When you take on the role of a flight instructor you think about two things. All the flight time you're going to build so you can get that airline job for the aviation majors, or tuition money for folks like me, and for a select few, the sheer satisfaction of giving another person their wings, the realization that what you can do can be passed on, like a runners torch. For most, the desire is a combination of both.
Earthbound, we all all many things, male, female, conservative, liberal, blue collar, white collar. Aloft we are all simply pilots; a small group of individuals who have discovered that vast space where perfect contentment is intertwined with the exhilaration of pitting your wits and your skill against an open sky; a face off with the elements of nature, a match with the heavens that heightens every sense you have.
Earthbound we have limitations as varied as our lives. As pilots, life is simpler as our will is freer; our lives, however different, are truer and more defined. No matter what we cherish in life, we cherish it more; home, friends, the smell of fresh tilled earth from a mile up, the heady gulp of pristine, crisp air that clears both our lungs and our heads. It's a joy worth sharing, and as a newly minted flight instructor I was ready and able.
But what they don't explain when you're putting in the hundreds of hours of study it takes to be a Certified Flight Instructor is this. In this wondrous exchange are the frequent days that if mother nature isn't trying, student will be actively trying to kill you. And smiling while doing it. Because the student hadn't yet learned that just because you weren't yelling at him didn't mean you hadn't just avoided bent metal by nano seconds. That would come after solo.
I put myself through college and grad school flight instructing. I wasn't an aviation major, interested in science and criminal justice, but it was a lot better way to make tuition than "would you like large fries with that". I remember some of the students vaguely. I remember some vividly, the imprint of their panic stricken Steve Urkel "Did I do THAT" expression burned into my brain. There was one fellow to whom I was demonstrating how to recover from a stall, the event where the angle between the chord line of the wing and the relative wind is such that airflow is disrupted and the wing stops flying. The nose drops, you level the wings and you add power. Piece of cake. Except in this case the student took my words "just gently lower the nose" to mean shoving the control yoke full forward with 180 pounds of push. I didn't know it would go that far forward. Forward, straight into the ground, coming up at 100 miles an hour.
I have always been an avid outdoors woman and a hunter, bow and firearm. I felt as comfortable in the woods as I was in the sky. I loved getting up early, getting into the camo and sneaking through the woods like I was on some sort of covert mission. Climbing up a tall tree stand trying to hold a heavy 20 gage Belgium Browning semi-auto in one hand was interesting to say the least. I know the pilots I hunted with, more than once, took bets to see if I'd make it into a particularly tricky stand without yelling for help. It might have taken me 15 minutes but I got into my stand solo and the view was incredible.
We've all had that experience in one form or another, in deep woods or clear sky. The one that scares the wadding out of you, bringing out instincts ingrained in your breath, making you reticent to get back anywhere near what caused the situation in the first place. "Getting back on the horse" as they call it. Sometimes it's a near accident, sometimes it's the real thing. Most humans experience it at least once. For pilots it's something no one escapes, ever. Show me a pilot who says they've never done anything a little risky and deeply regretted it, or did everything textbook perfect only to be doused with the cold waters of mechanical failure, and I'll show you someone who's flying is limited to desktop simulators.
Sometimes the event leaves physical scars. But for most, the scars are internal and you only touch them, gingerly, and with trepidation, in late night hours of retrospection. I've talked to many a pilot that's had a scare, or through the hand of fate, damaged their beloved craft, and the first thing they say is "I'm never going to fly again". A few don't. But only a few. The rest, like myself, look at the event not as a "near death" experience, but a measure of that which they have proven they can handle. The event may fade in time, but that which it brought to you can never be destroyed, it's cataloged back in a pilots memory to be retrieved in later years, when it can and will save you again.
I remember well one of the first students I had after getting my Certified Flight Instructors Certificate. He showed up for his $10 introductory flight lesson, and we spent about 15 minutes cruising around the foothills of the mountains while I demonstrated the joys he would experience if only he signed up for lessons. As we started our descent for the airport, and the power was reduced, there was a huge "BANG" from the engine,and after a few belabored rotations the prop came to a halt. The prospective student looked at me and said "is it SUPPOSED to do that??".
Uh. . . . . no.
I remember MY instructor teaching me, time and time again, what to do when a rare engine failure occurred and with that experience, I simply acted. I set it up in a glide for a small grass strip that was close by and broadcast a MAYDAY on the local Flight Service Station frequency. They came back with "what are your intentions?" to which I replied "We're going to crash, you moron." or something equally professional. But we made it in to the strip uneventfully with nary a scratch on the plane. I never saw the student again and I had to give him his $10 back so I had no dinner that night.
You calm your nerves or fix your trusty steed and go back to the actuality of flight, not the dream of it. Of smooth polished wood and metal. Something you can touch and smell. A symphony of sound and curves and surfaces that displaces the air that then fills your soul. You move past your fear and enter back into that relationship with the one thing that lets you be a part of something greater than you. Yes, there's fear, and it's growling at you from someplace dark, but it's only for the moment. For like most true airmen you have that supreme confidence in your airborne destiny, like that of birds and their wings, that unruffled belief in your own abilities that launches you, hesitant but full winged from the safety of the nest out into the sky.