Thursday, November 29, 2012

Flight Instructor Hall of Fame

While practicing instrument approaches other day, I was struck by how fortunate I have been.  So I decided to write about some of the flight instructors I have had over the years. 

The first entry in my log book is from my sister’s neighbor.  A quiet, unassuming man, not very tall who was approaching the end of his time at Boeing.  He has a charming wife and three daughters about my age.  He took me out in a little Cessna 150A from Wings Aloft.  Not knowing any different, it did not seem odd to me when he helped me into the parachute.  In my first "flight lesson" we looped, and barrel rolled, and spun, and aileron rolled, and talked.  Turns out Col. J. Rev Allender did a fair amount of flying in the Air Force before moving on to a civilian career.  He flew F-104 Starfighters.  Two of the Starfighter flights ended in what Rev euphemistically called "separate landings."  You can read about him ejecting TWICE.  Rev went on to be one of the Air Force’s test pilots on the SR-71 Blackbird (#215).  He told me he did the envelope testing for altitude and speed - how high, and how fast will it go?  He also told me that he still cannot tell me how high, nor how fast it will go.  In civilian life, Rev became an instructor for Boeing, teaching new crews how to fly the 747. 

Years later I was able to take Rev out for instrument practice in my plane, where he demonstrated the ILS at airliner air-speeds.  Straight down the ILS at 140 knots, and the needles never moved outside of the small circle in the middle of the gauge.  Rev also gave me my introduction to tail wheel airplanes in his personal Cessna 140

My next instructor was Lewis Townes.  Perhaps I was inexperienced and impressionable, but Lew is the best natural pilot I have ever flown with.  Lew and the airplane are one.  Where I wrestle the plane onto the runway, Lew introduced the two gently.  We once flew down the runway touching one wheel, picking the plane back up, and then touching the alternating wheel, picking the plane back up, and then touching the alternating wheel back and forth five or six times.  It was amazing.  Lew went on to fly KC-135 aerial refueling planes and later C-17 transports.  He was flying for Untied when Al-Qaeda hijacked the planes and used them as missiles.  Lew was furloughed in the airline slump that followed, and never went back.  When Lew got married, my wife and I flew to his wedding, I thought it fitting. 

I still see Lew, and have a great admiration for him.  When Lew left, Sean helped me complete my private pilot certificate.  Sean went on to become a pilot for Alaska Airlines. 

My check-ride was with a serious military man.  I’ve read many descriptions of Col. Bob Roetcisoender, but this one stands out: "His appearance and his office scream efficiency."  Like Rev, Bob also has a storied Air Force background.  Crew-member on a B-47 bomber during the Cold War, commander of a Titan strategic missile wing (ICBM), and SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (#160).  I introduced Bob to Rev, and Bob said, "I remember reading your reports!" He is a serious, disciplined, and skilled pilot.  Since that first check ride, Bob has since gifted me with an Instrument and Commercial certificates.  I consider Col. Bob a great mentor. He has accompanied me on test flights after maintenance and provided me with his safety pilot services in efforts to keep me IFR current. 

There were more instructors; Mike Hatler started my IFR, and gave me a complex endorsement, Jason Mauk lured me into a lesson I won’t forget - and later flew me from JFK to SEA as Captain of a Jetblue Airbus, Howard Hurley taught me practical ways to enter a hold - "when you cross over the fix, make the shortest turn to the outbound course, and figure it out from there."  Howard reports to have flown all of the "Century Series" aircraft (F-100 through F-106).  Carolyn Moeller gave me my High Performance endorsement and then went on to win the FAA flight instructor of the year award (not related to my endorsement). 

There is one instructor I have spent more time in the plane with than any other.  When Mike left for bluer skies, I was scrambling for a new IFR instructor.  Again I stumbled across a gruff old military pilot – but again, no ordinary pilot.  Col. Charles Smith was transitioning out of the Army Reserve and into civilian retirement.  Chuck was the commanding officer of the Army Reserve unit at Paine Field and coordinating relocating the unit to JBLM.  In the Army Chuck had flown Beavers, Barrons, King-Airs, Bells, Hueys, and Chinooks to name a few.  But never jets or fighters.  When Chuck was a teen, his father owned airplanes and Chuck tells of teen pranks committed with Cessnas.  He tells of flying with the crop dusters, dead-sticking and bouncing planes across irrigation canals to make the runway.  Chuck did not fly the planes with excess power; he flew the planes for real.  He flew in the system, in the soup, and at the nap of the earth.  He tells stories of duct-taping glow sticks to the tips of the helicopter rotor blades so they could see them easier with night vision goggles while flying in tree-lined valleys.  He tells of wrapping fuses with aluminum foil gum wrappers and putting them back in to complete night IFR flights. 

I believe Chuck has chosen me, not just as a student, but as a friend, or even a surrogate family member.  A couple years back, Chuck was awarded a “Wright Brothers Master Pilots Award” for 50 years of aviation experience.  I was honored to write a recommendation for him.  In it I said, "Since that first day I have added IFR, Commercial, and Multi-Engine privileges, all with Chuck sitting in the right seat next to me.  And Chuck has pushed me beyond the practical test standards for each one.  His depth of experience drives him to expect more of me and all of his students.  And I am both a more cautious and confident pilot due to Chuck’s high expectations.  I believe those that fly with Chuck come away better pilots for the experience." 

Chuck has welcomed me not just in the airplane and in his office, but he and his saint-of-a-wife have welcomed my entire family into their home for meals, and bridge, and movies. 

When my wife gave me a training flight in P-51 Mustang, my instructor was John Posson.  John seems like a regular enough guy, but when he is not thrilling Stallion 51’s customers, he is flying formation aerobatics in an L-39 Albatross as the left wing of the Patriot's demonstration team. 

During my tail wheel training I got in one flight with Arnold Ebneter, who also is a retired military pilot, having flown the F-105 Thunderchief or "Thud."  But Arnold's most recent claim to fame is having designed and built his own airplane, the Ebneter E-1, and then flying it coast to coast, setting two records

Thank you for all who have made this such a great ride!