Friday, September 17, 2010

My CFI to CFI Article: Mars Teaching Venus

"Mars teaching Venus," my article published in the CFI to CFI Newsletter
Reprinted with permission from AOPA Air Safety Foundation copyright CFI to CFI Newsletter.

Aviation has always been a male dominated industry, and although women have played important roles within aviation, they have had to adapt to a man's world.  Women have been a minority in all aviation fields except flight attendant, according to FAA statistics.

The oft-quoted statistic that 6 percent of certificated pilots are women has not changed in the past 100 years, so we have to ask ourselves why? Why has this number not increased, since in the past 10 years the ratio of female to male flight students has been at 11 percent? Why are we not turning these female flight students into pilots?

I believe that women and men are equally able to be successful pilots. But with a caveat: they learn differently. There are 5,500 women ground instructors compared to 75,000 overall, so let's address the more common male instructor-female student scenario.

Many women feel a need to understand everything before they feel comfortable doing it. A male flight instructor should allow a female student pilot the chance to ask questions, be prepared to try a couple different methods of explaining it to her, and say, “You don’t need to understand that quite yet,” if she doesn’t. Feeling like she’s missing a crucial nugget of information will cause your student to be distracted and lose confidence in her ability to successfully complete her training.

I remember when I went off to the U.S. Army’s Initial Entry Rotary Wing Training. On about day two of our helicopter training the instructor read through the Huey's start up checklist: Generator - On.

It could have been so much easier if I would have just flipped the switch on. But, no, I had to ask what a generator was. “It’s just like the alternator in your car,” the instructor says. Perhaps it was my blank stare that gave me away.

I am nothing if not tenacious though, and that was just the first of many episodes throughout flight school of me seeking to get the minimal amount of knowledge to comprehend the subject at hand. "Why does this happen? Why do we have to do it this way? Why am I just not getting this? What happens if - gasp - I do it wrong?"

My first few months in flight school were a struggle. I had a flight instructor who would bark orders and scream at me when I couldn’t do something right. In the midst of yet another episode crying on the shoulder of a friend who also happened to be an Army flight instructor, he confided, “You don’t have to understand it all now, just memorize what you need to in order to get through training.” "Really? I said. "You mean all of the guys in my class don’t understand it either? They’re just acting like they do?" So as hard as this was, I follwed his advice.

One of the things I didn’t understand (and was too afraid to ask about) was crucial to consistently flying stabilized visual approaches. Even to this day I can't remember what the name is for this technique, but it was some kind of "cone of action."  You were supposed to look at your intended landing point and see no movement at that point. However, everything around the point should be moving.Things in front would move forward, things to the side should move farther out, and things behind would move backward. If you got this concept, which I hadn't, you would be able to maintain a constant descent angle throughout your approach and landing, preventing you from under- or over-arcing from the straight line that could ideally be drawn from your point of initial descent to your touchdown point (add power for under arcing, subtract power for over arcing). Of course, this concept was never explained to me this way.

These gaps in my knowledge bothered me. I was obviously missing out on a good technique to fly a consistent approach, so my landings were continuously criticized for being imperfect. I wanted to understand, and not understanding made me lose confidence. Eventually, concepts I didn’t completely “get” at first started to fall into place. However, this learning process was a whole lot more stressful than it needed to be.

My experience is that men are less discomfited with gaps in their knowledge. They are more comfortable with figuring it out as they go along, jumping in feet first, hoping they keep it greasy side down. In all my training over the years I have had male instructors, and I have learned not to ask questions in class. Why? Because too many instructors read into my asking that that I can’t understand.

I remember in my initial Beechjet training discussing the electrical system. At some point I looked around and saw the same blank stare on every guy in the class. I whispered to the guy on my right, “Do you understand what he’s saying?” “Nope.” Same answer from the guy on my left. So I asked the instructor to clarify, which he did, albeit unsuccessfully. The worst part was the whole rest of the training he kept stopping after every block of instruction to ask me, “Did you get that, Lynda?” He was certainly just trying to be helpful, but man, was I embarrassed by the extra attention.

Eventually I realized that the guys in class weren’t worried. They were able to memorize what would be asked of them to pass their checkride, they were OK with knowing that, with time, they would come to understand through osmosis.

I have only had one simulator session with a female instructor. During the prebrief she mentioned a system on the Cessna Citation X that I was having the hardest time memorizing the limitations for because I didn’t understand the system. What did she do? She opened the systems manual to a picture of the system and said about 10 words on the subject and my understanding just fell into place. I think she was able to explain the matter so that I understood because as women we spoke the same language.

In my training to become a CFI while on furlough from my fractional airline job I hope to put my theories into practice and share with you the insight I gain.

--Lynda Meeks, a former U.S. Army helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, has also flown for regional and fractional airlines. She has more than 5,000 hours and is the founder of the nonprofit organization Girls With Wings, Inc. (

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Amelia Earhart Book Review

You can't say that you don't get a wide variety of topics covered in this blog. I'm going to change things up a bit with a book review featuring Amelia Earhart: The Sky’s no Limit, by Lori Van Pelt. A Young Adult Novel in the American Heroes series.

Often when I am speaking to an audience, I joke about how people respond when I say that I’m a pilot. Sometimes, but thankfully not too often, someone will remark, “Huh. I didn’t know there were any girl pilots.” To which I respond, sometimes out loud, “Well, surely you’ve heard of Amelia Earhart. There’s one.”

The problem is that Amelia Earhart has become so well known for her tragic end instead of her many accomplishments. Not only was she the 16th woman to earn her pilot’s license, she was also instrumental in forming the Ninety-nines, the Organization of Women Pilots and served as its first president. This book chronicles her many feats of “firsts” (most of which I was completely unaware) without sounding like a textbook making it appropriate for pre-teens on up and I heartily recommend it.

Lori Van Pelt’s retelling of the challenges the racers endured during first Women’s Air Derby is riveting, as well as her other flights in sometimes minimally engineered or maintained airplanes long before the technological advances that have made pilot tasks today center around an autopilot and a flight management system. In my earliest days of flying, I remember hearing, and much to my great chagrin, repeating, that Amelia was not “a very good pilot.” This book relates those retold incidents that might have led to this criticism, and explains the certainly justifiable and understandable circumstances of many of them. As accounts from that time relate, in the early days of aviation the odds against the pilots and the risks of catastrophic outcomes were much greater. These were the days were not too far away from the old adage of “a good landing is one you walk away from, a great landing is one after which you can use the airplane again.”

So what I love about this book is that it is such a warm, affectionate biography of who Amelia was and how it formed her personality and led her to achieve so many things in a flying career cut much too short. The story begins during her tomboy childhood and youth, relating a less than stellar family life that caused her to become more independent than the other women of her day. Though trained in nursing and social work, she was determined to become a pilot and was fortunate to be launched into the public eye by riding, not flying, as the first woman on a transatlantic flight (later successfully piloting herself I might add – and setting a speed record). As Van Pelt relates, for this girl who was captioned in her yearbook as “the girl in brown who walks alone,” her determination in getting her license strengthened her for the notoriety she was about to endure.

This book brings a depth to the legend that is Amelia Earhart. Although written for a young adult audience, I found it completely enjoyable as a light and informative read. Amelia was a tireless advocate for women in aviation, devoting every spare minute to speeches, lectures, and articles, all the while flying test and demonstration flights, breaking speed records, promoting women’s interest in aviation, becoming a VP for a commuter airline, advocating women’s rights, etc. And to be able to give her the respect she deserves as a pilot as well, you need the ability to see her at work in the cockpit that Van Pelt provides in her narratives.

The drama which unfolds during the preparations for her round the world record setting flight would have broken a weaker constitution. I was humbled by her seemingly inexhaustible energy. As Van Pelt describes, “…she continued her lecture schedule, took on additional work helping [her husband and manager] with preflight tour details, studied geography and weather throughout the world to better acquaint herself with the countries she would fly to, and even made time to engage in some campaigning for the Democrats during the presidential election year.” I doubt most people would have remained as poised and composed under the multitude of delays and mechanical difficulties.

Though there are more in-depth, comprehensive biographies of Amelia, this provides a well balanced overview of her life and her accomplishments. And is much more informative than the movie, “Amelia,” which scarcely touched on the numerous aspects to her life. Really, to understand Amelia, you have to read more about her and I suggest you start with reading this book. She gained the admiration of many with her flying skills, of the world with her feats, but remained modest and privately conscious of the limitations of her abilities and worked to overcome them. As she herself said, “Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” Amelia did in fact achieve what most of us can only wish to do, to serve as a role model and inspire countless of pilots in the eighty three years since her brave attempt to do no less than circumnavigate the entire world.

 Please visit Lori Van Pelt's website to order the book. Other photos from Wikipedia.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Final Episode of AcroCamp

May 17th. The last day of AcroCamp. Thinking about going home, I posted, It's the last day of AcroCamp. NOW what will I do?

To continue the solo discussion from the last post: I also achieved a measure of proficiency in the Citabria, and so I tweeted, “If the winds cooperate I may get to solo the Citabria at #AcroCamp too.” Like the other campers, I spent a session doing some traffic patterns and getting comfortable landing the taildragger. Barry and I decided to take a break and get back in the air – at which time he hoped to get out and let me go it alone. I even wore my AcroCamp polo for the occasion, excited because technically I had never actually had a solo ride that would qualify me for the shirt ceremony.

Good news: I got the skills and the confidence to solo the Citabria. Bad news: Mother Nature decided to kick up the wind.

Well, the second flight was a mess. First, I guess I was back to being a bit nervous. As I taxied up and held short of the runway, I attempted to call tower and state my intentions to do closed traffic. I keyed the mike to identify myself (with my type airplane and the tail number) and said, “Sigh-, Sigh-Sigh…” I was literally staring at the placard in the airplane that said Citabria and tried to get out “Sit” for “Si-Tah-Bree-Ah.” No, instead all I could do was start to say, “Sigh-Tay-Shun” my most recent airplane. Of course everything we said was being recorded because of the documentary, but all transmissions with ATC are not only recorded, they are broadcast. So Kent, or @ flyingcheezhead tweeted, “Funny moment departing #AcroCamp: listening to @GirlsWithWings call tower and not be able to say "Citabria" instead of "Citation." ;-) ROFL”

Alas, now the winds were picking up and were not right down the runway, much less light and variable. No, they were pretty much kicking the left side of my butt. This was fine under normal circumstances, since you need to be able to land the airplane no matter what the weather, but we were short on time and I was not going to get proficient in the time left. “Completely bummed. The wind has cursed my plans for soloing the Citabria.”

So I got the spin endorsement, but not the tailwheel endorsement. There was one more thing I had to do. My two Pitts rides were less than spectacular. I wanted to have at least one amazing ride in this thing. Don talked to me a bit about recognizing what I needed in my instruction, “Tell, Show, DO” and so we went up to finish AcroCamp with a bang. As a future flight instructor, I need to learn from Don and Barry and be able also to recognize how best to instruct each student – because not everyone learns the same way. I finally learned my lesson about getting situated in the front seat, too. I not only was sitting on about a foot and a half of cushions (so I could see) I was also wearing some Nike sneakers Ben had outfitted with lifts. They're on my feet, but I'm kind of hiding them. Surprisingly, they're not that hard to walk in. One just feels a bit like Lady Gaga. Or Lady LaLa, as it were.

Here’s a list of what we did on that last flight (in no particular order, for those of you who are checking for “energy management” compliance):
Half Cubans
Reverse Half Cubans
Hammerheads with roll spins (at least I think this is what Don wrote in my logbook) such as the one shown here:

Flat Spins and recovery
Aileron rolls
Barrel rolls
Inverted flight and turns
Point rolls
Outside ½ loop and tail slides
Torque rolls
Pull Pull Pull and a Pull Push Pull Humpty.

See it under the wing in this picture?
Obviously a couple of those require explanation. First, a tail slide. No, first let me tell you about something on the Pitts (and most other aerobatic airplanes). On the left wing (remember how I mentioned you look at the relationship of the left wing to the horizon to level the airplane?) there is a protrusion designed to allow the pilot to recognize what angle to the horizon they’re in. For example, a Cuban requires to be 5/8ths into a loop. How are you gonna know that? The Citabria’s indicator was pretty simple, just a rod with the end bent a bit. The Pitt’s one had probably 6 or 8 spokes on it. The Pitts one also had a 6 inch length of string tied on it. This was so (I can’t imagine any aerodynamic need for it) the pilots could go vertical and see the string streamlining straight down. I suppose there was an instant at the top of the vertical climb when the airplane was just hanging there that the string stayed straight down because of gravity. But then, the string bent. And then folded back on itself. And then, as the airplane descended vertically backwards, the string completely reversed directions!
Finally, a picture of my G Meter Hair!

And the humpties. You can refer to for a description of all of these maneuvers, but I’ll try my best to explain. The Pull Pull Pull means you pull back on the stick to go straight up. Pull again, to go over the top and straight down, then pull back to level flight. The Pull Push Pull means you pull back on the stick to go vertical, then PUSH to come over the top and head straight down toward the ground – kind of like being in a roller coaster. This was a great way to conclude this camp, because this was my nightmare scenario. I couldn’t imagine having that view – but again, by the end of training, it was a BLAST. (Note: I’m definitely not saying I’d ever go rent an airplane and do this myself – my confidence came from knowing Don OWNED the Pitts, if you know what I mean.)

After the flight, I was wrung out. But because I skipped out on an earlier dinner, I stuck around to have dinner with #AcroCamp crew before I had to drive back to CLE.  I wasn’t much fun, I admit. I ordered a huge steak to celebrate my huge achievements, then got in the car to return home. It was definitely time to wake up in my own bed. My next tweet: "CLE arrival 2am post #AcroCamp. Despite my best efforts on trip home, the Honda couldn't execute maneuvers nearly as well as the Pitts.”

Well, that's my adventures at AcroCamp. I hope you enjoyed reading about them as much as I enjoyed having them (fat chance!). Please stay tuned to the AcroCamp blog to find out when the documentary will be released.  Check out more pictures at