Friday, July 31, 2009

Certified Flight Instructor

Checkride. That term doesn't exactly conjure up pleasant feelings among most pilots, especially when it involves an inspector from the local FAA Flight Standards District Office (we call them the "fisdo"). However, I went into this one pretty confident and came out victorious. This was the easiest, weirdest checkride I've ever taken.

The day started early. I was up at 0500 at and the airport a little before 0700 getting all my documents and the airplane staged. The FSDO inspector showed up at the appointed time, 0800. The first words out of his mouth were "nice shirt. It's more comfortable untucked. Kohl's, $11.00, right?" The guy was wearing the exact same shirt. I told him, "actually, $8.00." He replied, "how the hell did you get it for 8?"

That was the tone the day started on, kind of a friendly banter, and it stayed that way. After doing the paperwork to check out my application, the plethora of logbook endorsements required to be a CFI, and the aircraft records, we got started. The actual questions were very straightforward. "Talk to me about the characteristics of learning. What are some responsibilities of a CFI? What kind of anti-ice and de-ice systems does your Cessna 172-S have?"

Then there were the tangents. We established early on that we were both history buffs. The bulk of the oral ended up being a very detailed discussion of the history of the Catholic church (the guy is a very conservative Catholic) and how, at least if I'm a Protestant, it's a good thing I'm a mainline protestant. We also talked about our common dislike for the current Presidential administration, my love for tailwheel airplanes, and a lot of his life history. I embraced this as a tactic---if he went on a tangent, I'd follow him and encourage it. The oral was three hours, but we might have done 1.5 of actual "work." It didn't just kill was the first oral exam in my career that I really count as "fun."

The day continued. The northwest part of the greater Houston area must have gotten more rain today than in the past month (I should know, I've spent 20+ days here this summer). So we waited. And waited some more. It's a funny scene to see a CFI applicant and an FAA examiner kicked back shooting the bull, but that's what we did. He even ran to his house (he lives on the field at Hooks) to grab a history book he wants to loan me. It's in my flight bag, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

The guy is quirky, a little sarcastic, has a dry sense of humor, and likes to sing "We're in the Money" on the intercom in the airplane, and I'll be damned if I didn't come out of the day liking him. This guy loves what he does and wants to actually get to know his applicants. The FAA does have some good guys, and if I lucked out getting him I'm cool with that.

We finally found a weather window to go flying at around 3:30. True to what I'd heard about his style, the engine start checklist wasn't a biggie...I was hardly even strapped into the right seat when he's started the engine and we were taxiing while he talked to ground. He's really a "kick the tires and light the fires" type. I think if that tactic on startup doesn't get you behind the airplane (and it didn't me), then you're not going to fail the flight portion.

I taught him through an instrument check, and off we went. He did about 80% of the flying, which is nice because I could actually focus on teaching. Two ILS approaches at Conroe, a couple of unusual attitude recoveries (I got to fly and teach those), a couple of steep turns, and a GPS approach at Hooks (I got to fly most of this and make the landing) later, he sticks his hand out as we taxi in and says "congratulations. You do good work." It was official...I'd passed my initial CFI checkride!

I ended up having to stay in Houston tonight...there was some weather between here and Waco this evening that N2150G and I didn't feel like messing with, so I'll fly home in the morning. I wish I could celebrate with Alisa and our friends, but that will happen tomorrow night.

This has been an incredible journey so far. I should have the sign-off in probably two weeks or less to take the CFI-A add on and I'll be done. Done. First part of January, I don't think I could center a VOR needle. Now I'm an instrument instructor. Crazy. Just goes to show what you can do with support and motivation.

Alisa has put up with me being gone way too much, and the Mendiolas have gone out of their way to feed me, lodge me, drive me to the airport and back, support me, and generally (happily) put up with the inconvenience of my comings and goings. But I'm almost there, and it's about to pay off for everyone!

Time to go relax some studying tonight!!

Aaron Dabney
Certified Flight Instructor-Instrument

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Musical Checkrides

Well, after having my checkride moved from the 31st to the 30th, and then to the 28th, I get a call from my FSDO guy today and it's back to the 31st. The good thing is that it's a Hooks, with which I've become very familiar, in N2150G, Parker's C-172 that I've done a good 85% of my flying this year in, and with an inspector who I have lots of intelligence on.

There won't really be any surprises. He's already told me we'll start at 8 and I can expect to be out of there at 2. I already know the approaches he expects me to teach in the airplane (I didn't even have that kind of intel ahead of my Instrument checkride), and I already know that the ground lesson I'll teach in the oral exam is the published hold at ALIBI (see He's also big on the fundmentals of instructing (kind of helpful to have that M.S.Ed. in my back pocket) and instructor professionalism.

I'm not saying that this is going to be a cakewalk, but oddly enough I've been more nervous about checkrides than I am about this one. More than anything else, I'm going stir-crazy to get it done. I'm ready to start flying for a living already!!

Flying a plane is no different from riding a bicycle. It's just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

— Captain Rex Kramer, in the movie 'Airplane.'

Thursday, July 23, 2009

An open letter from a middle-class American

I'm going to take a quick break from writing about flying and write about life in general. You, my friends, may not agree with each of these points, but I at least want you to think about each of them.

I am a middle-class American:

1. I believe that the best solutions to problems come from somewhere other than Washington, D.C.

2. I am not in a high tax bracket; in fact, I am "between jobs." However, I don't want the government to fix that for me. I'm spending my own funds, saved over the years through much sacrifice, to make my professional (and thus my family's personal and financial) life what I want it to be.

3. If we lost our insurance benefits tomorrow, we'd figure it out. Don't feel sorry for me or count me as a statistic ("uninsured Americans") and tell me what I need. The healthcare system does need to be reformed, but not in a hurried manner. I understand that the President wants to get while the getting's good, and I believe that if the current plan prevails my children and grandchildren will suffer financially and physically because of it.

4. I believe in the free market. The government does not need to intervene; brands and companies go by the wayside all the time. Do not spend my hard-earned money to bail out companies who cannot keep their affairs in order. If they cannot make a profit, their market shares will be replaced by companies that can.

5. I believe that a strong military is necessary to protect the country against its foes, and I am proud of my friends in the military and their brothers and sisters in arms.

6. I believe that spending is out of control in this country. The TSA and the TARP bailouts are both good examples of organizational theatre; they are symbols put in place to give people a good feeling and give the appearnce of doing something, when in fact they are just black holes for tax dollars. Don't waste my tax money to put on an ineffective show. I'm not stupid and I know you're decieving me.

7. I believe that excess taxation removes initiative---the initiative to innovate, to achieve, to create new companies and jobs is at the center of what it is to be American. We will surely lose any world leadership legitimacy that is left if this initiative goes away.

8. I believe that voters should be self-educated; don't vote for a feeling or a great story. Know the facts. We are beginning to see the adverse side effects of electing a reality star.

9. I believe that we deserve what we work for. If we make $20,000 or $200,000, we've earned it. In a free market, no one has a right to say what is an "excessive" salary.

10. I believe that a person can be a professional at anything. I have met janitors who are more professional than some bosses I've worked for. The trades are disappearing in this country. Refer back to my point about initiative.

Many of my views, especially after grad school, tend to be "middle of the country," and I try to give the benefit of the doubt. However, the more you push me, tell me how backwards I am, and presume to tell me what I want and need, the further to the right you push me.

I am a middle-class American. I look at America through the eyes of Frank Capra and James Stewart, and believe that there is still much good to come from our experiment in democracy.

I am a middle-class American. What I see coming from Washington alarms me. There are many like me. If you are elected to an office, you work for US. And we will be heard in 2010 and 2012.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What a difference a year makes

I was having a cup of coffee this morning, doing a little chair-flying for my upcoming checkride, and I got to thinking: what would I have been doing this time last year?

By this time last year, I (and two other highly-qualified friends and colleagues) had been turned down for a promotion so it could be awarded to a highly un-qualified friend of the position's former occupant. (This person, by the way, has gone on to make quite a name for herself on campus: people think she's an idiot).

By this time last year, I had been promised another promotion, only to have it taken away as well because the idea of a reflective, analytical, vocal male leader scared the bejeezus out of the director.

By this time last year, I was miserable. I was just over a semester away from a graduate degree, and it seemed like everyone except the people directly responsible for my career thought I should be going places. But there I was, being supervised, as I confided in some friends, more than most Wal-Mart cashiers.


Fast-forward a year. Since late January, I have progressed through the Instrument rating and on to the Commercial pilot certificate. I have successfully obtained an endorsement to take my initial Certified Flight Instructor checkride, one that must be taken with the FAA, from the "go-to" guy on CFI training. I'm in exclusive, highly-qualified company; I've already earned ratings that less than 1% of the people who have ever lived hold, and my career is on its way to the big show.

I've maintained the respect of those colleagues and peers in the Baylor community that thought I should be "going places," and will always have a place in the academic unit where I served as a graduate assistant last spring. I proved myself as a capable leader, educator, and workhorse.

Why am I writing this blog post full of self-backslapping? You're looking at a guy who has reinvented himself in less than a year. I've gone from what turned into a going-nowhere job to pursuing a dream and a career that I had long ago thought it "more practical" to just give up.

And, I've learned some things along the way:

1. Never underestimate the importance of support. Alisa has been a driving force in this journey; she has more faith in me than anyone I know (including myself), and if it weren't for her prodding, I'd probably still be wishing I could be doing this kind of flying.

My family, full of aviation nuts, never batted an eye at this career change. They're the ones who raised me, and they probably figured this was inevitable anyway. Alisa's family has been incredibly understanding and supportive; they never questioned the changes we made and they've been with me every step of the way during this CFI training.

2. In a related vein, you find out who your friends are. I hate to repeat that cliche, but it's true. People like JT, Brandon, Dave, Anna, Troy, Tim, and Terri have only become closer friends since I left Baylor. Jerome and Blythe, who have "been there, done that," have been a constant source of inspiration. Parker keeps prodding me along, looking for "positive vectoring." Louie and Michelle, who have been through similar circumstances themselves, continue to be great friends and cheer for us.

There are definitely a few specific people who I thought were friends during my Baylor days...but I refer you to sentence number 1 of the above paragraph :).

3. The best thing for confidence in the airplane is currency. I guess the FAA's right about that whole Learning Principle of Exercise thing.

4. Don't ever be intimidated by a certificate or rating. If you can pass the checkride for a Private Pilot License, I guarantee you can figure the rest of this stuff out.

5. Sometimes, it's braver to walk away than to try and stay and "gut it out" or fix something that's spiraling out of control. That ejection handle is there for a reason.

I think I've gone on long enough about this....but I'm sure I'll think of a few more things as soon as I hit the "post" button.

Bottom line: life is full of uncertainty. There's never enough money for what you want to do. And trust me, you're never going to get everyone to like you. Those are all three pretty indisputable facts, but none of them are valid excuses for not doing what you want to do. Say to hell with it, get on with making your life what you want it to be, and the Lord will take care of the details.

"For the Scripture says, you shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain, and the laborer is worthy of his wages."
-1 Timothy 5:18 (NKJ)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Checkride tentatively set

Got the call this checkride is tentatively set for 30 July down at Ellington. I mentioned that I'd done my training at Hooks, and the inspector actually volunteer the idea that he'd talk to an "inspector who lives at Hooks" about conducting my checkride up there. I'm obviously very cool with that, and if it's the FAA's own idea, well even better.

It's a little bit farther out than I wanted, but I can get a jump start on my CFI-A in the mean time and be ready for that checkride very soon after the CFI-I checkride.

It's going to be weird having a couple of weeks that are not push-push-push, but I'll have plenty of study time and probably get some honey-do's around the house done. I think Alisa will miss her house-husband once I'm flying full-time :).

When I hear more about the checkride, I'll post here. In the mean time, all that's really left to do is to get ready to show the FAA that I'll be an awesome instructor!

Keep the greasy side down and the pointy end forward!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A good week

Well, it's official!! Within the next two weeks (that's how long the FAA has to schedule you after you get your signoff), I'll be taking a checkride with an FAA inspector to see if they buy me as a CFI-I. Then, my aviation career will officially begin!

The mock oral on Thursday was easy. Almost dissapointingly so. Not complaining, just kind of surprised. Either I really know my stuff, or Gary has a really good idea of what the FAA is going to ask. I did talk to a guy who did his checkride this week, and the questions that he got asked by the inspector (who happens to live on the field at Hooks) were almost identical. So, I'm hoping for a checrkide at Hooks. It's when you go to Ellington (where the FSDO is actually located) that you tend to see the 6-10 hour orals. I don't know 10 hours worth about anything! But, it seems like if you can set a good tone the oral is usually about 1/3 chat anyway. Again, you're kind of already in the club.

The flight went really well also. On my way down on Wednesday, I "taught" the GPS 17R at Hooks to myself and nailed it. Felt really good going into my practice flight with my friend and classmate Chris, and it went awesome.

Fast-forward to Friday afternoon and my mock checkride with Gary. It was about 104 out and nice and bumpy. Remember how I always get frustrated that Gary won't shut up? He hardly said a word. The flight, I think, went excellent. He said my teaching was really good, and that's why he hadn't talked. I just kind of developed this attitude that, even though crap moves REALLY fast when you're on with Houston Approach and you're shooting two approaches back-to-back with a hold in between, I could slow things down. So what if you undershoot the inbound course on the hold? You teach the inspector, "okay, you notice the needle is ahead of us. We don't want to panic and tighten the turn up. We'll just correct and get it back centered."

When you start doing that, every situation gives you an advantage. You just refuse to let yourself get in a hurry. I think if I can do that on the checkride, it should be milk run.

So, I should hear by Monday about where/when my checkride is. I'm praying for Hooks, but I think I can handle Ellington. I'll post here when I find out. After that, the CFI-A sign-off and checkride will be pretty easy.

It's really something else. I began in mid-January with zero instrument experience. I'm now an instrument-rated commercial pilot, and less than two weeks from possibly becoming an instrument flight instructor. What a ride! Almost there!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The home stretch?

I know a post here is long-overdue, but this has been a hectic month (has it been a month already?!).

I'm sitting in our dining room (I've turned the dining room table into a makeshift office so I can spread my books out) trying to put the finishing touches on the binder I have to take to my checkride with the FAA. This has been a work in progress for about 3 weeks now. Every time you think you're about done, you figure out something you should have added to your cheat-sheet for a lesson plan or a better way to do this or that. It's kind of like the adage you hear around hangars where people are building their own airplanes: "Well, I'm 90% done and I've got 90% to go."

This has been a successful month, though. Two Mondays ago on the 22nd, I passed my Commercial checkride in the Mooney. I was right back in Houston the next day flying for my CFI-I, so it was kind of an unobserved milestone. We celebrated for one night and then I forgot all about it, jumping back into worrying about all the must-do's in order to get signed off to be an instructor.

But it is a pretty big deal. I've heard the Commercial referred to as a "master's degree in flying the airplane," and it really is the ultimate demonstration of airmanship. Even cooler was the fact that I earned the Commercial exactly 10 years and 1 day after my very first solo flight in the Cub. So, every once in a while I have to sit back and enjoy how far I really have come. I still have some big goals to meet in the very near future, but I think I've earned the right to be just a little proud of myself.

Meanwhile, the flying for the CFI-I has been frustrating at best. My instructor says I'm improving with every flight, and peers who I'm doing some practice work with have good things to say, but the perfectionist in me isn't letting me sleep really well. I know that this is a checkride about teaching and not about being the world's best instrument pilot, but I still let my own errors frustrate me.

What I'm working on is taking the errors and making them "teachable moments." For instance, I get off a hundred feet or so on altitude, and I say, "you see, a student would make this error, for instance, if he fixated on the heading indicator. We'll correct this by reducing power 100 rpm and allowing a one-half bar descent on the attitude indicator."

One advantage I will have is that I've started taking N2150G to Houston with me to work on this stuff. I'm actually doing all the rest of my flying on this certificate in "Fitty." Her autopilot and GPS have some bells and whistles that N999UF at Hooks doesn't have (trust me, the autopilot is your best friend on a CFI-I checkride), and her throttle friction lock doesn't tend to slip (I like to talk with my hands when I teach---not a good thing when you've got a crappy friction lock that wants to dump 500 rpm every time you take your hand off the damned throttle). Plus, I'm not about to ignore the "home court" mentality. I got my instrument rating in that airplane. I know I can fly the hell out of it. I know that N2150G and N999UF are both 172's, but if you're a pilot you know that each individual ship has a bit of its own personality.

So, I fly down to Hooks this Wednesday or Thursday to do one more practice hop with a colleague. Then, on Thursday I have my mock oral with Gary, and on Friday my mock checkride with Gary. Thursday and Friday SHOULD result in my signoff to take the CFI-I checkride with the FAA. Frankly, the end of this week will probably be more stressful than the actual checkride. This is one of those weeks where you lay in bed at night wondering if you really have what it takes, or if somebody screwed up and accidentally let you into the club without checking your credentials.

The answer is, yes I have what it takes. I just need to capitalize on my own mistakes and teach, teach, teach. As one of my mentors, Troy Navarro ( says, I've already been invited to join the club. All I've got to do is take a little hazing, and I'm in.

I'll try to update here on Thursday after my mock oral, good, bad, or ugly. It's time to start getting paid by someone else to fly airplanes....let's get this show in the road.

"Fill your hands, you son of a bitch."
--John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, warning Robert Duvall's bad guy to get ready for a fight