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Brian Lecomber’s latest “From the Cockpit” column

THE NEMESIS DAY
Burn-out caused Brian to quit professional instructing. Does something similar account for a 50% drop-out rate among new pilots?

AND SO there came to pass a morning when I woke up and thought: “I don’t have to fly today. Thank Gawd for that.”

I got up lazily and made breakfast. A fry-up of egg, banana, and yam. Then as I sat down the enormity of my waking thought struck home.

“I don’t have to fly today. Thank Gawd for that.” Betrayal! I pushed the plate away, suddenly not hungry. When had I last begun a day without the longing to fly?

Never. Never in human memory. Since primary school there had never been a day when I hadn’t yearned to leave the ground. Until today. Until this day of betrayal. “I don’t have to fly today. Thank Gawd for that.”

It was a Nemesis.

As a kid my pocket-money vanished on model aeroplanes. As a youth the RAF and various airlines declined my generous offers of service on the footling grounds that I was (a) unsuited to discipline – although how the hell they could tell that on the strength of really quite short arguments about fatuous rules I’ll never know – (b) too short to see out of the cockpit, and (c) on the basis of my educational non-achievements, too thick to operate an aircraft anyway.

So I became a Hanger Rat. I cleaned aeroplanes. I dropped Gipsy rocker-covers and changed the oil. I swung propellers. Daft as it may sound, I wing-walked in a flying circus. Grubby and oily, I took my reward in carefully hoarded minutes of flying time and paid for formal lessons out of my stipend as a reporter, which did not leave much leeway for such frivolities as eating. But if a day included an ascension in a tatty Tiger Moth, that was a happy day.

I got a PPL. Towed gliders. Dropped parachutists. Squirreled flying hours until I had just enough in my logbook that I could hock my car to pay for an instructor’s course. I have a memory of being perpetually hungry during that course and becoming most bored with bicycling. But I was flying every day. And then, after that, I was instructing every day. I was in paradise.

With the benefit of long hindsight, too much in paradise. I became the Chief Instructor of a West Indian flying club. The fact that I was also the only instructor dimmed my elation not one jot. This was my flying school – and I was going to produce the best damn flight students in the entire Caribbean, period.

My students were going to land on a sixpence from a glide approach every time. My students were going to ace the normal syllabus and also be able to loop and roll and recover a spin on heading before they ever got even a sniff of a GFT examiner. My students might take a bit longer but they were gonna be proper pilots….

And so I flew my ass off. In the first year I flew 1 300 hours, doubled the club’s fleet, and started up branch flying schools on two other islands. If I was hearing aero engines far into the night it was often because I was sitting behind them, commuting between the outposts of my miniscule but far-flung empire. Some things I did right. Many – oh, many things I did wrong.

Life became a procession of students, black, white and brown. Briefings. Straight and level. Circuits. Forced landings. Cross-countries. Spinning. Patter. Patter. Patter. I lost weight month by month, most of it recycled stickily into the aircraft seats as I sweated in the tropical heat.

In the second year the owning syndicate insisted I take the odd day off. I did so, blinking and peering like a creature emerging from some aerial cave and discovering to his astonishment that there is a world down there on the surface. A world that eats elsewhere than in airport canteens. A world that mows lawns, goes sailing, thinks about money, builds houses.… Puzzling, that.

All my life to then had been dedicated to leaving that surface. The boy with cut fingers from flicking the props of his model aeroplanes had become a pilot whose workplace was the sky. That’s where I wanted to be.
And yet. And yet…. All too deep for me.

I’d pass through those strange days-off and return to my eerie. Straight and level. Climbing and descending. Navigation. Briefing the same briefings. Correcting the same errors. Rescuing the same early attempts to land ten feet above or ten feet under the runway. Dinning in again and again that rudder pedals are controls and not footrests…..

And then came the Nemesis Day. “I don’t have to fly today. Thank Gawd for that.” Very puzzling indeed.

The more puzzling was that after that day the students seemed to steadily become almost wilfully obtuse. Their repeated determination to use the aircraft for the purpose of excavating runway thresholds became irksome. Their bland inability to recognise a cross-wind began to be irritating. The same briefings, the same warnings, the same mistakes – the ever-turning circle became wearisome, and I started to question my life long love.

A few months later I quit full-time instructing.

With the benefit of hindsight the cause of my malaise is of course obvious. Any infant psychologist would say I’d pushed too hard for too long, finally achieved my love – and then raped her instead of caressing her, and burned myself out in the process – 1 300 hours in a year is just plain not sensible.

Not psychological rocket science. And, of course, an entirely personal problem. Except…. Well, except that the years have taught me that I was not alone, and never have been. That, in fact, almost all pilots have a Nemesis Day or something very much like it – a time when suddenly or gradually flying for flying’s sake loses its thrall. It is hugely prevalent among private pilots – accurate statistics are hard to come by, but most sources reckon that some 50% of PPLs drift away from flying within five years of getting their licence.

Disillusion happens to professionals too, but for them actual separation can be more difficult. The mundane shackles of salary and mortgage may require them to fly on in boredom or even secret fear sometimes for decades.

‘Private pilots run out of three - P’s – people, purpose, and pennies. Potentially
great pilots just drift away’ Well, for my part I found an answer – and that answer was change. For me it was to aerobatics.

For others it might be the same or something different – for example I know not a few airline pilots who retain their aerial sanity by gliding or flying microlights or historic aircraft in their spare time. It isn’t displacement therapy – it’s just enough variety to polish away the tarnish of boredom. Many of these people are among the best airmen I know.

For private pilots, of course, the Nemesis is frequently abetted by what those same psychologists call socio-economic pressures. I call it running out of three-P’s – people, purpose and pennies.

This works as follows: Pilot A gets a shiny new PPL and promptly whisks into the air all the good people on his/her Christmas card list. Bliss! However, even the attraction of lunch at le Touquet wears off after a bit – usually in direct ratio to the number of people who continue to be prepared to share the cost – and that leaves pilot A swanning rather aimlessly around the sky by himself and beginning to wonder about the real purpose of it all.

Somewhere around this stage marriage occurs and then kids seem to arrive and the mortgage gets bigger – and lo, soon there aren’t the spare pennies around that there used to be. So once Pilot A hasn’t flown for a year or so he/she just quietly slinks away. Which is a great pity. I know several potentially great sport pilots who’ve drifted away because of the three-P’s.

So what to do about it? Well, as so often, long experience might identify the problem, but doesn’t necessarily come up with the solution. It has to be said that historically the sport aviation movement as a whole – from manufacturers down to flying clubs – has been tardy in tacking the main two P’s, pennies and purpose.

Only now, with increasing legislation and fuel prices driving conventional operating costs through the roof, is the industry seriously tacking the pennies problem with new generations of Very Light Aircraft and microlights and new, less hidebound regimes under which to fly them. It may also be fair to say that GA has never been very good at solving the purpose-P.

Most people who actually earn their living in light aviation are natural-born manic enthusiasts, so it doesn’t seem to occur to them that other people coming on to the scene might not be cast in quite the same mould – that a new-ish PPL, for example, might need a sense of purpose if he/she isn’t going to lose interest after a couple of years.

What training organisation, for example, offers a real and viable new interest to a customer who got his PPL two years back, has been through the expensive hoops of IMC and night ratings, and whose aircraft usage is now tailing off? Is there anyone out there who offers a new challenge along with reduced costs? A club-produced advanced handling course, for example? Or regular inter-club precision flying competitions?

I know, I know – all this is easier said than achieved. But look at it this way – if Tesco looked like losing half their new customers within five years you can be damn sure of marketing executives being carried out on their shields and high-powered incomers charged with solving it NOW or being likewise rendered bloodily non-functional in their turn. Light aviation does not wield such hatchets, for which we should probably be grateful. So if – when – you have a Nemesis Day, you will be largely on your own. But do go out and search for change. It is there in aerobatics. It is there in the vintage aircraft movement. It is abundantly there in new-generation light aeroplanes.

Today’s aviation is no longer ruled by the dead hands of traditional Cessna and Piper – so look around. What you find may be the best present you ever bought yourself.

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