Experience makes for a great teacher

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Niagara Helicopters had a number of flight instructors on the payroll. Most were inexperienced in the rigors of bush flying. They were kept on by the school to build flight time up to some arbitrary magic number imposed by the industry and the companies that they wanted to work for. What those low-time instructors were good at was instilling the basics, for basics are everything.

Let me say that again: basics are everything. Without basics, there is no foundation; thus, you have confusion. Confusion is bad. Situational awareness is good. Attitude, altitude, direction, heading, airspeed and common sense rule. And don’t forget to pay attention to all of it. Look outside. Look inside and scan the instrument panel once in a while too. Always fly the aircraft; don’t let it fly you. Stay ahead of it; don’t get behind it. And while you’re up there, where are you going to go when if the engine quits?

Beyond basics comes a knowledge required to survive in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. If an instructor doesn’t have any experience with bush flying, it’s difficult to pass on the tricks of the trade to his students when he doesn’t have any tricks.

Ben debriefing one of his students. His knowledge and his low-key ability to pass it on to others without all the bullshit worked for me.

Fortunately, at just the right time in my training regimen, the flight school hired Ben Arnold. He was an old-time helicopter aviator who had been a part of the beginning of the piston helicopter era in Canada. He was British, although by then he had spent many years in Canada.

Over time I developed a rapport with Ben. Usually we’d end up in the bar at the King Eddy Hotel, listening to the Jack Drake Duo[1] and watching the dancers. On the nights when the duo wasn’t playing, Ben would play the piano for beer money. On a good night we could shut the place down and have a few dollars left over.

Occasionally we’d pile into his blue Volkswagen and head across the line to Ye Olde Tavern and consume a few pints. Ben still had a bit of an accent, so he’d get me to coach him in the proper pronunciation of a few responses to the questions that the border guards might ask when we headed back across the bridge. I wondered about his immigration status, but I never asked. We always sailed across the border and into Canada, home-free. I never failed him.

Nor did he ever fail me. In six thousand hours of flight time, his instruction, principles and guidance held up. He taught me much that I needed to know to survive as a beginner in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. Over the years I acquired first-hand experience in bush, mountain, arctic and desert flight environments. Ben’s instruction was the foundation for most of what this beginner learned through on-site experience.

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Thanks to Ben Arnold, I made my own luck.

And yes, I was lucky too.

[1] Those two were a couple of pretty cool guys for the times. One thing I’ve always wondered: Did they name themselves after Gotham City’s own Jack Drake? Back to top

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