Bold and The Old
Ann Welch was an outstanding
pilot, recognised throughout the world as a leading light in recreational
flying. There was another side to Ann’s aviation background that she could
seldom be persuaded to mention. She was one of the highly skilled and very brave
ladies who flew unarmed war planes around the United Kingdom during WW2,
delivering them to operational units in support of the fight against Germany.
These delivery flights were usually undertaken solo, without any crew to
assist the pilot. Ann’s log books record flying not only single engined
fighters like Spitfires and Hurricanes but include large bomber aircraft in
RAF service, with a good selection of other types now long forgotten. She
delivered her last Spitfire very shortly before she herself was delivered of
her first daughter. Ann was an outstanding glider pilot and instructor and
led the development of gliding as a sport in the United Kingdom. She received
many international awards in recognition of her contributions to aviation.
The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) awarded Ann the Lilienthal
Medal in 1973, their highest award, followed by their Gold Medal in 1980 “for
contribution to developing four air sports – gliding, hang gliding,
paragliding and microlight flying.” She was also awarded the OBE.
Anyone who had the good fortune to know Ann Welch will remember a
very attractive lady with a quiet voice, a ready smile and the rare ability
to make complicated subjects easy to understand; the mark of someone with a
deep knowledge of their subject. She did not suffer fools gladly. She was a
kind person and sent me a very funny message when I was awarded a FAI Diamond
for gliding. Ann died in December 2002, aged 85. I had the honour to know Ann
as a friend. She taught me many things about aviation. She is still greatly
missed by those who knew her. She wrote the following article ten years
before her death. The message is still valid today.
Perhaps the biggest difference
between young and old pilots is that the keen young pilot grabs at every
opportunity to broaden his or her experience – to try something new – while
the old pilot, as he adds to his years, flies more and more only in the way,
and to the places, he wants. Unconsciously, he is narrowing his skills and
becoming increasingly out of practice in those aspects of pilotage for which
he now has less interest such as stalling, engine failure exercises, or
flying in rough air.
The Bold …
In his enthusiasm for trying anything new (widening horizons) the young
pilot may do some things which later in life he realises were plain stupid,
like setting off into approaching bad weather, indulging in low aerobatics,
or flying with another pilot even younger and more foolish than himself so as
to get another new type in his log book; but on balance, broadening pilotage
horizons is essential to becoming a good pilot.
In some countries, USA is one, the minimum age for a glider pilot is
14. It used to be 14 in Britain until an accident, which had nothing to do
with age, happened to an air cadet and the CAA raised it to 16. In the UK and
other countries the minimum age for powered aircraft is 17 but a person is
not adult until 18, and in some of the States not until 21. It is all a bit
illogical when you think an American glider pilot at 15 could well be flying
a 24 metre span glider weighing almost 1000 kg and capable of accelerations
that any racing driver would envy. The nearest the British can get to this is
a 16th birthday first solo, and there are several every year. Statistically
very young pilots have a good safety record. These words are not a plea for
political logic but to look at the advantages and disadvantages of learning
to fly when very young.
the greatest assets the young enthusiast has are time and the ability to be
entirely single minded. Apart from school or college there are few ties or
commitments; someone else cooks the food, pays the house insurance, and goes
to all the committee meetings. His entire concentration is on flying.
Information is sopped up like the proverbial sponge, and better still,
remembered. He is physically untiring, has a good appetite and sleeps well.
Youthful disadvantages include no sense of mortality, over-confidence, and
lack of imagination due to shortage of life’s experiences. These
disadvantages will eventually be overcome by discovering situations which
thoroughly frighten – ‘Please God let me get down in one piece’; provided
disaster does not intervene. A better way to success is a really good
instructor. If good enough there would be no reason why a youngster could not
start flying as soon as the controls can be reached properly and the
necessary strength or weight is present. One hang glider pilot began flying
when aged 12, was world champion by 19, and again at 21.
With very young pilots the instructor’s skill not only has to cover
the usual teaching techniques, but to look after the ‘go for it’ approach of
youth and guide it wisely. Pre-flight checks are an example. Unless the young
pilot is firmly encouraged to take a pride in doing this properly and EVERY
TIME it is quite likely to be skipped if attention is diverted by an admiring
friend. As skill develops so will the fun of cutting things fine; something
else the instructor must appreciate.
One problem faced by any learner pilot today is the almost paranoid
desire of authority to keep him safe; but to be safe a pilot must understand
what is dangerous and, to do this, he must see danger at first hand. This is
why SAR helicopter pilots are safe. With the young pilot the instructor needs
to spend quite a lot of flying time demonstrating what can go wrong, and how
to cope with it, and not only teaching how to do things right.
So how old should the instructor be? If ‘senior’ he may have become
reluctant to show the young pilot around in those areas where judgement
mistakes will matter. If too young he may not have fully acquired the wisdom
it is essential to develop in the student. Apart from this the instructor
must be someone the young pilot respects and wants to copy; another reason
for the instructor to be really good.
… and The Old
In due course the young pilot, if properly taught
and if his enthusiasm remains unflattened by life’s problems, will become the
old pilot. He will find among his contemporaries other old pilots of a
different sort. Those who, with their children finally off their hands and a
bit of spare cash, have taken up the flying they had always, or often, hoped
to do. They would be perhaps between 40 and 60 when they started. They also
need a good instructor. Their problems include weakening short term memory,
business or other important matters competing for mental attention and, even
if very fit, the possibility of becoming tired sooner than expected,
sometimes associated with sleeping more lightly. Put all together, they will
learn more slowly. The instructor will need more patience and should never
exhibit signs of boredom. What the older learner may possess, however, is a
great deal of useful related experience, which the instructor should exploit
so that the new learning can be associated with something already well
understood. The instructor should take trouble to discover such other skills
– car driving, boat sailing, skiing, diving, mountaineering. All of these
contribute to understanding – you can stall a boat’s sail or exceed your Vne
on skis. The difficult middle-aged learner is the one who has never dabbled
in any activity requiring co-ordination, assessment of speed, or quick
decision-taking in unexpected circumstances. It is very difficult to turn
such people into safe and happy pilots, and the instructor has to be
particularly perceptive and patient. He may even have to devise lessons to
help develop, for example, a proper feel for moving in more than one
direction at the same time.
passes every pilot will find himself thinking about how much longer to
continue with what may have been a lifetime of flying. There are some
bureaucrats who would like to set a fixed age, but this would achieve little
except frustration as most older pilots themselves take the decision to stop
before it should become essential. There are a few pilots who are, in fact,
‘too old at 40’ when no arbitrary age limit could sensibly be applied.
There are many reasons why older pilots take the decision to stop flying,
developing health problem. Not one which would preclude them passing the medical – or
which they are not prepared to put to the test and risk failing – such as
slight arthritis, fatigue etc. Or someone else in the immediate family has a
* So many
calls on their time that they fly less often. When younger they would have fitted in the
flying somehow, but now they suddenly realise months have passed – they go
faster with age – since last becoming airborne.
Disinclination to go for a periodic flight check because they do not like
the young instructor, or might not like his criticism.
Increasing dislike of being controlled in the air by the demands of radio,
particularly if much of their flying had been done in the years before
nattering with ATC became the norm.
* When they
do fly it is less enterprising. They do not suddenly get the urge to have lunch
at Le Touquet, or soar their glider on a long cross-country; so their
aviation becomes mostly local, even boring or pointless.
instructor I used to find myself giving check flights to older pilots who had
not flown for some time. Usually they were perfectly competent at circuits,
but had not done anything enterprising for some years, such as a map reading
cross-country; but in their minds they could still do it well. In fact they
did not do so because their out-of-practice flying made the total work load
higher than they had anticipated. There is only one advice for such people;
regenerate your flying or stop. To any pilot who knows that in his time he
has been extremely good, there is no satisfaction in becoming less and less
capable, particularly as the inevitable result will be some undignified
accident such as taxiing into somebody’s wing tip, perhaps due to declining
There are also people who learn to fly at the age when
long-experienced pilots are giving up. Some say ‘stupid old fools’, but is
this necessarily fair? Provided they are physically fit, mentally agile, and
have a good instructor such people can obtain immense pleasure from such late
flowering flying. But only if they have almost nothing else to do. The
elderly beginner will fly safely only if he or she spends all possible time
out on the airfield, glider launch point or hang gliding hill so that enough
associated knowledge of the aircraft, weather problems, practical
aerodynamics and handling are fully absorbed. Starting to fly late in life
should never be an occasional spare time relaxation with shared
concentration. The risks to this stranger to the air are too great.
Unfortunately, today, too many bold and old pilots have one problem
in common; the lack of opportunity – and cash – to do enough flying. Only
when aircraft handling becomes completely instinctive, is the brain free to
think, plan, and refine what the hand is doing.
Text and Photographs © 2009 Gremline & Hill House
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