Sitting across the table from a distinguished looking airline pilot who is both youthful and highly experienced, I can’t help but reminisce about the old days. As we chatter away about scheduling, performance, weather issues, family, and mutual friends, I can’t help but remember that this is the man who taught me to fly.
It was this specific individual who introduced me to the secret of doing a decent turn-around-a-point. He walked me through hold entries and my very first ILS approach, not to mention the significantly more challenging and far less precise NDB. He even accompanied me on the trip that resulted in my multi-engine instructor certificate being issued, even if we did participate in sinking a Seminole in a mud hole in the process.
The man sitting across from me in the hotel restaurant is Todd Hendrickson, and I can honestly say that he is the mentor I needed when I needed one most. Too often we get busy with our lives and let those relationships pass us by. People come into our lives and drift out again. Yet there I was chowing down on an excellent steak salad with the same guy I used to invite over for popcorn, Coke, and a serious download on whatever my most vexing training issue was on that particular day.
Simply saying “Thank you,” seems horribly insufficient.
I met him at the third flight school I attended. Hendrickson was my fifth flight instructor — or my first. It all depends on how you look at it. I was near quitting when I met Todd. He and Comair Aviation Academy were my last hope. With more than 60 hours in my logbook, I was still struggling to figure out what was required of me as a student, and exactly what I had to do to become a pilot. Instructors left like there was a revolving door on the FBO. And every time I was assigned a new instructor they scheduled a few lessons that gave me the pleasure of bringing them up to speed on what I knew, how I flew, and where they could bring their instructional magic to bear on my behalf. My responsibility was simple — pay the ever expanding bill. The fact that I still hadn’t completed some significant requirements spelled out in the practical test standards seemed to be beside the point.
Then I met Todd. I was so inept that on our first flight I jerked the C-152 off the ground so hard it shocked him into grabbing the yoke. Apparently my previous instructor’s tendency to trim the airplane dramatically nose down prior to takeoff, and then overpower the trim setting with brute force, wasn’t a universally respected technique.
Todd taught me how to fly with a deft touch. I quickly found that little more than a slight increase or decrease in control pressures could make the airplane do exactly what I wanted it to do. My technique improved. My understanding of the machine expanded dramatically, and I fell in love with flying all over again.
Flying became fun, nearly effortless, and I was finally able to enjoy the experience rather than fight my way through each lesson. That made all the difference for me. I was hooked again, and this time it stuck.
That’s not to say Todd was a cream puff. He wasn’t. He seemed to have an endless supply of suction cups at his disposal that he used to gleefully cover up instrumentation on the panel. I don’t think I ever had an instrument training flight that didn’t include a simulated vacuum pump failure, an electrical system failure, a pitot-static system failure, or some other minor calamity. I came back from every flight with a headache — but I learned to be a darned good pilot thanks to my instructor, my mentor, Todd.
Our lessons didn’t end on the ramp, either. Nor did they stop at the pilot’s lounge. In the evening Todd would often come to my apartment, which I shared with two other flight students. He would hold court there, asking questions, prompting us to find solutions, and show us tips and tricks that would make every aspect of our flying lives easier and more fulfilling.
He was far more than an instructor. Todd was the guy who put all the pieces in place, making complex issues simple, which in turn led us to find the obvious solutions to those problems. In the end he became my friend — the kind of friend who you can lose touch with for a couple decades, yet sit down across a table and fall right back into the old routine.
He’s still a better pilot than I am, I’m sure. And I don’t say that because I’m modest, either. I can just recognize talent when I see it. And Todd’s got it. He always has.
Did I mention that I am seven years older than Todd? That means my most important aviation mentor is younger than I am. Yet I listened to him. I’ve never once pulled seniority or suggested that he was just a youngster who couldn’t possibly teach me anything of value. That would have been foolish. In this case, the younger man is the senior man, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
We’ve both moved on over the years. Todd flies for a major airline now, holding down the front office of big Boeing equipment with turbine engines and very long legs. He graduated from our C-152 flights, right up through the Piper twins at school, then on to C-130s in service for the National Guard. He and his wife own a Mooney and are active general aviation pilots. He’s the real deal.
I’m just lucky that when I needed somebody who would really care if I succeeded as a flight student, and learned the lessons I would need to know in order to become a good, safe, proficient pilot, I was assigned to Todd.
When I arrived at the hotel to meet up with him again, I couldn’t help but wish that every pilot— and every potential pilot — could meet the mentor they need most. The person who is willing to shepherd them through the rough spots, and lead them to a successful outcome.
In my case, all I can say is, “Thank you, Todd.” It seems weak. But I hope that’s at least, and at last, a good start.
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