Never Again

A familiar feeling

June 1, 2003

It was a typical humid summer day in the Los Angeles Basin — a name you really can't appreciate until you've seen it from the air — a Cyclopean bowl filled with a broth of smoke and humidity, its top surface neatly defined by the temperature inversion layer so common in summer. The air above 1,200 feet msl was as clear as it was hazy below. Visibility at the surface that day was 3 to 4 miles in haze, perhaps less right along the shore.

I had deemed this reasonable weather for a low-time private pilot with his own Ercoupe to go on a favorite excursion out to Catalina Island, about a marathon's run off the Pacific coast. It would be clear and cooler out there, with fresh air that hadn't seen land since Japan. A buffalo burger and a stroll about the aptly named "Airport in the Sky" could round out the day for a neophyte pilot and companion.

I was comfortable with the 'Coupe, a 1946 Ercoupe 415C. It had less performance than the flight school Cessna 152s and the Grumman Tigers I had trained in and presented little difficulty with keeping ahead of the airplane, even with my modest experience. It had a full panel, albeit of World War II vintage, and, like myself, was not certified for instrument flight. The vacuum instruments were the old radium-painted style and gave a comforting, if mildly toxic, glow when flying at night and, except for a small precession in the directional gyro, had proven reliable. They were powered by a venturi on the left side of the fuselage, which supplied ample suction when the plane was at flying speed. The milelong Runway 3/21 at my home base, Santa Monica Municipal, had always been adequate to get the attitude and directional gyros spinning by liftoff.

At just past noon the tower cleared us for takeoff on Runway 21 with a right 360-degree climbing turn at the shoreline to gain the 2,500 feet needed to transition above Los Angeles International Airport just to the south. The 'Coupe's a slow climber with two on board, and I considered 1,300 feet at the shoreline — which was two and a half miles from the end of the runway — good performance. I expected to pop up out of the haze at the beach and begin my circling climb before heading south along the shoreline and over toward Catalina. We took off into the sun, and as we climbed shoreward through 500 feet I became aware that I couldn't hear my friend's voice in the headset. Her microphone plug had come out, and I poked around on the floor, found it, and put it back in. I glanced up at the panel and was surprised to see that the artificial horizon had apparently tumbled. It was indicating a 30-degree-plus turn to the left. I checked the vacuum gauge, and the needle was in the green. That 40-year-old gyro had given up the ghost.

I was only mildly perturbed, though, since everything felt OK, and besides, we were flying by visual flight rules and didn't really need instruments. I looked out the window to check our progress but couldn't make out the ground through the haze. Well, no problem, I rationalized, we'd be on top of the haze in a few seconds anyway. I noticed then that I couldn't discern the horizon, and I felt the first twinge of apprehension as I scanned the other instruments. The directional gyro was acting up, too, precessing rapidly to the left. The twinge blossomed into incipient panic as I noted in rapid succession: a building airspeed, tachometer, and vertical speed, neatly offset by a decreasing altimeter. Yet, all the while the 'Coupe felt positively normal to me. I asked myself what the probability of all these instruments failing at once could be. A more chilling likelihood then occurred to me.

Where had I seen peculiar patterns in the instruments like this before? Of course — a couple of years ago when I was a student pilot practicing unusual attitude recovery under the hood. I did what I had practiced doing back then and set about trying to make the instruments look right using stick, rudder, and throttle to level the wings, raise the nose, and begin slowing down. Instantly, I regretted doing it. Now every nerve in my body yelled, "You're in a steep right turn. Pull the nose up! Turn left!" The look on my passenger's ashen face confirmed what I was already feeling. She asked why we were turning. I told her to look at the gauges — we weren't turning after all.

By this time the panel was resuming its usual aspect, but the turning sensation was still dreadful and nearly overpowering. I still had no visual contact with the world outside the cockpit, but at least the instruments all agreed that we were level and not turning. The altimeter was now reading 600 feet. I looked out and down to reestablish contact with the ground and should have been relieved to see the shoreline suddenly appear, except now it was in the wrong direction. We were headed inland! The haze thinned out quickly as we progressed eastbound and everything was suddenly clear again. I called the tower and reported entering the pattern on a south downwind from where we proceeded to climb again, up out of the haze and on our way to Catalina as we originally intended.

The mental conflict in those few seconds had been compelling, almost paralyzing in its intensity. Until beginning the actions mandated by the instruments for regaining level flight, everything had felt fine from my seat-of-the-pants perspective. I had no feeling of turning or diving or even of accelerating. The turning sensation precipitated by the corrective maneuvers was overwhelming in its wrongness.

I had once felt something similar at Edwards Air Force Base out in the Mojave Desert when a group of us from Angel Flight had gone to spend a day studying aviation physiology at the Air Force High Altitude Facility. They had a special swivel chair with a safety rail, the Barany Chair, that you could sit in and be spun. I put my head down and closed my eyes while I became accustomed to the motion. When they suddenly stopped the turning, there was a potent shock, as floor appeared to rush up to meet my face. This perception of motion was false, of course, but it made me jump back in alarm, bracing both arms against the rail. I learned that my natural sense of balance and motion was not to be trusted when it came to blind flying.

I had encountered an insidious graveyard spiral while I was distracted with the headset and had squeaked by with little margin. The aircraft, reacting to torque, falls slowly off to the left, and the nose drops in compensation, completing a feedback loop that will, if not checked, generate a tight, steep turn that can exceed the airplane's structural limits in short order. I felt nothing unusual except for a subtle increasing firmness of the controls and a rising noise level. I didn't perceive the loss of visual contact with the ground and the horizon, and my senses proved incapable of distinguishing the departure from a straight climb into a descending turn.

My first line of defense is still to rely on planning and vigilance to keep me out of situations beyond my capabilities. But, like the nonswimmer in the shallow end of the pool, I also appreciate that a single misstep can put me in over my head.

Bill Worden, AOPA 818304, is a former recipient of AOPA's Laurence P. Sharples Award for forming a coalition of medical and emergency volunteer flying groups. He has accumulated more than 1,400 hours in 19 years of flying.

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