There was a time, in the decades just before I was born, when learning to fly was all about learning to fly. Stick and rudder skills. The written exam was, so I hear, a True/False joke of a test. Good trainers always did something that today we’d call scenario-based training, but it was possible to earn your pilot certificate with steady hands on the stick and all the sense that God gave a walnut.
These days, there’s a lot of emphasis on Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and the various checklists and procedures. I’m a facts and statistics guy, a scientist who believes that reality is what it is regardless of how you feel about it, the kind of guy who bought a copy of The Killing Zone the same day I bought Stick and Rudder when I decided to learn to fly, so as silly as I feel when I run through IMSAFE, I know where these things are coming from, I know checklists work, and I’m on board. The FAA wants to ensure that a pilot who earns a certificate today learns as much about how to make good decisions in the air, and good decisions about when not to be in the air, as they do about how to actually fly the plane.
In my head, I know all of this. But sometimes it takes an object lesson in your own failings to drive a point home.
The week after my trip to Mobile, both me and the Cheetah were back in town and scheduled for my first post-solo lesson with my regular instructor. We spent the first 30 minutes geeking out about the new Garmin 650 in the plane and syncing ForeFlight on my iPad to it via Bluetooth. We’d barely discussed the operation of the old avionics, beyond the minimal necessary to get the ATIS, but I gathered John was pretty happy with the new stack and wanted to show it off. Pairing my iPad took longer than it might have because John wanted to do it and I didn’t muscle in: iPads and Bluetooth pairing are old hat to me the way flying is to him, so I figured he could use the practice setting the electronics up just like I could use the practice landings I was about to do.
We departed to the west and did a few 360s in the practice area, then a simulated engine out. Our previous engine out practices were, for me, all about the mechanics of getting into a field in one piece, and that’s how I set about this one. Immediately after pulling power, John reminded me that there was a grass field nearby that he had pointed out before, but said something like “We’re way too high for it”. So I picked a different field, but noticed there were power lines across it after a few moments. We were still plenty high, so I lined up for a third field and we got down to about the tree line. We were a little high but I didn’t start a forward slip because I didn’t intend to actually end up in the field. I just kept coasting on over the field until John said, “Alright, let’s get out of here.” On the way back up, he said he’d probably never pass up a good, known grass strip for a farmer’s field, and suddenly the last few minutes shifted into focus for me.
When John mentioned we were too high, he wasn’t telling me to find another field: with a grass field in reach, you can just circle to get where you need to be. Next time we do an engine out, I’m going to make for the field as if I intend to land there, and then, instead of waiting for his instructions, I’m going to say, “I’ve got the field made, at this point I would slip to a landing, so I’m going to get us out of here now.” I was focused on my flying skills: getting the field made, keeping the plane coordinated. That’s always necessary, but it’s also a given. I should also have been focusing on being pilot in command. Instead of waiting for instruction and prompting from John, I should have been making those decisions myself.
After the engine out, we headed back to the airport. For the first time, John didn’t give me a heading, he just told me to head back and left getting there to me. The complicating factor for flying into DCU is that it lies under the outer shelf of the Huntsville International (HSV) airspace, so you have to get below 2000 feet a few miles out. It’s not a problem unless you forget about it and come in a little high, because you should be descending to pattern altitude by that point anyway. I cleared the airspace, but cut it a little close for John’s comfort: he suggested I leave a few more hundred feet between myself and the ceiling from now on, in case my altimeter is incorrect. Noted, and another thing I feel like I should have known already.
Despite my own misgivings about my performance, I must have passed the day’s test, because after a half hour more of touch-and-go landings, back in John’s office, I learned the point of the day’s mix of activities. The next morning, bright and early, if the weather held and I was up for it, I’d be allowed a solo flight away from the airport. My second ever solo, and an hour of free flight to do with as I please. The day’s activities all made sense then: to understand the moving map on the 650 and how to work the new radios, to ensure I had a second moving map available on my iPad, to make sure I could likely get to the ground in one piece in an engine out, to make sure I remembered to avoid the HSV airspace, and to make sure I hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to land. The afternoon had been a review course in preparation for the treat of an hour of self-directed flight, no instruction, just enjoying flying the airplane.
That night I planned out a route of flight for the next morning, which dawned beautifully: a slight wind straight down runway 36 and not a cloud in the sky. When I got to the office we checked for TFRs (none applicable) and John looked over my proposed route. He just reminded me to avoid Huntsville’s airspace and stay high enough to avoid cell towers (which will also keep me plenty high enough for the regulations about flight over populated areas). We did two touch-and-go landings together, and then he climbed out and I was on my own again, for only the second time.
Trying to recall the trip now, only a week later, it’s like trying to remember a vivid but fading dream. I’m left with impressions and a few memories of some specific things I saw along the way, but the stronger memories are of the decisions I made: how high to fly (4500 west, then 3500 east, because “east is odd”), which direction to fly, and when to return to the airport. All simple decisions, but all 100% made by me and no one else.
Regarding navigation: sure, I had three moving maps with me (Garmin, iPad, iPhone) and was flying over the city I grew up in, but really my ultimate navigation device was the Tennessee river. The DCU airport is just north of a bend in the river, directly across from the city itself and between a railroad crossing, a marina and two large bridges. I knew as long as I kept the river in sight I could get back to the airport, and on a clear day like this you can see that river for miles and miles. With that comfort in mind, I put the moving maps aside (but on and ready) and tried this simple navigation scheme: fly west up the river for maybe 15 miles, in a direction that I rarely go and don’t know well, then fly back southeast toward my hometown, keeping the river in sight in the distance. When I found my hometown, I should turn due north, cross directly over Decatur, and find the airport there.
Intellectually, I knew to expect that things wouldn’t look the same from the air. But literally nothing looked familiar from the air. My navigation scheme didn’t work because I hadn’t yet learned what a town actually looks like from the air. I kept thinking I was just flying over little outlying neighborhoods, but here’s the thing about a small-to-medium sized town: it’s all neighborhoods! When I felt like I had probably gone too far I checked my moving map, and I was exactly over my home town and hadn’t even realized it.
I did a little better navigating by landmark on the final leg. In preparation for ducking under the HSV airspace and entering the pattern, I descended to 2500 feet over Decatur, which was close enough to make out individual features better. I picked out a large building next to a treeless scar on the earth and recognized them as the Home Depot and the Morgan County Fairgrounds. Then there was the River Bridge, the airport itself, maneuvering for entry into the pattern, and another landing that I was both proud to walk away from and glad that no one has on video tape.
I stayed tuned in to the DCU CTAF for the entire trip. While I was out, there was a minor flurry of helicopter and Citation activity, but it all cleared out just before I crossed the river on my way back to the airport. During the entire trip, the furthest I got from the airport was about 15 nautical miles. I only stayed in the air on my own for about 45 minutes, but those are 45 minutes that, dreamlike as they now seem, I’ll never forget. I may have technically been the pilot in command on that first solo day, when I did a few landings on my own in the traffic pattern, but this was the first day that I really felt like the Pilot in Command of an airplane.