Just Do It! — A Reluctant Participant's View of the Pinch-Hitter Course
A special supplement to Doug Ritter's article "The Pilot's Incapacitated — Now What?"
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 Daddy.
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 dreams.
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.