Proficient Pilot

Good old days?

March 1, 2004

Barry Schiff has mastered instrument flight using a four-course range, a GPS, and everything in between.

In my January column (see " Proficient Pilot: Bigger Isn't Better," January Pilot), I discussed my preference for small airports and intimate, family-run FBOs over busy airports and operators that cater more to business jets than to small piston-powered airplanes. Judging by the deluge of concurring e-mails that I received, that view seems to have touched a nerve. Other readers, however, accused me of living in the past and being incapable of adapting to change.

Those who know me will tell you that this is not true, but for those who need convincing, I would like to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear once again.

Let us go back to January 1954. This is when I began toiling for an instrument rating. I enrolled in Charlie Gress' Instrument Flight School at Santa Monica, California, where my fellow students and I submitted masochistically to Charlie's balsa torture chambers — a pair of blue-and-yellow Link trainers that lacked air circulation and had to be thoroughly aired out after each student's lesson. Charlie had a way with unprintable words but settled for nothing less than perfection. In the end, he turned out some very capable instrument pilots.

Charlie had a Stinson Voyager that we used for flight training. Preparing for a simulated instrument flight was a time-consuming affair. This was before instrument hoods (view-limiting devices) became popular. Instead, we installed orange-colored plastic sheets inside the front and side windows so that there was no way to look outside without seeing orange.

After takeoff, the student donned a pair of goggles with blue lenses. The blue-and-orange combination made the windows appear pitch black. Nothing could be seen beyond the windshield. Although not as convenient as a hood, the student had the advantage of being able to look all over the cockpit — especially at the wet compass atop the glareshield — without catching a glimpse of the world beyond. The darkened cockpit added additional realism to this simulation of cloud flying.

A problem with this configuration was that the orange plastic made it more difficult for the instructor to see other traffic. Fortunately, there was relatively little traffic then. Another problem was looking through the inevitably scratched plastic while flying into the sun; forward visibility for the instructor was almost as poor as the blue-and-orange combination was intended to simulate.

Most civilian aircraft used for instrument training in those days did not have gyroscopic attitude or direction indicators because these were not yet required by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Pilots became skillful at flying partial panel because they had no choice. Moreover, all turns were timed turns.

The only gyroscopic instrument on the panel was the turn needle, predecessor of the turn coordinator. When combined with a slip-skid ball, it was called a turn-and-bank indicator.

An externally mounted venturi tube provided suction to power the internal gyro of the turn indicator. However, the gyro did not spin up sufficiently until after we were airborne.

The only other flight instruments were an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, and a "whiskey" compass. A few airplanes had vertical speed indicators.

"Omni" navigation was just being introduced, and only a few instructors knew much about it. Nor would CAA inspectors allow us to use it on flight tests (even though the Stinson was equipped with one of those confusing Lear Omniscopes). This probably was because they did not know how to use it either. Instead, we had to prove ourselves by navigating and making approaches using the tried-and-true low/medium frequency four-course range. Using the range on a flight test began when the inspector would tell the applicant to tune in a nearby station and then use one of several complex procedures to orient himself with respect to station location.

One way to determine whether we were heading toward a station or away from it was to monitor volume carefully. The audio signal volume would increase gradually as you approached a station, build to a crescendo, and then quickly fade to silence as you passed over the station and through the cone of silence. The audio quickly returned with vigor and then faded as you headed away from the station.

That and the Morse code letters that we had to interpret often were shrouded in ear-piercing static. Little wonder that pilots of that era became so hard of hearing.

Not long after my instrument checkride, VOR sites began to sprout along the airways like mushrooms and spelled the end of the "low-freq" range. The CAA required artificial horizons and directional gyros in airplanes to be used for instrument flight. Transitioning from the four-course range to omni and from needle-ball-airspeed to a full panel made us believe that we had died and gone to heaven. That is how nice it was to finally see our attitude (instead of only envisioning it) and navigate in silence. Today's nonstop and frenetic chatter of air traffic control in high-density airspace, however, does cause me to reminisce about simpler times.

Anyone who believes that I prefer flying in the past instead of now or in the future is in serious need of an FAA checkride.

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