My former flight instructor, Ron Horton, is a very quotable guy. He picked me up as a student when I was about halfway through my Private Pilot training. On one of our first lessons, he told me, “Just so you know, this is all purely for my entertainment. If you learn to fly in the process, that’s a bonus.” He then guided me over the next year and a half through my Private, Instrument, and Commercial ASEL ratings. Ron imparted a lot of information in those hours we spent sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a noisy airplane or over a meal close to whichever airport we just flew into. “I’ll be spraying you with a fire hose while you hold your knowledge bucket over your head and try to catch as much as you can. Most of it’s going to get past you at first, but you’ll get your bucket full at some point.”
I was quoting Ron so often that I thought to myself, I have all of the videos from training flights; I wonder how many Ron-isms are on them? So I started watching all of the training footage I had. If you’re going to be working toward a new rating, especially the Instrument rating, a GoPro (or similar) is a valuable asset because when you’re in the heat of battle trying to learn to fly approaches or new maneuvers, it’s nearly impossible (for me anyway) to take in new information. Being able to go back and watch yourself do the thing and hear what the instructor is saying, while you’re sitting back that evening with a cold adult beverage, is like getting a Buy One Get One Free deal on a lesson. You get the tactile lesson in the airplane where you feel, hear, and smell what’s going on, then you get to sit back as an observer and really take in the details of what’s being said and done in the cockpit. It was invaluable for me and I can’t recommend it enough.
After you get that rating, and I can’t stress this enough, NEVER WATCH THOSE VIDEOS AGAIN. I’m somewhat kidding, but only somewhat. The worst part about watching all of those videos, other than listening to my own dumb voice, was resisting the urge to yell at the screen and thump my past self on the back of the head when I did something dumb or I started flying slop, which was a lot of the time. I know, I know. I was learning a new skill and wasn’t expected to nail everything perfectly. Even so, I almost called Ron and told him that I wanted a redo on a couple of approaches. Come on, man, give me another shot at those Lazy Eights! Maybe I’ll do some low passes over the FSDO so my certificates will get revoked and I get to start all over. I bet I’d kick ass at Chandelles now. Hmm, yeah, maybe I won’t do that.
When I first started flying with Ron, I though he was hard-nosed and a little too precise for my liking. It felt to me like he didn’t cut me any slack and kept me on the straight and narrow. After watching the videos, I realized just how wrong I was. He’d tell me to hold 3500’ in cruise while we repositioned for another maneuver. By the time we got ready to do the maneuver, he’d look over and say, “Okay, we’re at 3800 so we’ll start our stalls from there.” I’m pretty sure that the discrepancy in altitude never registered in my mind. The other insight I got from watching the videos from my Instrument training is that he really did hold me to tight tolerances when it came to altitudes on an approach, especially MDAs (Minimum Descent Altitudes) on Localizer approaches. He’d call me out if I was twenty feet below the MDA. It wasn’t until I started shooting real approaches in the clouds that I realized he wasn’t trying to be pedantic; he was trying to keep me alive. What really resonates with me is the conversation that we’d have while coming down the glideslope. If I had the needles somewhat close to the middle, he’d say, “If you ever suffer from insomnia, you should read the book that explains how they survey these airports and how little room they give you on the outside of the beam. There’s not as much room as you’d think out there.” I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought while I was trying to keep a 172 within a dot or two of center on a bright, sunny day while under the hood.
That thought really started sinking in with me when I went through my first type-rating course. Nearly everything in the simulator is done at night and down to minimums. Even steep turns are done at 5000’ at night above an IMC layer. When I was hand-flying approaches down to minimums in mountainous terrain, the instructor would occasionally pause the simulator, take away the weather, and turn night into day so I could see how close to the rocks I was. It was pretty damn close even when I was right on the localizer and glideslope. I’d have time to appreciate the view, then the weather would go back to night IMC. And, more often than not, we’d be on fire and probably down an engine or two.
Ron’s lesson of “you need to be precise because you don’t have as much room as you think” really, REALLY hit home one night when I was in the right seat of a Citation. We were shooting an approach into MJX (Tom’s River, NJ) at about 9pm in hard IMC. The forecast and ASOS all said that the weather was right at minimums for the ILS approach. We were coming down the glideslope in the dark with rain pelting the windshields. I was making the call-outs, “300 to mins. 200 to mins. 100 to mins.” Just about the time when I was rethinking everything, I happily called, “Approach lights in sight. Continue.” Then, very shortly after that, “Runway is in sight” and we landed uneventfully.
It was that approach that gave me a new appreciation for being called out if I was 20 feet low on the glideslope, or a dot-and-a-half off of the localizer. Being under the hood with a safety net is one thing. Being on an ILS approach at 135 knots in the clouds at night down to minimums in the rain is a completely different thing. A far, FAR, different thing. I’m pretty sure I had to dig the sheepskin out of my underwear when we were done with that approach.
My biggest takeaway from this whole project is that anybody can learn to fly (Hell, they put a monkey into space) but there is a big difference between learning to fly and learning to love to fly. People like Ron make it easy to love to fly and I think the aviation community is better for having him around to usher in the next generation of aviators.