Real world

February 1, 1995

"Never mind what they taught ya in school. This is how we do it in the real world, kid." These words are uttered by every cigar-chomping sergeant in war movies and by seasoned sales agents breaking in the new account representative. Aviation is one of those places where rookies learn fast — and sometimes the hard way.

One reason the airlines and the military have such good safety records is their excellent mentoring systems. The fledglings are paired up with the graybeards, or at least have regular access to them to draw on the wisdom of reality. In general aviation we do a poor job of mentoring. Once the students have graduated from the private or instrument course, they get little real world guidance from other pilots. They're out of the nest and admonished by the pilot examiner that the certificate they just sweated blood for is only a license to learn. How encouraging! Maybe there's a better way.

This year I had the opportunity to share several flights with two new pilots. One had just received his instrument rating and, like most IFR students, had not been exposed to many real clouds. It's tough to schedule clouds where and when you need them. They're around in quantity only when VFR is the sole option.

This particular trip involved a flight by Beech Debonair to upstate Vermont in early fall. A tropical depression was making its way up the coast and the forecast was for fog, rain, and possibly an isolated embedded thunderstorm. It was great training weather for the real world. After getting the clearance from Baltimore, we were on our way.

Everything went uneventfully for the first three hours. No thunder, no ice, but solid cloud and lots of rain. The first thing that one learns about the real world is that some airplanes leak while flying in heavy rain. It usually happens around the door seals and since it was my leg to watch, I got the Chinese water torture. A raincoat is quite handy in these situations.

The weather remained soggy and foggy. Since our VFR destination wasn't ever a real option, we set our sights on Montpelier, where there's an ILS approach.

Listening to the sequence reports each hour enroute can be an enlightening experience. In the real world the forecasts aren't always accurate. You don't need to be real enlightened to figure out that 100 obscured and one-quarter mile visibility isn't going to work. We diverted to the alternate in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

The weather there was hovering at minimums for an ILS. The airplane ahead of us missed the approach the first time and went back for a second shot. The good news was that we'd get the absolute latest weather from the other pilot. The bad news was that there would be a 15-minute delay that included a real-world holding pattern at a VOR. It also included some real-world turbulence. In training you don't often get a downdraft just at the time you're doing the timing, turning, twisting, throttling, and talking. The lesson is that altitude is absolute. A robust and timely dose of power and pitch kept the Debonair out of the rough. This hadn't been reviewed in training or at least with this many distractions — mainly because these circumstances had never come up.

The first pilot completed his approach and we completed ours, procedure turn and all, breaking out about 100 feet above the minimums. All in a day's work. After two more IFR legs on that day that I flew, my companion noticed how tired he was. You don't always get the real fatigue factor in training.

The other flight involved bringing a student pilot along for another business trip in the Debonair. She was as excited as I remember being on one of my first mentored trips in a "big airplane." I should have asked her to get a weather briefing before we left. She would have heard that VFR was not recommended. An approaching low and warm frontal activity would obscure mountain ridges between Maryland and Cincinnati.

We departed in good VFR conditions and climbed to 6,000 feet. She hadn't flown from the right seat before, so there was the usual parallax adjustment of looking at distant flight instruments. Doing things with different hands also takes a little getting used to, but she settled down nicely by the time the first wisps of clouds began to drift by.

We talked about how the weather would deteriorate and that very shortly it was not going to be VFR. In 1993 there were 73 accidents involving continued VFR flight into instrument conditions. She had taken some solo cross-countries, so she could relate to the changes that were about to happen. In less than 10 minutes the clouds enveloped the Debonair, and then the struggle with flight instruments began.

It's not like wearing the hood or foggles the first time a pilot enters the clouds. Motion stops and an abstract game is played with instruments. The false sensations can be very strong, and my student worked at it with enthusiasm and determination. With a few firm verbal corrections she eventually settled into a scan routine.

After a while, we let the autopilot fly and listened to the routine radio chatter that punctuates the IFR environment. Not complicated, but different from calling unicom for an airport advisory.

On the return trip that afternoon, we flew back through the front, out of low clouds and rain to VFR. My guess is that this experience will have several effects. This is one student pilot who should have a far better appreciation for instrument weather and the skills needed to cope with it. She'll understand what a warm front is all about. She'll have the motivation to think about getting an IFR ticket downstream because she saw herself flying in the system and being successful.

We could greatly improve general aviation's safety record by doing more mentoring. AOPA's Project Pilot is just the beginning. I've begun an active search when a trip comes up, to look for a new pilot to bring along. I guarantee both pilot and mentor will have a good time learning to see through someone else's eyes. The enthusiasm is contagious. Introduce a new pilot to the real world of cross-country flying. It's not quite the way they teach it in school, kid.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.