Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Master As Student

The more you learn about flying, the more you know there is to learn about flying

With his big rawboned hand almost lovingly cradling a gigantic bag of Skittles candies, Bob Elliott might almost—almost—pass for Professor Dumbledore munching on Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. But the baseball cap and screaming-loud, airplane-festooned print shirt puts the kibosh to that comparison in a hurry. His eyes are mere slits from the bright overcast, or insufficient sleep the night before, or more likely, too many Skittles. Tempting me with the open bag, he explains how he got the nickname “A.D.D. Bob” from his flying buddies because he’s constantly diving out of formation (“A.D.D.”=Aviation Deficit Disorder).
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“If you ever stop learning when you’re flying, it’s time to quit. You keep flying, you make mistakes, you learn from your mistakes. It’s an attitude that you develop, a way of thinking about flying,” he says.
Then he reminisces about Jeff Ethel, the late, great warbird pilot: “Jeff said, ‘If you don’t invite the kids over the fence, this whole aviation thing is going to die.’” That was his metaphor for inviting young pilots into whatever aviation group you might belong to, and bringing them along.

Bob’s observation is that pilots, like most people, tend to gravitate into socially comfortable groups: warbird drivers; Bonanza pilots; low-wing, green, homebuilt taildraggers under 100 hp and so on. Instead, he says, pilots can reach out through programs such as EAA’s Young Eagles and community aviation events; they can give talks and rides and share their experiences with younger people. A little humility doesn’t hurt either: “Hey, I’ve got 24,000 hours, and I’m still learning. I’m still learning from that Legend Cub!

“You know, I showed that airplane all my ratings, and it wasn’t in the least impressed. Then I found out you can overbrake in a Cub, and it’ll happily go right onto its nose,” he chuckles. “That’s when I learned the propeller isn’t the best way to stop an airplane.

“I’m always learning, and that’s not just something cool to say. You’ll never know all there is to know about aviation. I flew the Airbus, for example.” He flew it all right: more than 9,000 hours. “And sure, you do get to a point where, when something goes wrong, you instinctively know what to do,” he asserts. “That’s when everything you’ve ever learned about flying runs like a fast-played tape in your head. Then it slows down, and you do the right thing.

“Yet there’s still a multitude of things I don’t know about that airplane,” he adds, thumbing a couple Life Savers into his mouth. “For instance, I’m not into computers. I used the one in the Airbus as minimally as I could.” Although some of his copilots were tech whizzes who could make the avionics dance with their fingertips, “they didn’t always know about basic airmanship. I’d ask them, ‘Which side of a thunderstorm is best to go around?’ And they wouldn’t always know.”

Yet, in the next breath, he might also say, “I do my best to make an original mistake every time I fly. Your job is to catch it. Which is my way of saying, ‘If I’m screwing something up, let me know.’”

The Elliott Credo: Even when you’re teaching, you’re learning. “You can learn from anyone. I believe that.”

Still, after hauling airliners through the skies and delivering countless people safely to their destinations, what can a little LSA like the Cub have to offer? A light and happy look comes across his face. “It’s like the most wonderful high school in the sky. I love the freedom of it. You drop the side window, and the view from the air is so clean and fresh. I look at places on the ground that I want to visit. I like the adventure of it.
“Flying any kind of aircraft teaches you a lot about yourself. It’s something you do that’s all your own. It teaches you the self-discipline to keep going even when you’re scared to death. I’ve been in situations where I thought I was going to die. And the most unbelievable calm came over me. I said to myself, ‘Just keep flying the airplane. I’m going to do the best I can until I get out of this.’

“Afterward, you can fall apart. But in the middle of it, it’s almost an out-of-body experience. I think if pilots aren’t thoroughly trained, they stop thinking and go to pieces. Once you learn the capabilities of the airplane (and yourself) and how you’re going to deal with something, it changes everything. It changes your perspective on yourself.”

Like many older pilots, Bob flies an LSA in part because he’s close to that time when he might fail his flight medical. “I want to keep flying, like most of the people getting sport pilot tickets right now. We just want to keep flying.”

Why the Cub instead of a fast composite LSA? “People who pick a Cub want a vintage airplane. Personally, I wouldn’t have one of those ‘plastic’ airplanes with a ‘lawnmower’ engine,’” he jibes. “This is a real airplane.”

I’m tempted to offer a little teaching lesson of my own about lightweight, strong carbon-fiber airplanes and “lawnmower” engines, and what they’ve done to revolutionize aviation. But this is his universe and his truth. Maybe that lesson will come another day.

“But you know,” he concludes, tossing the Skittles bag into the backseat as he starts to squeeze his oversized frame into the Cub, “it doesn’t really matter what you fly. The important thing to remember is that the airplane will always teach you.”


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