Like so many of our readers, I started dreaming of a career in aviation at an early age, specifically 13 years old. I fantasized about becoming a Naval aviator, a fighter pilot and a tailhooker, capable of takeoff and landing on an aircraft deck in as little as 300 feet. Unfortunately, no military option was available to me because of a partial hearing loss in one ear.
As a result, I took my early training the “wrong” way, one lesson every few weeks when money was available, and with a variety of instructors. In some cases, I was even forced to fly different airplanes, not so terrible a fate, but it was tough to make progress when radios, instruments and controls varied with each trainer.
The ideal would’ve been to fly at a school with an established curriculum, taking flight lessons two or three times a week, flying with the same instructor each time and in the same airplane.
As usual, the probable cause of my relatively flat learning curve was simply money—more accurately, the lack of it. For that reason, it took me 67 hours and 18 months to earn my private ticket, rather than the prescribed 40 hours and one year.
The next three licenses/ratings on my list were the commercial, instrument and multi-engine tickets, and I was determined not to allow those courses of study to drag out over a period of years.
For that reason, I went looking for the best instructor I could find at or near any airport within 15 miles of my home base of Long Beach, California. I began canvassing all the flight schools, looking for the best of the best.
The instructor I found was the chief pilot for a major airline, type-rated in practically every airliner you’ve ever heard of and also licensed to fly hot-air balloons, gliders, seaplanes and helicopters. Gary was an instructor in many of those types.
"When I started work on the commercial ticket, Gary imparted dozens of tips I might not have received from a less-experienced instructor."
Despite (or perhaps because of) his considerable qualifications, Gary was more into the fun side of flying than the business of piloting the multi-turbofan airliners he flew on the job. “Even in those early days, most of the jets were so automated in operation and limited in maneuverability that they weren’t much fun to fly. Sure, they were often more comfortable, but I’ll take a Marchetti over a Boeing any day,” he used to say.
When I found Gary and enlisted him to guide me through the commercial, instrument and multi-engine training, I had already accumulated about 190 hours and was delivering single-engine Bellancas, Pipers and Cessnas to California from Minnesota, Florida and Kansas, respectively, so we didn’t have that long to go before I’d be qualified to take the commercial test.
Gary had a friend in Long Beach who owned a well-used but also well-kept Piper Apache 160, and the owner agreed to let us use it for part of the instrument and all of the multi-engine training.
As every pilot who has studied for the commercial ticket knows, the flight portion of the exam relies heavily on simply refining many of the same maneuvers and techniques learned during private training, and I practiced on my own for those exercises.
When I started work on the commercial ticket, Gary imparted dozens of tips I might not have received from a less-experienced instructor. Some were minor things that might seem insignificant, while others were potentially life-savers.
A minor one that had the potential for trouble was part of the preflight walkaround. Gary was a stickler for a comprehensive inspection on the ground, especially on trainers that were often well-used and sometimes put away with new squawks unreported.
One of the most obscure but potentially problematic was related to static ports, those tiny pinholes usually mounted on the aft fuselage sides or some other location where airflow is relatively uninterrupted. I was in the habit of running a finger across every static port to make certain it was clear during the preflight until the day I saw Gary shaking his head.
When I asked the cause of his concern, he answered that most people exude some minor amount of body oil from their skin, especially in warm weather, and that could effectively block part of the static port and cause incorrect readings on the altimeter and VSI. His correction was simple: “Look, but don’t touch.”
He also coached me that scanning for other traffic in flight is a serious business that should demand your full attention, not just something you do when all other functions are attended to.
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The military places heavy emphasis on looking for other traffic in an organized manner, and that becomes more critical as speed, altitude and closure rates increase with higher-performance aircraft utilized in commercial operation.
“First,” he told me, “remember that military pilots often fly in close proximity to one another, and that means you’ll need to be familiar with join-ups and being part of a formation.
“Civilian pilots don’t do that on a regular basis, so you need to develop the ability to find traffic at both short and long range. Scanning by segments rather than simply sweeping your eyes across the horizon. Pick a starting point—usually the greatest threat is straight ahead. Give your eyes a chance to focus,” Gary added. ”Then, shift your vision to another quadrant, 30 to 45 degrees left or right.”
General Chuck Yeager used to say that his remarkable ability to shoot down enemy aircraft was mostly dependent upon his excellent vision and his scanning techniques that allowed him to spot the enemy long before they could spot him. He said, “In the civilian world, just as in aerial combat, the enemy is the unseen aircraft, and an organized scan can make the difference between a successful flight and a disaster.”
One of the most unusual tricks we tried during the combined multi/instrument instruction was a zero-zero takeoff—flown under the hood, of course. Fortunately, Long Beach has a diagonal, airline-style, 200-foot-wide runway, 30-12, so there was some margin for error.
The technique was simple but challenging: Line up on the exact centerline, set the DG to 300 degrees, bring the power in VERY slowly to avoid having torque pull you to the left, and watch the DG like a hawk. Any deviation from the primary heading needed to be corrected immediately, all the more as speed increased toward rotation.
The first few of these were predictably shaky, but I was determined to hold the proper tolerance to liftoff. Gary wouldn’t allow me to get too far off the centerline before he’d cue me with a comment such as, “A little more right rudder,” or simply have me look up. I actually came to enjoy the challenge of zero-zero takeoffs, trying to nail the Apache to the big 30 on the DG, and that was to serve me well during pure multi-engine training. (Before you ask, no, I’ve never made a zero-zero takeoff in actual conditions.)
Practically every departure in the Apache would involve a power loss and a full stop and taxi-back for another attempt. Gary used to say, “You need to concentrate on maintaining the centerline because if I see you’re off to one side, you can almost be guaranteed to lose the engine on that side.” Of course, I never knew when he was going to throw me a curve and fail the opposite engine.
Unlike some instructors, Gary was dedicated to making learning to fly as simple and enjoyable as possible. When I had become frustrated with what seemed like the impossibility of dealing with an engine failure under the hood, Gary would always reassure me with a calm comment such as, “Take it easy on, Bill. You’re trying to do too many things at once.”
"It was obvious Gary loved instructing. He took great delight when I conquered a problem, yet he never beat me over the head with my mistakes."
Gary taught me an interesting trick to illustrate just how much time I actually had during a departure with a simulated engine failure, a circuit of the pattern and an ILS approach under the hood.
He suggested I take an old Los Angeles local chart and map out a typical IFR circuit from takeoff to landing, including speed and time marker for every function I needed to perform in the Piper Apache. For example, power up and initial climb to 1,000 feet at an average 90 mph would cover 3 miles and demand about two minutes, during which I’d need to configure the airplane for climb (retract the gear, raise the flaps and sync the props), meanwhile watching for Gary to reduce power to simulate an engine failure.
When my time/speed/distance and task chart was complete, I discovered that Gary was correct, big surprise. There was plenty of time to get everything done without feeling rushed if I organized my efforts.
It was obvious Gary loved instructing. He took great delight when I conquered a problem, yet he never beat me over the head with my mistakes.
I lost track of Gary after completing the commercial/multi- instrument tickets, but we crossed paths again at a local airport restaurant 20 years later. He had long since retired from the airline business, but he asked if I had realized any other ratings.
I admitted I had but that I had never even come close to matching his accomplishments in the sky.
Always the gentleman, Gary smiled and commented, “That’s okay, Bill. You’ll always have me on one count. I guarantee you, I’ll never fly a single-engine airplane across an ocean.”
Cross-country flying stories from Bill Cox offer fantastic insight into what pilots face on long distance flights. Dig into our X-Country Log today.