My Favorite Student

Becky was a wonderful person.  From the moment I first met her, she was on her way to becoming one of my favorite students.  Becky came to me by way of a fellow airport bum and friend, Dave, a pilot, mechanic, a homebuilder.  He is a true aviator in addition to being one of Becky’s business clients.  The first day I met her, she stood outside the door of the little country FBO where I worked as a flight instructor.  As she rubbed her toe in the dirt, she asked, “Do you think you could teach someone as old as me to fly?”

I looked back at her, and countered, “I don’t know.  What do you think?  Do you believe someone your age is still capable of learning?”  She smiled and knew immediately what I meant. (She wasn’t that old.)

Becky had her very first airplane flight with Dave in his Wittman Tailwind.  The experience was an experience of a lifetime.  It was one of those defining moments in the course of a life, a turning point.  After the flight, Becky asked Dave if he could teach her how to fly.  Dave said no, he did not teach, but he knew someone who did.  That is how I met Becky that fateful late summer evening in 1979.

She was not the most technically talented, nor was she as skillful as other students.  However, what she lacked in skill and knowledge, she more than made up for with enthusiasm.  I knew she would be a great student and, as I would find later, a wonderful mentor.  I would teach her how to fly and she would teach me some of the important lessons in how to live life.

When we first met, she told me about her first airplane flight with Dave.  Becky could not contain herself as she recounted the flight in Dave’s Tailwind.  More than once, I heard the phrase, “I wish I had gone up the first time he had asked me.”  Becky said Dave and his wife had been trying to get her into the airplane for a ride for years and she had steadfastly refused.

She also said it was the very first time she ever left the earth in any form of flying machine.  This amused me; after all, didn’t we live in modern times?  And I was intrigued as to how her first airplane flight was not in a “certificated” airplane, but in one lovingly and patiently hand crafted by one man and his sons.

As she finished talking about the flight with Dave, I knew she would be an active student pilot.  She was not one to do something halfway.

I soon found myself looking forward to Becky’s lessons.  She studied hard and studied well.  Her enthusiasm was infectious and her joy at flying unpretentious.  Through her experiences, I was able to remember my own trials as a student pilot.  It was on a return from one training flight that I fully became the student and Becky the teacher.

We had been working on slow flight and stalls.  The lesson was complete; it was the last flight of the day, which gave us a little more time to enjoy the return home.  Becky looked to the west and seemed content with where she was and what she was doing.

“You know,” she began, “when I was a little girl, I had a chance to ride in an open cockpit biplane.”

I looked at her, surprised she had been so close to the barnstorming era of aviation history.  She went on to say she and her cousin watched a biplane land in a field near her cousin’s farm.  She talked at length about the airplane in a way a novice would describe it.  The complete picture was like a page out of an aviation history book.  The pilot offered the two little girls a ride, $3 each.  Becky had only $2.75 and her cousin said she would give her the balance.  Becky agreed and the barnstormer began strapping the two into the front cockpit.

As her cousin settled in and Becky waited her turn, Becky had second thoughts and decided not to fly.  She kept her money and the barnstormer lost a fare.  As Becky stood in the field that day, her cousin enjoyed her ride all alone.  As it turned out, for Becky’s cousin it did not amount to a ride of a lifetime.  It was not a turning point in her cousin’s life – as it would have been for Becky.

Sitting in the cockpit of the Cessna 150 more than 50 years later, Becky was about to teach her young flight instructor a lesson in life.  As she deftly piloted the Cessna into the sunset, she said, “You know, if I had been brave enough to fly with that barnstormer so long ago, my entire life would have been different.”

The gravity of the statement did not escape me.  I knew there was a very strong truth to what she said.  I had no doubt about it.

I think if Becky had flown in the biplane that day so long ago, she may have become very active in aviation.  She might have been a WASP.  She may have become a contract instructor with the CPTP, or she probably would have started her own aviation business.

As she piloted the 150 for home, I wished I had a way to go back in time so I could entice the little girl into the front cockpit of that biplane, to tell her it was safe and fun.  To reassure her.

That time, that chance, that opportunity is gone.  However, there is nothing like making the best of the time that is now.

This is precisely what Becky is doing.  She is grabbing a hold of life and not letting go.  She is aware of the time that has slipped by and how different her life could have been.  I have a feeling she will never make the same mistake again.  Additionally, I, her aviation teacher, I am taking careful notes.  In one regard, she is my student and in another, I am hers.

I think of all the other people who have uttered the words, “If only I had . . .” These are the people whose lifetimes contain great regrets.  I do not want to become one of them.

So I make a vow to myself and a promise to those who would, but cannot.  I will not allow myself to become one of those people.  Becky’s lesson included slow flight and stalls.  My lesson included so much more.

After we land and taxi in, Becky shuts down and we sit quietly watching the last of the sunset slowly slide away.  Neither of us talk for a moment, we just listen as the gyros unwind.

Finally, we leave.  We get out, tie the plane down, and walk away.  It is very quiet on the field; you can hear the frogs and the bugs waking up for the evening, commencing their nocturnal music.  For my services, Becky will pay my boss the regular dual rate.

Suddenly, I realize it is not about money, it is not about flight time in the log.  I walk away from the Cessna knowing it is about teaching, learning, shared lessons, and friends.

I know I cannot possibly repay Becky for the life lesson she has just taught me.

-30-

© 2010 J. Clark

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