It wasn’t exactly an “okay, Boomer” moment as Nathan Bishop calmly explained to me how he had just passed his commercial check ride without a complex signoff. Our airport kid hit the ground running recently with a dose of motivation as he powered through his instrument rating, then tacked on his commercial ticket just a few weeks later. Somewhere along the way, he mentioned his lack of a complex-aircraft endorsement, to which I stopped, stared and uttered some words that made me sound old and out of touch: “Wait, I thought you had to do part of your commercial training in a complex aircraft.” With only the slightest collection of random gray hairs, I may as well have become Clint Eastwood out on his front lawn with a Garand rifle, yelling at the neighborhood kids.
In a proper nod to the advancing technologies available to pilots in training, the FAA changed the rules in 2018 to allow Technically Advanced Aircraft to substitute for complex-aircraft requirements in training for commercial pilots. While there are a lot more bells and whistles in the cockpit of a new 172 with an autopilot and G1000 or comparable display than my Mooney has, he still needed the endorsement. After all, most flying gigs are in planes with retractable landing gear. His flight school couldn’t work him in anytime soon, as its gear-swinging Cessnas apparently were booked up months in advance.
We had a complex problem.
Nathan has plenty of experience in remembering to put the landing gear down. He has plenty of time in the Zlins with us, which have retractable gear but fail to meet the complex requirements with the feds owing to their automatic prop with no pilot controls. When he flies with me, he’s doing all the work, and the least I can do is let him log the flying time. He’s the one building hours, not me.
But rounding up a flight instructor for the job wasn’t like the old days at Carrollton when someone would just stick their head into the FBO and see who had an instructor ticket and wanted to go flying. The insurance company wanted someone qualified in the type—something I laughed at, having never gone through a whit of Mooney training from a legal instructor. I just sort of absorbed it from the prior owners I had flown with since my teenage years.
Then I remembered a passing remark from an acquaintance. When we hammered out the purchase agreement on the Mooney, I made an introductory post on Mooneyspace.com, a forum for Mooney owners. In the flurry of “welcome aboard” replies, several local owners from my neighborhood spoke up. William Rutkowski, one of the local Mooniacs, met me for lunch at a neighborhood haunt of ours, and he had mentioned that he did Mooney checkouts, Instrument Proficiency Checks and the like. He owns a Model 252, a hotrod compared to our bird, but he had first owned a C model like ours.
So, I fired off a quick text. “Hey, would you be interested in a checkout for our airport kid?” After a quick yes from him, we compared schedules. The first try was a washout, literally, as the gulleys and ditches ran over in spite of our ongoing drought. The second time was the charm, as we rallied under a bluebird sky and cool temperatures on the first weekend of November.
Nathan met me at the airstrip. I had him preflight while I tended to some other issues, and we pulled the bird out to blast off. Once he stowed the tow bar, there was an awkward pause and a simple question: “Where do you want me to sit?”
“Today’s your day to shine. Better get comfortable with the left seat.”
We hopped over to Carrollton for fuel, and I offered whatever helpful tips I could conjure as we flew. Speeds for flaps and gear, suggested configurations and power settings for descent and pattern work, and physically operating the manual landing gear were all things that I hadn’t had to vocalize in a decade or more, and trying to dig up the important stuff was a struggle for me, having never gone the CFI route.
After fuel, lunch and loading back up, we climbed toward the practice area for a few more cycles on the landing gear—the Mooney’s manual gear extension and retraction really does need to become a muscle memory item. Having read a forum post asking how one might swing the gear from the right seat to do CFI training, I gave it a try. It appears that Al Mooney never wanted someone to fly his plane from the right seat. Working the mechanism with my left hand was possible, but an extra joint between my elbow and wrist would be mighty helpful. With my instructing abilities exhausted, we turned east to weave our way through the maze that is Atlanta’s airspace and into the pattern at DeKalb-Peachtree airport.
A barstool and two folding chairs in front of William’s 252 served as a classroom while Nathan worked through the wringer of ground school. Like a senior citizen auditing a college class, I sat in the back and hoped to pick up some knowledge since my Mooney checkout wasn’t nearly so formal.
After a while, we walked back to my bird, and I had my first-ever experience climbing into the back seat of a Mooney. I’m kind of short-legged, and William is no giant. That combination worked out for a fairly comfortable setup as I plugged in my headset to continue auditing the class in session.
We ran through stalls in multiple configurations and shot a few landings at the nearby—but much less congested—Gainesville airport before we headed back to PDK. We saw 10 knots demonstrated from a quartering tailwind at PDK, crosswinds at Gainesville, and by the time we returned to PDK, they’d finally turned the U.S.S Dekalb County into the wind, and we got to see one landing with the wind where it was supposed to be.
A short debrief and a fresh signature later, Nathan and I walked back to the plane to fly home. Just as Home, Jeeves, climbed to the tip of my tongue, I stopped. I wanted to fly but knew Nathan needed the PIC time more than I ever would.
“Now you get to show all you learned to Jeremy,” William said.
“Nope,” Nathan fired right back. “It’s his turn. I’ve worked enough for one day.”
Thankful for the chance to do a little flying, I climbed into the left seat and made a run back to home plate at max cruise. Amy and I had a dinner date. Of course, I misjudged the flare into the hill, bounced and managed a self-deprecating remark before Nathan added a remark of his own.
We keep patting ourselves on the back as AOPA, EAA and other groups successfully lobby for ways to expand the pilot group. The regulatory changes that brought us light-sport aircraft, sport-pilot certificates and Basic Med medical certifications all helped to slow the hemorrhage of pilots as they helped older pilots keep flying, and that’s great news. While the sport pilot movement has attracted plenty of new pilots as well, we don’t see a lot of airline pilots who began with a sport ticket in an LSA.
The EAA’s Young Eagles program is a fantastic, but limited, program for getting younger people into aviation. I often joke that flying and drugs are similar in that they’re both addictive and expensive. In that vein, is a Young Eagle ride just the aerial equivalent of being handed a drug-laced brownie and being told that the first one is free? It’s a long, expensive haul from the first logbook entry to getting paid to fly for a living.
We, as a pilot group, aren’t getting any younger, and attracting the next generation is a challenge we should consider daily. Granted, my involvement with Nathan’s progression as a pilot is a pretty recent development. Others get a lot more credit than I should. But getting chauffeured around in your own airplane is a gratifying experience, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than installing an autopilot. An autopilot lets you get away with a lot, while the airport kid will always have a witty comeback to keep you honest.
Maybe we all should take a moment and try our hardest to find an airport kid to adopt.
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