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Ear hairs in the cockpit

Pilots already know this, but for those who have never taken a flying lesson, there are a certain number of hours (three) you have to train “under the hood” as it’s called before you’re qualified to take the private pilot’s test (which includes a written test, oral test, and flight test).

The three-hour “under the hood” requirement is really just a “life vest” of sorts. That limited time won’t make you proficient at “flying blind on instruments,” as it’s called, but it’s meant to hopefully save your life if you ever run into unexpected bad weather (fog; bad visibility; etc.) that blots out the horizon. Those three hours will hopefully allow you to safely make a 180-degree turn “on instruments” and get out of the bad $#@% into which you have just stumbled.

Trouble is, most private pilots take enough hood time to qualify for the Private Pilot Requirements and pass the test, but once they get their “ticket,” so to speak, they don’t stay current by flying with a certified flight instructor every so often under the hood; and so, if they do stumble into a situation whereby the horizon can’t be seen, they’re screwed as are their passengers. NTSB Final Crash Report: “The crash claimed the lives of the pilot and three passengers, which was due to failure on the part of the pilot to retain control of the aircraft after flying into IMC (instrumental meteorological conditions).” Indeed, words to that effect are often the outcome of such scenarios.

“If they had only taken the car and driven to Austin instead of trying to fly there.”

By the way, that’s why Kobe Bryant is no longer among the living. His chopper pilot was obviously proficient to fly instruments since he was a pro, but he was flying in a chopper not qualified to fly “on instruments.” The day of the crash was too hazy, and the hills into which Bryant crashed weren’t visible to the naked eye. At least not until the pilot crashed into them.

That’s another thing many private pilots forget if no one reminds them of it. Namely, if it’s a starless night, and you’re flying over barren land, devoid of lights, or black water, it’s the same as flying into the clouds or in haze less than, say, three miles. You can’t see the horizon, which is used to keep the wings level, and any pilot not well versed in flying on instruments only can quickly lose control of the airplane.

If one flies over the King Ranch on such a night, for example, when you get far enough north of Harlingen, before you hit the lights of Kingsville, there is a large swath of land with nary a light on it. If you don’t know how to fly “on instruments,” using the attitude indicator to keep the wings level, you’ll soon suffer from “spatial disorientation,” and you won’t know what’s up and what’s down. Panic sets in, and the flight is doomed, a la Kennedy Jr.

In Kennedy’s case, however, the outcome is particularly tragic because his flight instructor (with whom he had trained to earn his private pilot’s license) had mentioned to him that since it would be dark before he got to Martha’s Vineyard, and since it was such a hazy late afternoon, maybe he would like to take him along for added safety; but JFK Jr. said, “No, thanks,” and the rest is history, sad to say. He died as did his wife and sister-in-law.

The Hood

For people who don’t know it, a plastic hood is what most instructors use to replicate flying blind, AKA, instrument conditions. You put the hood over the crown of your head, and so the plastic shield right above your eyes prevents you from seeing anything but the flight instruments. You also can’t see peripherally.

Then it becomes the flight instructor’s job to teach the student how to use the flight instruments to not only keep the plane straight and level, but turn, descend, and climb, all under controlled flight. For the student, it’s a frustrating time. After they can do the things I just mentioned, they need to also be taught how to recover from “unusual attitudes.” Say, they somehow got the plane into a rapid descent or stall, how do they recover while still “flying blind.” It’s not easy.

Ear Hair

During this process, the flight instructor becomes very familiar with the student’s ears (actually, mainly the right ear). In a single-engine plane, the two people in the cockpit, student and instructor, sit relatively close to each other, and when the instructor turns his head to speak to the student, who is now “under the hood,” the thing he or she immediately runs into is the student’s right ear because there it is, right in your visual frame of reference, big as can be. The hood hides the rest of the face, except for the top of the head and the back of the head.

Sounds okay so far, right? Most of the time it is, but sometimes, a flight instructor, in this case, moi, will have a flight student who is “getting on in years,” who hasn’t yet learned one simple fact: excess hairs sprouting from the ears is not a pleasant sight. When you have to face them up close and personal, they become even more disgusting. Might as well not trim the nose hairs either. No, wait, the older guys who pay no attention to ear hair also pay no attention to those unsightly hairs springing from the nostrils, so that explains it. They also usually have eyebrows thick and long enough from which to weave a rug.

I had at least one student like that. I wanted to bring one of those nose-hair, ear-hair trimmers to the next lesson and just happen to leave it planted on the left seat before his arrival, hoping he might get a clue (“Hey, maybe I could use one of those.”); but I never did.

This pilot was working on his commercial pilot’s license, which requires more “hood time,” which required me turning sideways in the cockpit more to make sure he was hearing me well enough above the hum of the engine. Every time I turned in his direction, there were those disgusting hairs just waiting to scream, “Yep I’m still here.”

If a student isn’t flying “under the hood,” a lot of the instruction is done with the hands. In other words, the flight instructor uses his or her hands along with verbal commands to move on to the next maneuver. That’s why, I guess, since most professional pilots start out as instructors, that habit of talking with one’s hands becomes second nature.

Teaching a student how to fly “under the hood” is a rewarding experience. Getting to know their ear hairs by sight is, I guess, one of the prices one pays to instruct.

If you play golf, when two used to ride in a golf cart pre-COVID days, although some still do, the distance between you and your playing partner is about the same distance between an instructor and a student in a Cessna 152, your traditional trainer before the general population got to be so large, now most flight schools are forced to use a Cessna 172 as their primary trainer.

So, if you play golf, check out to see if your playing partner is into personal grooming, or has reached that age, where they say, screw it, who cares what I look like? Are their ear hairs long enough to braid? Do they look thick enough to maybe swing a golf club? Do they look disgusting? Now you know what I had to deal with back in the day.

“Hey, Wendorf, how do you take a flying column and turn it into a diatribe against ear hairs? Are you crazy?”

Sure, but I became that way long ago. Nothing new there. I just happen to own one of those personal hair trimmers because when I was young, staring at my flying student’s ear hairs for the 10 hours under the hood it takes to earn the commercial pilot’s license (the guy was in his 50s at the time), I swore to myself that I would never become him. So far, I haven’t.

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