[I felt a little guilty about playing flight simulator instead of writing fiction. I finally opted to make use of some of the terminology I had learned–while writing, of course.]



Kenneth Burchfiel

“You’re a little off your assigned heading.” He tapped the indicator with a blunt index finger. “Turn 5 degrees south at a 10 degree bank to line up with the VOR. I’ll watch the altimeter for you.”

Rob nodded and tugged on the yoke. He pressed his right sleeve to his hip in hopes of masking the Italy-shaped sweat stain below his shoulder.

“Make your turn a little steeper. A little steeper.” John held out his hand. “Stop there. Start to roll out. It looks like you forgot to set your heading bug.”

The stain began to widen into Florida. He gave as delicate a tug as possible, yet the nose still jerked to the left—as if he had yanked the thing. The hallmark turn of the trainee.

“We’re on heading one-six. The VOR is only a few miles ahead. Note the crosswind blowing from the East. Apply rudder as needed.”

If only his colleagues at the firm were a little more like John, Rob thought. The man’s resolve was as firm as the landing gear on the Skyhawk.

“It’s a nice day up here, isn’t it?” the student asked.

“We could be in a blizzard with fifty foot visibility, and it would still be a nice day. If I’m offered the chance to get up here with a student, I’ll take it.”

And yet, so astute. So analytical. If instructing began to get a little old, John Everett was welcome to take up a position at the firm. He could deal in aviation lawsuits, Rob thought. Any sort of lawsuit, for that matter.

“You’re beginning to veer off course again. Let’s keep the Skyhawk at 16. You have…” John checked his four-dial watch. “Eighty seconds of IFR flight until the VOR, if the DME is correct. That’s IAD in front of us.”

Rob set the heading bug in order and tapped the yoke to the left. This turn wasn’t quite as bad, but he managed to bump the rudder pedal with his left foot and slide past his assigned course.

“There’s no reason to be nervous. Focus on making small corrections. Your indicator needle is your guide until you get to the Martinsburg VOR.” John reached to his left. “I’ll get out the charts. In the meantime, keep the number 116.3 in your head.”

A few online reviews criticized this instructor, saying he was too methodical and unanimated. That was exactly why he paid the extra money to get in the cockpit with him. Rob’s personality was on the dry side, but it felt refreshing compared to some of the monkeys he had dealt with. One ex-instructor even bought helium balloons along for his checkride. Disgusting.

“That’s the station below you. Tune in 116.3 and make a twenty-degree turn to line up with Casanova. Watch as the indicator needle reads “to” instead of “from.” That indicates that you’re on track with the next VOR.”

The stains had begun to recede. It was hard to feel nervous with Rob in the cockpit.

“Let’s update your flight log, at any rate.” The instructor reached in a compartment by the throttle. “68 hours in 57 days. You’ve spent nearly three days in the cockpit.”

“Not much compared to you,” Rob said. He watched the indicator needle with a hawk’s stare. If it dared twitch to one side, he wouldn’t hesitate to grab the yoke and set it right. A solid approach could pay dividends when it came to his IFR checkride.

“You might not believe this, John, but I’m not on a first-name basis with any other student. Most people only stay with me through basic instrument training.”

The indicator needle drifted right. He waited to hear John’s finger tap the panel, but heard nothing.

“Perhaps it’s because of that, Rob, that so few people know why I fly in the first place. Why I’ll give trainees free hours and delay landings as long as possible.”

He turned to face his instructor. John had his eyes on the ceiling of the cockpit. It was a rare moment when he took them off the instrument panel, let alone the view outside.

“At the very least, I suppose I can share that reason with you.”

“Are we nearing the VOR?”

“That’s right, yes. You will know we are over it when the panel switches over to ‘To.'”

“And what is the frequency for our next VOR?”

“Don’t worry about that yet.”

Rob blinked, wondering if he had imagined that last sentence. In his two weeks of IFR practice, John had always been quick to give the exact frequency once they passed over the station. “Don’t worry about that yet” was not part of his regular vocabulary.

“Few people ever did know what aviation meant to me.” He had not yet looked down from the ceiling. “You’ve been with me enough to become a member of that small crowd. It always has relieved me to share the story.”

Rob had been so distracted by the instructor’s last few words that the stall buzzer sounded. The plane had gone off into a climb on its own.

“Bring the yoke down. You’re fine.” John looked out the window and nodded at something. “You’re fine.”

Neither said anything as the Cessna went past the VOR. The indicator needle wobbled from side to side like a pendulum in an earthquake.

“Planes are simple things to control, Rob. You move your hands one way, and the plane banks left. Tap the pedal with your right foot, and you’re ready to deal with a crosswind. When you’re in the mood to climb, you need only pull back. Landing is a simple matter of lining up the undercarriage with the centerline.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“No, you wouldn’t, because your career and love life so far have been one perfect approach after another. That’s why I need to tell you my experience. It is the only way for you to understand.”

The Appalachian mountains glared at him from the right. He had never flown so close to the ridge, what with turbulence and the danger of engine failure.

“Did I ever tell you about my days at the Air Force Academy?”

“You got your bearings in a Cessna and practiced with a few carrier jets,” I said.

“No. Those were my days above the academy. Thousands of feet above, if the instructor would let me.” John let out something between a relaxed breath and a sigh. “My sophomore year, the inspector found five bottles of alcohol in my room and a bong filled to the brim. I was on a flight back to Philadelphia the next day, bags, notebooks and all.”

Had he not, Rob thought, told him seconds ago to “Tune 116.3 and make a twenty-degree turn to line up with Casanova?” What had happened to the man?

“To think that, at one point, I found those carrier jets so hard to maneuver. I had a yoke. I had pedals. I had enough dials and switches to fill, well, a fighter cockpit. If only life itself came with the same controls. Perhaps I would have been able to avert that tailspin.”

Rob’s eyes were aimed at the controls, but all his attention was on the instructor to his right: the instructor whom, just minutes ago, he had understood so well.

“I left that school with more determination than I had entering it. Just five years after the discharge, I was on the flight deck of an MD-11 with an ATP license in hand. A beautiful machine. So simple to control, and that was why I loved to enter it.”

“You piloted an MD-11 in your twenties?”

“It was a new airline that didn’t take in much, and I was a new pilot who didn’t ask for much. A winning combination in the industry. They used me for regional flights, but I deadheaded just about everywhere. Leipzig, Lima, London, La Paz, Lisbon… and that’s just the L’s.”

John laughed, a sound rarely heard in the Skyhawk’s cabin. By now, Rob was deeply distressed. He jammed the rudder pedal down in hopes of getting the instructor’s attention.

“You wonder why I didn’t stay with the airline. Well, there was a flight attendant in the jump seat next to me. Danita Montez. We agreed to meet for dinner after touching down, and things took off after that. Within a year, we terminated our jobs with the airline and walked down the aisle.”

Rob looked at the airway chart and dialed in the Martinsburg VOR. Ironic, but this next turn was his steadiest yet.

“With her by my side, I felt as if life really were as easy to control as an airliner. I’d pull up and out of bed, retract my eyes, take on some fuel downstairs and head due east to an instructor’s academy. In the evening, I’d pull back from the couch and descend into the blankets. But there was a failure along the way. Danita said my communications systems broke down. She left the cabin after weeks of sparring over this and that.”

He stopped talking for a few seconds and stared intently at the propeller. Rob prayed for a fuel leak, a stubborn elevator—something to jar the instructor out of his trance and bring back the authoritative old John.

“It seems that planes are the only thing I can control anymore. Any chance I can get to be in one, I’ll take. Any chance to drift 10,000 feet above this world and leave my stress at the airport, I’ll take. It’s life that I’ve become afraid of.” He looked over at Rob with a stare usually reserved for the airspeed indicator and the transponder. “I can only wonder about people like you who live so effortlessly, as if there’s some autopilot switch for money and love that you’re not telling me about. I can only—”

His pupils snapped back to a blip on the dashboard.

“Low voltage light,” John said. “Let’s go through the checklist. Avionics power switch?”

“Off,” Rob said.

“I dealt with the alternator circuit breaker. Turn off the master switch. Both sides.”

He obliged, flipping both with a single finger.

“Avionics power switch, on.”

He looked up at the dashboard. The warning light had gone away.

“I see you’ve dialed in the Martinsburg VOR. That can be the first step in our descent. Once there, we’ll be heading south towards KJYO—runway 17, preferably. Prepare to dial in 122.6 for the Leesburg radio.”

The student pilot turned the knobs in silence. The instructor pulled out a few more charts and traced a pair of airways with his finger.

It was as if that low voltage light had bought John Everett back to health. He was silent for the rest of the flight, save for the occasional “turn left on heading zero-nine-five” or “increase bank angle to 15 degrees and lower flaps to 10.”

They touched down at the airfield five minutes behind schedule. The instructor apologized and said that he would manage the post-flight checklist.

“You showed plenty of improvement today, Rob.” Spoken in his trademark monotone. “Excellent work with the control surface.”

“It would have been impossible without your help,” he replied, willing to pretend John had guided him throughout.

The instructor took of his glasses and shrugged. “It’s a mere matter of control.”

The plane was parked mere yards from his Audi. As Rob slipped into the driver’s seat, he could hear someone starting up the Cessna engine and mumbling, “It’s a mere matter of control.”


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