Francis Meyrick

Of Helicopters and Humans (37) “Zen, and the art of Flight Instructing “

Posted on June 16, 2015

My alternate uniform, a constant source of problems

Of Helicopters and Humans (37)

“Zen, and the Art of Flight Instructing “

First Published Feb 23, 2015 on the “Just Helicopters ” blog

Throughout History, both recorded, and (thankfully) not, men have chosen to instruct men. And women. And, (I hasten to be poli-tickle-ally correct) women too have instructed men. (and mostly bent them to their iron will). Thus, the Art of Instruction is nothing new. Nor, we might add, are the foibles of Masters and Instructors…

Whether it be pottery, laying tiles, calligraphy, computer graphics, Einstein’s Theory of how-it-all-works, or simply scrubbing the commode, men have lectured other men on how to do it properly. (And women) . It’s nothing new. Does it all work just hunky-dory?


Ever looked at a Flight Instructor, maybe one working on your staff, and wondered? If maybe his head was about to fall off? It was getting that big? Ever been under the thumb of a Check Pilot or Examiner, and suppressed an almost irresistible urge to commit a career blemish? To wit, kick the SOB (Slightly Obtuse Buffoon) in the vital area? Unreasonable, sarcastic, belittling, nit-picking Sky God? I bet you have…

Some of the Eastern philosophies, notably Taoism and Buddhism, in my hopelessly biased view, have a unique way of pointing out age old truths, in a manner that we can easily grasp. If we make even a small effort to mold our brain path in a slightly different direction. Thus it is often said:

“Man glorifies the Way. The Way (the Tao) does not glorify Man.”

So what does that mean, you may ask, drily, one eyebrow raised sardonically. What ya been smokin’ Moggy? Um. Let’s paraphrase it.

If we simple men, in our latest incarnation, happen to become Flight Instructors or Check Airmen, then, frankly, we are real lucky. Put it this way, it’s just a whole lot better than that last gig. Remember vaguely pulling that damn rickshaw through the suburbs of Calcutta? All those lousy tippers? Fat, heavy, and endlessly demanding? Remember all those sticky cow poops? Yes, I bet you do. Bare foot and breathless. They say it’s hard at the top, eh? How about trying to sidestep-hurdle-tap dance-around the holy cow poops all day long!? Not easy.

So, having climbed the hierarchy, having reached dizzying heights of career defining brilliance, having achieved the uniform and the gold bars, that brass plaque on your desk, in the full knowledge that you are hellish ‘portant, and that people are in awe of you, what, pray tell, kind of chappie are you going to be? In your latest incarnation? Are you going to be a modest fellow, soft spoken, happy to point people in the right way? Are you going to share your joy of aviation? Will your eyes shine, when you talk about flying? Will you encourage, share the love, and adhere to the fundamental principles of flight instruction, as defined in that multi choice written test, you took long ago? You remember, don’t you? Positive reinforcement, avoiding the use of belittling sarcasm? Or are you going to be different? A nit-picking, unreasonable, emotional, sarcastic bully perhaps?

So I was Chief Flying Instructor a long time ago, and we taught helicopters and airplanes. I had all kinds of different instructors working there, and all kinds of different personalities. One of the nicest guys was an airline captain. Experience up the ying-yang, yet coupled to a soft spoken, cheery style of teaching. Very positive. He just did it in his off time, for the fun of it. All his students loved him, and I could see why.

We also had… other Instructor types. One young fellow had (until I fixed that) a strange disposition to (“accidentally”) try and make his students air sick. Especially the older ones. Then he would re-live the glory at the bar later, in full technicolor. I did sort that one out eventually, and the methodology used is described in another story. Then I had a new gentleman in his late twenties, heading for an airline career, building time. I’ll call him Aloysius. Now Aloysius wasn’t a bad chap at all, but he seemed often to get very exasperated. He seemed to always get the dumb students. The worst of the lot. The unteachable morons. The idiots who wanted to be spoon fed. Or so he said. I picked up on that apparent fact, as he would sit at the bar, and lament his fate. I also noticed he had a much higher student drop-out rate than the other instructors. And it was getting worse. So, in due course, after his first few days, I had him take a Cessna 172 SkyHawk for a training detail, instead of a Cessna 152. That meant I could quietly slip in the back. We occasionally swopped between the 152’s and the 172’s anyway, because we felt it gave the students a welcome change. Many seemed to get on better in the 172 as well.

So, off we went, for a session in the pattern. Training technique is similar-with-differences, so much of what I will describe below has equal applicability to both airplane and heli-whopper.

Aloysius’ mouth moved into gear almost from the git-go. A high gear. Lots, and lots of words. A continuous talking. A positive torrent of elocution. Damn, could that guy talk.

“Watch your airspeed!-you’re out of balance!-more power!-WHAT YOU DOING??- level the wings!-okay, turn around that tree onto the downwind!- you’re losing height!- watch the runway, you’re drifting in!”

I was getting dizzy just sitting in the back. It was a helluva rough ride. It got worse on finals. Much worse.

“You’re TOO HIGH!-watch your airspeed!- come back right!-MORE POWER!- watch the slip ball!-watch the airspeed!- HOLY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING!- RAISE THE NOSE TO COVER THE HORIZON!- LESS POWER!- You’re TOO HIGH!- SLIPBALL!- Man, pay attention!-TOO LOW!- LESS POWER!” (aaaarrrgh…!!)

We landed with a controlled crash, very flat, and the front oleo seal doubtless got another testing.

I’d seen and heard enough. I had them pull over, and we swopped around. Aloysius in the back, me in the front. I grinned at the student. He looked pale, and nervous.

“Okido”, I said, “you’ve heard it all before! Take me ’round the pattern!”

There was silence on the intercom, as he laboriously taxied into position, forgetting his announcement.

“How ’bout that pink Jumbo Jet on short finals?”, I asked, feigning alarm.. He started: “WHAT!?”

“The Pink Jumbo Jet on short Finals”, I repeated, breathlessly.

“Oh!”, he said, “guess I forgot the radio call!”

I looked behind, ducked exaggeratedly, and said: “Phew! It’s okay! He just went around!”

(student laughs)

And off we went. I said very little. A bit wobbly, not too bad. He’s gripping the controls like the vice of Death.

“Relax on the controls, brother!” I get this non-comprehending stare.

“Here, let me show you!” I demonstrate holding the control column lightly, between thumb and two fingers. “Feel what she’s trying to tell you…” He tries it, and does better. I sense him relaxing.

By now, we are heading off over the horizon. “Um”, he remarks, “Should I turn cross wind?”

I look around, feigning puzzlement. “Heck, I don’t know. What do YOU think?”

I wear an expression of bewilderment. He laughs, and turns cross wind.

Soon we are downwind, climbing through some dizzying altitude. He doesn’t seem to realize it. Without saying anything, I start looking down, out of the window, eyebrows raised, and then I look at him. Then back out the window. He gets it. “Oh, I’m too high…!” And he adjusts.

Base leg. Finals. I say nothing. Nada. We are WAY too high. He doesn’t seem to notice it. I say nothing. The runway disappears under the nose. “Um”, he says, “I think we’re too high…!”

“Oh!”, I say. Trying to look past the nose. “Oh, dear! What do you think we should do??”

He initiates a go around, and we both fall about laughing. We try it again, and again. I remind him of the simple admonition: “Airspeed by Pitch, Glideslope by Power”. After that, silence on the intercom, a calm cockpit, and I let him work it out. I bid him give ME a running commentary of what HE is thinking.

This he does, fairly intelligently. He’s now flying the AIRPLANE, not the instructor’s MOUTH. Plus, he is having fun. FUN. Interesting concept. If he forgets a radio call, I start jumping around in my seat, squirming, looking out all the windows. He gets it. “Oh, it’s that pink Jumbo jet again!” Exactly.

If he’s too high or too low, I say nothing, but I look down and out the window, then I turn and look at him, then down and out the window. He starts laughing, and figures the glideslope out. Soon he is telling himself “Airspeed by pitch, glideslope by power”. Pretty quickly, he has the final approach nailed.

Calm cockpit, very little input from the Instructor. Hummmm…..

Next thing is to sort out the round out. “Raise the nose to cover the horizon”. Whoever dreamed that one up? It’s a recipe for chaos. Running out of airspeed at an unsafe height. I do it differently. Simple way. Simple fellow.

“Aim at airspeed 65 to 70 knots. But never, ever, go below 60 knots. Unless you’re right above the runway. Okay?”


Now we play the “explosive runway” game. The runway, I tell him, is wired with explosives. The moment we even touch a wheel, we’re gonna blow up. So the trick is to get as low and as slow as possible, six inches above the runway. But we mustn’t touch. Use power as required, but DO NOT LAND. Okay?


The first pass is twenty feet, 75 knots. “Excellent!”, I say. “Try it again, a little lower, and a little slower”.

Next pass: 10 feet, 70 knots. “Excellent!”, I say. “try it again, a little lower, and a little slower.”

Calm cockpit. Very little talking. Banter. Fun. Hummmmm……

Pretty soon, he is in a nice nose up attitude, speed right, down to four feet. Now the fun begins again.

“Don’t let it land now! Don’t let it land! Remember, we’re GONNA BLOW UP!”

He applies a trickle more power as required, and we float all the way down the runway, four feet, nose up in a nice landing attitude, and he’s getting used to being there. Comfortable.

I tease him down. Lower, but DON’T LET IT LAND! He learns to play tunes on the stall warning. The stall warning JUST starts coming on, and he squeezes on just a bit of power… stall warning goes away. On…OFF… good control. I show him how, as the aircraft slows down, he will need more and more back pressure, to hold it off. But that he needs to be very cautious with FORWARD pressure on the control column, because the wing is already struggling to fly, and if you move the column abruptly forward, you are in effect, dumping much-needed lift. So it’s more a case of “relaxing the back pressure”.

“Oh!”, he says.

Eventually, there is a very soft “Screeech…” as the rubber briefly kisses the runway.

“BOOM!”, I say. “We just blew up!”

He laughs out loud. He’s figured it all out. We go around, and he starts acing the landings. One after the other. Aloysius has gone real quiet.

In the helicopter world, the same thinking technique applies. Rather than saying:

“You are too fast! ” or “you are too high!” or “You are WAY out of balance!” (implying: “Dumb ass!”) You could say: “Hmmmmmm……”

Meaning: “is this right?” And let the student figure out what isn’t right. The vital ingredient is that the student has fun, relaxes, learns, and flies the HELICOPTER, not the INSTRUCTOR’s MOUTH.

Autorotations can terrify students, if taught improperly. The way I do it, is to show the first few with a very GENTLE entry. Concentrate on showing them the needle split. The upcoming air flow driving the blades.

“Wow!”, they say. “Is that all there is to it? – Cool!” Now we have built up confidence in the machine, and the workings of Mother Nature. Gravity works. The flow of gases works. All sorts of forces work. Just fine. Happy? Cool! We LIKE happiness! Now, obviously, Bloggsy-baby, if the engine REALLY quits, we can’t just MILK down the collective, right? We would get that violent nose left yaw we talked about on the ground, right? Rotor RPM decaying rapidly, right? So then we’re gonna have to be more POSITIVE on the lever down, okay?

Okay, so we have now shown you four real gentle OLD FART auto rotation entries. Ready for a rapid one? Yes? Confidence is up, right? Cool! So now I’m going to demonstrate a normal kick-ass entry, exact same aerodynamic principles are at work here, but we’re pretending the engine really DID quit. Okay?


THAT, to my, admittedly, simple mind is an example of” Zen, and the Art of Flight Instructing”.

Calm is good.

We instructors and Check Airmen merely humbly POINT OUT the way to what is fun, safe, interesting, enlightening. The “Way” does not point to US, instructors and check airmen. We do not bask in its light and glory. WE are nothing.

“Man glorifies the Way. The Way (the Tao) does not glorify man.”

Simple, really.

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on June 16, 2015, 10:36 pm

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