March/April 2002 AeroTales

“All This And High School Too…””

Mark Nahan is a flying machine. He’s an 18 year-old senior at Oak Park High School, in Oak Park, California, and he recently nailed his Instrument check ride. He bulls-eyed his Private rating on his 18th birthday, which pretty much serves to blow the candles out and off of any cake. You need to know about this guy…

I met him one night after having to divert to Van Nuys from Camarillo, where predicted weather had instead become rapidly formed fog. Hey, now there’s a reach, fog in Camarillo, where temperature/dew point spreads from Pt. Mugu and Oxnard can make liars out of the best weathermen.

An instructor and I made a low enough pass over the runway to discover that the fog was located only and precisely over the airport… and we realized there was no way we’d be landing that night. Van Nuys it was, where the VFR conditions beckoned.

Enroute, we recognized the call-sign of another plane from the flight school, and the thought was to maybe carpool home with him if his automotive lifeline arrived ahead of ours. We made contact after landing and waited for my ride to arrive.

Mark had a date with him, a very attractive young college girl. They’d flown to Santa Barbara for a nice dinner, and it was also her first time in a small plane. Diverting to Van Nuys had not been in the plans, but it was a perfect example of decision making on the part of a pilot who didn’t even think of trying to do something begging for an NTSB report in the morning…

Mark was working on his instrument rating at the time, and we exchanged stories about how quickly the conditions had evolved at Camarillo. He told me he was a senior in high school, working at a coffee shop, preparing for his career in aviation. His plans were to get as much flight training as possible under his belt before going off to Embry-Riddle in a couple of years. His decision to divert was a clear indicator that the right stuff resided within.

A month passed, and we ran into each other at the flight school again. I invited Mark to check out the AST 300 simulator that I swear by for beating one’s self up for instrument training, especially by flying lost comm pilot nav approaches. There’s no such thing as a wasted flying day if a sim in within arm’s reach, and I wanted to show Mark how to save his life someday by beating that life in to a brainmushed pulp with a variety of situational awareness scenarios I work on regularly in Southern California instrument airspace.

As he set the Navs up for a published left turn hold at SAUGS enroute to Palmdale, we talked about how his training was going in general. I was in awe of a young man blazing a trail with his life so utterly foreign to his peers, and I began to think how strange a time it must be for him in light of September 11th and all that has transpired. He is living through history, a time none of us ever expected to occur.

Another month or so passed, and we had the chance to fly to Santa Barbara in a C-172RG. Landing 15L allowed me the opportunity to demonstrate precisely why my right crosswind landings were in need of practice. After a humble correcting of uncoordinated rudder, we taxxied to Mercury Aviation and walked over to Silver Wings restaurant for a burger.

I asked Mark to help me dissect the nature of that lame landing, and he took it apart like a surgeon, step by step. He agreed that if pilots can’t talk about what needs work, they’re destined to never improve.

Several weeks later, we went up and did maneuvers in preparation for my commercial checkride. Mark sat backseat while my instructor and I tuned things up over the city of Ventura and nearby Lake Casitas. It was the usual lunacy in the practice area, where Chandelles and Lazy 8s are done at one’s own peril. I knew without a doubt that the backseat passenger was memorizing every minute of the flight and would split the hairs on his own upcoming instrument checkride, which in fact he did… after requesting a discontinuance because of high winds and questionable safety conditions. His DE was impressed with that call.

As we headed back to Camarillo, I recalled something Mark had told me the first night we met over in Van Nuys. I asked him what all the girls at his high school thought of him being a pilot, figuring they’d be all over this quintesential Southern California kid. He’d laughed and said, “I don’t know. None of their dads will let them go out with me to find out.”

Lining up for a left crosswind landing which was executed 100 percent better than our last endeavor, I realized that the date this kid had with destiny would be far beyond anything he’d ever miss out on in high school.

And somehow, I’m sure he knows this too…

David R. Aldridge