|Monday 9 November 2009||Text by Aníbal Baranek under General aviation|
To teach another instructor can be the most rewarding experience or the scariest. On one hand you are dealing with an experienced pilot who needs to practice certain manoeuvres but he already knows all the basics. On the other hand, you are dealing with an experienced pilot who needs… well, you get the point.
The problem with experienced pilots is that they don’t usually make stupid mistakes. Theirs are more complex and more unexpected because, hey, this guy knows what he is doing. Right? Yeah, sure.
I discovered this universal fact one evening. I was working with another CFI who wanted to add an instrument rating to his certificate in order to teach instrument students. I started his training making one wrong assumption. That his instrument procedures were already sharp, if not by experience by many hours in the simulator.
As instructors, we were granted free access to it whenever it wasn’t being used by paying customers. I had spent many hours on it before starting my own CFII and I assumed he had done so too. Before our first flight I asked him about his instrument procedures and if there were any areas where he felt weak, in order to move straight into those areas and expedite the training as much as possible. He told me that he felt ready for the check ride already and that he just wanted to get the 3 hours of dual so I could recommend him for the practical test.
So we departed on our first flight to perform what basically amounted to a mock check ride. I put him under the hood and he flew some approaches and then entered a hold. He was rusty and out of check ride tolerances. Still I didn’t find any problems that couldn’t be corrected with some practice.
Then, during a hold we actually entered a cloud and he just lost it. Altitude, speed, bank angle. He couldn’t maintain any of them. I asked him about that but he said there was no problem, he was just feeling tired. So we called it a day and returned to the airport with him under the hood but in VMC.
On our next flight the same thing happened, here is a cloud and, hood or no hood, there goes the aircraft control. Here is where I started to suspect a problem with basic attitude flying. Was he cheating by looking outside when he was supposed to be looking inside the airplane? No way, not an experienced instructor. He would know that there’s no point in cheating to yourself. I asked him about it and he confirmed that he was always looking inside.
For our next flight (by now we had both agreed that it wouldn’t be enough with the 3 hs specified by the FARs) we scheduled an airplane for the evening. That made things easier with my schedule. It was a beautiful night with many lights in the ground from the cities around us. The plan was to work on basic attitude flying from an instructional point of view. We did some steep turns and stalls with that reference (that should have been invisible for him anyway).
Then I took him over the water, with about 5 minutes looking outside to relax, and I made him climb to 4500 ft. and asked him to perform another steep turn under the hood. Over the water there were not lights so, even tough we were legally operating in VFR, there was nothing to see outside.
He went right at it without applying any backpressure at all. The airplane entered a graveyard spiral in but the indications were clear. Altimeter winding down, VSI showing 1500/2000 fpm down, speed increasing. And yet he was doing nothing! Not talking, not moving, nothing. I took the airplane I explained to him what had gone wrong “more back pressure, crosscheck all the instruments” and then he gave it another go.
Once again he got into the same unusual attitude. For a moment I thought he was having fun with me. Playing the inept student or something. I took the airplane again, I asked him what he had done wrong and he seemed to understand. This time, I told him, I would not touch anything. I would give him all the time to recover. I trusted him as a pilot and as an instructor. He grabbed the controls and banked…
Two minutes and 3000 ft. latter I asked him what was wrong. And he said that nothing was. Cold mathematics told me that if I didn’t do something in 60 seconds or less there would never be anything wrong again, for either for us. That’s when I felt cold fear gripping my throat. I took the airplane, recovered at about 1000 ft. over the dark water and headed back to the airport.
Why did I endanger both our lives that way? Why did I let him get so low before reacting? I still don’t know. I trusted this person. I assumed that because he said he could fly in IMC it was actually true. Granted, not many people overestimate so much their own skills, or fail to recognize when they are having a bad day. But still I should have seen the signs before and be ready for anything.
What did I learn from it? That whenever I am instructing, no matter if it is student pilot on his first flight or a retired airline pilot getting a checkout, my job is to catch their mistakes. And they all will make them. Just as you or I do. It’s just a matter of time and, perhaps, of attitude.
Nobody is perfect, not even instructors. That night, over the Gulf of Mexico, I proved it.