During my training for my
private pilotís license and then my instrument rating, I flew with
five different instructors. Two of them did most of the training, but
I spent enough time with all of them to be intrigued about their
differences and commonalities. Their ages vary by almost 50 years; the
number of hours flown by more than 23,000. But they all exhibited
depth of character ó a certain confidence common to good pilots ó
that helped me to learn from them.
Audrey Schutte, Johnny
Moore, Tom Rahn, Jason Cramblet, Del Schulte and Robert Scott all
launch into the skies from airports in Northern California, but those
special qualities that make them pilots are endemic to flyers
everywhere. Not every pilot, though we would all be better for it if
everyone in a cockpit showed their attention to detail, concern for
safety, and interest in sharing important information.
Doing these interviews was
a terrific education, not just as journalist but as a pilot. I got to
hear similar and sometimes conflicting ideas from people of greatly
varied experiences, and it helped to create a purposeful mosaic about
what it takes to be a better pilot. I should say, too, that speaking
to these pilots ó or aviators ó was humbling certainly, but I also
felt pride at joining this elite group, particularly as they outlined
some of their thoughts on what it meant to be a pilot.
* * * * * *
Some mathematicians might
question Audrey Schutteís claim that
she taught the Wright brothers how to fly, but suffice it to say that
she has been about flying for most of the past seven decades. You
wouldnít know it to watch her crossing the tarmac to the plane,
preparing to raise the consciousness in yet another pilot. She has a
ladyís grace, and much patience, but carries off both without
aloofness. Her mind is spry, and she plumbs thoughtful depths when you
engage her. She listens well, gives back as well as she gets, but
always generously and with the utmost in courtesy. She instructs
students and pilots at Benton Airpark in Redding, California, and
taught me how to fly by instruments.
Audrey thinks sheís
always loved flying, from the time she was a little girl growing up in
Southern California. "We had walnut trees in our yard, and the
other kids would sit in their walnut trees and their walnut tress were
horses. Mine was an airplane."
What got her started
"Maybe the influence
of the Burbank Airport, watching the airplanes. My uncle used to take
me out to hang on the fence to watch them come and go. When I was six,
my uncle got me one of those scenic rides in an old, old airplane. He
and my dad and I went and I loved it."
For Audrey, the enjoyment
was of a space, of not being closed in; no cars and signals, or
finding places by turning corners. Flying means you go in a straight
line. And in the old days, you used to be able to land in all sorts of
places like deserts. You could have fly-ins on the spur of the moment;
you could drop flour bombs. But not now. Too many pilots cluttering
the skies? I asked. No, she responded, mostly there are lots of
restrictions. She blames the bureaucracy, one that sheís been a part
of and one she works with regularly.
Though she wouldnít
describe herself as a pioneer, she has been, both as a pilot and as a
woman, though you know she never traded on the fact. Indeed, when she
was younger, being a woman meant struggling to get a toe in the door.
But she did it, running an FBO, instructing, and investigating
accidents for the NTSB. When sheís not flying, she's wondering why
not. Okay, maybe thatís an exaggeration. She loves her family, too,
and RVs and boats.
I asked Audrey what would
be the first thing she would say to someone who told her they were
thinking of learning to fly. She hesitated only a moment and answered,
"What took you so long?"
Instructing for her is not
only the opportunity to get back up into the air, where she belongs,
but also to share the thrill of flying well. Still, she is selective
about the students she takes on. "There are those who will say I
want to learn to fly. What do you want me to do? What should I study?
How often should I be here? Others walk in the door and say, Hereís
my money, teach me how to fly. Thereís a big difference."
She says the most
important qualifier for a student is incentive. She wants someone who
always has an eye on safety, who wants to do things properly, who
wonít cut corners. She is not interested in people who want to be a
show off or dare-devil. Also, "Some people just use the sky to
get places, which is a different attitude from those who love to
She prefers mature
students, who ask Why do I need to do that? How is going to benefit
me? What are we doing here? "Sometimes you have to teach fear to
these kids. They think itís just another toy, like a motorcycle and
they donít have the respect for it." She recalls one student, a
woman who started single, got married, then had children. Suddenly she
was a much more cautious pilot.
"I shouldnít say
this," Audrey offered conspiratorially, "but some of my very
best students have been women. I relate it to my own experience. I
think that women feel they have to work harder to accomplish the same
thing that comes easier to a man. And in a lot of cases they have more
time to spend on it; will study the lessons, read more, concentrate
harder on what they need to do.
"Many ladies are
forced into flying because their husband wants them to. For whatever
reasons. Sometimes the husband canít get a flight physical but he
wants to be able to fly an airplane, so by having his wife a licensed
pilot, she can be pilot-in-command and he can fly."
Regardless of gender, the
critical quality of a flight student is attitude and the willingness
to learn. "You can solo a student in one day, by having them take
off in the airplane and go out in the traffic pattern and land it,
repeatedly. But then the next time they fly, what if the wind changes,
something changes, traffic pattern changes, theyíre not going to be
able to cope with it. You could teach a chimpanzee to fly, if he could
use the microphone."
It is equally important to
be selective about the instructor. "Iíve seen it too many
times. If a brand new flight instructor comes to you with stars in his
eyes for an air carrier or a Learjet or whatever, you need to really
analyze whatís going on in his mind and in his background to see if
heís going to be sitting there looking at the Hobbs meter to build
up time, or if he really is enthused about what heís doing....When I
had my flight school down south, I would not hire someone who was just
What else restricts the
ability of a flight instructor? "I think itís not taking time
to understand the student, to know them, how they react in different
situations. And maybe trying to a push a student too fast so they get
discouraged. And not explaining the things like plateaus of learning,
and encouraging the student. and I think I should throw in the fact
thatís why I think women make good pilots. Guys are not as..."
"Yes, patience, too.
But just understanding. I donít like to use the word compassionate,
but I guess it expresses what Iím trying to say. They get to know
their students better and have a feel for whatís going on in the
studentís mind. Itís been said the first hour in the airplane is
not really instruction, itís for the student and the instructor to
get to know each other a little bit and decide whether they like each
other well enough to go through this experience....Every student has a
different reception to the instruction, and the instructor needs to
tailor that instruction to that particular individual."
Audrey thinks having more
than one instructor is a good idea. Not a new person every lesson, but
having a different instructor performing phase checks at various times
during the course of instruction. Multiple instructors may offer
different techniques for the same process. Audrey also thinks
instrument training is invaluable. "If you should stumble into
weather, unexpectedly, unforecasted weather, you know how to get
yourself out of it. That to me is very good insurance.
[Learning to fly] is like
seeing a movie two or three times. You get so much more each time you
watch it. Itís the same with weather. Youíre applying it to what
youíre learning and it helps tell why youíre learning it."
* * * * * *
Speaking of veteran
pilots, there arenít a lot of people on the planet ó or probably
birds for that matter ó who have as many hours in the air as does Johnny
Moore. About 25,000 at the time of this interview, and Johnnyís
barely marked six decades. A scrappy, trim man with a softly
penetrating eyes, he balances the up-in-the-air of flying with very
down-to-earth jujitsu. He has also published two books, but his legacy
is flying. Both his parents were aviators, both died in plane crashes
before he was four years old.
Did he take up flying
because he felt had something to prove? "Probably something to
prove. But something attracted me besides all of that. When I was
growing up, my grandparents who raised me, very fine people, tried to
steer me away from that. And the more they steered, the more I
resisted, and the more I wanted to do it. And I guess at this point,
Iíd like to prove that Iím not going to get killed in an
"I was raised a
Catholic and like every other religion they pretty much they told me
how to believe how the universe was. And then you find some things
that you wonder about. So I thought maybe the study of anthropology of
other cultures and how they thought. It was all very interesting, I
enjoyed it very much. Was going to be a college professor, I thought,
but I ended up going right back into flying because I was frankly
tired of going to college."
Of course, learning to fly
was an education in itself, about flying, and about the person in the
left seat. "When I was young, I was looking for adventure and
experience, and I certainly found it. As I got that experience and
matured. There are certainly a lot of things that I would not do now
that I did then."
I asked, "Youíve
had some close calls in flying. What were those the result of? Poor
planning? Bad equipment? Bad judgment?"
answered, and we both laughed.
"You said that now
you wouldnít make those same mistakes?"
"No, I know better
now. I wouldnít be nearly as likely to get caught in a dust storm
out on the border of Colorado and Kansas in a Luscombe with no radio
or any way to communicate or navigate. I would probably see it coming
now, where at the time I thought it was simply a matter of climbing a
little higher so that I could see better."
"Experience is a
"If you live through
it. Nobody taught me about dust storms."
Johnny owns and operates
Sugarpine Aviators in Quincy, California, the county seat of Plumas,
with his wife Judy managing the office, and her brother, Tom Rahn,
sharing the flying and instructing duties. Sitting in a narrow valley
mid-way between Mount Lassen and Reno, Quincy is VFR-only and a marked
contrast from the sedate airports strewn about the northern Sacramento
Valley, over the mountains to the west. Johnny has logged plenty of
hours driving a snowplow to clear the 60-by-4100 strip of asphalt of
In addition to instruction
and charters, Sugarpine flies fire watch for forest product companies
and air attack for government agencies. In the mountainous timberland,
spotting the smoke of a smoldering campfire or a blaze started by one
of the thousands of lightning strikes that hit the area every summer,
and finding the fire early makes the difference between containment
and catastrophe. And for Johnny, itís personal. Here in the land of
loggers, he is an ardent environmentalist. Not one of the lobbying
kind, but a true appreciator of nature, and he lives right in the
middle of what used to be prime logging country. Flying over the
mountains to Quincy, you see a patchwork of forest and clear-cutting,
as well as some new planting, an indelible reminder of the challenge
to reap profits and restore the land.
Johnny is also an FAA
examiner, and with great perspicacity recognized that despite what I
might have demonstrated in the airplane, I knew enough to earn my
private pilotís license. Heís no pushover, however. I didnít
pass my instrument test with him the first time ó I didnít know
what I needed to ó but I came back two weeks later, showed him that
I really did know how to track a VOR, and I earned my ticket to the
His advice for people
taking their check ride: "Tip for taking a flight test ó any
flight testó should be to donít give up. If things arenít going
well, keep fighting. Because you may think you failed, and maybe you
have, but if you take the flight test with me, Iíll let you complete
all of the things youíre capable of completing successfully. No
sense in blowing those, too. If youíre well-trained, you should feel
like I canít wait to show him what I can do. Instead of being so
nervous that this guyís going to chop my head off, and then defeat
yourself in the process."
A lot has changed from the
time Johnny learned how to fly to today when he tests new pilots.
Thereís often less of a visceral connection with the airplane, he
notes, and more attention to and reliance on technology. But the
bottom line is that it always depends on the person. "You might
have someone who is highly professional and a very keen intellect,
very focused on what theyíre doing, and that is, generally speaking,
a good pilot. Someone who has prepared himself for the flight and is
smart enough to do so, and was trained well enough to do so. In that
situation, heís a top aviator, thereís no doubt about it. But you
take that same individual and put him into a strange situation...he
can apply much of what he learned before, but you get him in a strange
situation, he better realize that heís a student again.
"You have to start
with why youíre [learning to fly] in the first place. Whether
youíre feeding your ego, or doing it for someone else, or whether
youíre doing if for yourself because you love it. If itís the
latter, youíve got a lot going for yourself. Youíll gobble up
every magazine thatís laying around, youíll read into the night.
Every time you see a movie come on that has an airplane in it, you
follow that and you pick it apart from what you know. Youíre going
"I had a female
student years ago...you didnít have to tell her anything twice. She
had it. She had every mark of a professional pilot. She was a
waitress, didnít make much money. She saved up her money and she got
her private pilotís certificate. And I thought that she would have
been a great pilot and instructor. She got married and never flew
again. That sorta' broke my heart."
Some of the misconceptions
heís encountered with new students are what you can do with the
airplane. An early lesson for Quincy students is to never approach a
ridge straight on, but rather at an angle. If something goes wrong or
you hit a downdraft, if you are flying at a 45o angle
instead of 90o, you have much better odds of turning around
or extending your climb. Especially in the thin air of 9,000-foot
"One of the biggest
obstacles is teaching people to flying who have, say an Uncle Elmo who
taught them some things," he said. "They have to unlearn
what they were taught....You always take home with you what you like
about each experience that you gain and toss the rest."
I asked him if thought
itís helpful to have a number of different instructors.
"It can be confusing,
but it can be very good, too. Every instructor has a different point
of view, a different way of teaching. They may say the same thing in a
number of different ways, one of which will connect where the other
ones wonít. It would probably take longer with multiple instructors
but they really might have a better feel for things when they do get
"I think the ideal
situation is to have classroom and fly, classroom and fly....The way
the military does it, the way that part 141 schools do it, is probably
better than the way we do it. On the other hand, I personally feel
there is so much good stuff out there with CDs and videotapes, itís
hardly worth it for us in this particular [sparsely populated] setting
trying to give ground school to a small number of people when they
donít need any more than a couple of books, as far as the exam goes,
the way itís structured. They study the questions and answers and
explanations. They donít even need an instructor, but a
classroom situation is far batter."
How long should it take to
get a private pilotís license?
"At least three
months, although you can do it in a month. But I donít know as that
gives them enough time to really settle in. It seems, if you have your
choice, take a little bit more leisurely time to do it, and spend more
time absorbing things you need to do. Unless, of course, thatís all
youíve got to do and youíve got enough money to do it, and when
youíre not doing that youíre wasting your time. Well, thatís
another situation, too."
Over the years, Johnny has
seen every kind of student. For instance, "Often a young person
-- perhaps one whose parents are always asking him, ĎDid you have
fun?í -- he comes out here and finds out thereís work involved,
and that he has to actually study....Itís not just fly around and
have fun. All of sudden thereís more to it than fun. Itís hard
work. Itís an achievement to become a competent pilot.
"Other people are
doing it for reasons other than their own enjoyment; theyíre doing
it for a spouse, maybe. They come out here with their teeth gritted.
You know I gotta do this thing, and sometimes, not always, but once in
a while, youíll see them relax and find out it actually is fun.
"Itís better if a
person just does it because they want to do it and theyíre enjoying
it, they enjoy the experience, they like the person theyíre flying
with and they want to learn from them."
I asked him if he thought
it was important for a student to know about the guts of an aircraft.
students to come in when weíre doing maintenance. Some places rather
the customers only see this shiny airplane with everything fixed. I
think thatís a bunch of bull. They should fuel their own airplane.
Most of those who come here have never fueled an airplane. The more
they know about that, the better off. I probably come doubly that way,
because I was pathetic when it came to knowing anything about
[aircraft] mechanics when I first started flying. If you could just
get in on various opportunities to watch and maybe even help with the
maintenance, it would be a great advantage to you. When youíre
flying the airplane, youíre much more of a pilot if you know all
about that airplane. Why things might go wrong or are going wrong and
what you might be able to do about it."
What about the accelerated
courses that offer an instrument rating in ten days?
"They make sense
depending on what your goals are. If youíre a Type A personality
thatís got a phone out of each ear, a couple of ex-wives after him,
and going to parties every night, and maybe running for office or
something, on the side, youíre not going to have time to study. So
the cram course makes sense to you there, but a cram course never
makes sense unless youíre ready for it. You should have the basic
stuff internalized before you go take a ten-day course, because you
wonít remember anything even if you do pass. Your brain will be a
cinder. You will have gotten it out of the way, but thereís more to
it than that. You have to use it."
What makes the best flight
"Thatís a tough
question. I can start with the worst. Thatís someone building hours
so he can go to the airlines, and they could care less about their
students. Theyíre just things to sit in an airplane with and go
through the motions. And top of that, they really donít have
experience to pass on, they donít have the depth of knowledge
thatís going to help that person theyíre teaching. It really
should be the other way around. That the people with high levels of
experience ó they should be a lot better paid than they are, too ó
to pass on this knowledge, much of it gained the hard way, through
long hours of doing whatever they had to do to get the experience. So
a good flight instructor has experience, has genuine interest in their
student, and they like what they do. And theyíre effective.
"You really need to
have a feel for what people need to learn to fly, and those needs can
vary. Thereís no two people exactly alike, so you need to be a judge
of character, of needs, of maybe why theyíre learning to fly,
because you can really be off base if you start getting, say too
esoteric about it when all they want are the nuts and bolts, or you go
the other way, and they want to touch the face of god, blah, blah,
He was referring,
respectfully, to the extraordinary poem called
"High Flight", composed by 19-year-old John Gillespie Magee,
Jr. at 30-thousand feet over England in 1941, shortly before he was
shot down."Have you touched the face of god?" I asked
"Oh, I donít know
about that," he says, laughing, "I have nothing against
religion, but I have a really bad feeling about some people who come
to me to learn to fly and theyíre extremely religious types. And
theyíre going to let god take care of them, thatís pretty scary.
In that sense, certainly not. I always felt that I had to take care of
myself, and itís just not going to be fate, itís not going to be a
supreme being care of me.
"Itís my feeling
that the closer you actually grapple with the real reality, the more
likely you are going to survive. If you cover that up with layers of
certain kinds of BS and philosophies, you need to really face the
brutal truth of whatís out there and what youíre trying to do.
Everything you do is a calculated risk, and youíd better calculate
it. The rocks are waiting for you. If you canít see, and youíre
down at the bottom of a canyon, youíre probably going to hit
Of course he loves flying
for more than being in an airplane, suspended between heaven and
earth. "Wonderful, wonderful thing. Itís a spirit-lifting
thing. You can ride anything into the ground, of course. When it comes
to work, and itís also work, but many times I feel adulation of
flight which probably will never go away. Then thereís times when
youíre so goddamn tired of flying, youíre sick of it and you want
to go home and have a beer, stay away from it."
He paused for a moment,
looked inside, and put it this way: "There was no choice, I had
to fly. It was pretty much in my blood. If I couldnít do what I was
doing, I would be very unhappy, I think."
Johnny Moore could also be
summed up by the title of his book, I Must Fly! He has flown
all types of aircraft on all sorts of missions in all kinds of
weather. When you read about his crop-dusting experiences, at night,
with the chemicals pouring into the cockpit, dodging power-lines,
putting down in fields, you wonder how many lives heís already used
up. But when you fly with him, you know that while fate determines our
final course, it will have to work harder to bring down Johnny Moore.
* * * * * *
Rahn, Johnnyís brother-in-law, was a wildlife biologist with the
California Department of Fish and Game, but he found he couldnít get
home enough. And with a young colleague already stationed and
comfortable in his home area, Tom had to make a choice. "I had
the GI Bill and the money to get the ratings and Johnny said, ĎWell
if you get it, weíll put you to work.í It was a way to move back
home....It wasnít my first choice as an avocation, but Iím glad I
Tom enjoys instructing,
but finds that many people are surprised at what is required of them.
"Itís more than just showing up. Thereís a lot of work
involved. Thereís a lot of misconceptions. People have told them,
like about stalls, for instance, that the airplane is going to fall
out of the sky. Thereís misconceptions about that. But thereís so
much material available now, all these magazines. A lot of them get
those and read ahead of time. They pretty much have an idea whatís
going to happen, the experience of it."
Indeed, 85% of
Sugarpineís students who solo go on to get their license. But itís
not always the ones he expects to who succeed. "Sometimes people
fool you. Starting out, they can be very awkward and no hand-eye
coordination, and pretty soon theyíve got it."
As for the people who come
to train for their instrument rating, "I know all kinds of guys
who go off and get their IFR ratings and most of them, probably 80%,
thatís the end of it. They donít stay current, and they never do
Clearly, flying is more
than a job for Tom Rahn, but itís not quite the same as for his
brother-in-law. "Itís enjoyable but itís not spiritual.
Fly-fishing is spiritual for me.
* * * * * *
Cramblet has a fraction of the hours Johnny Moore has flown, but
he shares some of the older manís confidence. His grandfather gave
Jason an introductory flight for his seventeenth birthday, and when
the boy enthused, grandpa bought a plane and paid for him grandsonís
lessons. Like a duck to water, or a pilot to the skies, Jason flew
twice a day and earned his private pilotsí license in 5Ĺ weeks. The
hardest part for him was the books. Later on, for his instrument
training cross-country, Jason flew from California to Niagara Falls.
Jason did all of his
training in low-wing aircraft and liked them. Now he flies high-wing
planes and finds he prefers them because he can see below more easily.
I was training in a Cessna 172 when I first flew with him, a couple of
years ago; he was 24 years old, to my 48. My flight instructor had
caught a charter, and had brought Jason in to sub.
When I first caught sight
of Jason, I thought he could get carded at a toll booth. He says
heís 5'8", but those must be thick socks, and heís carrying
130 pounds. The smaller frame probably saved his life, at least once.
When he was instructing a student flying into Quincy; the approach
wasnít right and they were forced to go around. Now Quincy sits at
3415 feet, and this was summer. If you know the airport, you are aware
of the hill to the north, and not a lot of options. They just barely
cleared the trees, which is something they wouldnít have managed
with my principal instructor, Robert Scott, who notched up the ramp
weight by 260 pounds. More on Robert later.
Jason was a delightful
teacher for me, particularly as a brief respite from the considerably
more forthright former Air Force Colonel who did most of my training.
Low-key, possibly reflective of his remarkably tiny handwriting, Jason
still managed to convey everything he needed to firmly and clearly the
first time. He was patient, showed a sense of humor, and let me do
everything by myself. Except, I should note, that we did four touches
and five goís, the disparity due to a high and fast approach by this
student, which Jason matter-of-factly converted into a go-around.
Itís a part of his own early maturity that Jason favors the calm
approach to instruction. "Put someone in a stressful situation by
yelling at them," he notes, "theyíre not going to be able
to think things through."
Jason doesnít exude
confidence; he holds it genially. He is wise before his years, and it
is revealed in what he looks for in a student. "The maturity, I
think is the big thing. Because a lot of my students have been young.
Younger, youíre not mature enough to be ready for aviation. Itís a
good age to learn at, but theyíre not scared of anything. Itís
like driving fast when you first get your driverís license, and when
you get older, you go nah." Regardless of age, he says, it is the
emotional maturity and the sense of responsibility that make a good
And a good instructor, I
"I think the biggest
thing about finding a flight instructor is finding someone who is
there to teach, not just build time. Ask them what are their goals, so
you donít have them leaving for something else in the middle of your
training." Jason also supports the idea of having different
instructors perform phase checks, for the added input from varied
What else should new
students be aware of? The expense, how much there is to learn, and the
time involved. He recommends that students be aware that they donít
have to load up on extra equipment. All they really need, he says, is
the governmentís flight training handbook. A sparse but reasoned
approach, which is what Jason Cramblet is all about.
He didnít go the typical
airlines route, which requires building time on commuter flights; they
pay in the neighborhood of $1500 a month. Thatís all right if you
love to fly and youíre living with your parents. Jason is not. He
has a wife and child to support. And he is flying regular flights from
Redding to Sacramento and Oakland.
"Flying commercial is
a job. Itís not fun. I didnít realize this until I started flying
back and forth from Redding to Sacramento. Itís the same thing every
day. But when the weather gets bad, yahoo, itís something to do.
Thatís the best part of it now. Getting the weather. Every morning I
look forward to going to Oakland because I get an instrument approach
into Oakland, because of the fog. Though mostly itís a high ceiling,
like 1800. Otherwise, itís passing time."
I flew with Jason a week
before I took my instrument check ride. He gave me valuable advice. I
asked him now that I had my ticket if he had any suggestions. He told
me that the first couple of low approaches I should make with an
experience IFR pilot sitting right seat. Not because I would do
anything wrong, but so that I wouldnít have not to worry. It would
build my confidence, he said.
Jasonís goal is to fly
for the California Highway Patrol. Once through the academy for basic
training, he would need to do some time on the ground before he would
be flying for the CHP. And then there would be a variety of flying
challenges, from traffic to search-ín-rescue, looking for drugs,
providing spotter information, and flying the governor around the
state. Quite a range. He will be a credit to their service, whatever
he flies for them.
* * * * * *
Schulte could tell Jason a lot about what he will face. Del was
with the CHP for 32 years. He flew with them for 21 years, and was
chief pilot for eight. He supervised the flying unit in Northern
California for 12 years before he retired four years ago. A big,
handsome man who likes riding a motorcycle, youíd suspect Del must
have been an imposing leader. I flew a phase check with him during my
instrument training, and was surprised at how generous he was in
giving space in the cockpit. One might expect him to be garrulous, but
in an interview situation, he is both deliberate and soft-spoken.
Del first learned to fly
in 1969. "I did it backwards like most things. I bought an
airplane, and I brought it home in a truck, spent about a year
re-building it. Then had to learn how to fly it." He was on his
way. With the CHP he flew search-and-rescue, low-level surveillance,
as well as a considerable number of flight tests for officers who
wanted to fly. He noted that many of the candidates were successful
because they had already demonstrated important personality traits and
skills required to get into the CHP. Plus, he had the candidateís
work history and would "talk to his supervisors about his safety
habits and maturity. The kinds of things that would make him a safe
pilot. Safety is the name of the game. Thatís really what weíre
When you spend 32 years
with an organization, it will probably always be "we" rather
than "they", even though Del has moved on. Today, much of
his time is still spent in the air, flying charters for corporate
clients and emergency flights for the Mercy Medical Center in Redding;
he is also an FAA examiner. Being around flying for more than thirty
years, heís made some observations about who becomes a pilot.
"I think they have some things in common about how they approach
goals, and accomplishment of goals, and the mindset as far as looking
forward to the next thing thatís going to happen. And the next thing
thatís going to happen. How they solve problems. They have to have
some kind of systematic way of solving problems. You know if they
donít have that before they start flying they have to learn it as
part of flying. And it probably spills over, somewhere in your
About learning to fly is,
"Itís not an easy task. It shows not necessarily that theyíre
smarter than everybody else or more capable than everybody else but
they have the ability to set goals and accomplish them. Thatís what
I see in pilots....I donít think itís an inherited trait or any of
that kind of stuff....Discipline is a huge part of it."
What surprises new
"My guess is that
probably most people are a little surprised at how complicated it is.
Especially now, and quite frankly when I learned to fly, it wasnít.
It has really changed in thirty years....The whole attitude has
changed. Old pilots like myself, I soloíd in seven-point-two hours.
Sounds like, What a really wonderful pilot I am, but you know what I
knew how to do? Get up and get down. This was the way it was taught.
You got in an airplane, you went around in the pattern. You went out
maybe once or twice and did a few stalls and recoveries and maybe a
spin or two. When he thought you had about a 50-50 chance of being
able to successfully getting around the pattern, he cut you loose. (He
laughs, "Thatís an exaggeration.") Then you flew by
yourself for a while, and then he took you out and showed you ground
"Itís a whole lot
more complex today, with the airspace system, the radios,
transponders, flight following, flight plans, GPS, VOR, the whole
thing. You have to know a lot of stuff to get a private pilotís
license. Itís not an easy deal. Aero, medical, it goes on and on
what they expect you know to be a private pilot, and rightfully so.
Iím not knocking it, Iím just saying itís a lot different than
it used to be.
Can you get a sense
sitting in a plane with a first timer whether theyíll make a good
pilot? I asked.
"You know, Iíd like
to say yes but Iíve been fooled. You get in the airplane with some
guys and you say this guy is gonna be a good pilot. And most of the
guys that you think right out of the box are gonna make good pilots
can make good pilots. They have the motor skills and all of the
abilities to be a good pilot, and then somewhere down the line,
judgement or decision-making might trip Ďem up and you might get
fooled. You know to where, Oh, this guy can handle the airplane all
right, but he canít handle flight planning and decision-making and
that sort of thing.
"But thatís not
that prevalent. Iíve been fooled more often in flying with guys
thinking, this guyís having a helluva time learning this. And some
people have a helluva time learning something but when they got it,
they got it. And those people make good pilots. Itís just more of a
challenge getting there."
Del discovered that
construction workers, as a rule, made good pilots. "They canít
make a bad landing. Theyíre not intimidated in any way by the
equipment. A hand-ín-eye coordination, and just an attitude about
I first met Del at Benton
Airpark in Redding last spring when I was in the midst of my
instrument training. I asked him what he saw as different about IFR
flying. "Probably takes more discipline to fly IFR. In someways,
instrument flying is easier because there is an absolute set of rules
and procedures that you follow. Once you know those and follow them,
you always get to where youíre going. Itís more of a structured
environment. And VFR flying, a lot of things are left strictly up to
your judgment. [With instruments] you read the approach chart and
thatís how you do it. Itís not up to you how you get on base or
final, itís right there. Dial that thing and center that needle, and
thatís what you do. Itís kind of a set and done deal."
I asked him if he thought
multiple instructors helped. "Thatís probably more true on
instrument instruction than primary or any of the other ones. Itís
because thereís only one way to fly instruments but there are lots
of ways to think about flying instruments. And sometimes somebody can
just tell it to you in a little different way that makes sense to you,
and thereís the light bulb."
He likes tapes and CDs as
part of training, but in conjunction with ground school. As far as the
accelerated courses, he agrees with Johnny Moore. "Iíve never
taken one of the accelerated courses but I have seen very good pilots
that have, and I think the accelerated courses by their very nature
have to focus on the skills necessary for passing the check ride. And
they do that very well. But because they are done in a short period of
time, the guy does not end up with much experience other than the very
minimums to pass the check ride.
"If youíre taking
an instrument rating over a yearís time or something like that,
thereís plenty of opportunity to actually get out in some clouds.
Thereís time through the seasons to accomplish all of that. I would
say that someone who gets an instrument rating through an accelerated
course ought to go out with an experienced pilot or an instructor the
first few times he does it. Kind of find out what it all means."
Any suggestions for how to
find the right instructor? "Ask as many pilots as you know;
probably word of mouth recommendation is the best way to do it. You
know, a good way to do it but it wouldnít work? Ask an examiner.
They definitely know the best, but most examiners probably would not
recommend one instructor over another. But they might recommend two or
three to check out. You want someone you can get along with, and
probably some of that you wouldnít be able to tell until you flew
with the guy once or twice. And if he raps on your knuckles or yells
in your ear, he might not be the right one, but he might be the
As an FAA examiner, Del
has some tips for people preparing to take their check ride. "My
suggestion would be that students go through the checklist in the
practical test guide and make sure that everything is covered. And not
just enough to pass the test, but well enough to impress the examiner.
Make sure you have an understanding of everything in the test, and
youíre prepared when you get there. Getting wound around the axle on
the first few things really sets the stage for an unsuccessful
conclusion. And showing up and not having your paperwork in order, or
with an airplane that doesnít have something it needs, before the
test even starts you feel youíre behind the eight ball. But if you
show up there and youíve got all the airplane log books and you pull
them out, hereís the annual, hereís the transponder check,
hereís the ELT expiration, dot-da-dot-da-da. Hereís my paperwork,
hereís the signed 8710. You know what you want and here it all is,
and itís all in order. Now hereís a pilot, whoís ready to take
Does he see a spiritual
component in flying?
"I think most pilots
didnít start out flying just so they could have a job. And so most
pilots probably at one time in their career had a real desire. This
was something they really wanted to do. For some of them, it goes by
the wayside in the course of their career. I see it especially in a
lot of airline pilots for whom itís just a job. Then you see guys
who bush-flying or flight instruction, and theyíre doing what they
What is it that Del
Schulte finds so rewarding about flying?
satisfaction of doing something well. And I think flying along the
tops of mountains when the sun rises, you know, a lot of people just
donít get to experience this. They donít know what theyíre
missing. Itís a good thing, or thereíd be five million people
applying for my job."
* * * * * *
In Vietnam, they called
him Scotty. When I met Robert Scott almost
a quarter-century after the end of the war, he was Bob to most people
but Robert to me. A little more formality, perhaps accompanying the
refocusing of his attention on things Christian. A thirty-year Air
Force veteran, Robert had moved to the Redding, not to retire, but to
teach people how to fly.
In Vietnam, heíd been in
the thick of things, flying dangerous missions, under fire, saving
lives, including his own. One night Robert and a group of his fellow
co-pilots were talking about what would have to happen for one of them
to take control of the aircraft from the pilot. There was lots of
bragging among these 700-hour pilots, though one fellow remained
silent. That night, the silent man was co-pilot on a flight into
Pleiku. They crashed, killing all aboard.
The next night, Robert
flew right seat on the same mission. They were doing fine, according
to ground control. Robert reported seeing the runway lights. The pilot
suddenly looked up from the instrument panel, saw bright lights
marking an ammunition depot, and confused about the precise location
of runway, veered sharply to the left, dropping the wingtip to within
only a few feet of the ground, leaving the plane with very little
lift. Without thinking, Robert seized control and brought the plane
back in line with the runway. They were able then to land safely. It
was those lights at the ammo dump, Robert realized, that probably had
had confused the pilot of the fatal flight the night before.
Robert learned to fly in
jets. Back in 1962 when he joined the Air Force, thatís how you did
it. Teach the men in jets, because that was what they were going to be
flying. It wouldnít be hard to learn prop flying once they knew how
to fly jets. Five years later, Robert was instructing. "I started
as an Air Force instructor in C-130's, and then in 1970, I got my
civilian instructorís rating through the Veteranís Administration
and then I started teaching people every weekend."
Almost three decades
later, I was one of Robertís students. It was quite an experience.
First of all, because learning to fly is complicated, time-consuming,
and hard work. And second because Robert brought with him his command
attitude and somehow expected me to learn simple because he told me
to. His brusqueness was unsettling at times, but he also displayed
remarkable sensitivity. When we were doing spins and stalls, he knew
right away when my stomach was threatening to climb up my throat and
would immediately offer to have us land.
A big fellow, over six
feet and closer to 300 than 200 pounds when I was flying with him,
Robert was a pilotís pilot. He almost encompassed the plane. When I
flew my first solo, he went around in the pattern with me the first
time, and then it was time for me to go up by myself. Thank goodness
he warned me about the difference in weight his absence would mean,
since the plane practically jumped off of the runway without him. A
dear man as well, he had secretly called my wife, so that when I
taxied in, she was waiting there for me with a bottle of champagne.
Today, with more than
12,000 hours under his belt, Robert flies around the region teaching
clients how to fly instruments and other advanced training. "We
donít call Ďem crash courses," he said with a smile.
"Itís an accelerated curriculum. We take ten days to teach
somebody that has normally got their own airplane and theyíve tried
learning instrument flying at the local FBO where normally the
instrument instructor is also a charter pilot, because he has the
experience to tell the people how to do it. So people will fly with
the guy and the next week heís gone. Businessmen and doctors and
lawyers ó they put up with that for about six months and they read
our ad, they call us up. Weíve been doing this for 20-plus years.
"You take somebody
thatís got their written out of the way, they know what the words
mean, and they know what the VOR is, and they know what the radio is.
Okay, how can we teach Ďem how to fly instruments in 80 hours? Eight
hours for ten days. We go by the same system that the Air Force and
the airlines teach: attitude plus power equals performance.
"We practice with a
simulator where we can do 50 holding pattern entries in an hour. And
we do a hundred procedure turns. We fly day five through nine, and day
ten take the test. Weíve got a 90% pass rate the first time. A
hundred percent pass the second time....Itís a very satisfying
system for me as an instructor because number one I have people who
are very motivated to learn, and for ten days, all we do is fly."
It is a serious
proposition for everyone concerned. "We hire people who are
comfortable flying right seat in weather. We never lose a training
day, unless itís severe thunderstorms," said Robert with a hint
of professional pride. When youíve flown through enemy fire, even
thunderstorms are probably a little less daunting.
Robert knows his students.
"I can interview somebody, and probably in about 30 or 45 minutes
of discussion determine whether theyíre going to make a good pilot
or not. Itís primarily the way that they talk about it. You can have
some people talking about flying as some sort of utilitarian thing
where they want to be able to travel, but other people are really
aviators instead of pilots, the difference being someone who has a
passion for flying.
"A pilot is like a
truck driver, who can manipulate the machine and make it move from A
to B, but they really donít have a passion for it. I first
encountered it in the Air Force; people who could fly an airplane but
they didnít have a passion for it. They liked the pay. They like the
prestige that came with being a pilot. But they didnít have a
passion for aviation per se. They didnít love it.
"There are airline
pilots now that are flying planes. Theyíre a mechanic, they know how
to do the mechanics of the flight, and theyíre very skilled at doing
it, but they donít have a passion for it. An aviator has a passion
for it. He thinks flying, his recreation is to go to an airshow and be
with a bunch of pilots. When I was in the Air Force and sixty of us
pilots would go to a party, the aviators would all get together and
talk about flight. The pilots were over in the drinking, chasing
girls, or something like that."
Robert certainly has a
passion for flying, and heís reasoned it out. "When you do it
well, you have immediate feedback that you did it well. In order
words, if you land the plane perfectly, and you get a squeak-squeak
out of it, you say, Robert, you did very well. And if one of the
passengers says, Oh what a good landing, that adds icing on the cake.
But if they donít say anything, you still know that you did it very
well. If you do a holding pattern perfect, or you shoot an ILS
perfect, or you donít do it so perfect, you get immediate feedback
how well you did. Thereís an immediate satisfaction that you know
how well you did it."
What does it take to be a
good pilot? I asked him.
"You know the saying
ĎThere are no old bold pilots.í And that means learning to be
cautious. And they also say you get experience by making mistakes. I
think to be a skilled pilot you make mistakes and you learn not to do
that again. "
How did he survive
"We listened very
carefully to what other people said when they went into certain
But thereís something
more in Robertís approach to flying. Heís convinced that heís
not doing it alone. He recounts the story of returning from a charter
in a twin-engine plane that went down because of fuel contamination.
First one engine quit, and Robert eased back on the controls and
headed toward a nearby airport on one engine. Then the second one
"About two hours
before take-off I had talked to one of the passengers, and they said
What do you do when you lose an engine, and I said Well, you just shut
the engine down and fly on to your destination. And the guy says,
Well, what if both of Ďem quit? I hadnít talked about both engines
quitting, you know, but what came to my mind was what one of my first
instructors said, You never give up. You fly the airplane down all the
way through the crash until the airplane stops. Donít give up. Just
continue to fly. So thatís what I told him.
"Obviously, God had
put that in my mind to prepare me. Gave me a little refresher, so as
Iím coming down, losing altitude, I started losing control of the
airplane because I didnít have enough airspeed. By that time I got
down to the altitude I needed to be. But now Iíve started to turn in
and Iíve got this 25 knot wind blowing at me and I donít have
enough power to make the runway. So I just rolled out 90 degrees to
the runway, lowered the nose, dropped the landing gear, dropped the
flaps. It was the best landing Iíd made in a year. I rolled out
about 75 yards and hit a ditch. When I went across the ditch, it took
out the nose gear and one of the main gear and spun the airplane
"I didnít really
have time to think about what I was doing, I just reacted from
I wasnít afraid because
the situation was under control. I was running on adrenaline. I was
pumped. When youíre operating on adrenaline and if youíve been
trained properly, youíll do the things you need to do and you have
plenty of time because the adrenaline speeds up your thinking process
so that you can do the things that you need to do."
Robert got a small bump on
his forehead but was otherwise uninjured. The plane was a total loss.
It was later discovered that a filter in a fuel truck had
disintegrated, and small pieces of plastic had been pumped with the
gasoline into the tanks of his aircraft. He hadnít flown very far
when the pieces of plastic got into his engines, causing the emergency
Aside from having God as
your co-pilot, Robert offers this view. "People who have not
trained properly and not done refresher training, when they get into
that situation they donít know what to do and when they donít know
what to do they panic. And when you panic then the adrenaline sets in.
They donít know what to do. They give up." He insists,
"You have to know your emergency procedures and you have to
practice them so that you absolutely know what to do next. You canít
just casually know them. You canít say, Well, I practiced them five
He canít stress training
enough. "Corporate pilots, airline pilots, military pilots all
pay big bucks for training. And the training is made as realistic as
possible to put you in every possible emergency, and they keep loading
you up, using simulators. The insurance companies know that this kind
of training makes for much safer pilots. The average person who
doesnít have an instrument rating takes about 80 seconds to lose
control of an airplane. [Like] a private pilot without an instrument
rating who flies into the clouds."
Robert has been around
aviation a long time. He has spent time in control towers. Has
listened to crash investigation tapes. The sounds of panic taking
control are as indelibly etched in his mind as is the knowledge that
proper training can prevent disaster. So he is a bug on how to turn
the best teaching into the best learning. He thinks classroom is
important, and that tapes and CDs can work just as well with someone
who learns better when he has a chance to replay the lessons from the
One interesting problem he
noted, that dovetails with something Johnny Moore mentioned, is that
"Iíve found is that a lot of people get plugged into their
instructor; I mean, heís god. It takes people probably three or four
years to grow out of that or they take another rating and discover,
Oh, thereís other things out there in the world than what my
instructor knows." Obviously that can be a problem for someone
taking on new training.
Robert pointed out, too,
"In America, most of the instructors are home grown. In other
words, the guy gets 250 hours, he gets his commercial rating, gets his
CFI rating, and now he starts instructing people. Any other place
would never let a brand new person whoís just learned a subject
teach it. In Britain, the only people who teach there are people that
are very, very experienced. But you pay big bucks to get that kind of
"Just because some
guy has gone through the FAA training program and he knows all the
information by rote and can spit it out to the FAA and he can explain
the AIM in depth, doesnít mean that he knows how to instruct. You
learn how to instruct with a live body sitting across from you in the
"You find out that
thereís different personalities and different ways of learning. Some
people learn by feeling, some people learn by reading, they see it;
some people learn by hearing. If youíve got a student whoís a
hearer, and youíre trying to get him to read his lessons, he ainít
gonna learn. And you got some guy thatís a feeler, heís got to
feel for it, and youíre trying to say Now look at this. He ainít
gonna get it. And you as an instructor have to realize that learners
come in several different categories."
As a student, I only had
an instructor intervene once. Jason Cramblet initiated a go-around
during touch-ín-goís when I had brought us in too fast and too
high, but he told me what he was doing before he reached for the
controls. I asked Robert, Doesnít it require massive amounts of
patience not to grab the wheel? Especially on landings?
"Oh yeah," he
responded. "One of the things you try to teach new instructors or
instructor candidates is to how far to let the student go. You say you
let him go to where you can rescue the airplane. And you let him go to
the extent where you feel comfortable." And he warned, "If
you get complacent with your students, you can get over-confident that
they can do things correctly, and youíll suddenly find a student who
just drills one right into the runway." Adding, "Iíve had
students Iíve had to tell five six seven eight nine times. Iíve
had students you tell it to Ďem one time, they had it. And they
could do it perfectly. The ones who can do it perfectly are the ones
you have to really be careful about because at some point, theyíre
going to screw up, and when they screw up, youíre not going to
Did Robert have any tips
for his clients getting ready for a check ride? "I usually tell
people how to get ready for a check-ride that youíre going to
demonstrate to the examiner that youíve mastered this
airplane....Most students go through the check ride based on the
attitude that this sonovagun is going to pick me apart and find
everything I do wrong. And youíve got to move from that position to
a positive situation. Iím going to show this guy that I really know
how to do this. Itís more of an ego thing, and you can really work
on a lot of pilotsí ego by putting that to Ďem."
Pilots have ego? I smiled,
and remembered a quote on the wall of Johnny Mooreís office. It
"The average pilot,
despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of
feelings such as love, affection, intimacy and caring. These feelings
just donít involve anybody else." (Bob Deterich) I could see
how Robertís method could work.
I asked Robert if there
was a spiritual component in flying for him, besides his relationship
with God? He smiled again, as he is wont to do, and responded,
"Take off on an early morning and itís raining and cloudy, IFR
departure, to about 6000 feet AGL, pop out through the clouds and
thereís the sun. To me thatís a spiritual situation." Canít
argue with that.
* * * * * *
The experience of learning
to fly ó excuse, of earning a license to learn ó has been awesome
and exhilarating. I have assimilate massive amounts of information on
subjects I had not so much as thought about previously. I have joined
a limited fraternity of people who as Del Schulte put it, set goals
for themselves and accomplished them. Risking sin, I am proud of what
Iíve done, and humbled out of a stuffed shirt with the excited
realization of the wonderful experience there is yet to gain.
I learned to fly for both
the ability to get outta town efficiently, and for the sake of
expanding my mind. Along the way, I have learned a lot about myself
that has positively affected all aspects of my life. I donít think
Iím the most adamant of aviators, according to Robert Scottís
defintion, but Iím no simple pilot. Every time I rise off the
runway, Iím re-enfranchised with a sense of glory and obligation. As
Johnny Moore said, heís got to prove that he wonít die in an
The thrill of flying
should be available to every child, who like Audrey Schutte, climbs
into tree and thinks not that sheís on a horse, but in a plane. It
should attract the thoughtful, mature people as well as the exuberant
youth, and let them share the serious joy of rising above the clouds.
Or in my case, looking forward to getting my IFR ticket wet. Yes,
Iím going to fly the first couple of weathered approached with
someone who, as Jason Cramblet suggested, could eliminate the worry
and just focus on the flying.
If I never flew again,
Iíve had an extraordinary ride. Iíve met these five people, and I
expect that they will be only an email away for the rest of my life.
What a gift.