Not seeing is believing
The importance of actual experience
A private pilot working on his instrument rating checked the weather for a scheduled training flight. He had logged about 20 hours of simulated instrument time and had done well during the initial phase of training. His CFII had told the instrument student to go ahead and do three or four practice flights on his own (with qualified safety pilots along to scan for traffic while simulating instrument conditions). The weather at the departure airport was very good, but nearby Florence, South Carolina, where the practice approaches were to be flown, was marginal VFR with a broken layer at 1,800 feet.
The student wasn't worried. His safety pilot was a former CFII. The student decided the CFII could file IFR and he would get some actual cloud time. The safety pilot agreed, and they were off for a morning of practice approaches. The instrument pilot-to-be carefully performed all the preflight checks. The safety pilot was impressed that the student had typed a supplemental checklist for items to be performed before each IFR flight: Pitot heat-Checked, Lights-Check (even if daytime), Altimeter-Verified with AWOS, etc., and affixed it to the quarter panel left of the glareshield in his Cessna.
With a strong tailwind the 35 miles to Florence passed by quickly, and the student struggled to keep up with the tasks at hand. He listened to the ATIS and then checked in with Approach. Immediate vectors were issued along with a clearance to join the approach course. The safety pilot commented that the clouds had lifted some, and they had remained in the clear. The student barely listened as he struggled to tune and identify the localizer and compass locator frequencies, checked to be sure the marker beacon receiver was on, and set the number two nav for the missed approach-all this even as the localizer needle was already starting a determined march toward the center of the dial.
Then the controller issued a lengthy amended missed approach instruction and passed the task-saturated instrument wannabe to the tower. Somehow he executed a respectable ILS approach. He then initiated the missed approach with a climbing turn to the issued heading.
"I'm going to have to take you a little higher for traffic, climb and maintain three thousand, heading two-three-zero." Hearing this, the safety pilot remarked, "Well, I guess we're going to punch some clouds after all." The student welcomed the opportunity to get some more "actual" in his logbook. He had flown in actual clouds before, on approaches, and even down to minimums with low visibility. The difficult first approach trying to get set up while being blown into the airport at high speed was over now, and all he had to do was comply with instructions from approach, flying the airplane on a certain heading and altitude.
As the airplane passed through 2,500 feet the pilot perceived something wasn't right. The engine was laboring, yet all seemed strangely quiet as the airflow noise around the fuselage was eerily almost nonexistent. The airspeed fell to 60, then 55, but the pilot believed that if he dropped the nose at all the plane would quit climbing, maybe even start a descent. Just as the safety pilot said, "Hey, you're not going to stall this thing on me, are you?" the stall warning sounded. The student pushed the nose lower to prevent the stall.
After about 30 seconds he was able to force himself into a better scan of the instruments, set up the correct climb attitude, and get back on heading. At 3,000 feet he leveled and listened carefully for further instructions from ATC.
"Here we go," proclaimed the safety pilot. "Into the clouds!" The student looked up to take a peek at the clouds under the frosted part of his Foggles. He commented on the beauty of the large banks of cumulous and noted one passing just ahead and to the right that he could see literally roiling, wispy fragments at its perimeter revealing its circular motion. Suddenly the airplane plunged inside a much larger, darker cloud. Back to the instruments he went as the cloud enveloped the airplane and began shaking and rocking it.
Almost immediately everything looked and felt wrong. The pilot felt the airplane banking and turning to the right, but the attitude indicator showed a left bank. The turn coordinator was bouncing left and right. The student looked back and forth between the turn coordinator and attitude indicator. Which one do I believe? Without realizing it, he was beginning to believe neither and reverting to his sensory inputs. The propeller made growling noises as it bit into alternating shear zones within the roiling cumulus.
The graveyard spiral had commenced its incipient stage when the student learned that a safety pilot could be good for more than spotting traffic. With a firm hand he forced the yoke to the right and leveled the wings, pointing to the attitude indicator. Then in an authoritative voice garnered by years of instructing experience, he reminded the student, "Trust the instruments; keep scanning. Now get back on your altitude and heading and stay with it!"
Yes, I was the student, and on that day, not seeing was believing. I looked at the vacuum gauge for reassurance; it was firmly in the green. The turn coordinator was still a little bouncy but the barber-pole flag that would appear if it became inoperative was tucked away out of view. A look at the altimeter, airspeed, and VSI, which I then realized I had been completely neglecting, showed everything in order. Finally, I settled into a proper scan and flew the airplane as I had been taught.
The stable, calm stratus clouds I had previously encountered did not prepare me for the tumbling cumulus. Later I learned that little perceptual cues that Foggles didn't completely block had allowed me to subconsciously cheat during my training.
That day was one of the most important flying experiences I've ever had. I had read all about spatial disorientation in the aviation textbooks. I could describe in detail the vestibular function in the inner ear, how visual illusions and kinesthetic inputs can trick the mind. I could tell you each and every way spatial disorientation could be induced in "those" people who would get it. What I learned on the day it happened to me, however, is to seek out experience as the best teacher there is. This incident, in a controlled environment with capable help, was more valuable than reading all the books ever written on the subject.
Shortly after my experience at Florence I heard about another CFII at our field who absolutely refused to let students wear Foggles for instrument training. He said they allowed too many subtle visual cues in the periphery to be seen. I experimented with a strap-on hood and found that indeed, it did do a better job of blocking out more of the peripheral area-but even more than that, the opaque blocking of the light coming in the windshield somehow seemed to make a difference too.
Using the hood I was more likely to realistically experience the "leans" while flying by reference to instruments. I also learned that I had been subconsciously using the horizon during climbs when it was visible in the corner of the windshield and within the corner of the field of view out of the Foggles. This is probably what contributed to my excessive nose-up attitude in my climb at Florence.
Many instructors think it is almost criminal to allow a pilot to obtain an instrument rating without some actual cloud time. I agree. I know it's not always possible, but every effort should be made during instrument training to allow students to feel, and (not) see, what they need to know about instrument flying and spatial disorientation. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Spatial Disorientation Safety Advisor can be downloaded. The newly revised edition of the FAA's Instrument Flying Handbook has excellent detailed explanations of various maneuvers that will induce spatial disorientation so students can feel, not just read about, its effects.
One last thing to remember regarding spatial disorientation is that it can kill when there isn't a cloud in the sky. Hazy conditions can sneak up on pilots who have not experienced the power of reduced visibility to turn the world into one large mass of murk. I once flew with a private pilot who just wanted to work on his VOR navigation. The visibility was five to seven miles in haze-"good" VFR. The haze made the early evening look more like twilight. Almost as soon as we took off it was clear he could not fly by reference to a visible horizon. He said if he had been alone he would have turned around and landed. I applauded his judgment and told him since I was with him to press on with reference to the instruments, that I would scan for traffic. I had him climb to 5,500 feet.
He did a good job flying by instrument reference, and stayed on course. As we approached the coast, however, he began to struggle. I could see the bright string of lights from the Grand Strand-North
Myrtle Beach on the South Carolina coast. I watched his eyes to see if they would give him away, and sure enough he was making reference to the lights that made a perfect false horizon, about 15 to 20 degrees off from the actual horizon. It was the perfect illusion as the soupy haze seamlessly melted the ocean and sky together. I pointed this out to him and his jaw dropped in amazement. Even though he had read about this phenomenon, it was the actual experience that "cured" him. From then on he flew perfectly as he trusted only the instruments.
Flight instructors should commit to teaching through experiences as much as possible. Take those students into the clouds! Instrument students should demand nothing less. Even a few minutes in nice, wet, bumpy cumulous will teach more than a thousand crosschecks under simulated conditions. VFR students should go up on marginal days (with an instructor, of course) to see just how ugly "1,000 and three" really is. We should all make continuing education a priority. The fact that I'm an instructor doesn't mean I'm no longer a student. I'm sure there are many more experiences waiting to teach me.
By Brett Justus
Brett Justus is an ATP and Gold Seal flight instructor with more than 2,000 hours. He owns a Cessna 172 based at Sumter Airport in South Carolina.