Monday, January 25, 2010

It was raining at the airport Sunday, but I was there anyway...

Yesterday afternoon I went over to my home airport to see if anyone was around, and to go over the Pilot's Operating Handbook for the Cessna 172 I plan to use to finish my CFI practical test. It looked deserted upon first glance, but there turned out there were a few people there, one instructor and 3 students that had been in a ground school I was allowed to help teach this past fall. I wasn't any kind of officially certified instructor then, but the two CFIs that taught it let me sit in on the class, take notes on how to teach, and even let me teach one of the sessions of my choice. I got to know the 12 students a little, the 2 CFIs there a lot better than I had previously, and I learned a ton about teaching. It was an invaluable experience for which I am grateful.

As I dashed in to the FBO, trying to not get too wet, Nancy (one of the private pilot students) greeted me, saying she and her husband were just talking about how it had been a long time since they had seen me. Tom was also there to say hello. He had joined the class about 2/3 of the way through. Apparently the place he had been taking lessons sort of imploded, and he started coming here.

Nancy thanked me for doing such a good job teaching about performance and weight & balance calculations in the class. She had just passed her written test with a 95% grade (fantastic, and the FAA considers anything above a 70% a pass), and said that 7 or 8 of her 70 questions had been on the topics I had taught.

The 4 of us had been chatting for a minute when Diane (one of the CFIs) came in. It was good to see her, and we all talked for a minute about Nancy's test and my mostly completed CFI checkride. Then it was time for them to get down to business. They were getting ready to have a group lesson on communications and ATC, simulating all of the radio calls needed to simulate a flight from our home base to the practice area, a local class D airport, then a class C, and back home. They invited me to sit in on it, so I ran out to the plane (how fantastic to be able to say, an airplane sitting right outside!), grabbed the POH, and then back in to the lounge.

I reviewed the entire book for the plane, copying important numbers and specifications for review at home. This time around on my flight test, I want to be sure I know every important aspect of the aircraft cold. When I was done, I sat and listened to the lesson progress. Everything was looking good to my inexperienced eyes. The students were learning, and in taking turns coming up with the responses to Dola's best air traffic control impersonation they were teaching each other as well. Very impressive, and a technique that I will try to reproduce.

Of course, I added my knowledge here and there, mostly when there was something needing looked up that I had studied more recently than the others, or if I was asked my opinion. I was thinking that I didn't want to interject, interrupting their session or Diane's plan.

After a couple hours of steady rain, grey sky, the heater kicking on and off, and couch flying, the lesson was over. As I was about to follow the 3 students out to the cars, Diane asked me what I thought of the just-finished training session - she had never done it in front of another CFI before. Well, I told her that she still hadn't. I could see that the students were getting more comfortable and quicker at figuring out what to say, when, and what words to expect back. They also were asking questions - good ones that really demonstrated some understanding, and I told her so. We talked about teaching a little bit - various philosophies and techniques that are used, and she shared a story or two with me about her time instructing. She also let me know that she and Rob (the other CFI in the ground school. Diane and Rob are the two main CFIs at the airport) really respected me taking the time to come to the ground school for 2.5 hours every Saturday morning for months, not even getting paid to do so, and for adding so much to the class.

I was really glad for the time Diane took to talk to me as an equal - aviation-wise. I have worked and studied a lot for the past 3 years to make this possible for myself, the flight hours recorded in the logbook are a small part of the time I have spent living, breathing, and studying aviation (not to mention the time spent working at the restaurant to pay for it all). The simple act of asking my opinion, saying that she thinks of me as a CFI already, really helped to make it worth all of the effort in my mind.

After chatting about what I should do in order to be allowed to teach in the FBO's airplanes, and a friendly but serious reminder not to take any of her students flight students, we were getting ready to lock up for the night when a voice crackels over the radio "La......Unicom, .....sever sierra quebec, is any one there, over?" I asked if she thought that was for us. Neither of us was sure until the second broadcast came in a little clearer: "Larson County Unicom, two niner sever sierra quebec, is anybody there, over?" The weather at this point was probably 500 feet overcast, with visibility a mile or less in mist and rain. It was past sunset, the dusk to dawn runway lights had just come on, and the temp was falling pretty quick. I was really hoping this was not some poor fool trying to find our runway - it does not have an instrument approach of any kind. We replied as Larson Co. Unicom, and the pilot asked us to transmit on 122.75 rather than Unicom's 122.7. We said we would, then tried to figure out how to re-tune the base station. It has all the common local frequencies programmed in, and is not normally manually tuned. We finally figured out how and called for the aircraft again. I was really hoping he was not in some kind of trouble, and was glad when the plane returned our call. Turned out to be a former flight student, now flying a jet in the upper atmosphere. He told us the cloud tops were around 40,000 feet, and was just passing over head, and decided to call "home" to see if anyone was there to say hello to.

That is the kind of community one finds in aviation. Men and women brought together by shared passions, risks, losses, and rewards. Its a small community, the kind where senority and personal connections are important. People for whom the world is much smaller than it is for their ground-bound neighbors. People for whom a radio broadcast seeking the voices of old friends from seven miles up, moving 90% the speed of sound is as normal as morning coffee. I hope that someday, I too will be calling "home" on a rainy night from an isolated cockpit at the edge of the stratosphere, and someone will be around to reply.

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