Published in June 2016 issue

By Clayton Taylor

Like many Pilots in the airline industry, I started out building my hours as a Flight Instructor. I worked hard to get the ratings associated with that ticket, including the authorizations to teach people how to fly on instruments alone and how to fly an airplane with more than one engine. Unfortunately, there was no course on how to be an effective teacher, so I sort of just emulated what my instructor had done when I had undergone my initial training. However, I was also determined not to do some of the less than student-friendly things my primary instructor had.

I loved teaching people how to fly. My students ran the gamut of age, race, and gender. It was quite challenging. Based on what the other instructors said about how their lessons were going, I always figured I was pretty darn good at the job. That was until, one day, a pretty young lady, who was on her third flight lesson, complained.

In my opinion, the lesson with this girl had gone just fine. I thought I’d been effective right up until we had parked our tiny, two-seat Piper Tomahawk. Then, once the engine had been shut down, she told me that she thought she should get a new instructor. When I asked why, she said that her first two lessons had been fun. All they had done was fly around and look down on her house and the local scenery. Whereas I had talked almost non-stop throughout the lesson, her previous instructor had remained mostly silent. I guess my constant dialogue about where to look and how to do certain things had taken all the fun out of it. I explained that it didn’t matter who she flew with, lesson three was when things began to get busy. She didn’t believe me and switched to another instructor anyway. She never did finish training. In fact, a few years later, she married a Pilot I knew and, after the divorce, spent the next 10 years making his life miserable. To be fair, the Pilot she married was kind of a weirdo.

I left that job many years ago but, as I slowly climbed the food chain, I would never fully escape being in a position of teaching people how to fly airplanes.

A couple of years ago, following my annual check ride in the Airbus A330, the check airman asked whether I would have been interested in joining the training department. It was an honor to be asked. I mean, they don’t just hand that stuff out. I asked a few questions and told him I’d think about it, but I eventually decided not to accept. The reason was because, in addition to teaching highly skilled Pilots how to fly the Airbus, I would also have been expected to give them check rides. Pilots, particularly those who have been around a long time, absolutely hate you telling them they have done something wrong. You can praise one for doing 49 things perfectly, but if number 50 was a wee bit sub-par, well, they don’t want to hear it.

During one simulator check, we took off from Boston, Massachusetts, and immediately turned east. About 50 miles out over the ocean, red lights and a constant repetitive chime advised us that we had a rear cargo fire. Generally, in an emergency, the Captain gives the airplane to the co-Pilot and has him both fly the airplane and talk with Air Traffic Control. That frees the Captain up to run the checklist and manage the operation, rather than try flying the airplane while keeping track of everything else. This Captain, however, had me run the checklist while he flew the airplane. It didn’t take long for him to get a little overwhelmed with the workload. In addition to flying, he had to reprogram the flight management system, alert the folks on the ground, brief the Flight Attendants, alert our passengers, and keep an eye on his co-Pilot, who could, at any moment, screw up and kill us all. Regardless, I felt as though he did a decent job of getting us back on the ground safely.

A few minutes later, I was in the left seat and the instructor repositioned us out over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. With barely a minute to get oriented, we experienced an engine failure. I instinctively activated the engine ignition and glanced at our weight: we were very heavy. In fact, we were at máximum takeoff weight. We rarely reach landing weight until we are on the other side of the ocean, so it would be quite impossible to be at takeoff weight at our mid-point.

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I pushed the thrust forward to maximum continuous power and began a turn away from our assigned track. As I turned, I told the co-Pilot (who had previously played the role of Captain) that we were very heavy and I would delay initiating a descent until we were well clear of the track. There are often dozens of airplanes at various altitudes during a night crossing, so we can’t just do whatever we want; we have to ensure separation with all the other airplanes in the vicinity. I turned on our exterior lights, announced our turn off course on both the emergency and the air-to-air frequencies, and then sent a ‘Pan-Pan’ message to Shanwick Control on our datalink computer. A Pan-Pan alerts everyone that we have a serious situation on board, but one that’s not quite a Mayday. Now, if we had depressurized, that would have warranted a Mayday.

The airplane did indeed get slow, but we only went about 10kt under the recommended minimum. I was watching the speed and, once safely clear of the track, I allowed the airplane to descend, knowing that we would not be able to maintain altitude for very long on one engine. Without looking at the book, I knew that we would likely have to descend to around 18,000ft before we would be able to maintain altitude. It was a long way down.

Once I’d demonstrated I could handle the emergency, we were repositioned back to Boston.

During the debrief, the instructor chided me for having allowed the airplane to get slow. It’s not as if there had been much I could have done, but I remained silent. I’ve learned a long time ago to not argue. It’s better to sit there, take it, and then go home. He then suggested that I should have called Shanwick on the radio instead of sending them a text. I knew that that was ridiculous. He knew how fluky HF radio communications can be. I then realized that he was simply trying to get me to think about things a little differently.

Things changed course when the Captain’s debrief began. It started with a suggestion to have the co-Pilot take over flying duties during most emergencies. That didn’t go over well with the Captain, but he managed to maintain his composure.

For the landing in Boston, the Captain had selected médium auto-brakes, which had caused the airplane to stop rather abruptly. We often use that setting when the runway is wet or snow-covered. In the particular case, there had been no reason for using medium, but it hadn’t hurt. Regardless, the check airman admonished him, saying that using such a setting might have caused the brakes to overheat and could have easily compounded his problems. This was ridiculous, of course, and the Captain quickly became red-faced with anger. He lashed out for a few seconds before catching himself. The instructor paused for a moment, and then droned on for a while about— well, I don’t know because I had stopped paying attention. I was brought back into the conversation when the Captain balked at something that had been said. I looked up as the instructor smiled and said, “Oh, just relax. You guys did a great job; I’m just busting your chops.” I hate it when they do that. But my Captain’s response is exactly why I don’t like giving check rides.

I was recently flying with a guy who was a closet instructor. He wished they’d ask him, but they never did. He made up for it by instructing all of his co-Pilots. My having over 8,000 hours on the A330 made no difference; he was determined to teach me how to land in a crosswind. I let him yammer on because it seemed to make him happy. Reflecting on it, it reminded me of a simulator session I’d conducted in the commuter aircraft Shorts 360 many years ago.

As the new hire Pilot flew his first non-precision approach in the Shorts, I provided a running tutorial on how it should be done. We were only a mile or two from the simulated airport when this young man turned to me and said, “Would you please be quiet! I’m trying to concentrate and your constant chatter isn’t helping.”

The Captain looked at him in utter disbelief. A new hire Pilot who would yell at his instructor was not someone who would be employed much longer. He quickly told his co-Pilot to stop talking. Then, once on the simulated ground, he suggested that an apology was in order. The co-Pilot apologized and I let it go. Of course, I could have fired him right there. As he showed bad judgment, I considered it and I wondered how he would behave with other Captains after he’d been around for a while. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt because, after all, I actually had been running on at the mouth.

During the debrief, I recalled the young lady I had been instructing years ago on her third flight lesson, and realized that she too had thought I talked too much. So, when the Captain recently gave me his running tutorial on proper crosswind technique, I finally realized, after all this time, that a good instructor knows when to stop instructing.

It had taken a few decades, but I had got it. Now, if I could just dodge the check airman requirement, I might be ready to give it another try.