The Value of Experience

This is going to sound self-serving – and it probably is – but there is a point. No … really.

It happens sometimes that a student chooses not to fly with me because my rates are higher than most instructors in the flying club. I understand that. I also understand the value of money and know how hard it is to save what’s necessary to achieve a private pilot certificate, or instrument rating, or any certificate or rating. Sometimes, though, a student will come to understand that experience has value, and that he or she might actually save money flying with a more experienced, higher priced, instructor than by flying with a younger, newly-minted instructor who charges a substantially lower rate. Let me relate a few examples.

A few years ago, I flew with a man who had established a successful career, raised a family, and then decided to pursue his private pilot certificate – and had so much fun in the process that he went all the way through to flight instructor. The purpose of our flight was to acquaint him with the inner workings of a King GPS. After our flight, I asked him how he happened to choose Bob as his primary instructor. He said, “Well, I looked around for the oldest guy who appeared to have been around the longest. I figured that if he’d gotten to be that old while making a living as a flight instructor, he was probably a safe choice.”

A month or two ago I flew with another man – we were working on his tail wheel endorsement and I’ve probably got more tail wheel hours than most of the people in the club. After our first flight, the man said, “Do you mind if I make an observation?” I replied, “No. I love input from my students.” He said, “Up until now, all of my instructors have been young. After today’s flight, I now understand the value of flying with someone who has been around the block a few times. Those young guys get all excited when something happens that they weren’t expecting, like those stalls we were doing today. You just sat back and relaxed, didn’t rant or rave, and exuded confidence. It’s really refreshing to know that I’ll be able to earn this new endorsement without all the drama I’ve experienced in the past.”

This recalls another training situation with a man who has become a good friend – as many of my students do. It may have been a dozen years ago when he started his instrument rating. He had gotten his private certificate with my help, and had chosen to do it in a tail wheel airplane – which is always more challenging and always way more fun.

We had completed the early stages of instrument training: the first involved flying solely by instruments, then the second added navigation instruments to the mix. We were on our way out to the OCN VORTAC, where we would start this particular lesson with the VOR-A approach into OceansideAirport. We usually flew after his work day was done and, as it happened this evening, there was a fast-moving cold front approaching from the north, typical for a San Diego winter. We took off from Montgomery on an instrument clearance, climbed into a cloud 500 feet above the runway, and stayed in cloud for the remainder of the flight. Rain was rat-a-tatting the thin roof of the Cherokee making it sound like we were buried inside an aluminum kettle drum. Turbulence bucked us around the sky, occasionally bouncing our noggins off the headliner. It was a great night for an instrument flight – and, perhaps, a touch of instrument fright.

In any event, we were told to switch frequencies by the Lindbergh Departure sector and my student chirped up on 127.3, telling the controller that we were at 4000 feet, direct OCN. The controller told us that there were “level two” radar returns just ahead of us on the airway, and that, as we made the westbound procedure turn at the VORTAC, we might run into some “level three” returns. (And, as a brief aside, at the time ATC radar – which was definitely NOT weather radar –  depicted 3 levels of radar returns: one was light rain, two was moderate, three was heavy. Since there were no thunderstorms forecast or reported, I wasn’t too concerned.) With the controller’s report, my student looked over at me (he didn’t need the view limiting device – we were in cloud, after all) with a question on his face. I smiled at him, keyed the mike, and told ATC that we were experiencing light to moderate turbulence, but we’d proceed with our plan, and that we’d let him know if the turbulence got to be too intense for us to handle.

Now we’d been getting beat around for the first fifteen minutes of the flight, and, just after the controller told us of the “level two returns”, we started getting hammered. My student was working hard just trying to keep the airplane level, but occasionally he’d take a peak over at me to see how I was reacting. I just sat there, with my arm leaning on the arm rest, and my head resting on my hand – appearing for all the world like this was a walk on the beach.

We got battered pretty hard by some moderate turbulence and my student looked over at me and said, “This stuff doesn’t bother you at all, does it.”

I glanced at him and smiled. “No. Should it? I mean …you’re the one doing all the work. I’m just sitting here inside a cloud going along for the ride.” I chuckled, then said, “But if it would make you feel any better, I can start screaming ‘Oh MY GOD, WE’RE GOING TO DIE’. Is that what you’d like me to do?”

He shook his head, ‘no’, then went back to flying the airplane. ATC told us to descend to 2500 feet and cleared us for the approach. We made the procedure turn, flew outbound from the VORTAC, got rocked a couple of times before the inbound turn, but my student focused on the instruments and flew the approach just like he’d been trained.

On the missed approach, as we headed east on OCN’s 083 radial, the turbulence diminished some. We flew the ILS into CRQ, then returned to Montgomery, shot the ILS there and landed. After the flight, my student asked if I’d been at all nervous. I told him that I’d been inside a cloud once or twice before, that there were no thunderstorms that could have caused us to come to grief, that it was too warm for any real icing and that it was a great opportunity for him to see some really serious IFR flying conditions. And I said that he would always remember the experience and it would prepare him well for the rest if his instrument flying career.

And almost every time we get together with friends over a couple of adult beverages, he’ll tell that story about how calm I remained in the midst of “level three returns”. But that experience helped him gain confidence flying in weather and he remains a skilled IFR pilot who practices regularly. I’d like to think that I helped.

The value of experience – in the sky, it’s priceless.

Posted in Training Topics