Were you part of the annual migration of aviation enthusiasts to Oshkosh for EAA AirVenture? Pilots joke that attending the event at least once in your lifetime is required by the Code of Federal Aviation Regulations.
In the regular world just a fraction of the population are pilots. During Oshkosh, they are in the majority. You encounter thousands of people who wear big watches (like yours) and who understand completely when you describe the challenges faced during the acquisition of a pilot’s certificate. They nod and smile in remembrance when you describe the joy of that first solo flight.
Two years ago I arrived in Oshkosh just hours after achieving my flight instructor ticket. This year I went a week after earning my Master CFI designation from the National Association of Flight Instructors. This should not be confused with the FAA’s Gold Seal program, which is based on the number of check ride recommendations and an 80% pass rate.
Although both encourage hard work and excellence in instruction, the Master CFI designation involves more than flight training. It was created to encourage instructors to be better rounded professionally. In addition to more ratings in your logbook, there is a lot of service to the community and enhancement of the educational experience through the creation of seminars and media. In short, you have to be involved in aviation on many levels.
When I became a CFI my goal was to become a Master CFI within 24 calendar months. Most of the work for the Master CFI designation was done at Wings Aloft, a flying club/FBO at Boeing Field in Seattle. Wings Aloft has been in business for 27 years and I am the first Master CFI on staff. For the past 20 months my coworkers have had to put up with me chasing them down to get sign offs for verification of activities for my professional development portfolio. One of the benefits of this is that it introduced the program to several other instructors who are now in pursuit of their Master CFI designations.
In theory, those who have achieved Master CFI status are dedicated to teaching. Skilled teachers are usually the best at reaching out to the community to create aviators. This is a good thing, because the pilot population is in decline. Pilots who learned to fly during World War II and immediately after it are hanging up their wings for health or monetary reasons. Still more are heading west.
This was driven home for me recently at the Northwest Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In and Sport Aviation Convention in Arlington, Wash. There was a particular older gentleman whom I met my first year at the show. As I admired his World War I replica fighter he asked me if I had a pilot nickname yet. I said I did not, but my college nickname was Wolf. That was good enough for him. He addressed me as “Wolf” whenever he saw me. I looked for him this year and was sad to learn that he had flown west. He was one of those guys who really loved to share aviation with kids. He’d dress up in a leather flying suit and stand by his World War I replica and answer questions. He told me the kids were especially impressed by the faux machine guns.
On the subject of kids, I recently had a chance to meet the children of Jean, one of my childhood playmates. Jean was the one who came up with the idea of building a hang glider. She was the best artist in our class and illustrated the books I wrote in the fourth grade. She came up with the best imagination-based games and did the best projects when it came to anything to do with cardboard, Popsicle sticks or yarn. She has a daughter Katelyn, 10, and a son, Ryan, who is about 7.
I gave the kids a Cessna cockpit poster and Katelyn promptly taped it so it hung beneath a table-mounted pinball game. She then covered the table with a sheet to give us a cockpit. Voila, we had an airplane. Katelyn, Ryan and I crawled under the table and I gave Ryan a “flying lesson” while Jean dutifully videotaped the event. As we “flew” around make-believe thunderstorms, I recalled the many times his mother and I flew in “The Flyer Nine,” the B-25 that — as far as anyone else was concerned — was the fort my father helped me build out of scrap lumber at the side of the house. Jean was often the flight engineer, the Cat in the Hat was the bombardier, and Reckless, the stuffed orange cat, was the copilot. Sometimes Alison, the third member of “The Terrific Trio” as we called ourselves, joined us as navigator. (She often got us lost – we once ended up in space where we did battle with the Klingons.)
Jean’s kids were exposed to aviation early in life because Jean’s brother-in-law is a pilot and he takes the kids flying in his Aero Commander. The kids are absorbing some of the information he imparts during trips. How do I know? Because Katelyn, prior to take off in our poster airplane, reminded us to use a checklist and Ryan asked about the pressurization of our Cessna. When we lost engine power (we forgot to switch fuel tanks) he troubleshot the situation like a pro. Then Katelyn bailed out of our airplane and made a bunch of paper snakes, announcing we had crashed in the Amazon.
I’m inclined to think these apples did not fall far from the tree.
Meg Godlewski is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.