Friday, October 29, 2010

Daniel's Flying Lesson - In Which the Blogger Refrains from back-seat flying

Daniel Wies practices cross-country flying in Phoenix
Who is more courageous? The journalist who climbs into the back seat of a single engine airplane piloted by a baby-faced student pilot with less than a month's flying experience or the pilot, who with a grin and plenty of grace allowed this inquisitive matron to layer another distraction on to his overloaded plate?

I vote for the pilot. And since I am back in my dorm room at the Airline Training Center Arizona, with photos and an account of the flight, you know how it all turned out. We landed safely - all of us the wiser for the two hours we spent in the air over Phoenix. But I'm going to tell you what the photos won't show.

Daniel Weis, the student who hopes one day to fly the line as a pilot for Lufthansa, was the picture of focused concentration, as he flew the lemon yellow Bonanza from airport to airport across the Phoenix metro area this afternoon. As if handing the flight controls, navigating the small plane through jagged buttes, finding unfamiliar airports and doing repeated landings and takeoffs in cross wind wasn't enough, here are some of the unexpected complications Daniel had to deal with during the flight.

  • A take-off clearance that included "make it a quick departure to accommodate incoming traffic"
  • A warning that parachutists had just been dropped nearby at our altitude
  • A notice of birds in the area
  • Helicopters practicing touch-and-go landings

A lot of additional stress, if you ask me, but Daniel tackled the incoming with remarkable calm as his flight instructor Scott Wemple, prompted him to stay on top of it all. 

Wies with his instructor Scott Wemple
"He has twenty things to do in the time to do fifteen," Scott told me even before we'd taken off. The ability to fly the plane and keep ahead of all of those tasks is the challenge for Daniel and all pilots, not just the new ones or the wanna-bes.

Back at the center later in the afternoon, no one was as sympathetic as I about the challenges Daniel had successfully fielded. As I sat in the shade with Gil Monti, ATCA's chief pilot and an aerobatic pilot he explained, good flying is like playing a mental chess game. "Pilots are thinking ahead, 'where will I be 8-10 minutes from now?' They are forming a mental picture of the future."

Wound up now, Gil needed little prompting to get right behind the notion that Flying Lessons have practical applicability outside of aviation. "Many people listen to the radio or hold a conversation while they drive. But they're not driving defensively," he told me. When I drive, he said, "I'm never just looking at the guy in front of me, I'm continually looking at the traffic in front of him and anticipating what the guy in front me is going to do. I'm always looking in my rear view mirror so I know what's happening behind me and beside me."

Pilots, Gil explained to me, are "thinking of the big picture, were not just in-the-moment, we're always calculating situations developing."

Gil's example of driving suggests that the dialogue I often hear, "Can I safely drive and talk on the phone, or listen to a book on tape (busted!) isn't really the point. The more appropriate question is; Do these distractions reduce the quality of our attention and therefore degrade our performance? I'm guessing yes.

Daniel and his fellow students will spend four months here, learning not only how to handle an airplane but how to handle the distractions inherent in the act of flying.

Here on the ground, we're embracing unnecessary distractions with a bring-it-on-enthusiasm without the training or apparently, the wisdom to appreciate the risk.


Unknown said...

Just as a note of odd coincidence, Christine, the First Officer of Colgan 3407 had been a flight instructor at the Lufthansa School.

Maybe she was a little more qualified than the media gave her credit for.

Martin said...

Dear Peter,

The copilot of CO 3407 was Rebecca Shaw and I can confirm that she had not been a flight instructor at the Lufthansa Flight School.

Martin Riecken

Unknown said...

This is what happens when I trust the memory that can't find my car keys or google password.

The factual states:
"From January 2007 until being hired at Colgan, the first officer worked as a flight instructor at Sabena Airline Training Center in Phoenix, AZ."

No negative reflection on them or her, having over 3,000 hours of dual given, I think it is great experience.

I apologize.