Like a teenager who just received their driver’s license, a fresh P2/ H2 pilot now has a license to learn. They can launch, land, and generally navigate friendly terrain and weather on their own. There is a foundation of knowledge that can now be built on. After a relatively simple driving test compared to what lies ahead on the open road, a new pilot should probably seek more knowledge about how to navigate more challenging launches and landings, a wider range of conditions, and all that free flight has to offer. Finding and connecting with that more experienced pilot or group of pilots to learn from can be an intimidating task. Being that more experienced pilot comes with its own nuances as well. There are a few basic guidelines to follow in order to maximize the experience for both mentor and mentee.
Mentor vs Instructor
There is a difference between a mentor and an instructor. Instructors can also be mentors and vice versa, but they are a different relationship. Often an instructor signs off on a novice rating and the fledgeling pilot is now free to leave the nest and learn from others, who might not be rated instructors. An instructor builds the foundation of knowledge through purposeful and guided instruction and explanation. Beyond the training hill and classroom, a mentor is likely to explain things based on their own experience and on an as-needed basis. A mentorship is more of a friendship based around shared experiences rather than a contract and set of goals outlined in a syllabus.
How to be a good mentee
Seeking out a person to befriend that has had experiences that sound fun is one of the first steps to finding a mentor Experienced pilots have more time in the air than less experienced pilots, and it shows. They show up to launch more often, handle their gear with confidence, take flight with ease and land smoothly. Maybe there is conversation about a new launch, or a trip to a foreign land that keeps coming up. Regardless of what is attention grabbing about an experienced pilot, identify it and open a conversation about it, hopefully beginning a new relationship. Typically, these relationships are informal and grow similar to friendships. Similar to friendships, having more than one mentor to learn from is healthier for everybody involved. Erika Klein, a hang gliding instructor based in California, suggests new pilots first “Look for someone whose decision-making is admirable” and then “look for a mentor that flies the way you want to fly.” A distance record setting cross-country pilot might not want to spend time with a mentee who has dreams of acrobatic flying, or might be looking for a mentor in that area themselves. Nick Greece has found in his travels that “picking folks you could take for a long road trip” are important as mentors, because driving to launch can involve precisely that. If the wrong choice is made and a potential mentor is not enjoyable to be around, spending time flying with other people that elicit smiles is better than spending time flying with somebody else. It is equally important to be enjoyable to be around.
Make it easy for the mentor
Often, mentors do not pick their mentees. It is typically the mentee choosing the mentor. Most experienced pilots are not instructors and they do not make any money by sharing knowledge with less experienced pilots. They tend to bring a newer pilot to launch on their days off of life responsibilities, and gratitude goes a long way to making it feel like it is worth bringing somebody new on an adventure. Nobody wants to spend a flying day feeling like a babysitter spoon feeding someone who comes across as helpless. Communication of knowledge about observations followed by a question makes it easy for a mentor to see that their mentee is thinking for themselves, but wants the perspective of a more experienced pilot. Saying “this launch seems too hard” right off the bat is very different from “I noticed that the margin of error is small here, what have you done in the past to set yourself up for success?” Starting off with “this might be a stupid question, but…” is better than being afraid of asking a question, and might even elicit a funny story about how a mentor learned the answer. Returning the laughter with a funny story about a happy mishap will only strengthen the relationship.
Bring something to the table and say “thank you”
Bringing observations and a foundation of knowledge to be edited by a more experienced pilot’s perspective are the building blocks to a mentor-mentee relationship. Being personable and appreciative will put those building blocks into place. It is not necessarily a mentor’s job to ensure that a mentee is understanding everything that is going on. Showing appreciation for a more experienced pilot’s perspective will help pave the way for more time with that pilot. If learning to fly XC, offer to drive retrieve or organize a retrieve driver. Going for a hike and asking a mentor about a potential new launch means that both pilots get to fly a new place and bounce ideas off each other. If trying to become a better instructor, bring students and coffee to a more experienced instructor. Bringing chips and salsa to a flying day never hurts, especially if guacamole is included. Offering to trade a non-flying skill for a flying skill might go the furthest, allowing the roles to be reversed.
How to be a good mentor
Say “thank you”
If a new pilot has mustered up the courage to overcome the fear of being thought stupid for asking “can I tag along”, it is a huge compliment. They have identified a skillset and an experience that they want to be a part of. Wisdom may suggest that the time is not right for them to tag along this week or month. Doing some research on who the new pilot is by asking around might yield some support for inviting them next time. Politely declining is also an option, however, taking the opportunity to give back to free flight and shape its future is far more rewarding. Being able to identify and appreciate a position of mentorship is not necessarily easy or identifiable until a less experienced pilot has been tagging along for months or years, in which case a great friendship might have developed.
The foundation to all relationships is clear, two-way communication and understanding of all parties involved. Taking some time to know where they acquired their foundation of knowledge and what they want to build on top can save some stress and frustration. Asking a mentee what they see and what new things are being introduced to their experience is an easy way to open lines of communication. However, it is not a mentor’s responsibility to hold a mentee’s hand. After receiving what information the mentee has gathered, a mentor should provide clear, honest, objective perspective. Productive feedback looks different for everybody, and rephrasing might be needed. It is up to a mentee to ask for clarification if they need it. If a less experienced pilot has recognized that the conditions are somehow outside of their comfort zone, perspective about prior experience in strong conditions would be one of the most appropriate responses. Ultimately, mentorship is a relationship, and all relationships depend on clear communication to start, grow, and end.
Respect newer pilots and the community
Spending years to become an experienced pilot involves spending years within the community and seeing a variety of pilots and trends come and go. Taking a less experienced pilot under a wing is an opportunity to shape the community in a new way, because newer pilots tend to be impressionable. Often, the most looked up to pilots are more looked up to not for their string pulling and weight shifting, but more for how they interact with their peers. Standing on a pedestal higher than newer pilots is a great way to alienate them. Grounding oneself and speaking to them as equals is the best way to garner their respect. Going one step further and introducing mentees to other experienced pilots is an investment in the newer pilots success and the growth of the community. By respecting new pilots as people rather than an annoyance and treating them as the future of the community, a more experienced pilot can guide them to be part of an enjoyable direction of change. Blake Pelton, a USHPA Tandem Administrator, suggests being “an example of what you want to see from your community” because newer pilots emulate more experienced pilots. Picking up trash on launch can be contagious, and so can treating landowners kindly. The mentor-mentee relationship is often a subtle one. Sometimes a highly revered mentor does not even know that a newer pilot still looks up to them, even after years of flying together and friendship. When asked about his mentor-mentee relationships, Bridger Henriksen, an Ozone team pilot, said that Cade Palmer never formally or actively mentored him. Bridger simply picked out somebody whom had what he wanted and was lucky enough that Cade treated him with respect and could provide perspective. Now Bridger is one of the best speed wing pilots in the world, providing guidance to newer pilots and still looking to Cade and other pilots for mentorship.