The process of writing and editing articles for FAA Safety Briefing often sends me scurrying to the shelves of my personal aviation library. The themes we address in this issue provided plenty of reasons to resort to the more technical tomes. As we began to put the “tiedowns” on this issue, though, I found myself drawn to a different section of my collection. Specifically, I spent some time in re-reading and reflecting on the “School for Perfection” essay in my all-time favorite aviation book, Richard Bach’s A Gift of Wings.
With apologies to Bach for oversimplification, “School for Perfection” is the slightly mystical story of how the narrator, a prototypical flight instructor mourning the tragic loss of a student, is rejuvenated and inspired by meeting Drake, proprietor of a hidden and highly unusual flight school. During a week in Drake’s company, the narrator learns a few lessons that we should consider in our collective quest for improving general aviation safety.
The curriculum in Drake’s School for Perfection starts with a lengthy study of “the wind, the sky, and the dynamics of unpowered flight.” The narrator scoffs: “At that rate, it’s going to take him a lifetime to learn to fly.”
“Of course it will,” is Drake’s matter-of-fact response. He patiently explains that a true pilot must develop an understanding of, and respect for, the basics of flight itself before he becomes an aerial systems operator.
Bach made this prescient point decades before the advent of airliner-style avionics and automation. The continuing occurrence of accidents attributable to deficient stick-and-rudder skills makes it just as valid today.
The narrator is shocked to find one of Drake’s primary students at the controls of a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny: “That’s an old engine! It can quit in flight, you know.”
“Well, of course it can quit!” says Drake. For that reason, students in the School for Perfection get extensive instruction in all aircraft systems. They learn, for example, not only how a given engine works, but also where its weaknesses lie and what failures to expect.
Hmmm. How many of today’s pilots-myself included-are dedicated to mastering our machines to that level of detail? Lulled by the incredible reliability of modern machinery, too many of us are tempted to assume that mechanical malfunctions happen to other people.
What the fictional Drake does not accept is the narrator’s contention that accidents are inevitable. Says he, “If your system involves accidents, the solution is not to find excuses for the accidents. The solution is to change the system.”
As Drake explains to the narrator, the School for Perfection is built on a core premise: “We decided to take the time to give a pilot skill and understanding, instead of listing rules.” He contends that his approach creates pilots who “know more about flying than how to steer an airplane,” because his students invest so much time in first understanding the fundamentals of flight.
Accustomed to a less-disciplined environment, the narrator is deeply impressed by the atmosphere of pride, professionalism, discipline, and “incredible respect” that characterizes every aspect of Drake’s School for Perfection. As he observes, Drake “had not missed a single avenue that would bring perfection in flight.”
Let us all seek to do the same. (FAA Safety Briefing – MarchApril 2011)