January 5, 1998
My husband, Doug (AVweb's News
Editor) tried for over a decade to get me to take a Pinch-Hitter course, to no avail. I
had a million and one excuses and used them frequently. I just did not want to learn to
fly or anything remotely connected with learning to fly. Flying was his thing. It was a
great way to get to Block Island or Sedona, but other than that, I was not interested. I
felt very comfortable with flying, in fact I have come to prefer flying "Critter
Airways" rather than the major airlines. But, I didn't want to do the flying myself.
I am lucky in that Doug has always wanted me to know and understand what was happening.
When we fly together, I set the transponder code, help him with getting information out of
the Flight Guide, and I'm a pretty good navigator. I can find my way around the sectionals
and Doug's teaching me how to use the GPS so I can always find the nearest landing field
with a bathroom. We all have our own priorities.
On occasion, I've even taken the controls for just a few
seconds, but other than that, me learn to fly? No way. Well, to make a long story short, I
became the "guinea pig" for an assignment from one of Doug's editors.
Personally, I think there was a conspiracy between them, but I finally had run out of
excuses and found myself enrolled in AOPA's Pinch-Hitter course and being flown off to the
annual AOPA Expo in Las Vegas a few years back. To use one of my favorite terms, I was not
a happy camper, but being a typical type A, I was going to do my very best to succeed.
To my surprise, I was not the only "flying companion" who had been prodded,
coerced, nudged, etc., to attend. I found myself sitting in a room with 12 other women and
one man and many had similar stories. We were welcomed by our instructor, Frank, and at
that point he politely asked all the pilots to leave the room. This caused a little bit of
complaining from some of the spouses, but very quickly we were all alone, except for Doug
doing his invisible act in a dark corner of the room. Now Frank was ready to get down to
business and teach us all we never wanted to know about flying, navigation, communication,
and of course, landing.
The first session lasted two hours. Frank did his best to not
only put us at ease, but assured us he would answer all our questions. It was surprising
to me to hear that not everyone was as fortunate as I have been to have a flying companion
who includes me in what is happening. One of the students even had to insist that she take
the course, because her husband did not support her taking it. A couple of the students
were taking it for a second or third time. They were there to sharpen their skills. Most,
however, had little prior experience other than at being a passenger. Some were afraid of
flying and others feared for the safety of their kids, if something ever happened to
It became obvious as to why Frank had asked the pilots to leave. With our companions
around we would have been hesitant to ask the questions we really wanted answered. He
wanted us to be able to communicate openly and frankly. It worked. Before long we were
asking all the questions we had never been able to ask. Frank did a great job at answering
our questions in simple, easy to understand terms. The real beauty of this course is that
it gets a lot of information to you in a short time that is VERY easy, surprisingly easy,
to comprehend. During our first session basic aerodynamics, flight and power controls were
explained. We were encouraged to use terms we were comfortable with, like, wheel instead
of yoke and gas instead of fuel. Tips for power and control settings were given. Simple
examples like riding a bike were used to explain how and why airplanes did things. We did
not rush through things and Frank spent as much time as needed for us to feel comfortable
and to have all our questions answered. Time flew, so to speak, and we were done with the
first session before we knew it.
At the end of our first session we were assigned our flight instructors. My instructor,
Andy Serrell, was a retired naval aviator with lots of hours of not only flying but,
instruction. All of the instructors had years of experience and were hand picked to do
this training. After only a few minutes conversation I felt real comfortable with Andy.
Andy and I agreed on our schedule for flying the next day and that night I went to sleep
only to dream all night that I was flying!
Doug, Andy and I arrived at North Las Vegas bright and early the next morning. After a
preflight, Doug went up with Andy in our plane, a rented Turbo-Arrow we usually flew back
then, to familiarize Andy with the plane and explain and demonstrate its idiosyncrasies.
They were back shortly and now it was my turn. It was too late, I couldn't turn back.
Nervously, I resigned myself to the fact I had come to learn to be an "emergency
replacement pilot" and it was my turn in the barrel.
Andy spent a good deal of time walking around the plane with me
and going over and re-enforcing what Frank had covered the previous afternoon. It helped
to calm me down and then it was time. Andy got into Doug's seat and I followed him and got
in my usual place, the "right" seat. We then spent some more time reviewing the
instruments and he did his best to put me at ease.
Well eventually the time came, we went through the checklist, Andy yelled
"clear" and fired our bird up. After maneuvering our way out of the flight line,
it was my turn to taxi her out to the runway. Frank, Andy and Doug had all warned me how
peculiar it would feel to steer with my feet and they were right! It takes some time to
get used to, but I did it. After a preflight run-up we were cleared to take the active and
there I was doing my first assisted take-off. Despite all my concerns, after all those
years of watching Doug do it, it was a neat feeling to have my hands on the controls and
doing it myself.
I can't stress enough that this course is designed to make the you feel secure, safe
and confident. We spent the first session covering basic flying maneuvers and discovering
how the plane handles. We didn't do anything scary, just simple maneuvers like going up
and down and making shallow turns. It took a lot of concentration, but it was also fun. I
was actually enjoying myself. I flew us back to the airport and Andy landed the plane, but
described to me what he was doing and why and when to do what.
We took a short break and reviewed the first session and then went out for
some navigational work with the VORs. It was easier to taxi this time. This time I did the
take-off all by myself. Andy just followed through in case I needed any help. Flying was a
lot easier this time and I was surprised at how easy it was to track the VOR. By the time
we returned I was happy, but tired. We debriefed again, had a late lunch and rested a bit
before it was time to head back to the hotel for more ground school. This time Frank
covered what many of us had really come to learn, how to communicate, navigate and safely
land the plane.
I walked away from the second ground school full of questions and "dumped
core" to Doug over dinner. It had been a long time since Doug had been in pilot
training, but I was experiencing much of what he had and he did a lot to put my thoughts
and feelings in perspective. I found out that many of the things I was having problems
with, he had also experienced problems with when he was a student pilot. It wasn't just
me, it was part of learning to fly. Once again I went on to fly planes all night in my
The next morning I woke a little stiff and sore. Doug just nodded and assured me that
was normal as well. The next flying session focused on flying headings and working with
the controllers at busy Las Vegas McCarran airprot. It was great. They were extremely busy
and had to vector us all over the place. It couldn't have been better if we had planned
it. I soon felt very comfortable with talking to the controllers and following their
directions. At this point here was only one thing left to do, LAND!
I was ready. We went out to a small field south of Las Vegas. Andy had
taught me to fly straight and level. So, we made an approach and he had me come right in
and fly directly over the runway about 100 feet off the ground and take her back up. It
was then I knew I could land. We came back around, did a right hand pattern and I landed
with his assistance at the controls. This was it. We taxied around, I took off all by
myself, climbed to 3500 feet and began the pattern for landing. I knew I could do it. I
went through all the things from ground school and what Andy had taught me: flaps, power
settings, GUMP check, communicating my downwind, base and final (why do they have to call
it "final?"). All the while, Andy was talking to me as if he were a controller
on the ground. And then we were down and I had done it without Andy touching the controls!
It wasn't the prettiest landing, but neither was it all that bad. The important point was
that I made it down safe and secure and rolled out straight 'til she stopped. We did a few
more take-offs and landings. Each one was a little easier than the one before. Then we
headed back to North Las Vegas for my last landing, in front of Doug. Talk about nervous!
One small bounce, no problem. I'm not sure who was grinning more when I opened the door,
me or Doug.
I did what I came to do. I learned how to safely take control of
the plane and land it if I needed to in an emergency. I learned to not feel shy about
asking for help if I need it. I have 121.5 and 7700 burned into my memory and have no
qualms about asking for help to get to a major airport and bigger runway if I have the
fuel. I feel in control.
The Pinch-Hitter course gave me the knowledge and confidence to handle an emergency
situation. Besides all that, I am now real comfortable taking over from Doug when he asks
me to do so. I can also be an even bigger help to him and I now enjoy our flights much
more. It's fun.
It took me over ten years to be "convinced" to take this course. It doesn't
hurt, it isn't fattening, and I should have done it years ago. Earning my Pinch-Hitter wings was one of my proudest moments
To all of you who have objected, refused or simply are afraid to take this course, I
can only tell you one thing. . . JUST DO IT! You'll be glad you did.