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#207 “When the Cat’s Away”

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No one can forget their first solo.

My first flight instructor and the guy who soloed me was Dwight Thomas at the JAX Navy flying club in Jacksonville, Florida.  I never thought I’d return to Jacksonville, but years later I was sharing offices and hangar with the Holiday Inn Aerobatic Team just up the road in Fernandina Beach.  There was a high school kid named Dave, who would come out and drool over the team’s cool Pitts Specials.  He was a good kid and a gifted pilot.  It was because of the latter ability that I gave him some dual in my 100 HP Cub.  He did well.  It was only well later that I found out he was the stepson of my first instructor.  What a shock!

David Standel

Maybe it’s because I’ve recently been reunited with David Standel, that former airport kid who now is a father of three and a 747 pilot, or maybe it’s because I’ve noticed how many things have been totally disregarded by some of my students!  Either way, I’m reminded of one thing about that first solo.

I’d flown with CFI Dwight for a few lessons and had about ten hours of dual.  Dwight had insisted that I hold the control wheel by one side of its “ram’s horn” shape. My other hand was expected to be on the throttle if I was either maneuvering or in the pattern.  He was a stickler on that, even though his own right hand held his control wheel in the middle.

When Dwight got out and told me to take it around about three times, I was flushed with the thrill of the first solo.  But not so flushed that I remembered everything he’d taught me.  No, as soon as I lifted off the pavement of the runway at Herlong Field, I moved my hand to the middle of the control wheel of that little Cessna and flopped my right arm over the now-empty seat back beside me.  The cat was away and the mouse would play.

I guess it’s a good time to ponder about what things a CFI teaches are really important.  Although Dwight’s insistence on how the control wheel should be held and when the throttle should be held seemed important at the time, their importance has to be compared to the student’s ability.  Today, after many years of insisting on “one hand on the throttle” and “hold that control wheel by one side”, I now tend to totally ignore the grip on the control wheel and to only insist on the throttle being held by those primary students who may over flare and then need a little goose of power to slow the resultant downward flight of the airplane.  When I became a CFI I found that many, if not most, CFIs didn’t teach the Dutch Roll.  Dwight did. I think it’s because he was more concerned with coordination than other CFIs.  Sound familiar?  It’s one of my overriding concerns, and as a result I teach both the Dutch Roll and what I call the “Quick Turn” in order to emphasize the importance of coordination.  I even tried to go Dwight one better and teach some of my more apt students a maneuver that I still haven’t perfected.  I call it the “Dutch Touch” and it consists of Dutch rolls close to the ground, each rolling movement resulting in a touch of a lowered wheel to the runway.

In the year’s since that solo, I’ve thought about Dwight’s strengths and weaknesses as a flight instructor.  We all have them.  But there is one ability that never occurred to me when I was a student. And now that I’m a teacher, it has become of critical importance.  It’s the ability to protect that student while he learns, it’s the ability to let the student go just as far as possible before taking action and saving him from himself.  It may be one of the most important skills a CFI can have and, yet, it goes unnoticed by the student.  To this day, I have no idea how well that ability was developed in Dwight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was pretty well-ingrained in him.

And today I find that most students will either forget or intentionally leave out something that I taught them.  After all, learning to fly encompasses a whole lot of stuff! And some stuff we tend to reject once we’re on our own.  After all, when the cat’s away, the mice will play!