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Pilot in Command

Pilot in Command

There’s an expression the government has, that if more than one person is in charge, then no one is in charge. Someone has to have the last word, or in many cases the first word when it comes to making important decisions. If the pilot says, “Increase the throttle to 75% and nose down!” and the co-pilot decides to pull up, the plane will no longer be a “plane” but a giant bulldozer with wings, and plummet swiftly to the ground. I’ll get back to the plane analogy in a minute, but right now I want to talk about something just as terrifying; teaching your teenager to drive.

My daughter turned the right age, took driver’s ed., and passed the written test. On the third time. Not a good omen. On top of that, we all know how teenagers can be; headstrong, impulsive, argumentative, and more knowledgeable than anyone over the age of 25. She soon tired of mom, “YELLING” and “Huffing and Puffing” so the duties of coaching her while she learned to drive on her permit fell to dear old dad. I was pretty calm, using my “inside voice” and keeping my blood pressure under wraps. I saved my “DAD MAD” voice for serious situations like the time she almost ran over her teacher walking across the parking lot at the high school.

I raised my voice just the other day, and it’s up to you to decide who was right or wrong, but remember the “who’s in charge?” part. We were pulling out of our development onto a moderately busy two-lane road. There were a handful of cars (2-3) coming from the left, then the right, then left again. I was watching the right, letting her know, “You’re all right up here,” and letting her decide when it was safe to pull out and turn left onto the secondary road. There was no one on my side for half a mile, but a line on it’s way, ETA 45 seconds. I told her it was still clear on my end, and looked up and there was a single car on hers, ETA 30 seconds. I told her to “Go.” She sat, “GO!” I told her, knowing that the 45 & 30 seconds was now 40 and 25. She still sat. “I’m not comfortable, he’s coming fast,” was her reply, and she waited until there was no one visible in either direction before pulling out. That’s when I unloaded,” “YOU ARE THE STUDENT, I AM THE COACH, WHEN I TELL YOU TO ‘GO’ YOU NEED TO GO.” She of course continued to argue, I told her if she EVER refused to follow one of my directions, she could, “Just pull the car over to the side of the road and I will drive.” We three (my wife in the back seat remaining uncharacteristically quiet) drove for some time in complete silence. Later, I tried to explain to her the Pilot/Co-Pilot Analogy, but she wasn’t hearing any of that, “That’s completely different!” So I will share my airplane story with you.

Back in the day I was part owner of a Schweitzer 222 Sailplane or Glider if you will. It had an aluminum frame with fabric covering, two very large wings, a single wheel under the cockpit, with two seats, one in front, on in back, with dual controls; full axis controls, joy stick, rudder pedals, spoilers, and instrumentation showing altitude, airspeed, and an accelerometer that gave an audible signal when you were in an updraft (lift) in glider pilot lingo. Sailplanes have no engines, so they rely on a tow rope and something to tow them into the air, another plane, a vehicle on the ground even a winch with lots and lots of cable. We used a Chevy Van with a 350ci engine. Cheapest way to fly. The van would run up a 6000 foot runway, and the glider would follow on a 2000 foot ski rope. When the van got to the end of the runway, you could feel it in the glider, and you’d just pull the red knob on the dash and the steel ring would drop from the hook on the nose of the glider and you would be off with 1500 feet to play with until you could find lift and rise up into the clouds. If you forgot to pull the little red knob the ring would pull loose on its own.

On this particular day, I was in the front seat, Pilot in Command, a student, but still in charge of the aircraft. My Instructor “Dangerous Dan” was in the back seat ready to seize the controls if I did something stupid. We were approaching the end of the runway, I was ready to pull the knob, when something unexpected happened; the tow rope broke. Now, I was trained, that when that happened, at the beginning, the middle or the end of the tow to do one thing, and only one thing; put my nose down to gain airspeed and make a 180 degree turn and land back on the runway. Here is what happened next.

My Instructor told me , “Turn right.” Now the runway was to my left, so I was wanting to turn left, and I hesitated. We were about 700 feet from the ground, not the 1500 we usually had, and at 500 feet you better be in a landing pattern. My instructor realized we were now well off the end of the runway, and now in “sink”. “Sink” is the opposite of “Lift”, a column of air heading down, not up. We were now at less than 500 feet, and not enough altitude to make it back to the runway. He knew we were in trouble, “Let me take it!” he yelled and I let go of the stick and took both feet off the rudder pedals. He made some quick turns left, than right, and spotting a field where corn once stood headed for it. He made one quick pass to check for rocks, ditches, fences, etc. then put her down on her single wheel and put her nose skid into the dirt bringing us to a safe landing.

What had just happened there, was Dan knew that what had broken the rope was lift, serious lift, and he know if I turned to the right, I would have been in it and could have worked it to 1500, 2500, 4000 feet and beyond. When I hesitated, I was out of that precious lift, and into the sink. That is why the student needs to follow every one of the coach/instructor’s directions. Although my daughter’s sitting at the stop sign a few seconds or even few minutes did not constitute a dangerous situation, cars being firmly placed on the ground, the coach/instructor has far more experience and knows what is going on, as such the student needs to trust their coach and follow directions to avoid dangerous situations, like a collision or augering into the ground as pilots sometimes say.

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