16 January 2015

The End of a Chapter

26 September 2014

Reality is starting to sink in. In just a few short days, I will be off on a new adventure. And I have no idea what to expect.

I obtained my CPL/IF in 2011, and my Instructors Rating in 2012. A year later, I accepted my first proper flying job; an instructor at what had come to be my second home – The Stellenbosch Flying Club.

I was incredibly fortunate. I had a job at the place where I had done all of my flying training, so I knew the people, the aircraft, the system, the rules, the airspace. And I couldn’t have asked for a better first student.

I can still remember being nervous when we had our first lesson (which was more of a meet and greet than anything else). How could I, a 250hr pilot, possibly teach someone how to fly?! I didn’t know anything... well, I knew enough to be declared competent by a DE (Designator Examiner), but that didn’t make me feel better.

I was always a firm believer that one should gain other flying experience before going in to instruction. That’s why it took me a year to get the instruction job; it wasn’t that there weren’t jobs, but rather that I didn’t feel ready to teach.

And yet, when I got the call to say “There’s a new student. Do you want to be his instructor?”, it was less than 2 seconds when I replied with a confident “Yes!”. And you know what? I haven’t looked back.

That first student taught me almost as much as what doing a PPL, CPL and Instructors Rating had taught me. His eagerness to learn, and his approach to his training fuelled me, and inspired me to keep improving. Yes, he was my guinea pig. He was the first to receive briefings that, until that point, had only been heard by other instructors. And not all of those briefings were delivered very well. But he was patient with me, just as I was patient with him.

It’s true when they say you will learn a lot with your first couple of students (and always continue to learn), but I don’t think my students have realised how much they have taught me.

During my time as an Instructor, I had the pleasure of giving Ab Initio instruction to people from all walks of life. And during the last few months of my time as an Instructor, I had the pleasure of progressing to more advanced instruction, such as Night Ratings and even part of an Instructors Rating (ha, finally, the tables have turned! ;) ).

I soon learnt how to deal with different personalities and learning styles. What struck me early on was a realisation of what it must be like to be a school teacher... Often during my briefings, I was faced with blank, zombie-like stares, questions met with a shrug. It was awful. And that was just with one student. I can only imagine what it must be like to have those stares coming from a class of 30 +.

I had one student in particular who loved to ask questions. I could be having a horrible day, and be ready to jump out of a plane mid-flight, but after giving him a briefing, my mood often changed completely. It was so satisfying to have a student who really thought about what was being taught, and didn’t say “Yes, I understand” just for the sake of it.

Being a practical person, I often thought I would get the greatest kick out of the actual flying. I certainly got many kicks out of it, mostly during circuit training when students would forget to flare (thank goodness for Cessna’s robust undercarriage!). In fact, I think I only had 3 or 4 major scares, the type where after your landing you practically fling yourself out of the aircraft and onto the ground with joy and say “Right, we won’t ever let that happen again!”.

However, I realised I got the biggest kick out of teaching in the classroom. I can’t describe the sense of achievement and fulfilment when explaining a difficult concept to a student, and having them not only understand it, but find ways (without realising it) to test my own knowledge.

The flying was amazing for the most part. But could sometimes get monotonous, especially with the more talented students; there were often lessons where I hardly got to handle the controls for more than a few minutes at a time. Yes, instructing is about allowing the student as much stick-time as possible, but I found that it didn’t take long for my own skills to get a bit rusty.

Because of this, I came to enjoy giving introductory flights; I had the opportunity to share the passion, fulfil a dream, and also be afforded the opportunity to fly a circuit. Though, I remember two intro flights where the students were almost proficient enough to land the aircraft unassisted. And I’m talking about people who have never handled the controls of an aircraft before!

Some of the worst flights were familiarisation flights with foreigners. More often than not, they were older gentlemen who were losing their touch. Checklists often didn’t seem to exist. And threat and error management, what’s that? The procedures that I taught religiously, the actions that had become as natural as breathing, simply didn’t exist to these people.

Not all of them were like that though. Some were really pleasant to fly with, and others taught me a few things!
British, Dutch, German, Indian, Swiss, American, Austria, Sweden, Mauritius; I flew with people from all parts of the world, as well as from all walks of aviation, from glider pilots, to private pilots, to B777 drivers, and even an American test pilot. It was a really good mix.

The most stressful flights were the ones where my students flew solo. I remember sending my first student solo to the D69 (the training area) for the first time. I felt like how a mother must feel when she drops her child off at school for the first time. The solo navigation flights were just as bad. And I think that for every first solo (whether a colleague or myself sent the student solo), I was almost always more nervous than my student.
It improved over time, but the nerves never disappeared completely.

It’s a tough environment. The work hours were great, but it is lot of responsibility and stress. The days have flown by, but it is time for a change. I’m sad to say good bye to the home and family that is the Stellenbosch Flying Club, and possibly even more sad that I couldn’t see each and every one of my students through to the end of their training.

It has been an interesting journey, but I’m ready for the next challenge!