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Selecting a Flight Instructor

We will be back soon…

I had the opportunity to fly with Paul Needels and guide him through the process of earning his Private Pilot Certificate and then on to his Instrument rating. He prepared this short narrative to share his thoughts about his experience and what you need to consider when selecting a flight instructor should you be interested in learning how to fly or moving on to an advanced rating. I sincerely appreciate Paul’s kind words and I feel that his message about what you should consider when selecting a flight instructor is worth sharing.

Chemistry, compatibility, competence and teaching style are critical to success.

Paul Needels-Selecting a Flight Instructor

Always Have A Plan

Resting Peacefully

Teaching simulated emergency landings is an integral part of the training that each student receives on their way to their Private Pilot certificate. An integral part of this training includes regular discussion about the “impossible turn” and always having a plan for an unexpected challenge during each phase of flight.

During a recent training flight we were taking off with the intention of staying in the traffic pattern to practice landings. At 500 feet as we turned crosswind we experienced an unexpected drop in engine performance and it was clear that we had no option other than to land the airplane off airport. I immediately assumed control of the airplane, informed my student to tighten his seat belt and shoulder harness and selected a sandbar in the river bed on which to land. Since we were still developing some power I elected to keep the engine running as we positioned ourselves for touchdown. This was helpful in that as we were about to land there were large rocks in our path and the extra energy allowed us to fly over the rocks before touching down. At this point we were flying as slowly as possible with full flaps extended and as soon as we cleared these obstacles we touched down and rapidly rolled to a stop, secured the engine and exited the airplane. We were unhurt and the airplane was intact with very little damage.

The issue with the engine was diagnosed as a stuck exhaust valve which in a Cessna 150 with two adults made it impossible to return to the runway and a normal landing. The outcome of this landing was a combination of having a plan and luck. In my mind I have landed on this stretch of river bottom a thousand times so when we experienced the problem there was no question as to what to do. There was never any thought of turning around and we handled it just like any other landing would have been conducted.

Perfect Ending to a Beautiful Day

This lesson was focused on refining landings as my student was preparing to solo.  I had planned on having him perform a simulated emergency landing while in the pattern. On this day we experienced the real thing and were lucky enough be able to debrief a successful outcome and underscore the meaning of the Impossible Turn and why we must always have a plan, which is formulated prior to take off and during every phase of flight.

For more information on the impossible turn please visit the following links:

Happy Birthday to Me~Part Two

Twelve months to the day and several inches taller

Michael Francis Tiefenbach was the first person I wrote about in this blog and everything that I wrote a year ago still rings true. Michael was a man of few words then and not much has changed. What has changed is the degree of confidence and complete competence that Michael exhibits each time that he gets into an airplane. He has an incredible inner drive and expects the best of himself each time that he exercises his privilege as Pilot in Command.

On Friday May 28th, his seventeenth birthday, and one year to the day that he soloed N5443L he became a licensed Private Pilot. I was taxiing out to the runway when Michael was returning from his check ride and I knew that he had passed because his communication was as animated and happy as any I had ever heard him make. It was also at this moment that I realized that another chapter in my life, as a flight instructor, was coming to a close and, as always, it was bittersweet knowing that I would no longer share the cockpit with Michael or see his wonderful supportive parents as frequently as I had over the past year. Thank you Cindy and Brian for sharing this experience with me and being as involved as you were in making this day happen. Thank you Michael for allowing me to guide you through the process. You have wonderful skills, you challenged yourself every step of the way and your desire to be as good as you could be made my part in this very easy.

Just Add Power~

Drew in Glider

The family legacy continues~The third generation

Drew Thomson began the journey to powered flight in gliders. As a glider pilot he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and began flying gliders, not only because it was in his genes, but because it allowed him to solo at the tender age of fourteen. When his father sent me this photo of his first glider solo he made the comment that “he looks like such a little kid back then”. He does, but the beautiful smile and the confidence that comes from this kind of achievement, at a young age, were present when his father asked me to get him ready to solo powered aircraft on his sixteenth birthday ( his father is also a licensed glider and airplane pilot).

An airplane has a soul and a spirit~Ode to a friend

I am sharing this story with you because most of us that fly will understand the joy and the pain that Paula shares with us in her story about a string of mistakes that ended on the side of a runway. Paula is a very careful and thoughtful pilot as you can see from her analysis of what happened on this Spring day.  As I read her account I remember the phone call and the anguish and the self-incrimination just after the accident happened. This was an unfortunate accident and Paula shares, through her words, how much she has grown as a pilot and while  I read her account I realized that in teaching her to fly how much she taught me to be a more capable  instructor.

Blue Citabria

An airplane has a soul and a spirit

An airplane has a soul and a spirit. And if you fly, you know what I’m talking about.  I wouldn’t have believed this if I had never learned to fly.

“Flying can be better than any love you’ve ever had,” Michael had said.  “Or it can bring you more sorrow than you’ll ever know.”  This is stark truth.  I know first hand.

My story began on an uncommonly warm August day in Monterey.  The airplane — the small Citabria — sat steadfast on the ramp during our first preflight together.  There was a sweetness to her as she rested on her tailwheel with her nose slightly turned up as if she was breathing in the very air that would carry her aloft.  Her white wings with dainty blue tips balanced atop her matching blue body.   Looking face to face with her somehow I knew she was regaling in the day and allowing the sun and sky to be in awe of her beauty.  I was certainly marveling in the moment, and I had not a clue why.

Michael was my flight instructor for this my first ever flight.  After the preflight, he showed me how to climb into the front seat and clip into the shoulder and lap harness.  He then climbed into the back.  She smelled like new dolls at Christmastime.  That smell made me want to close my eyes and inhale, savoring the moment like a wild child on Christmas morning.

Taking to the air, she soared and climbed, circled and descended in Michael’s capable hands.  But in mine, she labored.

“Can’t you see the horizon?” Michael asked.  “If you can’t see the horizon, I can’t teach you to fly.”

“Of course, I see it,” I lied.

That’s the moment when she talked to me.  She spoke to me by the humming of the engine and the air streaming past the window.  The sound of her deep throaty voice told me she was climbing and her whistling announced she was descending.

Um, I don’t see the horizon, I said to myself.  But I can hear her.  I can feel her.  And she knows I’m here.

I would fly with her only three more times that year then switch to a C-172 Skyhawk.  But I thought of her, always watching from a distance, feeling the green horns of jealousy when I’d see someone else climb into her and fly away.   She continued to call to me and two months after passing my checkride, I climbed back into her front seat.  Michael took to the back.  And my heart soared Christmas again.

Michael stepped away from teaching me tailwheel.  Instead I gained experience and my tailwheel endorsement from Erik, a young aerobatic flight instructor who had steel-plied nerves and the patience of a soft-spoken saint with a Southern accent.  In the meantime, Michael moved from Monterey to Santa Paula.

Somewhere on the edge of day, Michael’s prophetic words of sorrow would lie in wait, lurking.  It would be a year later.  I’d be armed with my tailwheel endorsement and 70 hours of PIC tailwheel time.  I would have stopped by the hangar a hundred times, checking her chocks and her stick, her belts and her seats, her belly and her wings.  I’d sit inside her cockpit on rainy days and practice working-her-down, working-her-down, and painting her onto the mythical runway centerline inside the hangar.

It would be April 4th, a day that felt off balance, off kilter as if the Earth was cocked just a little to the left of center.   The previous two weeks had been windy, some days the winds reached peak gusts of 42 and once I heard it was 46.  But this day, the winds had subsided though there was something peculiar and curious in the air.  A lion was roaring somewhere but I couldn’t hear it.  I could feel it though.  It was prickling away at the nape of my neck, poking at my shoulder, pushing me back but I stuffed the feeling away.  Too many times I had called off flights because my “intuition” was saying don’t go.  Too many times I had felt I should have pushed through the discomfort.  Just too many times.

So, I preflighted, methodically going from wing, prop, wing, tail, and watched as the windsock first swung east then west, then west to south.  She had just been given her 100-hour and it showed with almost clear, hard-to-see oil on the dipstick.  I didn’t like being the first pilot after maintenance.  I checked the trim control and shook my head thinking I had gone out of sequence.  I was getting ready to make mistake three of the day.

“Top off the tanks,” I asked Robert, the line service fuel-guy, even though three-quarters of a tank were showing on both sides.  We were only going on a sightseeing adventure down to Big Sur.  Why top off?

My passenger was a fellow pilot, though he did not fly tailwheel.  He hadn’t flown often and over months of personal struggle he had gained a few pounds.  I hadn’t noticed, and gave no credence that perhaps it was just this last gallon of fuel and last pound of weight that may have tipped the moment just past CG.   Was it a factor?

We climbed into the Citabria.  At engine start, the wind was favoring 10.  The windsock swung from one side to the other as we taxied.  I moved the stick accordingly, first to the full forward position to compensate for the wind at my tail, then to the right and forward to compensate for the crosswind.  Making a 180 for run-up, I became disoriented.  What was going on?  180 degrees and the wind was still at my tail. The lion was roaring and I was beginning to hear.

“Crap we’re doing a run up in the wrong direction,” I said to my passenger.  “Put your feet on the brakes back there because I can’t hold it myself.”  She was protesting.  She was talking.  She was telling me “no.”  I had the lion in my ear and I continued on to mistake number six.

After run-up, I muscled my way up to the hold short line.

“Monterey Tower, Citabria 224RA, ready for takeoff at 10 right.”  Mistake seven.

“ Citabria 224RA, cleared for takeoff 10-right, winds 330 at 7.”

“F**k, we’ll be taking off in a quartering tailwind,” I said to my passenger.

“The winds are inconsequential, Paula, I’ve taken off in tailwinds before,” he said. (What number mistake?  Eight?)

“Cleared for takeoff 10 right, 4-Romeo Alpha,” I called back to ATC though I could have simply said to the controller, “Unable, the winds are shifting, I’ll wait.”

Instead, I rolled out to the centerline making yet more mistakes.  With focus lost and distraction on the wind I completely disregarded the takeoff check list, “Lights-camera-action.”  I hadn’t even set the transponder.  Later I’d ask myself did I check trim for takeoff?

As I eased the throttle full forward, she had stopped her quiet protesting.  By now she was full on screaming.  The stick felt frozen.  A normally simple pushing forward of the stick to bring up her tail was turning into a fight of strength and will.   I committed mistake 11 or 12, I cannot remember the number now, I took my hand off the throttle to use both hands to push the stick forward.  If ever there was a time a wish would come true, I would have wished to have merely pulled the throttle back and aborted takeoff.

Twenty seconds later, after she tried with all her heart for me, after she bounced, and weather-vaned, and suffered an agonizing aerodynamic stall and spin, she came to a stop.  Her landing gear sheered off.  The left white wing with the blue tip had crumpled and dug into the ground. She lay fatally cocked to the side of her belly in the gravel and dirt and dust.

With irrevocable sorrow, I wailed.

Fabric and steel, fabric and steel, I was told over and over.  An airplane is just fabric and steel.

Not this airplane.

She was spirit and she was soul and some nights when the quiet permeates the air, I can hear her whistling.

“This will be a piece of cake”


~Mission Accomplished~

Who knows why we make the choices that we make? Some choices are forced upon us, others are the result of options presented to us and some are somewhat random and we just go for it. I’m not really clear as to what motivated Tim Patrick to choose to learn to fly and I’m not sure he is either, but he did, and I’m glad that he did. Choosing to learn to fly lead  Tim so far out of his comfort zone that it was two weeks before he even knew whether he was “on foot or horseback”.

Tim made the decision to study for and take the Private Pilot Knowledge Test before he had ever been at the controls of an airplane. He passed the test with a score in the 90’s, bought a headset and scheduled his first lesson. Now that I look back on this it was a clear sign as to the type of person that I would be sharing the cockpit of the Cessna trainer with. He was a man that had made a decision, was a man on a mission that he later admitted was stretching him to the limit. We flew almost every day until he soloed on the 8th of November (43 days after his first flight). Tim’s personality and personal style was very regimented and refined based on almost fifty years of perfecting “his world”.  Learning to fly requires a reordering of our thinking, polishing our hand-eye coordination, navigating in a 3-dimensional world, and learning a new language. Boy, did we have fun!

There were days when, I’m sure, that he wanted me to just jump out of the airplane and let him figure it out on his own. In reality he was figuring it out on his own as my role was to just make sure that he had enough feedback to achieve the desired outcome and to keep moving him forward.  Day after day we’d meet at the airport and each day he grew more confident and competent as a pilot. I will never forget when Tim checked in with me while at one of the stops on his solo cross country. He was jubilant and for Tim this means he was smiling broadly (I could hear it in his voice) as he is very reluctant to show how he really feels and I loved to try and make him laugh.

As 2009 was giving way to 2010 it was clear that Tim was ready for the Private Pilot Practical Test so we scheduled it for January 5, 2010 (about 3 1/2 months from the day we started). The reason that I share the time it took to complete this journey is that when Tim walked through the doors of CP Aviation on September 21st he was sure that he would be a pilot in 60 days. Not impossible but a challenge that must be measured against a myriad of factors that surround each of us as we endeavor to meet any new challenge. It took more than 60 days but who cares?

On the morning of January 5th Tim had one more hurdle to clear; the Private Pilot check ride. This was not going to be just a plain old vanilla check ride because the FAA would be sitting in as the Designated Pilot Examiner was also to be reviewed. When Tim was presented with this option he was more than willing to be the person that Dennis Renzelman, DPE would test during his review by the FAA. Needless to say all went well and Timothy Patrick ended this day a Private Pilot.

There is nothing more satisfying than participating in the process of helping someone achieve a goal. It is why I teach and why I am so grateful to those that allow me to share their adventure with them. Thank you Tim, it has been an honor and a privilege to watch you grow wings.

One last comment. Tim has a son serving in the Middle East with the United States Marine Corps (L/CPL Taylor Patrick) and having been a Marine myself this provided us with an additional bond. Tim shared with me that he was not going to tell Taylor about learning to fly until he achieved his goal. Tim is very proud of his son and the decision that he made to join the Marine Corps. It is my hope that Taylor will read this and through these few words have an opportunity to share in his Fathers’ extraordinary accomplishment. Semper Fi

A Dream from Behind the Wall


Captain Zeyssig at work on departure from Oceano, California

Robert Zeyssig was born and raised in a little town called Finsterwalde, about 1.5 driving hours south of Berlin  ten years before the Wall was breached and the border separating East from West Germany began to crumble. Walls cannot block dreams and  when he was five he had a dream in which he saw himself in a uniform with four gold stripes on the sleeve. The uniform was that of an airline captain and the power of this dream never left him. He also remembers his very first flight with his Father in 1984 to Sotchi, Georgia (former Soviet Union) on a Tupolev 154 and ever since he has been hooked.  Does this sound familiar to you? My spark was when I was eight and it was a DC 3 to Los Angeles International airport.

Chance Meeting and Making a New Friend

Nana Cessna

Theodora Nana Smith

The following is being shared because it illustrates the importance of creating a training environment that, not only, teaches the knowledge and skills required to fly but also recognizes that each student is different. As an instructor it is important to recognize these differences and to craft an approach that meets the training requirements, positively reinforces achievement and most importantly demonstrates patience and creativity when dealing with each individuals unique background and learning style.

Over a year and a half ago I met an engaging woman at the Women in Aviation conference in San Diego. I had been asked to participate in an event, as a facilitator, which gave the WAI participants an opportunity to dialog about a variety of subjects related to flying. The participants rotated from table-to-table each 30 minutes and as it turned out Theodora Smith and I were the only people at my table during one of the rotations.

Theodora is a Flight Attendant for US Airways and several years earlier had embarked on a path to realize a long held dream to learn to fly. Theodora earned her Private Pilot license and along the way lost her confidence in her ability to fly and to continue the process of expanding her skills and the ratings required to consider other options in aviation.

As we discussed what had happened she shared a story that I have heard and witnessed first hand, a number of times, during my years as a Flight Instructor. Theodora was not the “typical demographic” for someone embarking on a possible career as a professional pilot. She was a forty something woman, had taken a leave from her position as a Flight Attendant, and needed an environment that would be patient, nurturing and recognize her personal learning style. In an effort to achieve her goal she navigated through three different flight training institutions and eventually earned her Private Pilot license. But along the way the fire and the enthusiasm had been crushed and she did what many others have done; stopped flying but the ember still burned inside. As we talked further I invited her to come to California and give me an opportunity to restore her confidence and her competence as pilot in command. She said that she would consider the offer and a little over a year later she arranged her schedule and took me up on my offer.

It was hard work but well worth the effort!

It was hard work but well worth the effort!

When she arrived in California it had been four years since her last flight and so her skills were understandably rusty; but she had a good base and we immediately went to work. Over the next five days she had to adapt to my personality and style that was less patient and more demanding than it would have been had we had more time to achieve our goal. Combine this with an unfamiliar area, avionics that she was not completely comfortable with, a push to perform, almost immediately, at the level she had been at when she stopped flying and you have a challenging learning environment. We logged over ten hours of flight time and more than ten hours of ground review. When she departed, the following Monday, she was a better pilot than when she arrived and had a clear idea as to what skill areas would need more refinement.

The intent of the time we spent together was to provide her with a confirmation that she is a competent pilot with sound fundamentals and that she was more than capable of continuing the path started a number of years earlier. We achieved this goal and I am very proud of her for her tenacity and commitment to excellence in spite of the challenges that this process presented.

For me the best part of this story is that the time we spent together has forged a friendship that I trust will last for many years and that I will have the opportunity to continue nudging Theodora forward as she continues to pursue her dream.

Father and son share a very special bond

Father Son First Flight

The first flight with a proud father

As we navigate life many people come in and out of our life. Some become friends for awhile and a very few become a close friend and stay in our lives forever.

Rick Erwin is a Captain for UPS and has been a close friend since he was a young man, fresh out of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, with a dream of becoming a professional pilot. For a short period of time he was my flight instructor and for over 30 years has been a very dear friend.

Earlier this year Rick contacted me and said that he was going to renew his Flight Instructor rating because his son Matt had expressed an interest in learning to fly and perhaps following in his Fathers’ footsteps. He was scheduled for a number of trips to the West Coast and was wondering if we might get together and spend some time flying and discussing what might be important as he got back in the right seat of a single-engine airplane (it had been over 20 years) to get Matt ready for his Private Pilot license. To my delight we got together at Santa Paula airport and spent most of the day hanging out, flying and sharing a good time. The best part is that not only is his name in my logbook as flight instructor I had the opportunity to make an entry in his logbook for the time that we spent together on a gorgeous April day.

On August 10th Matt became a Private Pilot and Rick had the privilege of teaching his son not only to fly but has played a key role, each day, in guiding this young man to this point in his life. I am very proud of both of them and cherish the friendship that Rick and I have shared.

If you build it you have to fly it…

Next step is a Tailwheel Endorsement

In October of last year Randy Lewis came to CP Aviation looking for a solution to a “small” problem. He had built an airplane and needed to learn to fly so that he could personally test how good a job he had done. Originally he thought that he would get a Light Sport license since his airplane was definitely in the Light Sport category. Lucky for me he could not find a Light Sport instructor or an airplane that satisfied him and so began our journey. Instead of the Light Sport license he  decided to get a Private Pilot license and a tailwheel endorsement since his aircraft is a tailwheel design.

The plan was to begin training in a Cessna 150/152 and after soloing switch over to tailwheel training in a Citabria. The plan progressed as it had been scripted and Randy flew his dual cross country in the Citabria but because insurance requirements did not allow him to fly solo in the Citabria, as a student pilot, he completed the rest of his private pilot requirements in a Cessna 152.

Randy is pretty cool and calm but when he walked in the door to meet with the Examiner to take his checkride  I had never seen him look so nervous. He had a first class, 100% natural case of the heebie jeebies and he had to work extra hard to overcome his nerves.

Mini Max built by Randy Lewis

Mini Max built by Randy Lewis

From the beginning the goal was to take the Private Pilot checkride by July and in spite of all that life could throw in the way and this extra large case of anxiety Randy became a Private Pilot on July 18th.

Even though his goal has been achieved we still have some work to do, in the Citabria, refining his tailwheel skills and getting him ready to fly his airplane. I will keep you posted and will have photos here when he takes flight in the airplane that he built with the same passion and commitment that he devoted to learning to fly.