprung, or nearly so; if a blanket of frosty white lurks beyond your window, have faith—the end is near. Time now for wannabe pilots and stick jockeys young and old to turn their fancies once more toward the skies. Time also to consider that oft-unsung band of brothers and sisters who give us the sky.
Although many CFIs, as the private aviation cliché goes, endure the flight instruction game primarily to follow that yellow brick road that leads to commercial flying jobs, we all know at least one winged tutor who enjoys teaching in a cockpit for its own sake. I put these rock stars of flight right up there with school teachers, police and fire personnel, doctors, nurses, EMTs and all who benefit the commonweal for the sheer love of what they do. There's something special indeed about people who give the gift of their time and expertise to the betterment of another human being. As we know in aviation, it's sure not for the big bucks.
Think about this: Day in, year out, CFIs wield a dazzling array of skills in the three-dimensional realm of the air. Flight instructors are like circus performers, simultaneously juggling a moment-to-moment focus on the student's actions, while imparting aeronautical knowledge verbally and giving hands-on demonstrations. On top of that, the flight instructor must be constantly ready to react in a split second to dangerous or unexpected overreaction, especially near the ground. Their lives, and the lives of their students, are always on the line.
Finally, they do their best to evoke a calm, cool and collected atmosphere in the cockpit, even when dealing with students overwhelmed by the need to think and act in three dimensions of movement at once.
So isn't it a simple marvel that CFIs do all that without screaming, "You freakin' idiot!" every 90 seconds?
Opening argument: If good flight instruction is therefore an art form, as I've come to believe it is, then John Lampson is an artist.
Exhibit A: During my training, John successfully guided me with patience, skill and thoughtfulness to my sport pilot ticket, all the while infusing groan-worthy humor. My favorite: After spotting a plane crossing our path, I said, "Hey, there's an Extra 300." "Where?" he shot back, rubbernecking left and right. "I only see one!" Bah da bing!
John, a 6,000-hour CFI, (5,000 spent teaching), works out of Premier Aviation at Connecticut's Hartford Brainard Airport (HFD). I was his first light-sport student three years ago. Since then, he's racked up 1,000 hours teaching in the FBO's Flight Design CTLS.
As a teener, he dreamed of taking the rock group he formed in high school, Society's Children, to the big time. Flying, a longtime "someday" dream, took backseat to making it in the music world. The group became known throughout New England, headlining big names like Joan Jett, and cutting some tracks in the same RCA studio Elvis Presley had graced. But larger fame remained just out of reach.
One night in his late 20s, John took a flight with an old high school pal. "That was it for me. The city lights below, the way the moon reflected off the water...." His eyes still sparkle with the memory.
Next came a discovery flight, and disappointment. "It was bumpy. I couldn't see well out the windscreen; I felt a bit overwhelmed. It was almost more unnerving than enjoyable. I hadn't expected that!"
The instructor told him to relax. "But I didn't understand how anything worked. I thought, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" John reflected.
Unwilling to cave to his misgivings, he persevered and got his private. In time, he missed flying, in particular, the training experience. "I needed a goal, so I went back for my instrument, then commercial, then multi. I didn't have any career plan, no road map. I just liked learning the skills. I liked the feeling of achieving that next goal," John said.
John has taught for years out of Premier, a super-friendly flight shop run by Gary and Deb Ciriello. They operate a CTLS on leaseback that books for instruction so regularly, they need another for rental flights—any takers out there?
"I think I'm lucky I felt anxiety on that first training flight. It made me sensitive to it in other people," John explained. "I make sure not to focus on the danger aspect during first flights. I feed them bits of information so they know what to expect: 'We're going to turn; here's what's going to happen.' I like to put students at ease.
"And I use humor to help with that," John said. "Maybe we're turning base, and I'll point to the ground. 'Hey, see those big round oil storage things down there? You know, those...uh...' And they'll say, 'Tanks?' And I say, 'You're welcome!' Sure, it's dumb, but it sets a light and fun mood right away. They laugh, they realize, 'Oh my gosh, it's going to be okay.' They breathe a little bit. They relax. It helps."
Then, he sheepishly admits what I already know: "Even if it didn't help, I'd do it anyway! It's my nature. I make sure it's a safe and respectful process, but hey, it's gotta be enjoyable."
Recently, hanging out over margies and Mexican food, I asked John why he does what he does. "It's not like teaching math in a classroom. It's the difference between taking roller coaster tickets all day and getting on the roller coaster with them all day!"
But how, I ask, do you keep from getting bored? "It's a cliché among pilots, but I believe every time I go up, I learn something about how to teach better," John answered. Recently, I switched from teaching Dutch rolls around a single point to rolling away from one point on the horizon to reversing back from a second point, as a way to show how effective rudder can be for coordinated flight. And it's so great to me when I see they're getting it; when they're not letting the airplane fly them any more.
"On every flight, there are moments, too, when I just enjoy the awesome view," John continued. "How many people don't ever, ever get to see what we see?"
That's the really cool thing about John Lampson: He's still a kid in the cockpit himself. Yes, he loves prepping students for first solo, first cross-country, and maybe most of all, the checkride. But, he still digs the awe and wonder of it all.
"I interact with all kinds of people I'd never have met otherwise," John explained. "I see them through to the day I send them off and they come back with their license...in a way, it's as exciting as the day I got my license. It's just extremely gratifying.
"And honestly, I do sometimes forget I get a check for doing this," John said. "It's a nice little supplemental income. But I do it because I love doing it."
So let's now raise a hearty toast in praise of John and all our CFIs. He is, and they are, the very heart of all that makes flying the great and glorious joy it is.