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Cloud Vaporizing
copyright 2012 by H. Paul Shuch, All Rights Reserved

Sitting out there on the ramp, leaning way back in the seat of the little Czech trainer and peering up through the clear plexiglass bubble, the sky was a rich expanse of bright blue, punctuated by little white puffs that slowly vanished, one by one. I was so intent on the task at hand that I hardly noticed Avalon Eden materializing in the seat next to me.

"Watcha doing?" asked my guardian angel.

"Cloud vaporizing, just like you taught me," I replied as I watched a few more cumulo-clusters melt away.

"You do know you're cheating, don't you?" chided my first and favorite flight instructor. "Here it is eight AM. What do you expect to happen?"

She was right, of course. Avalon always is. With the temperature at plus twenty Celsius, the dew point at plus eighteen, the few remaining clouds would go away of their own accord. Throughout the morning, as the temperature rises and the dew point doesn't, the spread between the two increases, the condensation altitude goes up, and next thing you know, it's clear skies.

"Yes, I know," I replied, "but I gotta hurry things up."

"You should practice more of what I taught you."

"Yeah, I am. Cloud vaporizing."

"No, not that. Patience. So what's your hurry, anyway?"

I told Avalon I had a student coming in half an hour; no time to dally. She responded with a bullet between the eyes: "You're a dismal failure at this, you know."

"Whatever do you mean? I'm every bit as good a flight instructor as you were, and busier than ever. Failure?"

"At retirement." And Avalon was right again. As usual. Here I was with half a dozen primary students, a couple of advanced, the occasional flight review or instrument proficiency check, transition training, maintenance tasks, and my own currency to maintain, and not a spare half-hour in my day to wait for the clouds to dissipate in their own good time. There just aren't enough hours to squeeze everything in. And this is supposed to be a retirement? Something just didn't compute, and Avalon was the first to pick up on that.

"Life is short," I replied. "You of all people should know that. Gotta hustle to get everything in. Time's a-wasting."

"No, it's the gift of life you're a-wasting," my guardian ghost insisted. "Life is given to be enjoyed to the fullest. What kind of enjoyment can you possibly be getting from the way you're pushing yourself? Have I taught you nothing?"

No, I thought, you've taught me everything. Somehow, it just doesn't all compute. "But look at how much I'm accomplishing," I protested.

"Save it for those silly stories."

"Silly stories?"

"Yes," Avalon continued, "the ones about us. The ones you keep posting to that website of yours."

"You read those? How? You died years before Al Gore invented the Internet. I didn't even know you had computers down there."

"Where do you think they came from?" Avalon inquired. And my mind flashed back to a long-ago meeting.

The venue was the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The time was a Friday night, around 8 PM. The event was a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club. The speaker was Steve Wozniak, a fellow pilot, radio ham and all-around nerd. This was maybe half a dozen years before he crashed his Bonanza at Sky Park, but that's another story for another time. On this occasion, Steve was showing off his single-board computer.

He called it Apple One, and he was offering to sell kits. Somebody protested that computers were the work of the devil, and Steve agreed. Then he announced the price: $666.

"The devil, you say," I murmured under my breath.

"Exactly!" Avalon replied, yanking me back to the present.

"But... but, I've got all these students!" I stammered. "How do I make more time?"

"Easy," replied Avalon, ever the astute businesswoman. "Just raise your prices."

There was a certain warped logic to that, I had to admit. But I was here to provide a service, not just rake in the bucks. Trying to crank out safe, competent pilots, after all, is no simple task.

"Tell me about it!" Avalon was reading my thoughts. "You were the most challenging student any instructor ever endured. But I got you there. You know how? Because you were one of only four."

It's true that back then, about a half century ago, Avalon would only take on four primary students at a time. She said it was to make sure she could give each of us all the individual attention we needed to succeed. "And we all had to pay you up front," I reminisced. "No cancellations, no refunds. What kind of crazy business plan was that?"

Not so crazy as I thought, Avalon assured me. The private universities are just beginning to catch on. By making a major financial commitment, the student is highly motivated to put in maximum effort.

Sure, I agreed. But, no refunds? No cancellations? WTF?

"What's the most perishable commodity on Earth?" asked Avalon.

"Chicken salad?"

"No, an empty seat. The airlines know this. If a plane takes off with anything less than 100% load factor, it's lost revenue that can never be recovered. And given the dearth of services on flights these days, it costs them absolutely nothing to fill that seat. So anything they can charge for it is pure profit. Now, if you've bought a seat, and are a no-show, they get to sell it again! And don't think for a minute they're going to refund your fare."

I understood. If that plane takes off, and nobody's on it, they'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives. But what on Earth does this have to do with flight instruction, I wondered?

"Say you have only four training slots," Avalon explained, ever the patient teacher. "That's four seats. Those are a perishable commodity. Can't be used at all beyond the sell-by date. Make your students pay up front. That's a major commitment on their part. But you're making an equivalent commitment. Each of your students gets to be one of the Chosen Four. You give every one your time, talent, and expertise. Every one of them is going to succeed, you're not going to be overwhelmed, and you'll end up making a pretty penny. It's a damned sight better than the usual flight school business plan."

"Usual business plan?" I wondered.

"Sure" The one where you decide, up front, how much money you want to lose, and when you achieve that goal, you quit."

Warped logic once again, and I wanted to say as much to Avalon. But, when I turned to face her, she was gone. And so were the last of the clouds, so it was time. Off I go, into the wild blue yonder...

More Avalon Eden Stories

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