What Being a Student Pilot is Teaching Me About Gun Safety
If I want to be a better instructor, then I should take time to be a good student is the thought that came to mind when I decided to learn how to fly airplanes.
For more than 30 years I have held jobs that required me to fly as a passenger to many locations both internationally and domestic. As an engineer, understanding concepts like gravity, lift, thrust and drag have always been rather easy to understand. Center of gravity, moments, weight distribution are a few technicalities I understand but how to calculate them for a Cessna 172SP are a few concepts that were foreign to me until now.
Understanding the minutia of how the plane flies is very similar to understanding how a handgun or rifle fires ammunition. Airflow across the control surfaces makes level flight, step turns and stall recovery possible. Gas pressure, barrel rifling and zeroing of the sights makes the bullet travel true and on target. When my instructor told me for the 100th time to loosen my grip on the yoke, I recalled the same conversation I had with a handgun student to gently squeeze the trigger. Flying a Cessna and shooting an H&K P30 seem to have a lot in common.
What is different is how instructors teach their students. Let me explain.
During my first student flight, we lined up on runway 15 in Addison and my instructor said full throttle. I knew what he said; but, honestly, I thought he was going to get the plane in the air before he let me take the controls. Immediately, I knew the realities of what I had gotten into.
First, this was a sink or swim means of teaching. If you want to learn how to fly, then you must attempt to fly. Second, this was real. I fully understood that anything could go wrong, and I was the least prepared to do anything about turning a bad situation into a successful outcome. What if I killed the engine or it just quit on its own; what if I gave it left rudder when it should have been right, what if I stalled the plane on takeoff or got rolled in the crosswind? I knew the first time down the runway that I was in the pilot’s seat and as I rotated at 55 knots and felt the Cessna lift off the runway that I had just entered a domain that I knew of but did not fully understand or appreciate.
So many of my firearms lesson are just the opposite. I often meet people who have heard about guns, shot guns, carried guns but have never received any meaningful training. They may not know how to hold a gun, where to position their feet, what to use for sight alignment, how to know if the barrel is clear, what makes the ammunition fire, which ammunition is correct for that gun or how to accurately hit the center of the target.
Learning to fly basically comes down to three essential elements: precision of pre-flight inspection, proper use of control surfaces, and situational awareness in the air and on the ground. Learning to shoot a handgun comes down to three essential elements too: a properly working gun, five fundamentals of shooting (stance, grip, trigger control, sight alignment and breathing), and situational awareness.
On my first flight as a student pilot, my instructor told me to pull the throttle to idle while holding the altitude level at 3500 ft. This meant that with no forward thrust and the nose up to maintain altitude, we were slowing down. I could not see over the nose and going slower and slower was not comforting to me. Eventually, with stall horns going off, the plane dropping because it wasn’t flying and the nose pitching over so that nothing but ground filled the windscreen. I understood we intentionally brought the airplane to a critical situation and I had to learn how to recover flight – that is, if I wanted to get back on the ground safely and with a plane that could fly again tomorrow.
This is where firearms training is completely opposite than flying training. Never have I intentionally instructed a student to manipulate a firearm to the point of critical failure.
Which is safer, flying an airplane or carrying a pistol? Which is easier to control, holding steady airspeed and altitude in a 30-degree left bank or holding the sights of a handgun on target at seven yards? And, which is the best way to learn, drilling students on always treating the firearm as if it were loaded; always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot; never point the muzzle of the gun at something you haven’t already decided that you are willing to destroy; or, take the plane to the point of stall with the power on full, with the power at idle, land practice landing without any power at all?
The purpose of in-flight instruction seems to be twofold: teach pilots how to recover from a critical point in flight and teach the pilots how to fly the plane. Whereas in firearms training, we teach that errors in handling and firing guns have irreversible consequences and that gun owners must know these truths beforehand.
I am an LTC Instructor, not a flight instructor so I focus on teaching the truth (the law), teaching situational awareness, and safety, especially around children. Being a student as well, I appreciate how carefully an instructor clearly presents information. The LTC course I teach does that…carefully and thoroughly teaches how to know critical truths before making the decision to “fly solo” by carrying your own handgun in public.