Monday, March 1, 2004
Setting The Record Straight
I’m not on the outside, looking in. I’m just on the outside.
Lyn “I’m the boss?” Freeman, Plane & Pilot’s leader (a scary thought, at best) challenged me to put my flight-instructing skills to the test by checking him out in my airplane for an article. I figured, sure. It ought to be fun. I mean, it’s just a little article, right? And we’ll have a good time flying. But, the flying aspect turned out to be nothing compared to the talking part and the aftermath when the article came out.
The flying was spread out over a couple of days and, at one point, he was doing a real, honest-to-God interview with me. Just like a real writer. Notebook, pencil and everything! We’d been blathering on for an hour or so when he stopped taking notes, looked at me and, as serious as a heart attack, said, “Exactly how long have you been at odds with the rest of aviation?” Huh?
I replied that I didn’t know I was. Then he made some observations about the way in which I conduct myself and I realized that I sometimes (maybe always) give the impression that I’m anti-everything. After the article came out and I fielded a bunch of nasty grams concerning my wisecracks about 172s and Spam cans, I learned even more about myself as an aviator, instructor and sorta-writer and I thought that I’d set a few things straight.
For one thing, I don’t hate 172s, although they aren’t in my top 10 list of favorites. It didn’t make my top 30 list either. But I certainly don’t think that everyone should fly a tailwheel or a Pitts, either. Those are very personal decisions. I do, however, believe in no uncertain terms that, whatever you do fly, you should make every effort to fly it as well as it can possibly be flown. And that may be the crux of what appears to be my “anti” image where some of aviation is concerned.
To me, the skill of aviating is a tangible thing that can and must be continually molded and shaped, but it takes more than practice and good instruction to hone it to a fine edge. It takes passion, commitment and the willingness to look past the surface to the tiny, almost invisible nuances that knit themselves together into the fabric that we call “flying.” It takes a mental openness that’s always asking “Why?”
When I’m working with a student to develop that unbelievably sensual transition from a turning slip into a rock-solid, ready-to-touch-down position in ground effect, I don’t want him or her to just be able to do it. I want them to understand it. I want them to know the underlying physics and form a partnership with the airplane, with the common goal of putting themselves at exactly the right place, every time, in every condition. The truth is I don’t expect them to be perfect. But I urge them to try for perfection because the reward is actually in the effort, not in the result.
I’m fully aware that my kind of instructing exists in an extremely narrow niche. It’s so narrow, in fact, that it excludes me from some aviation communities. Yes, I fly a Pitts, but few consider me to be part of the akro community. Yes, I’m an instructor, but I neither belong to, nor am I considered a part of, the CFI community. I work at the very edge of the envelope and concentrate on stuff that no one else seems to notice. I don’t even know how to turn a GPS on and they’ve changed airspace definitions so many times since I first got my CFI that I’m constantly looking up what every 10-hour student already knows. But that’s okay because, in my part of the aviation world, none of that stuff matters.
My little part of aviation starts on downwind and ends when you turn off on a taxiway. I figure that’s where the rubber literally meets the road and that’s where everything you know about aviation really counts. Being able to quote FARs, fly GPSs and leap entire states in a single bound don’t help you when the weather has turned to crap and you’re forced to use a slimy alternate where the wind is howling, the runway is short and you’re dog-tired. Right there, the only thing that counts is pure, down-and-dirty stick-and-rudder aviating. And that, folks, is all I’m interested in teaching.
In the course of doing the article with Freeman, I suddenly realized that I’m not a Pitts instructor. I’m an instructor who happens to fly a Pitts. And, as I look back at 46 years in aviation, 37 of them as a CFI, I have to say that the thing of which I’m most proud is I’m an old-fashioned stick-and-rudder instructor and I always have been.
I know that I sometimes go beyond rational limits when the subject is flying basics. If, in the course of that pursuit, I step on a few toes, I’m truly sorry. However, let me make something absolutely clear: When it comes to teaching the basics, I think there are a few toes out there that desperately need stepping on. I’m done and the soapbox is now officially closed.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.AirBum.com.