Rod Machado

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Rod Machado offers this tongue-in-cheek definition of preignition: the ability to see sparks from the future. It's hard to imagine how dry aviation and flight instruction might be without his fresh approach that keeps pilots laughing while they learn. In this month's Profile, Rod talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about his early days in the left and right seats, the lesson plans he wrote for Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2000, and gives tips for checkrides and once-in-a-while pilots, along with generous helpings of his trademark humor.

Rod MachadoRod Machado was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1953. He's half German and half Portuguese, which he claims gives him a genetic predisposition to conquer a country and then go fishing. He began flying at 16, soloed at 17, took his private pilot checkride with legendary instructor Amelia Reid, and, a few years later, began to teach flying. After moving to southern California, Rod honed his presentation skills giving three-day ground-school instruction in Santa Ana, Calif. Rod's defining moment as a speaker came in 1976 in front of a crowd of 150 CFIs, most of them twice his age. Like Rodney Dangerfield says, "Tough room." When the butterflies hit, Rod gave momentary thought to bolting for the door and changing occupations. Luckily for us, he stayed at the podium, conquered his fears, and hasn't been nervous in front of a crowd since. Rod found that humor was a way to keep himself and the crowd entertained while teaching procedures and covering the dry minutae of FARs. He hung around LA-area comedy clubs to watch rising stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno hone their delivery.

Since then he has blended his wit and wisdom in two books, four videos, two audio cassette albums and his monthly column, License to Learn, for AOPA Pilot magazine. Rod's safety segments can be seen on Saturday-morning reruns of Wide World of Flying on Speedvision. Always one of the highlights at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, Sun 'N Fun and AOPA Expo, Rod offers a variety of seminars including Defensive Flying, Handling In-Flight Emergencies, and Aviation Humor. Rod is an ATP-rated pilot, but still gets excited at a Cessna 150 fly-by (honest!). He has logged over 8,000 hours, most of it dual given. He is a National Accident Prevention Counselor and in 1991 was named Western Region Flight Instructor of the Year. Rod has a degree in Aviation Science and a degree in Psychology from California State University at Long Beach. As if that's not enough, Rod has studied Karate and holds black belts in Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido and ranking in Gracie Jujitsu. Rod is working on three new books, so stay tuned to AVweb for release announcements.


Do you remember your first flight lesson?

It was at Reid-Hillview airport in 1970. I was 16. My CFI for this demo flight was an insurance salesman and part-time flight instructor. We departed and climbed out over Morgan Hill and I distinctly remember looking down and thinking "Those are the smallest cows I've ever seen." That image has always stayed in my mind. I think this fellow thought I had talent, although he did suggest that I buy lots of insurance, preferably from someone else, not him. Apparently his company couldn't afford the money.

I took a few more lessons there and then went to Amelia Reid Aviation. I started training in her Taylorcraft L-2s, which cost about nine bucks an hour, and the instructor was a whopping seven bucks an hour. I camped on Amelia's doorstep. Every couple of days I'd come by and ask her if she had any open position for a gas boy and eventually I got a call asking me if I wanted a job. I dropped the phone and ran down to the airport to claim my entry position into aviation. Being able to taxi airplanes, fuel airplanes, and most importantly just being able to talk to pilots was a real turning point for me. Amelia was a very important influence and an amazing lady. She could tell if you were flying correctly just from the feel of the airplane. She'd be looking out the window and say "More right rudder." Or "More left rudder." I always thought she was talking to some guy in another airplane. She was very demanding but one of the more relaxed peeople I've ever flown with. I took my checkride with her. The moment she typed out my license I raced away from the airport before she realized what a terrible mistake she had made. Years later I came to find out that Sean Tucker also took aerobatic instruction from her.

My CFI was Bill Hauer. He was the most patient man in the world. He was always cool and calm, I think his blood pressure was 3 over 1. He never yelled at me once and that really stuck with me. I was a pretty quiet teenager and had he done that I might have been devastated. His patience gave me the opportunity to experience a lot of success in airplanes. And I gave him the chance to test his triple bypass (just kidding).

What makes a good flight instructor?

Patience, the desire to teach, and being able to use the tools of psychology. You have to know when to say things and how to say them. If you don't have compassion and patience and an interest in people it's unlikely that you'll be a success at flight instructing. I've met students who have been through six or seven flight instructors. Sometimes their instructors leave and move on to different jobs — I won't say "better jobs" because sometimes other jobs are not better than flight instructing — but in some cases students and flight instructors are not compatible. Students who feel like they have to stay with an instructor they're not compatible with should furlough that instructor and find a new one. Students are consumers and, as such, should pick and choose who they want to learn from.

I was fortunate to get the right guy at the right time and that made all the difference. Bill was the best. For instance, if he told me to put it on the numbers and I overshot, he'd say something like "Well, okay, but I meant the first set of numbers you flew over, not the ones at the other end of the runway." Then he'd say "Gimme your best two out of three." Sometimes he'd have to resort to special motivational techniques to keep me pumped up. Once, when I asked him how I was doing, he said, "Well, you're missing the runway closer now."

Rod Machado

Rod's first gear collapse

Do you remember you first solo?

How could I forget all those sirens, police officers and firemen? Seriously, I remember it very well. Bill pulled over into the runup area and said "Okay, Rod, you're going to take it around now so let me see your student pilot's certificate." So I gave it to him, he signed it, then he very carefully explained "Now, Rod, when I get out the airplane is going to be a lot lighter, it's going to climb a lot quicker, it's not going to come down as quickly so you want to plan for that..." and I'm nodding my head and what I'm hearing is "blah blah blah blah blah blah blah...."

I think everybody hears blah blah blah at that moment.

Well, I nodded my head and took off and came around and on my first approach I was way too high. I could see Bill over by the side of the runway. He was making the sign of the cross. He had holy water and beads and I guess he said all the right things because next time around I came in and landed. I made a wheel landing. I just can't remember which wheel.

I still have the shirt with the back of the shirt cut out. That's a tradition we don't do anymore. At a seminar one time a lady came up and said "My instructor tried to cut my shirt off. I hadn't soloed yet. He was just trying to cut my shirt off." I wonder if this is how the tradition started in the first place?

What flight training books did you use?

I used Bill Kershner's books. I had used the typical dry FAA book, which was like getting a two-scoop lobotomy, so it was refreshing to find the humor in Bill's books. I loved his comic illustrations, too.

What can a recreational pilot who flies once or twice a month do to stay sharp and make the most of that time?

It's a big misconception to believe that just because you're beyond the IFR or VFR currency requirements that your flying skills have diminished. That's like believing that putting hand lotion in your fuel tank will make your landings smoother, softer and much younger looking. That's not quite true. In a sense, you don't forget how to fly an airplane in the same way you never forget how to ride a bike. I think what a person loses first is a sense of confidence. Now, motor skills can degrade over a long period of time, but not in a 90-day or six-month period. Obviously, getting a chance to fly is the best thing to get your confidence back, but this isn't always possible. Flying right seat with someone helps, and there's a lot of psychological value in hangar talk as we exchange ideas with other pilots, too. In fact, I think hangar flying is vastly underrated as a form of education. It keeps the neural pathways open and can help build confidence. I know this based on my own experience. Giving advanced instruction, I may instruct for hours without ever touching the controls, but my proficiency is high because I'm always observing and thinking.

Flight simulators are another great way to stay sharp. I'm the instructor's voice on the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 and I wrote about a hundred pages in the FS2000 manual. The older version had a voice that gave instruction but he sounded like a Nazi barking out orders. Bruce Williams, who is the product manager for Microsoft Flight Sim 2000, thought this version should sound a little friendlier. I wrote about fifteen lesson plans that will help the uninitiated learn a little about flying an airplane. I'm convinced that you could take somebody and teach them basic, practical flying skills with this simulator. There are a lot of great instrument simulators on the market. Flight Sim 2000 is a great IFR and VFR simulator. The graphics are very good, especially when viewed on a large monitor.

Rod Machado
Rod demonstrates a thorough preflight inspection
Rod Machado
The correct way to handprop a chopper
Rod Machado
How Rod set up his radios for his first solo XC

There's also a private and an instrument checkride in the simulator. We replicated the actual test as best we could to contain certain skills that you need to demonstrate on the checkride.

So far you've been concentrating on books and videos. Do you see your Web site eventually adding a flight training section?

I've thought about it. But right now I'm involved in so many other projects that I just don't have much time to work on anything else. As it is, I'm thinking about hiring someone to do all my jogging for me. I do know that I've only scratched the surface in terms of Internet education. For instance, with Flight Sim 2000 I can create a file which lets somebody learn how to make a crosswind landing or an instrument approach. That file looks like a high-resolution video but it's only a very small file of zeros and ones. I can email that file to someone who's having trouble with a procedure, or I can post a database of different scenarios that someone can choose from. All that person needs to do is place the file in the appropriate Flight Sim folder and they see my flight demonstration on their computer, just as if I'm right there showing them how to fly. This is simply amazing to me. So the technology is there, we just have to figure out the best way to use it.

How far behind the curve is the FAA in terms of flight simulators?

Actually, I'm impressed with what the FAA has done to recognize Personal Computer Assisted Training Devices (PCATDs) up to this point. Sure, you can only use up to 10 hours on these devices for the instrument rating, but I was happy they allowed this much time. As I see it, the FAA has demonstrated a willingness to change their simulator policies if the aviation community can show them that a new policy is just as good, if not better than, the old one. To be perfectly frank about it, we don't need to worry about the FAA as much as we do some of the folks in the general aviation community who tend to poo-poo simulation training devices.

For instance, there are a few folks out there that just don't care much for simulators. Specifically, many of these folks don't think that PC-based simulator time should be applicable toward a rating. With all due respect I don't agree with them. I think simulators are incredibly helpful in flight training. I know this for a fact. Several years ago I used the Elite simulator for training my instrument students. I was simply amazed at the power of the desktop simulator as a training tool. And this isn't just a limited sampling of anecdotal information. The efficacy of this argument is that you can get a type rating in a simulator. And the simulator doesn't need motion to be a useful training device. You can also obtain equally useful training in a non-motion-based simulator. SimCom proved that there's no real difference in training efficiency between a non-motion-based simulator and one having motion. So there's no denying the value of a simulator, even if it's the desktop PC type. Most of the PC simulators on the market are well worth the investment as a training and proficiency-upkeep tool.

Unfortunately, there's no simulator that lets you log VFR flight time toward the pilot certificate, and I don't think there will be for a while. I do think we'll have to push the FAA on this because it's a very big step for them to take. Nevertheless, if anyone is reluctant to purchase a PC-based simulator because they can't log the time, please rethink that idea. Even if you could log more simulator time, it's unlikely that it would help you get your license in less than the minimum required flight time. More importantly, these devices are excellent for developing and maintaining proficiency and confidence. The Navy recently completed a study that concluded that student pilots who used an off-the-shelf flight simulation program during training made significantly higher grades and received fewer failures than those who didn't. I find it hard to argue with the Navy on that one.

Back to checkrides, what's the most common mistake people make on a checkride?

The most common mistake is thinking that they can't make a mistake on a checkride. You don't want to plan to make a mistake, but if you've made one, the thing to do is to show how capable you are at recovering from it. This shows awareness and resiliency. Your ability to recover from a mistake makes a very positive impression on the designee. The second most common mistake is not looking outside the airplane for traffic. A study by the military once said that in a 17-second scan cycle, you should be looking inside the airplane for three seconds and outside the airplane for 14 seconds. Basically it's inside the airplane for a second, outside for five, back inside for one, then back outside, or something like that proportion. This problem is the single biggest thing I notice when I give flight reviews and proficiency flights.

Pilots need to remember that designees want them to pass. The designee is sitting there rooting for the student. When I took my CFI checkride, the FAA inspector — sly fellow that he was — stomped on the left rudder during a departure stall. The airplane went over on its back and into a spin. For a second, I couldn't figure out what happened. Apparently I wasn't reacting quick enough for the inspector's tastes, either. Fortunately, as the earth spun underneath us, he said, "Hey pal, does that look normal?" I wanted to say, "Well, I did see something similar on my first solo cross country flight," but I wisely kept silent. I finally recovered and was only too happy that this fellow gave me the benefit of the doubt (and the hint, too).

Yes, designees want pilots to pass their checkrides, and this is especially true of a wonderful lady named Mary "Tig" Pennock. Tig, now retired, could put anyone at ease, especially me. Years ago I took my instrument checkride from her. When we began the oral I must have sounded like I was speaking Chinese. She'd ask a question and I'd say, "Ahh, un mak dak bok gah gak..." She'd smile, and say, "You know, you don't look Chinese," then slowly but methodically put me at ease with her gentle banter. She was the best and I learned a lot about how to handle people from her.

As I see it, the point of a checkride is to impress the designee that you can fly safely. Everyone makes mistakes. How you recover from them is the real test. This is what designees watch for. The practical test standards are useful in that they help students understand what skills are expected of them.

Any changes you'd like to make to the practical test standards?

Those standards have been honed through a gradual process of evolution over the years and I think they're spectacular ... but ... it's a big misconception to think that just because you can do everything on the practical test standards you'll automatically pass. Remember, designees also evaluate judgment. If you have a bad attitude or convey the impression that you're not going to be safe, the designee is going to look a lot more carefully at your performance. And I don't blame them a bit. These standards make the practical test more objective, but you can never remove the human element from the flight test, nor should we.

How important is spin training?

It's very important. I've never had a private pilot student that wasn't spun. I don't necessarily mean a three-turn spin, either. A one- or two-turn spin and recovery is often sufficient to get the point across. Often, I'd give my students this training before they soloed, and then I'd give them more of it after solo. They'd at least know the dangers of a skidding turn to final or stalling in uncoordinated flight — which is a precursor to a spin — and how to recover from these situations.

It's amazing how many students I've had for advanced training that have never spun an airplane. Many of them were scared silly when their instructors demonstrated spins and this is very unfortunate. I use a technique that was taught to me by the late Cindy Rucker who was one of the first female airline pilots hired by Western Airlines. She had a beautiful, rich voice and her technique for teaching stalls and spins was to verbally coach students through the maneuver while the student manipulated the flight controls. Voice usage is very important here. Some instructors have high-pitched voices, the kind that would cause bats to fly into walls. But she would lower and smooth the pitch of her voice and guide students through every step of a process. That way the student is always in control. It's an amazing way for them to learn.

Rod MachadoWhich group has the easiest mindset to teach?

In my opinion, bankers are the easiest people to teach. I use that term generically for people who, like bankers, are global-type thinkers. You can load them up with information and they're very adept at consolidating, analyzing and utilizing what you've given them. That's the way someone with a banker mentality thinks. They're easy and fun to teach.

I also like engineers. Perhaps that's because I like trains (just kidding). I like engineers because they want to know everything. The only problem is that they often want to know so much that it changes the cadence of the lesson. But that's okay because that curiosity and desire is what you want as a flight instructor. Engineers learn in series. Before you go on to the next section, they have to understand the first section. Of course, you can't leave these folks alone with the airplane because they'll take it apart.

And who are the hardest students to teach?

There's a group of people that would include doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs — people that got where they are by lots of study and achievement. They are the most challenging students I've ever had. Everything has to make sense to them and if they don't understand it, or if they think that you don't understand it, they may try and usurp your authority. When I was instructing at 19 (I looked even younger), I didn't look like the guy who was qualified to be their instructor. These folks would show up for flight training and say to me, "Are you the instructor?" I say, "Yep," and they'd say, "Are you sure?" Geesh! It was always a struggle to make sure they realized that I was the alpha male.

Did you ever want to fly for the airlines?

In 1977 I interviewed with United Airlines. I had well over 3,000 hours of flying time. Had a great interview, too. The day after I interviewed, United announced a hiring freeze that continued for four years. I think what happened was, they took a look at me and said "Let's let this crop mature for a while." I felt like a fish that had just been thrown back in. Granted, I had about 200 hours of multi time and the rest was single time. I guess that didn't impress them. I figured with all that single-engine time, I was their guy if they lost two out of the three engines on a 727. Not getting hired was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It allowed me to work for myself and develop my skills in writing and speaking.

How busy is your online life? Is that a good way for you to communicate with your readers?

I spend about one and a half to two hours a day answering email. I get thirty or forty questions a day. So far I've answered every one of them personally, meaning I don't have somebody that sits and does that for me. My column in AOPA Pilot has given me such tremendous exposure to the pilot community, and, by the way, the folks at AOPA are the most incredible people I've ever worked with. They've just been great. They've given me carte blanche to speak my mind and write on the topics of my choice. Additionally, I'm AOPA's National CFI Spokesman, which gives me a great opportunity to meet and share ideas with other CFIs.

Email is a wonderful way for people to find answers to questions. But to answer every question in long form would be way too time-consuming. Therefore, what I try to do is point folks to the right source for an answer when possible. And more and more sources for those answers are online.

What's the most common question that people ask you?

"I'm flying an airplane. I get scared. What do I do?" By far, that's the most common question. One lady wrote and said "Before I leave my house, I make sure everything is in order, because I'm not sure if I'll be coming back." She continues to fly, but she has a sense that her fate will be determined by an airplane. Contrary to what you might think, this fear is relatively common. Flying airplanes allows humans to confront one of our biggest fears; the fear of falling, no, not the fear of a runaway Hobbs meter, either. We confront this fear of falling every time we get into an airplane. Unfortunately, the media coverage of airplane crashes often reinforces any fear that's already present.

It's a challenging question and my response is "I'd rather be in a well-maintained airplane — as long as the weather's good — than to be in a car where you have no control over what the other driver does." The NTSB says that approximately 75% of accidents result from "pilot error," but I'd say that in 95% or more of these accidents, there is something the pilot did that caused the accident, or there's something the pilot could have done that might have prevented the accident. When I teach, I try to impress upon students that it isn't their kismet, or fate, to get hurt in an airplane. Everyone who flies has control of what happens to them. And once they're in control they're a lot less scared. Of course, if they're flying airplanes whose blue book value varies with the amount of gas in the tank, then all bets are off. But we don't have to fly these types of airplanes, do we?

Rod MachadoHow has your martial arts training influenced the way you teach flying?

Well, I don't have trouble collecting money from my students anymore. I'm my own bill collector (just kidding). Actually, it has had a big influence. The "Defensive Flying" video came out of the heightened situational awareness inculcated by the martial arts. One of the primary themes taught by the martial arts is that if you know the enemy and know yourself, you'll never be in peril in a thousand battles. The same theme applies to flying airplanes. Knowing yourself (how you think, feel, your weaknesses, etc.) is vitally important to flying safely. Knowing the enemy (the weather, the temptation to rush, etc.) is also vital to flying safely.

How many presentations do you do in a year?

I do four to five presentations a month around the country. I used to travel about 20 days a month. I was in hotels so much that when I came home my dog didn't recognize me and my cactus would be dead. In order to feel comfortable during my short stays at home I would nail all my lamps to the desk then ask my neighbor to barge in unexpectedly and yell "Housekeeping!!" I've spoken in all fifty states, in France, Holland and Germany. Most Europeans speak English as a second language and I was amazed that they got almost all of the jokes. Bob Hope used to say "Count to three, if they haven't gotten it by three they're not going to get it." With the Germans and French, you count to five. After all, they have to take a little time to translate. I've spoken to groups of ten and groups of over 4,000 people. It makes no difference what size group it is, I just enjoy speaking to pilots.

The weirdest group I've ever spoken to was a group of female mental patients. At the end of the program one of the attendees (inmates) came up and said, "Wow, we sure like you more than those other folks who speak to us." I was flushed with pride and said, "Oh, really? Why is that?" To wit she replied, "Because you think just like we do!"

Do you have a favorite of all the seminars your present?

My favorite is called "Handling In-Flight Emergencies". It gets to the core of what scares people in airplanes. I honestly believe that, outside of an act of God, there's nothing in an airplane that's going to do you in if you're a reasonably intelligent, cautious pilot who keeps his or her wits. Chuck Yeager once spoke to this idea quite well when he said, "I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit." And the aviation humor program is always fun, too.

Rod Machado
View a RealVideo clip of Rod teaching instrument scanning technique to his student Marty:

What advice would you give to a young CFI just starting out?

I'd tell them to be the very best flight instructor they can possibly be, even if they are using the position as a way to build hours. Their students will be their best resource when it comes to getting an aviation job. I've been offered flying jobs over the years by others I've trained. Additionally, I'd tell them to listen to older, wiser flight instructors. They should find a flight instructor mentor who'll help them polish their teaching skills. Finally, I'd ask them to remember that flight instruction is a noble profession. Unfortunately, some folks consider it a pass-through, transient job. If I lost all my speaking and typing skills I'd go back to flight instruction in an instant because I enjoy it so much. And you can make a decent living doing it if you think like a businessman. I know for a fact that you can make $50,000 a year as a flight instructor. Of course, you need to live near a large metropolitan area with good weather for most of the year to do this. I believe that as the mechanics of flight simulation becomes better and wrap-around virtual reality type screens become popular, weather will become less of an issue. In these instances, a good flight instructor with a good reputation could make a good living for most of the year.

Do you still find time to teach?

I do BFRs and proficiency flights out of Palomar airport. I'm usually booked up a few months in advance, but I enjoy flying.

One last question. Where did you get your sense of humor?

I'd have to say both my grandfathers contributed. When I was young one of my grandfathers would always kid around with me. And he was a strange fellow. He'd say things like, "Hey Roddy, did you know you were adopted?" And I'd say, "Oh no gramps, you mean I was actually adopted?" And he'd say, "That's right ... but they brought you back." So, that's the kind of stuff I had to endure. My other grandfather had a wooden leg. His great claim-to-fame was letting it fly off while in a crowd of people. I loved those guys!


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View other clips, find out about upcoming seminars, and email Rod at rodmachado.com

Rod books live engagements through the Aviation Speakers Bureau or 1-800-AIR-121.5