Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

Swimming In The Soup

Adventures In Instrument Training

Over the years I've received a lot of satisfaction from being an instrument instructor. I've always tried to train as much as possible in actual instrument weather. It's fun to preside over your student's first time in the clouds. Like the first solo flight, it's a rite of passage and something we never forget. The student is under the hood and unaware that terra firma is no longer an operative reference. Without preamble - at least that's the way I've done it - the instructor lifts the hood, and there it is. If it's day it looks like the inside of a milk bottle. At night it more closely resembles the inside of a cow. It's not unusual for the airplane to bobble ever so slightly as the student realizes this instrument training has to work now or we'll be in some serious trouble.

After a few disaster-free moments in the soup, though, the student realizes that old hood has been awfully restrictive and it's easier to do without it. To acknowledge this epiphany the student says "Wow!" or "Gee!" or something equally evocative but less printable. This exclamation is almost, but not quite, universal. One memorable student said absolutely nothing. Well, I know how to deal with that. I said nothing, too. Then he continued his silence, and I reciprocated in kind, and he did likewise, and so on until I was just about to chicken out and break the stalemate. It was then that the student said, "John...could I have the hood back?"

Another rite of passage occurs when you take your first trip in instrument conditions after passing the instrument checkride. A former student returned from his first trip brandishing a dollar bill. Waving George Washington in my face, he gleefully said, "I've just come back from North Carolina." I knew the significance of the dollar bill and was pleased my student had successfully coped with one of the most insidious emergency situations - gyro instrument failure.

At least once during training I'll ask my instrument students for a loan while we're flying. "Say, could I borrow a couple of bucks from you?" "Sure," is almost invariably the reply. After a pause, I'll say, "Could I have them now?" Students probably look perplexed at this juncture, but who can say? They're wearing a hood, after all - and if they can't see out, how are you going to see in? Now comes the struggle to get to the wallet and extract the money. Consider this as an opportunity to elevate the multitasking challenge one more notch.

After accepting the money, I fold each bill in half and use them to cover the attitude and heading indicators. It's now time for partial panel practice. I make the point that you shouldn't go flying without at least two bucks in your pocket. That way if you've forgotten your fancy instrument covers you'll have something to cover the errant instruments. Partial panel flying is much easier if you don't have to ignore false indications. You don't have to interpret instruments that you can't see. Suction cups are better than dollar bills for this, and I keep some in a kneeboard pocket (not in the flight bag) against the time when I have to deal with the emergency-and it is an emergency - I've simulated so often. Redundant instrument power is a good idea for anyone who flies regularly in instrument conditions, and partial panel practice is something we all should do occasionally.

On one occasion I asked for a loan, and the student handed me all he had in his wallet - two $100 bills. Anybody who knows what flight instructors are paid will appreciate how difficult it was for me not to fixate on more than a week's salary.

It is important to train in the clouds whenever possible. Flying in instrument conditions for the first time a year or more after passing the checkride is not a good idea. So any hours you can spend in the weather during training are golden. Now, I don't advocate flying in instrument weather with a student you don't know. That personal rule was promulgated shortly after a memorable flight in the 1970s. I flew with a rated instrument pilot from Europe who wanted to experience air traffic control in the United States before getting an FAA certificate and setting off on her own. She was obviously an experienced aviator, so I had no compunction in setting off on a short instrument cross-country flight. We were flying a nearly new airplane with new digital nav/coms. What a pleasure to have eight frequencies displayed at one time. The radios were so new to me that I hadn't yet gotten out of the habit of keeping a frequency log on my kneeboard.

About 15 minutes into the flight while cruising in unbroken cloud, it happened. The digital display in the number one nav/com gave up the ghost and went dark. Hmm, I thought. That's interesting. My student took a more proactive approach to the problem by twisting, turning, and pushing every button and knob on the radio. But her ministrations were to no avail. You could hear static when you broke squelch, but the radio was still dark. I opined that it was a shame she'd been so thorough in her assault on the radio because shortly before we had had a radio with a known set of frequencies. Now we had a functioning radio with no idea of what frequency we were on. Oh well. It's nice to have the second radio in times like these.

About 10 minutes later, what do you think happened? No, it wasn't the number two display. It was the display power supply, but the result was the same - another dark radio. My student reached for the second radio, but a karate chop stopped her before we lost the information in the unit.

"Tell you what," I said to the student. "Number one is your radio; do whatever you like with it. Number two is mine. Hands off!"

Thanks to the frequency log and some concentrated click counting, we were able to maintain communications and navigation and shoot an instrument approach to our destination. That was 20 years ago and it's never happened again, but I still keep the log.

By John Steuernagle

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports