PINCH HITTERS IN THE SKY
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
ou see it in the movies all the time.
An airplane pilot on a routine flight suddenly slumps in his seat, dead or unconscious. There's no co-pilot. No one on board has a clue about how to fly the aircraft, let alone land it.
The only button anybody knows how to push is the one labeled "Panic."
Then some courageous soul, usually a female, decides to fight back. Sitting in the right hand seat, she picks up a microphone, makes contact with ground control.
In a shaky voice, she tells what's happened. Ground control radios back:
"Stay calm, miss. Everything's going to be all right. Believe it or not, you can land that plane. We're going to talk you through it."
Sometimes, it really happens. Pilots do develop problems that render them incapable of finishing a flight, and novices have to take over the controls.
That's why Jesse and Katie Bliss, owners of Valley Air at La Grande Municipal Airport, have decided to teach a "Pinch Hitter" course.
"It's to prepare a non-pilot to assume responsibility for the aircraft if the pilot goes down," said Katie Bliss.
The course is a new venture for the Blisses, who routinely teach people how to be pilots.
Jesse is a seasoned flight instructor, Katie teaches ground school. The couple is maintaining those day-to-day roles for the Pinch Hitter course.
Katie Bliss said prospective pilots must complete 60 hours of flight time and a huge number of classroom hours before they are qualified to take their tests. Pinch hitters, on the other hand, take an abbreviated course that provides them with a rudimentary knowledge that just might come in handy
The course, developed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation, is designed mainly for people who often fly beside a family member or friend who is a pilot.
The students eight women in the nearly-finished inaugural class take ground instruction from Katie Bliss first, then in-flight instruction from Jesse Bliss.
"They're taught the basic skills necessary to navigate by chart and by radio," said Katie Bliss of the ground school portion of the course.
A strong knowledge of radio operations is essential, said Katie Bliss. Students learn what radio frequencies to use, who to contact, and what information to provide.
Weather issues also are emphasized.
"They would want to stay well clear of clouds or fog so they can keep the earth in sight," Katie Bliss said.
The Pinch Hitter course is taught in Valley Air's Cessna 110, though much of the information provided in the course is tailor-made for the type of plane the student's family normally flies.
In addition to steering and speed controls, most planes have what is called a "six-pack" of instruments: air-speed indicator, headway indicator, altimeter, vertical speed indicator, attitude indicator and turn co-coordinator.
Before students take to the air, they learn about those instruments and their functions.
"We train them how to determine what the instruments are telling them," Katie Bliss said.
Under Jesse Bliss' tutelage, Pinch Hitter students actually practice flying and landing the aircraft.
Jesse Bliss said he uses basically the same teaching methods for Pinch Hitters as he does for student pilots.
""Initially I give them a lot of help, and as they progress, I transfer responsibility to them," he said.
As one example of the Pinch Hitter course averting disaster, The AOPA Air Safety Foundation points to the story of Joan Chalupnik, an Alaska woman whose pilot husband suffered a massive brain hemorrhage in a flight over Fairbanks.
Chalupnik, who safely landed the Piper Super Cruiser she was a passenger in, credited the Pinch Hitter course with saving her life.
Katie Bliss said she and her husband became convinced of the course's importance when they heard Chalupnik's story.
She said she is confident in the Valley Air-trained Pinch Hitters' ability to respond to a similar emergency.
"They'll land that plane. It might not be a beautiful landing, but it will be a good safe one with little damage to the aircraft," she said.
Valley Air plans a second Pinch Hitter course this spring.