Weight and Balance: An Open Letter to a Young Flight Instructor

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Do you think you have the "right stuff"? Do you think your skills and your love for flying can overcome the inherent dangers involved? Think you're "bulletproof"? If so, AVweb's Eric Jaderborg penned this open letter to you. It doesn't have a thing to do with loading the aircraft.

Dear Pete:

We met before we met. Around the gliderport, there's a sort of "Pete wave" that washes around. There's a little bit of you in the eye of every line boy, and an ounce of you on everyone's tongue. You are beloved for your dry, gentle humor, and respected for your skill. Whether you know it or not, you are much admired.

The day before we shook hands for the first time and went flying, I strolled through the hangar examining each of the sleeping sailplanes one-by-one, my hands tucked behind me where they would not be tempted to touch things that don't belong to them — the way I might stow them while touring a cavern full of gleaming wet stalactites. As I passed one tough-looking beauty with a swept tail, one of your colleagues caught my eye and called out from across the hangar.

"Fully aerobatic," he said. "The young ones come in all bloodshot from flying that thing."

"You don't say."

"I do say. Too much for me, but Pete loves it when somebody tells him to 'give me all you got.' They don't know what he's got."

"I see."

Performance Art

The next morning I was on the ramp early, waiting my turn and picking out sailplanes in the sun. Away to the north, I saw yours flick its long wings in the speckled light under a cloud. You were yourself a cloud — in the way a mackerel twisting in an underwater shadow seems itself to be a shadow. Closer now, you were up, over, down, upright, and up again in a noiseless Cuban Eight. Then a loop, and a hammerhead turn — very close, now — a high pattern, then nose down in a sleek, whistling fly-by just inches off the runway. I heard the muffled sing of a jet engine without the engine. You were a tight package of potential energy. Your wings sagged with it.

You were young and alive, and so you squandered your excess in the breathtaking sweep of a climbing turn. Perpendicular to the runway, you shot out some more of it in a diving 180-degree turn at the windsock. Just as I was sure you would hit it, you were level and singing again, bisecting the runway, the ramp, the hangar — a white needle, drilling a whistling hole in the airspace perhaps 20 feet above my head.

Then you were a black spot, away to the south and sunward. I shielded my eyes with the back of my hand, frozen like a prairie dog in the shadow of an hawk. One casual hammerhead later, your passenger and I were facing each other so closely we could read each other's thoughts. A good center-fielder could've hit you with a baseball. You got bigger for a second, shifting neither left nor right, up nor down: A sure sign that my eyeball had become your dive target. Then you slipped back through the hole you opened on your last pass, just as the rifled air seemed to close around it.

At last you slapped down on the bar your one remaining potential-energy dollar, poured out a cool, long-drink downwind with a short-final chaser, and rolled to a dead stop precisely on the mark. Your craft photo-posed wings-level for a second, then sighed to prop one casual wingtip in the dust like a cowboy leaning against the corner of a barn to light a cigarette. If your ship'd had feet it would have crossed its boots.

"I hate it when he does that." Still mute, I turned to face another pilot who had emerged from the office during the performance, headed for the shadows of the hangar. "He's good, but he scares the spit out of me," he said with a head wag, disappearing into the dark.

So often, it seems, you're not as alone as you think.

My problem wasn't a lack of spit. I guess I'm getting too old for this. Not too old, maybe just too heavy. Too heavy with what time heaps on the survivors. Too mindful of the inescapable consequences that ripple through time as from a stone tossed into a pond. It was a beautiful performance, Pete. Beautiful. And stupid. And extraordinary, I suppose, considering how over-gross you were.

Over gross? How could you be over gross weight? You're so lean you'd lose sight of yourself if you turned sideways in a mirror. And your passenger was just a kid — 14, maybe 15 — and no bigger than a minute. Even with parachutes, your combined weight barely dented the sidewalls of the only tire under your ship.

Zen philosopher Alan Watts once observed that "preaching is moral violence." If that's true, then much of what we say to one another in aviation alternates between a dry technical briefing and moral assault-and-battery. How can I reflect on your performance, then, without making it just another act of violence? Perhaps an explanation would help.

Looking Back

I remember the dusty strip where I learned to fly gliders, perched on the high ground east of the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. I learned to rely on the sky itself to keep me airborne, rather than use a triple-edged saber, browbeating the air. The owners had been driven out of an airport in the Rio Grande Valley south of Albuquerque by an angry airport manager — a one-man lynch mob — who believed everything that flies ought to have an engine.

There had been an accident. The details were fuzzy — something about a collision between a tow plane and the airport manager's van, pulled out onto the middle of the runway. The tow pilot lay in a coma for months before he left his young widow. There were charges and counter-charges, of course — and attorneys for all sides, I'm sure. With apologies to my friends in the legal profession: Recrimination spawns lawyers in schools. The glider operation pulled up stakes and found this quiet spot east of the mountains, away from airport managers and vans, and resumed operations. When I met them they were busy teaching people like me — who thought they already knew how — to fly. The hangar was full of sailplanes. Folks seemed caring and cautious, and everyone was having a good time.

After I got my rating, I disappeared for a while into the business of flying for money — sitting for hours between two ear-numbing disks. When I returned, I was surprised to learn that the new operation had met an untimely end. There had been another accident. This time, it was rumored, a student — a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel — "froze" hard-over on the controls during a landing in a twin Blanik. He prevailed with the brute energy of panic in a last-second wrestling match with his instructor. The impact forced the Colonel to eat the instrument panel, which choked him to death. I could only imagine the horror of that scene — the chaos, the desperate attempts at rescue and resuscitation, the hopeless call for distant help that must find its way through a mountain pass, the interminably speechless wait, and finally the denial that slides off into grief. Later, when I made a portion of my living picking around in the aftermath of aviation accidents, my imagination was supplemented by grisly fact.

This time the insurance company didn't care whose fault it was. Excuses don't matter much in the face of death and statistics. In the end, risk is measured not in blame, but in what actually happens — what demands payment. Two fatals were enough for them, and they pulled the plug. The government isn't the only outfit around with its finger wound 'round aviation's choke collar.

Years later, on a visit to the area, I drove out to the old place. It was a sort of pilgrimage. I hadn't been there since before the accident. What I found was a tableau of hasty abandonment, like the set of some Hollywood post-nuclear-blast epic. All it lacked was the eerie electronic music. Assorted windswept junk lay wedged against clumps of yucca. Hardscrabble grass grew where once a patch of green lay like a postage stamp on a vast envelope of yellow and brown, licked by the ingenuity of a man-made pond fed by a deep well. A set of wooden steps led to a platform that once served as front porch to the trailer that was both home and office — as conspicuously missing now as an extracted front tooth. The hangar was empty — locked against unwelcome visitors like me. Dust covered everything.

I left that scene, but it never left me. And today it was back. I could see that same dust settling on the place where I stood, watching you.

Looking Forward

Maybe it's just me who's over-gross, Pete. After all, you've got more raw stick-talent than a thousand of me rolled into one. Surely that's it — I'm just jealous because if I tried to do what you did I'd plaster the canopy with my lunch and lose sight of the runway. Or I'd screw something up and bend a ship. When you've got the right stuff, there's nothing worse than having to listen to some old sourpuss with no "stuff."

On the other hand, if I've learned anything in 20 years, it's that you're never really alone in an aircraft, especially if you carry a card that says you're qualified to teach — to set the example for everyone else. That, too, is part of your "stuff." It isn't that I don't want you to experience the freedom of flight, or to pass that freedom on to others. I just think there's a choice to be made between "freedom" and "license," and that one of the most important pre-flight tasks a pilot performs is a thorough weight-and-balance calculation. As a professional flight instructor, you ought to accurately figure your load, and balance some things against others.

Only part of that load is the mass-times-gravity of the passengers and cargo. That's easy. The hard part is weighing the load you place on everyone else if a tiny mistake in one of your stunts sends you — and maybe some skinny high-school kid — wingless to heaven. The rest of us, who might want to fly around here the conventional way a little while longer, will go straight to hell when the company that insures this outfit decides to fold its tent. Part of our "hell" will be trying to find someplace else to keep our love alive. The real "hell," though, will be trying to explain to that kid's mom why, when everybody knew that you could be counted on for an impromptu low-level airshow, nobody — not your peers, not your mentors, not even your employer — stepped in to put a stop to it. When mom's lawyers follow in her wake — and their arrival is as predictable as a tsunami wave after an earthquake — they will arrive with empty briefcases and leave with full ones.

Harder still is weighing the effect of that which survives, whether you do or not. I don't mean the longevity you achieve by getting away with it time after time. I mean the long-term effect that your showmanship and lack of discipline will have on other young pilots who long to someday be just as skillful and free-spirited as Pete, their hero. I'm talking about the ripples in the pond, and their effect on the line-boys-cum-pilots-cum-instructors who, long after you've found a job somewhere else, will die trying to do what you did, or who will kill their students with the lack of restraint that can sweep through an immature population like hoof-and-mouth disease in an English cattle pen.

In his preface to Fate is the Hunter, Ernest Gann described his tale as a sort of war story — the story of the war of human progress against ignorance and fear. He dedicated the book, name by individual name, to each of 397 of his compatriots who fell in the waging of that war. Surely some of them died as victims of their own mistakes; others no doubt were cruelly trapped by unforeseen — and unforeseeable — circumstances. Unlike them, however, the coming deaths of your compatriots — some of whom you will never know because they will be the students of your students — will have been in vain, having failed to advance any worthwhile cause. They will not have occurred at the edge of some envelope that mankind desperately needs to push, but rather in the mundane backwater of a personal need to demonstrate prowess in the face of manufactured danger for the pursuit of a meaningless extreme. They will once again inflame the fear of an ignorant public and its media megaphone that flying is dangerous and better left to soldiers and professionals. The refugees you leave behind will be stuck with the job of trying to shore up America's love-hate relationship with flight.

Weight And Balance

I'm not asking you to quit having fun, Pete. Nor am I asking you to turn your own love affair with flight into a sexless marriage of convenience. This is not a warning to stuff your flight bag with the fear of lawyers, insurance companies and federal inspectors. I am asking you to examine the extremes of cowering fear and reckless exuberance, and decline them both. This is an appeal to your sense of balance, and your appreciation of the weight of the instructor's card you carry in your wallet. Shift your CG forward a little, that's all, and recognize that your most powerful instruction is what you do in front of your students — not behind or beside them.

Finally, I admit that my motives in writing are not altogether altruistic. Of Julius Caesar (who died for the excesses of his ego), Shakespeare wrote, "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones." So it is with rogue pilots. As long as we move mass at the speed of flight we will run the risk of injury and death. But I accept some level of that risk because flying is one of the things that makes me want to go on living. More than just wanting to "keep flying safe," however, I want simply to keep flying. I can't do it alone. The pressures against it are too great these days, and grow greater with every public outcry. If you are unwilling to weigh the things you bring on board, and to balance the load against its effect on those around you — if, at last, you are determined to kill yourself in an aircraft — would it be too cynical to suggest that you do it alone, and out of sight of your students?



Eric Jaderborg