Over the weekend I had the chance to ride in the backseat of one of our club's two-seat gliders for several flights. As a new member of our club's "flight committee" I may occasionally fly with new [to us] pilots after a certified instructor has pronounced them competent to fly the aircraft. My role is that of an observer and someone who can welcome them to our club, maybe providing some local knowledge along the way.

Inevitably though, I found myself watching how the other pilot flies and making minor suggestions for improvement if they seemed open to it. Maybe they simply need to relax and stop over-controlling the plane. Or perhaps a bit more focus on maintaining a particular airspeed in the landing pattern will help. A couple times I would offer to take the controls to demonstrate a technique for accomplishing something. I found it easier to describe what to do while I was doing it myself.

Now I've flown in the backseat numerous times, but that's usually when I'm co-flying with a friend or maybe giving someone a quick tour of a new airport and the surrounding landmarks. My goal was rarely to evaluate or judge.

What I noticed is how easy it is to pick out things that the guy in the front seat should try to improve. That's partly because, as one of my instructors once told me, I've got nothing else to do back there. But I suspect that it's largely because I used to make the same (or very similar) mistakes a couple years ago when I transitioned into the club gliders. Being just a few years "ahead" of them means that I have enough experience to identify these things but not so much that it's difficult to remember how I dealt with them.

This got me thinking about one of the truisms that comes up in flight training now and then: the best mentor is someone that's only a few steps ahead of you in the learning curve.

Looking back, I think that's just as true in the workplace too. There are times when I've had a good mentor to follow--someone I could strive to be more like in various ways: knowledge, skill, communication, etc. Those are the times when I made the greatest improvements in my job performance and felt like I had the most focus. Other times I've not been so lucky, lacking any real guide to model myself after and not sure what "better" looks like.

This has led me to conclude that good mentors are hard to find. Not only do they have to be open and receptive to the idea of you pestering them for help on various things, they also need to be a good match--someone you can look at and say "I really want to be more like that."

I think this is further complicated by jobs where the skills, unlike flying, are less concretely defined and difficult to demonstrate in a short period of time. "Tell me how well I mange this project" is very different from "was that a good landing?"

Posted by jzawodn at May 31, 2006 07:38 AM

Reader Comments
# michael biven said:

I completely agree that the some of the best mentors are those that skills are still within your reach. This was very clear to me when I worked as a fireman both while I was junior and then later after I had been around a while. It was also nice that you can try to be a little competitive with a mentor like this. Never have I been in an environment where mentoring was constant through a career no matter what position you were in.

on May 31, 2006 08:50 AM
# jeremiah johnson said:

How in the world do you go to the bathroom when you're piloting an aircraft or guiding/instructing someone else? I'm guessing that you simply don't, but i wanna make sure.

on May 31, 2006 11:35 AM
# hack said:

Most aircraft are stable enough that you can take your hands off the controls for a few seconds at a time to unzip and take care of business. There are a variety of techniques.

on May 31, 2006 01:44 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

hack: Indeed.

on May 31, 2006 02:02 PM
# Detroit Dinko said:

jeremiah, to GO to the bathroom, you need to turn the craft to the nearest loo, make a (emergency, if required) landing, step out (if something is left of the craft to step out from), and walk/crawl (depending on left-over physical capabilities). as hack mentioned, you can use your hands to unzip before you (crash?) land to save time

on May 31, 2006 07:04 PM
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