Wednesday 22 May 2013 23:01 UTC
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I recall this incident often and as a reminder that even though we're trained to do things in a certain way there comes a point where 'monkey see, monkey do' isn't good enough and plain old fashioned common sense needs to step in. In some people this isn't always an option, some just aren't that bright, while for others it goes against the (cultural) grain.
The mid-90's found me instructing at a delightful school on the Gold Coast in Australia. It was very unusual in that it wasn't run by devious shysters and paid its instructors a salary rather than by the flying hour. (Altogether now, everyone go "Ooooohhhhhh"). Posh, eh? As a result the instructors were better motivated and, I like to think, contributed to the school's good reputation. This started to pay off when international students began turning up, in particular three from Hong Kong. Back then Kai Tak, with it's notorious checkerboard approach, was functioning and had a flying club tucked away in a corner. While this might have been fun for those with reggie spotting tendencies it really ate into a one hour flying lesson and was, we initially thought, the reason they had 60, 45 and 30 hours experience with only the 60 hour pilot ever having soloed (twice). As it turned out there were other reasons.They'd also allowed themselves just three weeks to gain a PPL which with their levels of experience and the lovely New South Wales weather should have been easy, right?
Now, we've studied CRM and Human Factors and think we've got a handle on all that stuff but it's something else when you're confronted with people whose perceptions are wholly, and I mean WHOLLY, different from yours. The first warning sign came after the CFI took them up on assessment flights and told us with an evil grin, "All leave is cancelled boys, good luck". The second flag came in ground school. I made it clear that although I understood the concept of loss of face they could spare my blushes and stop me if I had failed to explain something to them clearly (see what I did there?). We only had a few days to cover the entire syllabus and given that they'd already passed the HK exams that should have been enough, but it was still going to be tight. Very early on though I realised that all the nodding, smiling and answers of "Yes" didn't mean a bl00dy thing and the usual technique of testing the student progressively resulted in them clamming up, even when they clearly knew the correct answer. It was like pulling teeth and we had to burn the candle at both ends to get them through.
Then came the flying. The plan was to skip through the basic handling lessons by going up and running through straight and level, normal turns, steep turns, PFL's etc. With the hours in their logbooks it was hoped that after the first lesson we'd be into circuits closely followed by going solo. That was before we allowed for the very black and white nature of their thinking which showed itself in the first ten minutes of the condensed lesson. "Power plus attitude plus configuration equals performance" I pattered as I set cruise power in the Cessna 150/150 and saw about 100 knots. I handed over and the student replicated it perfectly. "I have control. 2000rpm plus this attitude maintains altitude but we're now at 80 knots(or thereabouts)". Handing over control I was again rewarded with a perfect demonstration so I asked him to show me 90 knots, straight and level. He gazed resolutely forward and appeared to have gone deaf. I asked again, no reply. Then again. Eventually he admitted that he couldn't do so as I hadn't shown him. "Are you saying that you need me to demonstrate every setting for each change of one knot in airspeed?". "Yes" came the reply.
A week or so later and we'd progressed to circuits. Normal, abnormal and glide approaches, we'd done them all. He'd been solo three times but instead of keeping my presence in the tower to only the first session I climbed the stairs and drank coffee while watching his every move. Pete the ATCO began ribbing me, saying I was too harsh, but then came 'that' circuit. My student was on right hand circuits with one from another school flying left ones. Round and round they went with the standard R/T calls until mine called "Ready for base, touch and go" to which Pete replied "Maintain downwind, aircraft on opposite base leg". The reply of callsign only sounded confident but I wasn't convinced so continued to watch him. Pete did too but after a few seconds, satisfied that he was indeed continuing downwind, turned away to set about organising some flight strips and after a little longer I turned to pick up my coffee. Scrounging a biscuit I dunked and glanced out the window toward where I thought my student should be. Oh, sh^^. During the brief moments I'd stopped watching him he'd turned onto right base and descended, now directly head to head with the aircraft on left base. "Errrrr, Pete. You know I said I was being too hard on him? Well, look up". Blimey, he moved fast. "(Callsign, callsign, callsign) Turn left immediately, immediately! Maintain downwind and stop descent!". My student lazily acknowledged with his callsign, as only the blissfully unaware can, slowly turned left and began chugging away from us at 500' agl while we breathed a sigh of relief and Pete gave me a 'Oh, alright' look.
After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only a minute or so Pete keyed his mike and instructed "(Callsign), cleared right base, touch and go". The now familiar reply of callsign only came laconically and as I resolved to issue him with a detention and remedial R/T lessons we both watched as he turned......left. Not just left but left and climbing. With no other traffic in his way we simply watched until after a little while he turned right again and began to descend. As we did so Dave called up from the radar room. "You guys watching this?". "Errr, yeah" replied Pete "No idea what he's doing though". "Ahhh, that's easy mate" said Dave with amazing perspicacity. "He's been flying circuits with a base turn at a thousand feet so that's where he's going. Up to that point in the sky".
All three did eventually get through their PPL. It's often said that students pass or fail based upon their performance on the day but of all my students this one worried me the most. I assume he's still out there, puttering around with whichever saint/god/entity watching over his shoulder but for my part it taught me to make sure, really sure, that information given or received really is understood whichever side of the transaction I sit.
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