The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has created a tremendously successful program known as Young Eagles. Organized by members and carried out by volunteers, Young Eagles has introduced more than 1 million kids to a first-hand experience in the cockpit of an aircraft in flight.
Some of those kids become pilots. Others become mechanics. I’m sure that Young Eagle alumni includes engineers, business professionals, and a whole slew of other job titles I couldn’t even begin to share here. Yet even for those who never settle into a cockpit again, there is benefit to the program.
The vast majority of those students came away from their experience with a positive view of aviation and aviators. They saw for themselves that general aviation isn’t simply a collection of one-percenters living it up behind the gates and barbed wire of the local airport.
They found out that GA is open to everyone who has an interest in it. Anyone. The barriers are real, but they are eminently surmountable. Hundreds of thousands of us have done it. Hundreds of thousands more will follow.
Ironically perhaps, for those who pursue a career in the cockpit, they will undoubtedly find themselves 250 to 300 flight hours later with a newly minted Certified Flight Instructor ticket and virtually no idea how to actually do the job they’ve just qualified for.
Yes, it’s true. Earning your CFI is a great accomplishment. But holding that ticket, earning that certificate, doesn’t really prepare you to perform the various functions of the working, productive CFI.
Certainly, each CFI has learned the various maneuvers and knowledge test information necessary to build a real career and benefit the students they encounter along the way. But they don’t necessarily know how to apply what they know in a meaningful way, nor do they have the experience necessary to really motivate, inspire, and help their students through the rough patches they’ll undoubtedly encounter along the way.
Enter Skip Wood. Skip is the classic old guy we so often find in GA. With hair turned white with age, a collection of lines on his face earned over decades of squinting into the sun, and a wealth of aeronautical experience locked away in his head, Skip has an easy conversational style that makes him a treat to spend time with. Also, Skip is on a mission.
After a career as a naval aviator before transitioning to the airline life, Skip isn’t the type to go quietly into the night. Nope, he’s got a plan. His goal, which I applaud with all my heart and soul, is to convince experienced CFIs and professional pilots with thicker logbooks to invite those young professionals along for a flight now and then. Share what you know. Inspire that young CFI just as we hope the young CFI will inspire their students.
There’s no better place to share a lifetime’s aeronautical knowledge than in the dynamic, real-world environment of an aircraft in flight. Sims are great, and conversation over coffee is valuable for a wide variety of reasons. But nothing compares to the constantly changing conditions and scenarios we find ourselves in as we ply the heavens.
Sharing a story about the challenges of arriving at a busy non-towered airport where half a dozen airplanes have all decided to use different entry procedures, uniquely designed by each individual pilot, is fine. Actually flying through that scenario with a far more experienced pilot at your side is likely to impart important lessons about patience, preparation, and the all-important skill of decision making on the fly.
If you fly, you know what I mean. We’ve all experienced that sense of “What the hell is going on here?” now and then.
Knowing how to teach is an important skill. Knowing what you’re trying to teach in detail, with real-world examples and insight, is something else entirely.
I believe in Skip’s idea because I was fortunate enough to benefit from exactly what he’s trying to inspire others to do.
Early in my career I flew for a chief instructor who was…horrible. He routinely insulted me, disparaged my skills, withheld students and the flight hours they’d provide me, as well as the pay I so desperately needed. All to apparently soothe his fragile ego and reinforce his belief that he was important. He wasn’t. The only thing I learned at his knee was to hate, and I mean really hate, going to work.
I left that job within months and have never regretted the decision. More than 1,000 miles away I found another instructional position flying for a man I came to admire and respect. He’s still a friend today.
I had a CFI ticket and some experience when I went to work at Meriden Aviation in central Connecticut. But it was my new chief instructor, Frank Gallagher, who taught me how to be a CFI. A real CFI. The kind of instructor who serves his students and the school he flies for, not just himself.
My previous employer left me sitting on a couch for weeks, waiting to be assigned a student. It was pointless and painful. Frank, on the other hand, pointed me to a file cabinet which held the records of students who had fallen away from flight training for one reason or another. With a stack of files, a phone, and a schedule book, I was able to connect with fledgling pilots, invite them in to meet and chat, and begin the process of becoming a customer service-oriented professional.
By the end of the first week I had a full book of students. Their achievements are forever noted in my logbooks. I remain proud of having the chance to work with them, even now, three decades later.
Frank taught me lessons on the ground and in the air that I still make use of today. I try to share similarly with the folks I fly with. Skip and I both hope you’ll consider doing the same. Because you know things that are worth passing on. And there is a whole new generation of CFIs out there who would love to learn to be as good, as professional, and as successful as you have been.
What the heck. You’re going flying anyway and there’s an empty seat just to your right. Why not fill it with someone who will come to admire you as we admire those who brought us along?