As Central Coast pilots we are somewhat lucky to be forced into thorough pre-flight planning and most especially at night. We are fortunate to have a lot of dark, unpopulated areas in our county, with marginal evening weather to encourage safe and well thought out flight plans. As instructors we should encourage additional night and instrument training, more then what the regulations require to ensure we are all safe up there
Students do not always play by the rules and in fact at times create their own. One year I signed off a student for his first long cross country. We went over the weather and the flight plan together and everything went well. I signed him off and went on my way. Well, for some reason he decided to go run errands and eat before the trip and left several hours latter then he was supposed to. The marine layer was moving in while the sun was setting. I tried to reach him through phoning Center and Hawthorne FSS, but we all kept missing him. When he did turn up, he flew on top, and then scud ran to our airport making it in before the weather.
On his debriefing, I learned that the hood work I trained him on, paid off, contributing to his safe return. My mistake was not making it clear that he should take off at the time he was supposed to with the weather forecast and initial briefings he received. Incidentally since then, I’ve made my students’ cross-country limitations more time specific.
Another interesting example of a student’s creativity was a time when one of my school’s students decided to invent his own cross-country. I agreed to meet and sign off a student for a trip to Salinas with one stop at Paso Robles. His flight planning was great, but the forecast weather was marginal. We decided at the last minute to cancel that trip because of inclement weather, but he wanted a sign off to Lompoc where he lived. We discussed the flight route and airspace, got the weather (severe VMC) and I signed him off. When he got back several hours latter he announced he did a long cross country after all! He combined a previous sign off to PRB with his new Lompoc sign-off and created his own cross country.
What should we learn from all of this? Well, students and new pilots all have minds and ideas of their own with little experience to guide them. Just as youngsters want to get out, explore and discover things for themselves, the best we can do as instructors (or perhaps parents) is teach then how to safely get out of poorly made decisions, or the unexpected. Study the accident reports no matter how depressing they may be, then set up and simulate them with your students or fellow pilots. Practice recovering from different emergencies and don’t always relay on accurate weather forecast and briefings to keep you out of danger. Know how to get out of it when the unpredictable happens.