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Prime the Pump

It has been incredibly difficult for me to compose anything at all this week.  Whether the ultimate culprit is distraction, lack of inspiration, poor time management, or plain old discombobulation, I feel the need to combat this turn of events by “priming the pump” in the hopes of producing a geyser of creativity.  I am feeling a bit nostalgic today, so I think I’ll tell you a story from my flight instructing days.

In order to gain a private pilot’s license, one of the many tasks a student must complete is flying solo to airports at least fifty miles from their home base.  There were specific things in which I liked each of my students to be proficient before I would allow them to undertake such a cross-country journey on their own.

In preparation for their first solo cross-country flight, students fly with an instructor on a series of trips to learn everything from how to read the navigation charts and find out what kind of facilities are available at the destination airport, to how to get a proper weather briefing and file a flight plan.  Due to one of my own embarrassing experiences, I also made sure my students knew what to do if they should become lost.

On the last leg of the final dual cross-country flight, I would have the student practice unusual attitude recovery in order to get him lost, and then make him find his way home.  To practice unusual attitude recovery, the student would close his eyes with his head bowed forward while I flew the aircraft in random directions, climbing and descending to get him disoriented.  I would then settle the plane in either a climbing or descending turn and have him open his eyes and recover to straight and level flight.  We might do this three times or so.  When the student’s eyes were closed during the final session, I would reset the aircraft’s heading indicator 90 degrees so that when he thought he was going east, he was really heading south.  Then I’d have him recover to straight and level flight, figure out where he was, and head for home.

Not one student ever discovered the discrepancy between the heading indicator, which they used to navigate, and the aircraft’s magnetic compass, which many forgot was installed.  They always became horribly lost, which was my goal in the first place.  Being lost with an instructor on board is infinitely better than being lost alone.  I’d help them work through the problem, remind them of available resources, let them navigate home, and finally celebrate their victory with a solo cross-country endorsement.

Only once did my dirty little trick fail.  One of my students was the sweetest, little old man on the planet.  He was in his seventies and came out to fly with me a few times a month.  I don’t think he was as interested in obtaining his license as much as he was in just tooling around in an airplane every once in a while.  On that fateful flight, I reset the heading indicator as I always did, had him recover to straight and level flight, and told him to fly us home.  Without a word, he headed directly for our destination.

I was astounded.  His heading indicator was reading 90 degrees off, yet he was flying in the correct direction, noting landmarks along the way.  When I finally recovered from my surprise, I asked him how he knew he was going toward the airport.  He pointed to the magnetic compass.  It turned out that he never used the heading indicator, and didn’t even notice that it was incorrect!

Since it seemed that I would not be able to trick him into getting lost, I gave up, and indulged in some pleasant conversation during our leisurely flight.  Many years have passed since that day, but I will always remember his unerring sense of direction, and he will always have a place in my heart as one of my favorite students.

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