The “basics” are a critical foundation to learning any new subject. They’ve saved my life on more than one occasion.
For four years of my life, I professionally taught people how to fly airplanes.
It’s something I’m surprisingly good at. The regional FAA examiner used to refer to me as “Ace”*, not because of my flying skills, but rather, because of the quality students I sent to him for evaluation. During those four years, not a single one of my students failed: a nearly unheard of statistic.
* [Simply “Brandon” would have been more to my liking, but it’s not something you get to choose in that line of work.]
While immensely proud of the hard work my students put in to achive that pass-rate, it’s not what I’m most proud of during that period of my life. The high point of me is that two students (and myself) are still alive today because my instructors took the time and care that was needed to ensure I had the best understanding and practice of the “basics” when I was learning how to fly. I’m proud of them — my mentors. I’m a difficult student. It took a lot to put up with me.
Without that I most assuredly would not be around today to write this post.
Some background: Pilots, as a matter of their basic flight worthiness, train for emergencies. One such emergency that is often practiced is the event of an in-flight engine failure. The public is most likely familiar with this idea from the wet landing of US Airways Flight 1549:
One of the most deadly times an in-flight engine failure can occur is immediately after take off when no suitable locations for ditching the airplane (like the middle of the Hudson River) exist directly ahead of the plane. In this scenario, the pilot has only one option: attempt a u-turn back towards the airport.
This is such a difficult maneuver that it has earned the nickname “the impossible turn” in piloting circles. Statistics show that somewhere between 80% and 90% of aircraft that are forced into this maneuver of last resort crash — typically with fatal results for everyone aboard.
Here is a video of a successful attempt:
While acting as a flight instructor — coaching students when they were flying — this happened to me twice.
And I say “me” because even though the student was the one in control of the airplane during the start of the failure, and there’s a lot to be gained by letting students work through problems without help, I took over as soon as I recognized the issue was life threatening.
For those of you that my already have some aversion to flying, I should stress that this is an extremely rare event. It occurs in a statistical sense to general aviation type aircraft (“small planes”) once every 50,000 hours of flight. In both cases the engine failure was a result of easily avoidable, poor maintenance practices — but that’s a story for another time.
On to the basics…. To execute this turn, the pilot must possess a solid foundational knowledge of the aerodynamics involved and an even better “feel” for the aircraft — after all, this is a kinesthetic exercise. It’s a high standard to begin with, but as an added complication, the pilot must be able to recall these things in a split second and act on them under the stress of an incipient fatal crash.
The positioning, speed, and orientation of the aircraft in its takeoff configuration give a window of only a few seconds to react successfully to an engine failure. The execution of the maneuver that follows must be near-perfect. For this to work, the pilot has to push the aircraft to the very edge of its operational envelope and hold it there. Any deviation will result in one of two things happening:
- The plane will stall and crash, or
- The plane will run out of altitude (energy) before making it back to the airport (and crash)
For me, I only was able to perform at this this level thanks to practicing the fundamental skill set that makes up pilotage… the boring stuff… the “rote” movements of flying an airplane… the basics… over and over and over again. And doing so while in the presence of an experienced instructor that cared enough to provide an honest critique of my performance (over and over and over again). It was frustrating and (at the time) it didn’t seem to have much of a purpose, but looking back on it, I’m grateful my instructors had the wisdom to hold me to a higher standard than most do. I would imagine my two students are grateful as well.
Some activities in life require training to a standard of “right and wrong”. Getting too creative, too early, can be dangerous. That’s not to say we can’t develop or grow past this point with experience, wisdom, and creativity, but as instructors, it’s our duty to know where and when this is advisable for a student. When it is, sometimes we must push them to grow. In other cases, we have to advise them to slow down and refocus on the the necessary and sufficient aspects that span the discipline: the basics.