Backseat Driver

Yesterday morning dawned cold and clear. The readout on my car’s dashboard read 27 degrees F as I pulled out of my driveway for the long drive to the big city and the flight school I’d chosen to help me get my CFI rating. Another readout said 6:30AM Ugh. But the cold early Sunday morning drive would be worth it. The weather forecast was good and I’d finally get to start the flying part of my flight instructor training. Crappy weather had grounded me for the last week and I’d been getting just a little bit cranky. When I got to the flight school Leslie (my fellow CFI candidate) had already pre-flighted the Piper Arrow (good boy!) and the line boy was pulling it out of the school’s heated hanger, Nice! No lift killing frost to scrape off, a warm cockpit to climb into, and an easy to start warm engine. A good start! Then I met our flight instructor for the day. He wasn’t the chief instructor we’d been working with so far but on of his younger minions who was carrying a flight bag the size of a steamer trunk. I mean really, who flies with that much crap? We weren’t going to fly more than 20 miles from the airport for crying out loud. Then to make matters worse the first thing he did was to put that monster of a bag into the cargo compartment behind the rear seats. I mean if you’re going to fly with that much (apparently vital) equipment at least have it available. Oh well I didn’t care, it was a beautiful morning and I was going flying.

Then the instructor had to go and spoil my good mood by informing us that instead of working on the flight maneuvers we’d need to perform during our upcoming FAA check ride we’d instead spend out two hours of flight time getting us checked out to fly the mighty 200 horsepower Piper ArrowII. Great. Additionally, seeing that there were two of us it was unlikely that we’d finish up with both of us. More great. He then asked if either us had any Arrow time. Leslie had none and I told him that I had logged about 50 hours flying one, leaving out the fact that I’d flown one from the US to Rome, Italy many years ago.  Seeing that Leslie would need more work the instructor elected to put him up front first. It was at this point that I should have elected to stay on the ground and spend the time studying for my written test. Instead I climbed into the back of the tiny plane to observe the teaching methods of the instructor. But as we were taxing to the runway I was wondering if I’d made the right choice. I didn’t know the instructor at all and I knew Leslie was relatively inexperienced. There was no reason for me to be taking the risk of flying with two unknown pilots in a small plane. Stupid.

Leslie lived up to my expectations as a new pilot with clumsy radio calls to the tower and a not very smooth takeoff but it wasn’t all that bad so I sat back and observed. The first thing the instructor had him do was steep turns. A pretty basic maneuver where you roll into a 360 degree turn to the left followed by another to the right. You’re supposed to hold a 45 degree bank the entire time and not gain or loose more than 100 feet. Pretty simple. But Leslie struggled. He pitched up , he pitched down, his speed varied all over the place. In his defense he was flying from the right seat for the first time and if you’ve never done it before it’s kind of like writing left handed. I didn’t care that Leslie wasn’t doing perfect, what I did care about was the fact that the instructor wasn’t monitoring our airspeed very closely. I could see the airspeed indicator clearly from the backseat and watched as we got slower and slower. At one point while still in a steep bank we got so slow that the aircraft started buffeting, (a sign of an imminent stall) and I could tell the instructor had no clue. “How do you not feel that?” I wondered. If we stalled while in a steep turn we’d almost surly go into a spin and seeing that we were only 1500 feet above the ground I didn’t have a ton of faith that the two knuckle heads up front would recover before we made a big smoking hole in the ground. I finally had enough and said “Watch your speed!” over the intercom. The instructor was a little shocked at how slow we’d gotten and admonished Leslie about how we were close to getting into an accelerated stall. I held my tongue but thought “isn’t it the instructors job to keep the student from killing us all?” The rest of the flight was kind of like that. Leslie doing a fair to poor job of flying and the instructor doing the same job of instructing. Thank God we were out of time after the last landing because if we weren’t I was going to get out and walk back. It was that bad.

When we got back the instructor told Leslie that he’d need at least one more flight to be fully checked out and seeing that we were out of time that I’d have to come back another time. Great, so I basically wasted my entire morning for nothing. Well, not for nothing. I did at least cross that instructor off my list of pilots I’ll ever fly with again.

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