A KEY LESSON

I had flown with over a dozen flight instructors before I became one myself. One or two were good, some were O.K., the rest were adequate. A flight instructor who is adequate is one who keeps you from wrecking the airplane as you teach yourself to fly. I was determined to be best flight instructor I could be: thorough, competent, caring, and realistic. Take emergency landings for example. Most of my flight instructors wait until you were over some huge hay fields and say, "O.K., I'm going to reduce the power and we will pretend that we have an engine failure. Where are we going to land?"

When I became a flight instructor, I strove for realism. One of my favorite tricks was to turn off the fuel when the student was looking out the left window, then, when the engine quit, say something like, "It's your airplane, put it somewhere!" Or even better, wait until we were over a lake or city, then dramatically reach up and turn off the key, take it out and drop it into my shirt pocket. "Emergency landing time," I would explain calmly. Of course the old propeller would keep turning and I would put the key back and restart the engine as soon as the student had picked a spot and set up for it.

One of my former students told me that when he had an actual engine failure, it had been easier to handle than my "realistic" training exercises.

Early one fine Saturday morning, I was scheduled with a pilot who was preparing for the flight instructor check ride. We were planning to fly a Tripacer but apparently the last person to fly the airplane had kept the key. We looked for the spare key. There was a rack of keys in the office which contained keys for every airplane that had been on the field for the past twenty years, but there was no key for the Tripacer. We groused around for awhile, then tried to call the person who had kept the key. It was no use. We were at the point of giving up when the mechanic came to our rescue.

The mechanic was one of those old-timers who never threw away anything. He had been a blacksmith in his youth. With the invention of the automobile, he had become an auto mechanic. Then, after airplanes were invented, he had learned to fix them. This guy was really old.

He came out with a cigar box filled with keys. "Been saving them for years," he told us, around the pipe clinched in his teeth, "never know when you might need a key." And he was right, of course, you never know when some one might take the key from the very airplane you are scheduled to fly. We took the box and headed for the Tripacer.

About the fiftieth key worked. Well, sort of worked. The key turned the switch on only after a complicated maneuver which involved tilting it at just the right angle, then jiggling, pushing and lifting it at the same time. When we finally got the switch to the "both" position, I said, "leave it right there, don't do a mag check or anything. We're ready to fly."

I returned the box of keys to the mechanic while the student did a preflight inspection of the plane, being cautious of the propeller, of course. We flew to the practice area, me giving sage advice from my hundred hours or so of teaching. I talked him through the stall series, chandelles and lazy eights. It was such fun. Then I decided to show him how real men demonstrate emergency landings.

I tried later to come up with a good reason why I had turned the switch off and removed the key. But I couldn't. The student stared at me in disbelief. He later said it was the stupidest thing he had ever seen anyone do.

I got the switch back on and the engine restarted, but not until we were on short final for someone's tobacco patch. We flew back to the airport in silence. All I could do was to admit that it was a stupid thing to do and promise never to do it again.

The student became a flight instructor, then a charter pilot, last I heard. He's probably told hundreds of students about the idiot who turned off the key after it had taken five minutes to turn it on. He may have kept many of those students from doing a dumb trick like that. So .... maybe it was a great lesson after all.