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January 1, 1999
By Dan Namowitz
A pilot named Doug had an ideal introduction to instrument flying. It was seven years ago, shortly after he earned his private certificate. Doug already knew that he wanted to go on to the next step. He wanted a taste of what IFR was all about.
I don't recall the exact circumstances anymore, but an airplane needed to be flown from airport A to airport B, about 30 miles away. The sky was overcast at 2,000 feet. An easy low-level VFR passage in our coastal plain — but why not give Doug the experience that he was yearning for? So I filed an IFR flight plan. We launched, and as soon as we contacted departure control we began receiving vectors for an ILS approach at the destination.
Doug had always been a great student and a surehanded pilot. Now his transition to instruments was pretty good, although I could see him tensing up as the windows became white and moist. "So this is the real thing," he said. I also saw that he was grinning from ear to ear.
We broke out on top for a short leg in cruise. Soon it was time to descend again, and we reentered the clouds and intercepted the localizer at about the same instant. Now there was the glideslope; he throttled back, and down we went, right on the money. At 1,500 feet the clouds ripped apart before us and we beheld the runway, approach lights trol we began receiving vectors for an ILS approach at the destination.
We broke out on top for a short leg in cruise. Soon it was time to descend again, and we reentered the clouds and intercepted the localizer at about the same instant. Now there was the glideslope; he throttled back, and down we went, right on the money. At 1,500 feet the clouds ripped apart before us and we beheld the runway, approach lights ablaze, the pavement wet. Doug made his usual nice landing, and we taxied to the ramp. "That was incredible," he said.
Another fellow had a different kind of introduction, not as dramatic but equally effective. His first "actual" flight in clouds occurred after considerable time using view-limiting devices, flying trainers that I would hesitate to take into significantly poor weather.
Curiously, in a newer, better-equipped airplane, as we leveled off in a low morning stratus layer that was already breaking up, his reaction to weather work was as reverent as Doug's had been. This brought to both our minds the song: "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby."
Should instrument trainees be required to experience "the real thing" for some designated length of time during their training? In a perfect world, the answer is "Yes, and here is a stamp-sized piece of paper on which you may list and fully detail your objections." But it is not a perfect world; that is, in many places the too-perfect weather never gets bad enough for any prolonged periods when IMC can be exploited. And in such places, people do an awful lot of flying.
Over here on my side of the ridge we have never been burdened with such a curse of sunshine. When I was earning my instrument rating, I could not have escaped IMC if I tried, and my grizzled-veteran instructors would not have let me get away with such a cakewalk. ("Sorry, we can't fly instruments today. The weather's bad." That just doesn't sound right, does it?) Troublemaker that I am, I have employed this issue to start many an argu... well, many a discussion. Rest assured, ye pilots in sunny locales, that even here in Cloud Country, the interests of Florida, Arizona, etc., have been fully represented in the hangar-debating societies.
But isn't it ironic that the recent changes to various practical test standards have passed this one by? Especially when the matter of instrument requirements for noninstrument-rated pilots have been changed? It used to be that student pilots did not need a particular amount of "simulated instrument" time before taking their private pilot flight exams. They just had to have some amount logged, and they could expect some hood time on the flight test. This era ended about a year and a half ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration finally ordered a minimum of three hours of simulated instrument dual for student pilots at the same time other requirements were changed.
Everyone knows that VFR pilots flying into instrument weather cause many flights to terminate prematurely. The powers that be must have become uncomfortable with the way the subject was being treated. (I recall that when I took my private pilot checkride, I had logged all of six-tenths of an hour "under the hood.")
From all available information, one of the more gruesome accidents to occur around here seems to illustrate the worst-case scenario of a new IFR pilot with virtually no actual instrument experience launching on a too-challenging day.
Seasoned pilots who were airborne at the same time said that it wasn't too bad if you knew what you were doing — about 600 overcast and layers of clouds extending to the flight levels. The victim, after a long en route flight in the clouds, which must have been rather fatiguing, missed several approaches at two different airports and finally lost control of his aircraft, still in the soup, while coming around for another try. There was a passenger aboard who also perished.
What would a requirement for actual instrument time look like in the practical test standards? I envision something that resembles the now-obsolescent "triple-six" currency rule for rated instrument pilots: a certain number of hours and a certain number of approaches, when instrument flight rules must be observed, to be documented before the flight test. In fairness to our cousins in the arid regions, maybe not six hours, but certainly two or three, with an en route requirement. Just enough so that the awe pilots feel when entering the clouds is felt and understood before the rating is awarded, so that an intelligent discussion of the "real thing" — when you can't just rip off the blinders and go on your merry way when you get tired of it all — can be added to the curriculum.
Can the practical barriers be overcome? Let's hear from the folks in the desert on this one. And doesn't it weed out of the trainer pool the many aircraft that are adequate for mock or "light" instrument flying but nothing more? Yes indeed, I can think of a few airplanes that would fly less if this were so. But there's really, really nothing like the real thing. The sudden deterioration of weather that was forecast to remain only moderately poor; the ice that was not forecast at all; the sudden death of approach navaids or airborne equipment; convection; distractions; the emergency on the frequency that causes the controller to place you in holding for an hour, in bumps in the stuff — all that is part of the real world of IFR. Is it really the kind of learning experience that the new instrument pilot should sample for the first time all alone?
BY TOM MILLER (From AOPA Pilot, January 1999.)
I drove away from the airport thinking that I might never take another flying lesson. My mind raced as I passed a row of weathered Cessnas tied down along the fencerow in the grass field. I continued down the narrow country road, slowing to stare at the white wooden fence at the end of the grass runwayÑthe fence that I had barely missed. The knot in my stomach had now spread all the way up to my throat, and I could barely swallow. My first solo flight was nearly my last!
It was early spring and I had begun taking flying lessons only a couple of months earlier. My New Year's resolution that year had been to finally act on the lure that airplanes held for me. I had wanted to take lessons at 18, but with college I could not see a way to afford it. So I put flying in the back of my mind. However, the urge kept resurfacing until my thirty-second birthday, when I decided it was time to put up or shut up.
While searching for a place to train, I found a 100-acre farm that had served barnstormers many years ago. Vintage airplanes scented with the aroma of years of stale gas shared space with tractors and farm machinery. The smell of the fresh-cut grass, robins singing their spring serenade, and the occasional groan of a hungry cow served notice that this was not your typical airport. This was a place where the old-timers sat around a big shade tree and taught me the meaning of hangar flying. They did not fly as often these days, but I believed their stories were mostly true. After today, I wondered if I would ever be a part of their fraternity.
When I got home, my wife instantly noticed my ashen appearance and realized that something was seriously wrong. She had not even begun to get over her fear of my flying. I was apprehensive because what I was about to tell her would not ease her fears.
I had felt my confidence building in the cockpit during the last couple of lessons and knew my solo was coming. I had come a long way since my first few lessons. During my sixth lesson, I became airsick. Just after touching down, I opened the door and threw up. I thought that maybe I was not cut out for this pilot stuff. As I was getting ready to leave the airport that day, a local old-timer gave me some important advice. He said, "Don't worry, you'll get over the airsickness as you build confidence." He continued, "It's just your nerves." I wasn't so sure that he had me sized up correctly, but I decided to stick with it a little longer.
Learning stall recovery was a turning point for me. That maneuver really gave me a lot of faith in the airplane, knowing that it wouldn't just fall out of the sky and that I was in control.
My instructor and I had practiced takeoffs and landings on the 2,400-foot grass runway for nearly an hour. Suddenly he told me to stop the airplane and shut off the engine. Stepping out of the airplane, he told me to do two touch-and-goes and one full-stop landing.
I wasn't nervous. My landings had really come together lately. The wind was lightly blowing straight down the runway and there was a high overcast ceiling. I picked up my checklist and began the startup procedures. The warm engine came quickly back to life. I carefully continued through the engine checks and was surprised to learn that I was hearing my instructor's voice, even though he was nowhere around. This was rather comforting when I realized how his words had been etched in my mind.
Taking one last look in all directions for other traffic, I added full power and began down the sod strip. About halfway down the runway, the grass turned to dirt. I began adding back pressure to the yoke so as to lessen the abuse to the nosewheel. The takeoff was perfect, and I adjusted the trim for VY (best rate of climb). On downwind I added carb heat and reduced power. Nervously I glanced to my right to discover how big a Cessna 150 cockpit can be without an instructor. I thought, "I can still hear his voice telling me to add the rest of my 40 degrees of flaps, watch my airspeed, keep the runway centered in the windshield." As I reached treetop level, I began my flare, slowed down the airplane, and at the right moment touched down softly on the grass. Not bad for a rookie, I thought. I was ready to try it again.
Steadily I added full power, accelerating down the 2,400-foot runway. I reached for the electric flap lever and began milking the flaps up. Halfway down the runway the plane's controls still felt too heavy to fly. I continued milking the flaps the rest of the way up but was quickly running out of runway. I was almost to the point of no return, but luckily the plane was now bouncing lightly as I pulled back on the yoke once more. This time it was ready to fly! As I became airborne, I realized that my flaps had not come up at all. They were still fully extended 40 degrees down.
I cleared the fence at an unusually low altitude and noticed that the trees scattered past the end of the runway were looming much closer than they ever had before. The airplane did not seem to be climbing at all. I kept tugging at the flap lever, but nothing was happening. I quickly checked the master switch, then began checking the fuses. I tried to tell myself that this couldn't be happening — there must be something simple that was wrong. If only I could figure it out! Suddenly I realized that this was not a dream. I was hit by fear like I had never felt before.
I quickly made a decision that probably saved my life. I told myself that fear would not, and could not, save me. I must fly the airplane and do what I had to do to land — and fast. I had recently read an article in an aviation magazine that said if you develop a problem on takeoff, simply do a 180-degree turn and return to the runway. I have since learned that there are many other factors influencing this kind of thought process and that most of the time this may not be your best solution. But, as they say, ignorance is bliss, so I quickly started a gentle bank to the left, paying close attention to my airspeed and keeping the ball centered on my turn coordinator.
Soon I was eyeing the runway smack dab on my nose. All of a sudden my usual landing reference points were of no use. I was lower than I normally start my final approach. The flaps were already down. And I had not yet noticed that I had a tailwind pushing me. I soon realized I might pass the runway. Using more flaps to slow me down was not an option, so I decided I couldnÕt let the runway get by me. I quickly forced the yoke forward as the 150 nosed steeply toward the runway. I had only about half of the 2,400-foot runway remaining when I did an abbreviated flare. I hit fairly hard on the mains in a nose-high attitude, but it was probably nothing the 150 hadn't experienced during previous training flights.
The wooden fence at the end of the runway was close ahead, so I pushed hard on the brakes. The airplane continued skidding forward as chunks of mud and grass flew up from the wheels and splattered the underside of the wings. I was already feeling better because, fence or no fence, I was starting to realize that I would at least survive. The plane stopped about 20 feet from the fence, giving me just enough room to add power and turn back toward the hangar.
As I taxied toward the gang, I knew that they must really be wondering about this new guy coming down the ramp with full flaps deflected and dirt clods stuck to the underside of the wings. I wasn't very concerned with what they thought at this point because I doubted that I would ever see them again after today. I shut down the airplane and gladly climbed out. My instructor walked over to me with a puzzled look on his face as everyone else stared. I told him the flaps had stuck. He asked whether I had checked the master and fuses, and I quickly answered "yes." He rechecked them, but nothing happened. The owner of the airport and the Cessna walked up and inspected the flaps. He noticed that the starboard flap was wedged tight against the side of the fuselage and wouldn't budge, even when pulled on. He said that the plane had just come from its mandatory 100-hour inspection for rental airplanes. The next day it was determined that a roller bearing had worn down and disintegrated, causing the flap to come off track.
After a few days I spoke with my instructor again. He persuaded me to go back up with him so that he could show me how I might have handled things differently. We flew around the pattern with the flaps fully extended. He demonstrated that the airplane wasn't falling out of the sky and was even climbing, although slowly. This restored some of my confidence. I realized that I had handled the problem satisfactory, all things considered.
You might say that I was cheated from experiencing one of the fondest memories pilots have — that of their first noneventful solo flight. But flying has also given me many more memories: the joy that I have received giving young kids their first flight; my wife and me flying over Grandfather Mountain on the way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; seeing the outline of a giant Mickey Mouse cut into a field near Orlando on our way to Miami; buzzing around the local pattern, with a spectacular view of the sun setting over the horizon; admiring the magical twinkling of city lights on a crystal-clear moonlit night. I realize I have been blessed a thousand times since.
Tom Miller, AOPA 1035093, of Somerset, Kentucky, is a 450-hour private pilot. He has owned a Cessna 172 since shortly after receiving his pilot certificate in 1989.
BY WILLIAM K. KERSHNER (From AOPA Pilot, January 1999.)
Unfortunately, while flight instructing is one of the most important jobs in flying, it is too often used as a stepping stone to a "higher career," and the pay level is ludicrous. A senior career instructor should make at least $50,000 a year and work no more than a 40-hour week. (Let me have another puff on that funny-looking little cigarette — and I won't inhale.)
The problem for the current crop of new, young instructors is the same as it was for me 50 years ago. We were/are willing to fly and teach either strictly for the fun of it or to build up experience. Even though I wasn't paid for ground time, I gave it anyway, making my hourly income about $1.50.
My aviation career seems to always return to flight instructing. The first sentence in chapter one of my book The Flight Instructor's Manual is, "The flight instructor's certificate is the most important one issued," and that will always be true as far as I'm concerned. I worry that it's used as a time builder by some instructors more interested in "building up time" than in giving the student/trainee the full attention required to develop a skilled, safe pilot. These act more like a safety pilot or baby-sitter than a mentor. But such people are much more than offset by the conscientious young men and women who are doing a good job instructing while they are working their way toward an airline or corporate aviation job.
Every flight or ground instructor with any experience has favorite stories to tell about a trainee who was eager but not the most coordinated — who had a tendency to get airsick, but, after long, hard work by both parties, is now a successful military, airline, or corporate pilot. Every flight instructor has favorite stories about a student who, for instance, couldn't find the ground on landing (or found it too swiftly), but for whom one day that dawn breaks and there's very little trouble with landings after that. Mine is about one of the students in the Air Force ROTC program here at Sewanee, Tennessee, who had problems with landings. The cadets in the University Flight Instruction Program were to be soloed by 12 hours or questions would be asked and the student could be eliminated from the 35-hour flight program and hence have no chance to move on to Air Force training.
The flight school owner and I agreed that this young man had the makings of a very good pilot, but he was in a slump. He took more than 16 hours to solo, and the first few hours were not reported — or charged — to the Air Force. That student went on to become an Air Force pilot and got a Distinguished Flying Cross for flying out wounded soldiers in a C-130 under fire in Vietnam.
Over the years I've taken a few more than 500 trainees through my aerobatic course here in Sewanee, and several points keep popping up.
The first issue concerns instructors who apparently think that they're fighter jocks.
Too many of the 500 trainees said that on their first flight lesson their instructors subjected them to stalls, spins, steep wingovers, or hammerheads and other violent maneuvers. They either said that they very seriously considered not taking that second lesson or that the episode had left them with a deep fear of stalls that continued throughout their flying career even as flight instructors and in other professional piloting jobs. They wanted to lose this fear by learning aerobatics and spins.
I wonder how many people all their life had planned to take flying lessons, and now are financially secure enough to do so, and some nitwit decides to show what a hero he is by wracking the airplane around and either frightening the student or making him sick. I am grateful that such a method was not used on me; maybe that would have been the end of my flying career.
I confess that many trainees in my aerobatic course were flight instructors and I learned as much as I taught. I have learned over the years that certain aspects of flying should be introduced in a logical fashion and as the trainee progresses, the ante should be raised (or the limits should be tightened). Never take anyone who may be unsure about flying and subject him or her to what could be a frightening experience. The vast majority of the instructors I've met feel the same way.
A few didn't fit that mold and others seemed slack in the following areas:
a. Pre- or postflight briefing of the students. Too often it consists of only "What did we do last time? Stalls? OK, we'll do stalls again." The postflight briefing might consist of "You need more work on stalls. We'll fly at nine o'clock next Tuesday." There is no substitute for a live, enthusiastic flight instructor with whom give and take can occur during the briefing. The latest type of computer or VCR viewing or book-reading assignments are good but are only supplements.
There was an incident when I was flying aerobatics with a trainee and a student pilot came up on our unicom frequency asking for help. He had no idea where he was, but after asking him about the lakes and other landmarks, I was able to find him and lead him to an airport. The student had been sent on an early morning solo to a strange area, into the sun (and haze made it worse) and into mountainous terrain without a previous dual cross-country anywhere. From his report, the briefing for this flight was minimal if not nonexistent. I fly a route with students for the first cross-country and then brief and send them solo on that same route, the philosophy being that the students would be more comfortable having been there — and met the people at the airport — but still would be on their own.
Later, I would assign them other airports that they had flown into but with a preflight briefing and a check of the weather before departure.
Did the lost student's instructor realize the liability involved when he signed off the student to go?
b. Preflight checks — lack of. I had a trainee ask me to show him a preflight check because he had never been shown or done one. He was going for his commercial practical test.
When I was teaching aerobatics in an aerobatic Beech Sport III some years ago, I had a young woman trainee who had recently gotten her private certificate with 75 hours, all in a nonaerobatic Sport III. It was exactly the same airplane in all respects except for aerobatic certification.
I briefed for the first aerobatic flight (this usually takes about an hour and a half, including preflight and parachute checkout). During the preflight check, as usual, I opened both sides of the cowling, since on each side there were five quarter-turn fasteners (easily opened with a dime — or screwdriver).
Her response was — remember, she had 75 hours in this type of airplane — "Oh, is that the motor?" We spent 45 minutes reviewing the engine components before moving on to aerobatic instruction.
If the top cowling had been secured with many fine-threaded screws, as is the case for too many airplanes, the situation would have been different. For primary students, before solo I suggest that the cowling be taken off (even the ones with many screws) to show and explain the magnetos, spark plugs, carb heat, and other equipment that they've been using but haven't seen. The students will better see the why of certain checks on the checklist (and, incidentally, tend to use it more). The most important part of a flight lesson is the why of doing it.
I'll see some students and instructors who fly in on cross-countries from other airports, finish up their Cokes, and then do nothing more than "kick th' tar and light th' far," as we say in the hills. Others do not bother to kick the tire, which at least would be a movement toward some semblance of a preflight check. I'm impressed with other students and instructors who use the classroom for a thorough preflight briefing before going to the airplane for a full check there.
One nearby airport had an incident of a transient pilot who, with his wife, was visiting friends and after a week packed the airplane, untied it, and took off without refueling. The forced landing resulted in injuries to his wife. Later he indicated that he was not sure whether he might have burned more fuel than anticipated or whether perhaps someone had stolen some while the airplane was tied down. Since he didn't bother to check the fuel (he'd had little or no instruction on preflight checks), he never found out. Trusting the fuel gauges is an exercise in futility; if I remember correctly from my days at Piper Aircraft, the entire engine instrument cluster for the Aztec in 1961 cost no more than $20.
As far as looking into the tank is concerned, unless there is a tab in there and the fuel is touching it, I've never been able to know the amount of fuel available. There may be those who can, but the best aid is a fuel dipstick, whether commercially made or a homemade calibrated one like the one that I made for my airplane. (Don't use a sharp-pointed dipstick; this doesn't help rubber fuel bladders.)
c. Pretakeoff check — I still see people who think that the checklist is for pilots of lesser skills than themselves.
Some check the magnetos by going from both to left and right without going back to both between the mags to get a double check of rpm drop and recovery.
Others pull carburetor heat and immediately push it off. I would suggest that the carburetor heat be left on for at least 10 to 15 seconds. If after the initial rpm drop, it picks up to or beyond the original, say, 1,700 rpm, there's a warning about "good" carb icing conditions.
Pilots should check the idle of their trainer's engine in static conditions during the pretakeoff check. With the carburetor heat still on (if that's the way it will be for approach and landing), close the throttle to check the idle rpm. If the engine doesn't idle properly and/or quits, this could be masked by the windmilling effect on final and only noted during the rollout after a successful landing. If an undershoot occurs or a late go-around is required, these may not be successfully completed.
The control check too often consists of wiggling the ailerons and elevator (and for some types/models, the rudder) with no checking as to whether the control surfaces are moving properly or fully. (Turn the wheel or move the stick to the left, and while it's there look at both ailerons.) Then repeat it to the right, and again look at both ailerons.
There was the case of a test pilot who looked only at the left aileron as he moved the stick to the left. It turned out that when the left aileron went up — so did the right one. Since he didn't look to the right, this was an unknown. Still looking to the left aileron only, he moved the stick to the right, and it went down (and so did the right aileron). When he took off over a populated area and started a left turn, both ailerons went up, thereby dumping lift with a swift descent. He caught the problem — but not without a goodly increase in adrenaline flow.
I ask instructors to tell me quickly which aileron goes down when the control wheel is turned to the left. About one in four will say the left one and is told to turn the wheel to the left (uh-oh).
d. Fear of stalling. I'm concerned about the number of active instructors who are still scared by stalls. (More than one aerobatic trainee indicated that as soon as the buffeting started, his instructor wanted an immediate and full recovery back to level flight.) Some trainees remembered only a few complete "breaks" of stalls. Our terminology doesn't help much when briefing the student or trainee for stalls. "We'll bring the nose up and hold it there until it breaks, and in this airplane it's always the left wing that drops off."
I've also had flight instructors who unconsciously used considerable body language against a roll at the stall break, and I wondered how the student felt when this happened. (These stalls must be plenty dangerous based on the way my instructor is reacting.)
For several years the FAA shied away from requiring the teaching of stall recoveries, preferring to teach "stall avoidance" or "stall prevention," which is like an auto drivers' school that has a policy of not teaching anything about skids or hydroplaning recovery but instead pushes the philosophy of avoiding such problems. The current Part 61 of the FARs that requires pilots to be briefed on stall/spin awareness is certainly a move in the right direction.
Maybe what we need now is an FAR that requires instructors to use common sense. What I've discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg. When you have pilots who don't know what an engine looks like, don't do preflights, and are terrified of stalls, just imagine what other demons are in the closet.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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