Farewell to a Teacher

Great teachers teach you more about yourself than the topic they are teaching. This was certainly the case with the best teacher I’ve ever had.  His name was Pat Patterson and in teaching me how to build airplanes, he taught me how I learn and what I love to do. He died last week and I’d like to share his story.

Pat never finished high school but when I met him he was running his own multimillion-dollar construction business, an equipment leasing business and he owned his own airfield outside of Shelbyville Kentucky.  He was also a master mechanic who built 14 airplanes before he stopped counting.

patI met Pat sometime in the spring of 2002.  I had started one of the great adventures of my life: building an airplane from a kit.   It was not an RC plane-this was an airplane you can get in and fly around at 220 miles an hour.  I decided that building was the cheapest and fastest way to owning an airplane.  At that point, I’d been working on the airplane 14 to 16 hour days for almost 14 months. It was a very difficult time in my life as I’d recently lost both my parents.   The airplane project was the best therapy I had found so far.

The night that I met Pat, I was working on the trickiest part of the airplane: trimming the giant Plexiglas bubble that serves as the airplane’s canopy.  It’s very difficult to trim the canopy and keep it supported on all sides and, sure enough, I had just let mine slip off the edge of the table.  This immediately created a 4 inch crack that threatened to walk all over the canopy.  I was just starting to realize that my course, which had been powered a willingness to make every single mistake myself, would probably be accelerated by a teacher. That’s when he walked through the hangar door.  I remember him shaking my hand and walking around my project, looking at it with an appraising eye, then turning that eye on me. I’m not sure what he saw, but he invited me to bring my project out to his airfield so he could help.

At the time, I didn’t know what an honor this was nor did I really understand why he did it.  I still don’t understand why he invited me. Perhaps he saw in my eyes the dawning realization of how far I had to go.  Or perhaps he saw that I really was ready to learn.  I always wondered if it was related to the fact that he had no sons (his 2 daughters weren’t builders) and was perhaps eager for someone to teach.

Whatever the case, by the next weekend I was at his farm where I would spend literally every waking moment over the next 18 months. Pat proved to be an extraordinary teacher. He is the first teacher I’ve ever had who understood exactly how to teach me. He seemed to know that I learn best if I make just enough mistakes to value the knowledge I need and if I have a framework in place to understand it.  Time after time, he would wait until I was ready to learn before strolling by to drop some nugget of wisdom.

My first oil change was a perfect example of how he operated. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew the engine needed new oil and I was determined to figure it out. So I grabbed a bucket, a towel, the new oil and set to work finding the oil drain plug. He strolled in about that time and I think he noticed that my engine contained 7 quarts of oil and that my bucket held 4. He must have seen the look of determination on my face, so he said good luck and turned around. You can guess the conclusion-it’s utterly impossible to get a drain plug back in the engine while warm oil is flowing out.   By the time I wandered back to his hanger 30 minutes later, I was covered from head to toe in motor oil and the hanger looked like the Valdez had run aground. He wasn’t laughing, but he was working curiously hard on some project facing away from me. He did have the aircraft parts catalog open to the page that described the drip proof closable oil plug.  At that point, I understood its value – I ordered it.

That process repeated itself over and over. There was the flap extension pushrod that wouldn’t quite fit. He stopped me before I carved up too much of the airplane’s side.  He pointed out that the baggage compartment door was going to be quite an airfoil since it was being built backwards (oops). He observed that the radios would probably not work if their terminals were installed backwards. He noticed that the propeller bolts would probably come out if the safety wire that was supposed to keep them in actually pulled them out. I always wondered how he knew just the mistakes I was going to make. He never would admit it, but I finally decided that he’d likely made most of them himself.

But Pat didn’t just teach, he was a fierce guardian of my well-being. On my second taxi in my brand new airplane, I violated one of the two cardinal rules of a taildragger airplane: keeping the tail on the ground. Turns out that the nose is heavier than the tail and if the tail comes up too far the airplane tips over. I conducted the experiment with the engine running. By the time he arrived I had just climbed down the nose to with a look of bewildered horror on my face. This is known as a prop strike and means that the entire engine has to be taken apart, inspected and rebuilt. Pat didn’t say a word, but the one person who had a camera got a look that sent him scurrying away. It didn’t matter-every blade of grass from that scene is seared into my memory. But my friends, always willing to enjoy my foibles with me, have never seen a picture. He was beside me when I disassembled that engine into every nut and bolt and washer in 72 hours. And he was beside me again when I rebuilt it from scratch two weeks after the last part returned.

After 3400 hours of work, my little airplane flew for the first time on Thanksgiving Day 2002. I was literally jumping up and down. In keeping with his role as the guardian of my well-being, he would not let me fly it. He knew that the airplane was too much for me as a pilot.  By that time, having never seen him be wrong, I trusted him and hired an instructor who gradually handed the airplane over to me. Over the next year, I flew that little airplane from Maine to the Bahamas, to Oshkosh, Chicago, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and all over California. On many of those trips, he would sit down with me and review my flight planning, my waypoints and my emergency procedures. My family credits him with keeping me alive.

It took me years to fully understand what Pat taught me.  I certainly learned how to build an airplane. But Pat’s real gift to me started to take shape when I realized how much I learned.  I learned how to build with aluminum, fiberglass, Plexiglas, how to take apart and rebuild an engine,  how to build an aircraft  electrical system and hundreds more skills. I also learned how to how to diagnose problems, how to plan and sequence my work and how to manage my frustrations (mostly). In a larger sense, Pat taught me how I learn.  I learn by doing.b I learn by using my hands and from a thoughtful presentation of information when I understand why the information is valuable and when I have a framework into which I can fit it.  This is Pat’s legacy for me.  I hope that someday I will use his lesson on how to put safety wire on a propeller bolt again.  But this lesson – how I learn – I use every single day.  It has shaped many of my choices in the years since my airplane adventure.

By the time my children came along, it seemed reasonable to assume they would learn the same way I do.  I desperately wanted to avoid the same 12 years of “sit in a row and learn useless information” torture for them, so my wife and I devoted much of the last four years to co-founding, with 10 other families, the first public Montessori charter school in Oakland.  As a Montessori school, it has “learning by doing” at its very core.  We now have 250 students and you can see glimmers of the school it will become.

He never said anything about it, I think Pat would be happy if I found a way to pass his lessons to along.   So I’m going to start the the first Pat Patterson Memorial Airplane Building Class – as soon as the kids can hold a rivet gun.

Thank you, my friend.  Wherever you go now, fair winds and following seas.

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