As blowouts go, it wasn't bad at all. Most of us here at the pilot's lounge survived the party to usher in the new millennium, century, decade, year, etc. About a week later a bunch of us were together at the airport to take care of some of the things one does in cold weather around airplanes such as shoveling the snow away from hangars, making sure that sliding hangar doors will indeed slide and belatedly affixing winterization kits to cowlings. As the day wound down, we gravitated to the big chairs in the lounge.
Barb, a single parent of twins, was present, something that is fairly unusual because of the demands of raising two kids and making a living. She had taken advantage of a few hours to herself to run out to the airport and fly one of the rental airplanes to get in a little practice. We all know that her budget and time just doesn't allow her as much time in the air as she would like. We also like her because Barb's not the least bit shy, and is always been willing to raise questions that a lot of us have, but tend not to say out loud in groups. This evening she voiced the frustration she was feeling, and I think she spoke for more than one pilot in the room. She said she loved to fly, couldn't afford to do it nearly enough, and was getting a little bored with coming out to just rent the lowest-priced trainer at the place and then shooting touch and goes or practicing stalls. In the new century she wanted to do something more. She liked being around airplanes and the people who mess about with airplanes (yes, she's read Nevil Shute's writings), and she had promised herself to expand her aviation horizons. The trouble was that she didn't know how to do so at a reasonable cost.
Barb's question got all of us thinking. One of the members of the local EAA chapter was first off the mark. He suggested that Barb attend some of the chapter meetings because they often involve presentations on subjects that are of interest to all pilots, everything from propeller aerodynamics to structural strength to welding tips. Some of the pilots who weren't familiar with the Experimental Aircraft Association beyond the annual convention at Oshkosh were surprised to hear that the chapter meetings weren't just geared to the folks who are building their own airplanes. Our EAA member who spoke up indicated that the purpose of the meetings is to support and assist members who are building airplanes but that the result is that a lot of the information that is exchanged is generally of value to a pilot who flies any type of airplane. As he put it, the more the pilot knows about the airplane, the better the pilot.
I had to agree with the last statement, as I've always been firmly of the opinion that education always pays a benefit, whether or not it is on the specific topic in which a person is interested. The researchers who have been doing the involved studies into how the brain operates have repeatedly observed that our minds work better, faster and more efficiently to far later ages if we keep challenging ourselves with new ideas and make an effort to continue to learn. We have all heard the analogies about the brain functioning as a muscle, in that it has to be exercised to work well, so the comment about attending EAA chapter meetings to help a pilot become a better, more knowledgeable pilot, even if not involved in building an airplane, seemed like a heck of a good idea. (Besides, the EAA has also found that a number of pilots who have a chance to learn about building airplanes discover that they actually can build one and proceed to do so.)
The idea of continuing pilot education as a good thing seemed to ignite a few mental light bulbs in the room and suggestions started flowing. As usual, I made notes as fast as I could.
One of the college kids explained that he was working slowly on his instrument rating but simply didn't have the money to fly as much as he wanted. Instead, he'd done a little homework and had found that were a number of good flight simulator software packages available for personal computers. He said he found that using one for practice (even though the ones he could afford couldn't be legally used for logging flying time) helped him immensely when it came to getting the most out of every dollar he spent when he got into an airplane for an instrument lesson. I am the first to express a lack of knowledge about personal computer flight simulator software, but in using various desktop simulators over the years I became very aware that they were excellent for teaching instrument scans and approach procedures and always paid dividends to the students when they got into the airplane. After all, the instrument rating is really the thinking rating, so when one has time to puzzle things out on the ground, without an engine roaring, turbulence stirring things up and the ever-present awareness of the cost of the airplane lurking, learning can take place so that the time when one hops into the airplane is much more productive.
One of the folks in the lounge turned out to be a member of a local hot air balloon club. She said that the club was made up of about 20 people that together owned one balloon. At any give time someone was usually in the process of learning to fly it, and because ballooning is certainly not a solitary endeavor, ground crewmembers were always needed. It definitely takes a small crowd of people to launch, chase and recover the aircraft. While crewing usually means rising at oh-dark-thirty, well before the sun, the reward for helping on a series of flights is usually a ride. For people who want to spend more time in and around aircraft, it is an excellent way to learn a great deal about a little-known area of aviation for no investment other than time. If nothing else, because you immediately see the impact of the tiniest bit of weather on a balloon, what you learn about micrometeorology will carry over into flying airplanes and may have a positive impact on the quality of your decision-making on weather issues. To learn more about ballooning, be sure to read AVweb Executive Editor Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside's recent article, "The Envelope, Please."
I found myself tossing in a comment based on my own experience. Between college and law school I was fortunate enough to be selected for an internship with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. While the learning experience was excellent and I discovered that there were more things to see in our nation's capital than could be imagined and cost only the wear on shoe leather, I also learned that interns get paid squat. Having a bad case of the flying habit and being unable to afford to rent airplanes, I found a glider operation in Virginia. I couldn't buy many flights, but I did take some lessons that summer and discovered an area of aviation that fascinated me and, I felt, enhanced my skills and overall knowledge.
As an instructor, I'd observed that pilots I flew with who had some glider time tended to be better stick and rudder pilots than those who had only flown airplanes. When I started flying gliders I learned why. The need for aileron and rudder coordination is more acute in sailplanes. Plus, the process of each flight involved some careful planning and a sort of mental "howgozit" graph so as to make sure that the glider would come to earth in the general vicinity of the point desired when the flight commenced. It tended to breed good decision-making and judgment early in the training process.
Two summers later I found a glider port near where I had a summer clerkship and checked out to tow gliders in a Super Cub and a Bellanca Scout. I learned a new set of airplane skills, those involved with hauling gliders through the air and then not wrapping the towrope around a fence post on landing (only did that once). By trading off the time I spent towing for glider time, I eventually completed a glider rating.
While a person may not have a burning desire to obtain a glider rating, a few flights in one will definitely broaden one's horizons and the skill obtained will add to his or her overall abilities and enjoyment in airplanes.
Skydiving is certainly a different area of aviation and no one pretends it is for everyone. I have a lot of close friends who are completely sane and who skydive regularly. They love it. So much for the notion that one has to be somewhat nuts to jump out of an airplane. A one-day course ending in a tandem jump and the chance to experience free fall won't break the bank. The rectangular 'chutes allow those who were disqualified in the past due to knee or ankle problems to experience the unique thrill of taking that long first step.
A lot of drop zones are in need of pilots who will fly the jumpers to altitude and have the skill and temperament needed for the specialized sort of flying and dealing with ATC required. You wanted to broaden your horizons; how broad is entirely up to you.
One of the instructors pointedly asked Barb, why not obtain another rating? She said she already had an instrument rating and no desire to fly for a living so the commercial was out and she couldn't afford a rating in twins, gliders or helicopters. The instructor responded in a way that changed my thinking a bit. He suggested that Barb not think of an additional rating as either a ticket she will never use, but more along the lines of a disciplined course of recurrent instruction and a goal to shoot for over time.
Barb takes a little dual at least every six months to keep her skills from atrophying, and has always professed a desire to be the best pilot she can, so the instructor suggested that she set up a long term goal of working on the items needed for the commercial rating when she takes dual. She doesn't have to obtain the rating in the next year, or even two, but why not learn the chandelle, lazy-8 and how to make a spot landing because the skill set involved in each one will carry over to improve her routine flying. When she is out shooting touch and goes, why not make each one a spot landing? When she's practicing stalls or steep turns, do a few chandelles and lazy-8s. On top of that, there is almost always someone around who is selling a set of the videos for the commercial rating, used, for a reasonable price. Plus, books such as Kershner's Advanced Pilot's Flight Manual are an outstanding addition to any pilot's library, as well as being excellent references and certainly worth reading for a person who wants to keep her skills up. Sure there is a written and a checkride, but, why not consider them as rewards for the studying we all should do on a regular basis so that we do not slide down the path to aviation senility and start believing in such nonsense as the "downwind turn" myth. Deep down, every one of us pilots feels we are the best. We definitely want to be the best and so we work to keep our skills up. Why not have something to show for it in the form or an additional rating? If nothing else, passing the checkride counts as a flight review and it might help the next time we buy insurance.
Sandy asked Barb if she had been filling out the little form for the FAA Wings program when she took dual. Barb did a very nice forehead slap and said she hadn't. She was familiar with the program in which a pilot takes three hours of dual in certain areas over the course of a year and attends one FAA seminar. When the form is returned to the FAA, the pilot is given an attractive, winged lapel pin. As an added benefit, under the FARs, the pilot has automatically passed a flight review. It's a good program. I don't know the statistics now, but for some time there had been no fatal accidents among pilots who were current in the Wings program. I've talked about recurrent training in the past, and the Wings program not only will help a pilot avoid boredom by having something to do on three flights out of the year, it also significantly increases a pilot's safety factor.
I got interested in the suggestions that were made and tried to keep track of them. One of the pilots suggested taking some dual in an ultralight. He'd done so, on a dare, because he had always looked at the things as merely a crude form of levitation. He had a ball. He also felt that it gave him a better feel for, and improved his handling of, the Bonanza he normally flew.
Several pilots encouraged Barb to attend the seminars the FAA put on around the area. They admitted the quality varied, but most felt they were very worthwhile. I knew that Barb had an interesting background in auto mechanics from years of working on cars and she often helped out pilots here with the things owners can maintain on their airplanes because she is a good wrench. I pointed out that the local FSDO safety czar or czarina was always looking for people to speak at the safety seminars and Barb might be perfect for teaching a session on what an owner can legally do on his or her airplane and how to do it.
Other suggestions that I found in my notes after I went home included joining the owner's organization for a type of airplane that you might like to own someday so as to start learning as much about the airplane as possible. That way you have a leg up on what to look for and what to avoid when the money is there for the purchase. Become involved in one of the aviation Internet forums, there is a wealth of information on places such as CompuServe's AVsig. Organize a fly-out for breakfast with some friends. Hit used bookstores to start putting together an aviation library. I liked all of the ideas. I got the impression that the only limit would be a pilot's imagination.
As folks were starting to leave, one of our regulars, a very successful small businessman, made some cogent observations. He had just come back from a trip where he had had lousy service at a couple of FBOs and, at one, watched a prospective student pilot who happened not to be a white male get completely ignored. He was still angry and frustrated by what he had experienced. He said he was tired of the whining about business he'd heard at those same FBOs. He felt that in the new century the cost of aviation was going to continue to go up so FBOs were going to have to aggressively seek customers, and that all an FBO really had to sell was service. He hoped that more of the operators would open their eyes to the world of effective business techniques. He wondered whether they would ever learn that in order to make money they had to make their operation and their airplanes attractive and must welcome the newcomer when he or she walked in the door, no matter what. He wondered why the private airports hadn't figured out that they could solve a lot of their noise complaints and make a ton of money if they would use some of the perimeter land for houses and make their operations into residential airports. He is very conservative by nature, but he had some choice words for the tolerance that is shown for the aviation bigots and their spoken or unspoken attitude that only white males should be flying airplanes. He said that the FBOs that seemed to be doing the worst were the ones that had a prevailing atmosphere inside that only white males were welcome.
It bothered me, and, I think, the rest of us in the room, because we realized he was absolutely right. General aviation faces too many challenges and has too few supporters for us to stupidly exclude anyone who wants to fly because of some prejudice. If general aviation collapses in this century, it won't be because it became too expensive, it will be because we chased away the very people who could save it.
See you next month.