Guest Blog: CFI's Remorse

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Let’s call him Peter. I was his fifth flight instructor since he started learning to fly nine months earlier.  He was attempting to obtain his private license within the 365-day period allowed for registered aliens living in the U.S. When we met, my first question was, “How did you go through so many instructors?” Some of his explanations made sense. One got a right-seat job with a small airline, another quit so he could take care of a relative, and so on. The bottom line was, he was in a hurry, and wanted to fly more often than most instructors could handle.

I mentioned that I could not guarantee he’d pass his checkride within three months, and he was aware that if he didn’t, he’d have to reapply for TSA approval to continue his training. I took the challenge.

“Born pilots” are a rare breed. This guy was an excellent stick in spite of his limited hours.  His handling of the Cessna 172 was easily as good as mine for takeoffs, landings and pattern work. His VFR navigation was excellent. What he mostly needed was three hours of cross-country, three hours of night flying per the regs, two more hours of instrument time and consistency in the private pilot flight maneuvers.

I talked a friend into helping out with the night flying--I am not a fan of single-engine cross country at night)--and I’d try to get him up to speed on the rest. The only problem I kept running into was a bit of overconfidence on his part. He felt he’d be ready for the checkride as soon as we flew the required hours. As any instructor knows, the student is ready only when they can consistently perform to the Airplane Airman Certification Standards (AACS).

He continued to assume that because he had performed all of the maneuvers properly a few times, we could proceed to the checkout line. I finally said we’d do a “fake” flight test, where I’d be the examiner and he’d be the candidate. We did that, and he “fake flunked.” His newfound humility led to more practice and, finally, a recommendation from me.

The examiner was using the techniques of the AACS, which are scenario-based. It began with a conversation about a hypothetical cross country flight. My student was nervous, and stumbled with some very basic concepts. Thankfully, the examiner recognized that he knew his stuff, but thought these were trick questions, and hesitated to offer the obvious answers. That being resolved, the oral exam went on for an hour. And off they went.

I walked to get lunch and returned shortly before they landed. The examiner took me aside and said he passed, but wanted to confirm whether I had instructed him to do a few things he considered odd, but not illegal. He also said that his piloting skills were exceptional.

The new private pilot began showing up at local airports, looking for aviation work hoping to catch a ride in anything that flew. He’d regularly phone me, offering to tag along on any cross-country flights I might be taking and I brought him along when it was practical.

Less than a year after getting his private license, he’d gotten his instrument rating and was working on his multi-engine rating. He lived to fly. His most recent flight was as a passenger with a Pitts S-2A. That flight ended in a fatal crash, killing both aboard.

I have flown with many pilots in a variety of aerobatic airplanes. I’ve seen (close up) equipment failures, botched maneuvers, precision flight, near-misses. I’ve been to lots of pilot funerals. I believe I am aware of the risks involved in normal flight; in aerobatic flight; in unfamiliar airplanes. In some cases, I was aware that if the pilot became incapacitated, he would likely not successfully put the airplane down safely.

When I learned of this accident, I had a wave of survivor guilt, coupled with a sense that I had failed in some way. I knew this kid was desperate to be in any airplane, at any time, with any pilot. I have occasionally declined to ride along with pilots who I considered were in over their heads, or whose airplanes struck me as questionably maintained. I was deeply saddened to see this excited, talented, future career aviator vanish as he hunted for and devoured all things aerodynamic.

We’re taught that individuals are unique and it’s up to us to shape our training to each student’s needs. This kid was so in love with aviation that, offered a ride, safety was probably not at the top of his list. Alone, or as PIC, he was exceptionally meticulous. On the day he died, he was a passenger. Could I have sensed that he needed advice on when to say no to a tempting flight? Would that have changed anything? Sadly, those questions will remain unanswered.

Comments (8)

Why the good and young die? After Viet Nam I frequently reflected in this. Now, although sad, I just put it in the God box.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 3, 2018 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Ernest Gann said it best with
'there is always a price to pay for motion'
dave

Posted by: David Ahrens | June 3, 2018 2:32 PM    Report this comment

Interesting article. I think it is inherent in all pilots to feel saddened when we hear about a fatal airplane accident - to know that someone died doing what we hold so dear. It is especially true when it is someone you know, so I'm sure instructors feel particular pain when a student - current or former - meets such a fate. But, at some point, all eagles leave the nest and must soar on their own. An instructor's responsibility is to teach skill in handling an aircraft and instill judgement of when to fly and when to stay home. The latter usually extends to weather and can be difficult to apply elsewhere in life. Experience takes time and can be a hard teacher.

Posted by: John McNamee | June 3, 2018 4:49 PM    Report this comment

A CFI should have no remorse if he or she has given the student the required training and then an independent FAA representative deems that pilot competent to hold the rating. The fledglings have to leave the nest and determine their own fate.

We may feel sadness upon the loss of a fellow pilot and student, this is a normal reaction. However, if one tends to dwell on the incident or start assuming blame or responsibility for a situation that is out of their control, then professional help may be needed. This is not a weakness or sign of failure, it is a fact of the human psyche. I have seen many tough as nails first responders come completely unglued over an emotionally challenging incident. We never know what will trip our trigger and cause us to have serious doubts and guilt feelings. We never know when it will happen to us.

In this case a responsible adult, made a decision that was totally out of the control of his CFI. Unfortunately, it was a fatal decision. Life is full of risks, and this person assumed that risk. Perhaps his judgement was clouded by his desire to fly on this flight, however, his CFI had no control of the situation and no responsibility for the safe conduct of the fatal flight.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | June 3, 2018 8:29 PM    Report this comment

Every time we as pilots touch the controls of an aircraft we remember (...or should...) the responsibility placed in our hands. As pilots, these events always hit us deeply, especially so when out of no apparent exhibition of bravado or carelessness, an event strikes someone we perceive as innocent.

Getting into aviation, I had something like the reverse experience that started on the day I decided to "go for it" and sign up for ground school. I never would have taken the step had I not sensed that my instructor, Geoff (that IS his real name, and anyone connected with Air Usenet in the early 90's will know whom I am talking about) was a maniac about safety. I stood in awe of his meticulousness, his adherence to both rule and common sense. He was the guy that convinced me, after years of standing on the sidelines, that it was OK to fly - it COULD be done systematically and safely.

And then on his way back home from Osh Kosh in 2006, Geoff didn't make it.

I won't go into the details of the crash, but suffice it to say that when Geoff left us, I lost something priceless - I lost the trust in the ideal that, if you're careful enough, all the time, you will safely complete every flight. I'm afraid that David's reference to Ernie Gann carries more truth than I want to accept.

Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff.

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | June 4, 2018 1:06 AM    Report this comment

Jeff, there is no reason to blame yourself; you did what you could.
But, just simply having a connection can cause remorse.

On one occasion when I finished my run-up, the pilot waiting behind me and I exchanged waves and I took off, leaving the area. Only afterwards did I learn that the pilot (a stranger to me) would perish on climbout a couple minutes later. I can still see his smile, and I still wonder even today if I could have done anything, but my rational side says no I could not. Cherish every day you have.

Posted by: A Richie | June 4, 2018 10:27 AM    Report this comment

Not sure if this question would be considered relevant to the topic discussed or not, however, I'm going to ask it anyway. How many CFI's have had their students try to kill them through panic or some other form of behavior whereby exchange of control demands are not responded to or are pretty much irrelevant (i.e.) short final? How many are now not now instructing or considering quitting instructing because of an event of this nature has had that much a profound effect?

Posted by: Tom Cooke | June 5, 2018 6:30 AM    Report this comment

Hey, Tom Cooke. I had several students "try to kill" me, as have several instructor friends I know. The typical scenario was during the flare, with the student aggressively pulling or pushing the stick in the wrong direction at the worst possible moment. True, a green instructor could be totally freaked out by the experience, but with enough near-catastrophes and successful outcomes, it's like skydiving. Horribly scary the first time, but if you do it a few more times, it gets more comfortable. I skydived only once.

Posted by: Jeff Parnau | June 6, 2018 11:54 AM    Report this comment

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