Right Seat Proficient: A Very Good Idea

2:05 PM

It was evident to my wife Julie way back when we first met that I liked airplanes. Maybe I wasn't as crazy about them as I am now, but even in 1987, I'm sure she could tell she was marrying a future pilot.

When it comes to wives, I often say I won the wife lottery with Julie Celeste. She is my friend, business partner, spiritual advisor, "go-to" person when my life gets off balance, the maker of the world's bestest lasagna, and of course, my flying partner. She was supportive of my quest to earn my private license in 1996, and throughout some years when extra money wasn't exactly plentiful, she always found a way to support my flying habit when I just HAD to go out and fly a rented Tomahawk for a few touch-and-goes.

She has faithfully sat in the right seat of two airplanes we have owned, the first being Peggy, the Skyhawk at Fresno Chandler Airport we acquired in a two-way partnership, and of course, Katy, our current Cherokee 235, the flagship of Dano Airlines.

Throughout many of my 350+ hours, Julie has never fussed about much of anything from her front row seat on our flight deck. She has gained the skill of listening to the radio well enough to pick our call sign out of the endless radio calls being barked by L.A. Center, and can read a chart well enough to let me know when I am mistakenly lined up with Marina Airport in California instead of my intended landing field, Monterey Peninsula Airport, just a few NM south.

But one thing has always nagged at her, and it was a very valid concern:
She has always asked me what we'd do here and there if the engine quit, or where my emergency landing strips were for some random portion of a flight. But the question always remained that if I should suddenly go off to fly with Lindbergh and Papa Louie in flight, how would she get the plane back on Earth and remain alive. As I am not a CFI, I could not ever get her to take step one towards learning how to control an airplane to a safe emergency landing...but I knew that lesson must be taught some day.
Well, that day finally came over this past weekend. Julie and I met my CFI, Jim Hunt, at EUG and we accomplished Julie's first "official" flight lesson. The results could not have been better:
After an hour sitting in Katy on the ground working with radios and developing a plan for harnessing my dead weight (pardon the pun) to the seat keeping me off the yoke, Jim grabbed the left seat and Julie took her co-pilot's position in the right. After the instructor flew us out to the practice area, Jim had Julie begin flying some graceful turns. Maybe it was her 45+ years as a ballet dancer, but when I say "graceful turns", I am not kidding. After some initial adjustments to Katy's interesting way of sometimes making the yokes appear in a left bank while in level flight or even a right bank (usually a fuel/weight offset or crosswind situation), Julie quickly figured things out and was soon driving 27W around the sky like a student pilot with five or more hours in the book. But she had only about 10 minutes...quite impressive from my vantage point in Katy's back seat, which was far more comfortable than I expected.
This was not an easy lesson Julie was given. Instead, I believe Jim had already determined as most people do that she is quite intelligent and not much gets past her. So he pushed her maybe a little harder than I think he pushes most primary students on their very first lesson. And her response was perfect:
After flying us towards Corvallis, OR with precision and with Jim acting as "ATC", Julie was able to spot the airport at a good distance away, and flew us right over the ramp at CVO. As we headed back to Eugene for landing, things got a little more interesting. Jim was squeezing into this first lesson everything but an ILS approach to minimums, and even had Julie pulling and adding power (using the digital tach as a guide) to maintain a sweet rate of descent. But without explaining that as a CFI he would have complete control of the plane on landing, there was a bit of misunderstanding as we headed towards runway 16R at EUG. The instructor had the plane fully in control, but the student didn't know he did, so she wasn't sure exactly what she was required to do. Flare? Stomp on the rudders? Power off, or power on? Even on rollout, Jim had the plane, but Julie found herself in a situation where she thought she was supposed to somehow determine how to slow us down as we blasted swiftly down the runway after a no-flaps, high speed arrival. This was the moment when panic could have set in for this first-time student pilot, but, it did not.
That's not to say her anxiety levels didn't rise dramatically. But in a situation when many student pilots would have been grabbing for the door handle, Julie stayed with it, didn't freak out [much], and never seriously lost her composure.

After everyone's heart rates came back down into the green, Jim had her taxi all the way around EUG's commercial ramp on a taxiway route that has even been confusing to me on occasion. With the prop stopped, I felt compelled to congratulate her on a first flight that was nothing less than fantastic. She is looking forward to a few more lessons so she can become comfortable with basic emergency procedures and feel good about her chance of survival should I become unable to safely complete a flight.

And I'm looking forward to having a more knowledgeable pax in the right seat who I believe will soon be working the GPS and radios like a First Officer. And that will make my flying that much more enjoyable, because as soulmates, we do everything together, and now we can add flying to that list.

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