Offbeat Occupations: Future's up in the air for flight instructor


Mike Yoder

Craig Harper, a flight instructor at the Lawrence Municipal Airport, left, observes student Jacob Schneider, De Soto, during a pre-flight inspection of a plane June 19, 2012.

Craig Harper has red hair and blue eyes, a swath of freckles splashed across his cheeks.

He’s a fast talker, words marching from his mouth with a mission: to teach people how to fly an airplane, and to do it well. So no one gets hurt.

“(My students’) lives are in my hands,” said Harper, of Eudora. “During training, they actually go up solo before they get their license. Making sure they’re ready to do that is kind of tricky.”

Harper is a flight instructor at Hetrick Air, 1930 N. Airport Road. A graduate from Kansas State University’s College of Technology and Aviation in Salina, Harper is 20 and looks young for his age. Upon a first meeting, his students may ask him if he’s still in high school. But after a initial wave of surprise, they forget his baby face as they watch him fly, admitting that if someone can graduate a four-year program in three years, it’s because they’re good.

“I think the day I met him he was wearing his K-State shirt,” said John Johnston, a student of Harper’s since May. “I had heard a lot about him, so I didn’t care (about his age) at all. … He’s an easy going, very skilled pilot.”

Back in high school — which was a little more than 3 years ago — Harper felt lost. He didn’t have a clue what he would do professionally. He thought about playing maybe baseball in college, then heard about a flight school in Salina. He visited the campus. And, having never been in a plane before, he decided to enroll.

He rocketed through the program, getting his private license the first semester and finishing instrument reading the second. By summer, he was building time so he could get his commercial license.

K-State’s College of Aviation is a Part 141 school, a division controlled closely by the Federal Aviation Administration. Part 141 pilots have to have 190 hours to earn a commercial license. By third semester, Harper had done it.

Next on his list was to become a certified flight instructor. The exam for CFA was a three-hour oral test followed by an hour-and-a-half flight.

“It was definitely the hardest rating I had to go through. I remember sitting there talking to the examiner, telling him about everything from aerodynamics to engine power plant, basically how to fly an airplane and how to teach,” Harper said.

Using a syllabus from Cessna, Harper teaches beginning pilots. He and his students practice maneuvers, steep turns, landing and stalls.

One way he ensures his students learn is to let them make mistakes. For instance, he might let them endure a hard landing, though he felt it coming.

“If something scares you, you remember not to do it the next time,” he said. “I’ve got controls on my side of the airplane, too. Rudders and the yoke. If I know it’s going to be really unsafe, I’ll take over, but they definitely learn best by mistakes.”

Harper learned by trial and error, too. Stalls — abrupt drops in lift — were particularly troubling. There’s a certain technique you have to use, and it took Harper a batch of repetitive tries until it became rote. Now muscle memory takes over.

He lets his students learn the same way he did, repetition and mistake.

Johnston, a student who has taken a dozen lessons from Harper, has learned swiftly. He went solo after only seven hours. (Harper had 14 hours when he himself went solo.)

“I knew I would solo that day, and I was kind of nervous, but when you’re in an airplane there’s no help,” Johnston said. “You don’t have time to think about being nervous.”

Harper drills safety into his students’ heads, so instead of being tense on the controls, they’re able to relax their grip and focus on the flight. He loves watching his students build confidence. But as much as he enjoys teaching, he doesn’t plan to do it long.

“Typically most flight instructors aren’t going to be in it for their career,” said Harper. “I’m just here building my hours.”

Harper is building hours so he can eventually fly multi-engine aircraft for commercial airlines. Right now he’s building total time — and in a year, he plans to reach his 1,200 hour goal. Later, he’ll knock out multi-engine time somewhere else. Then, who knows where he’ll go? Wherever it is, it will be in an airplane.

“I was kind of wary at first,” Harper said. “I went out to Salina not being in an airplane at all, not knowing if I would like it, so I kind of got lucky. Turns out I enjoy it quite a bit.”


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