Close your eyes and picture the cockpit of your favorite airplane. Is it bristling with dials, readouts, and glowing glass-panel displays? Pretty slick! But can you name the instruments that the federal aviation regulations (FARs) actually require you to have?
Hint: You can count them on one hand—even if you don’t have a thumb.
If you’re in the left seat of a Standard category aircraft flying under visual flight rules, the required cockpit instruments laid out by FAR 91.205 are an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, a compass, fuel gauge(s), and engine instruments—that’s it. The rest of the instrument panel, at least from a regulatory perspective—and perhaps from an airmanship perspective—is just icing on the cake.
The point is that you really don’t need much in the way of instruments to fly an airplane. So why is your head down, looking at your instruments? Today we have four challenges to help you fly free of automation and keep your head in the clouds, where it belongs.
Challenge number one: The sky scan. We’ve all been taught from day one how to scan our instrument panels. But now, with modern avionics, there’s so much more to see and absorb that it takes longer and requires more thought to understand what is being presented to us. The result is that our eyes spend more time inside the cockpit. On top of that, in the rest of our digitized world we’ve become trained to be screen watchers.
But what about what’s outside the windshield? There are all kinds of interesting things to see, including terrain, cellphone towers, flocks of birds, threatening weather—and other airplanes.
To break out of the bad habit of gluing your eyes to the panel, add a sky scan to your instrument scan, and do it religiously. In fact, make it all one scan. Change your mindset. You are no longer doing an “instrument” scan; you need a complete flight scan. Sweep the panel in whatever pattern you’ve been taught and which works best for you—there are several schools of thought as to the “right” way to scan your instruments—and then immediately raise your head to scan outside.
The FAA recommends a “block” scan technique, essentially dividing your windshield into sections and letting your eye rest in each section—looking to see what’s there, rather than keeping your eyes moving in a constant sweep of motion. This can be done left to right, or starting in the center of the windscreen and scanning to one side and then to the other. Look both above and below the horizon, and don’t forget to look behind you now and again if your airplane’s architecture allows this.
What are you looking for? Other airplanes, for one thing, which we are required to do. FAR 91.113(b) mandates we “see and avoid other aircraft.” While the new in-cockpit ADS-B warning systems are a great help, don’t forget that not every airplane in your flight path will show up on your screen. It’s best to look outside to see and avoid than look at the ADS-B screen and not see something you might wish you had.
The important thing is to treat the sky scan as seriously as you treat your instrument scan. Don’t just add a sky scan to your routine. Make it part and parcel of your existing instrument scan. And remember that it takes 30 flights to develop a new habit, so now you have an excuse to fly more.
Challenge number two: Un-hood. In flight training, a plastic visor called a hood is used to block the view outside of the airplane and simulate flying in the clouds. Some might argue that it does both jobs poorly, but that’s beside the point. With your favorite flight instructor, turn the tables and cover the instruments on your panel so all your information comes from the world outside. Cover nearly every instrument (except those few key ones we agreed that you need to fly the airplane).
With nothing but black plastic to look at inside, you’ll be forced to look outside and just fly the airplane. And don’t do it for just a few minutes—do this for a whole flight. Take a scenic trip up a road or river. You’ll develop confidence that you can fly the airplane with precious few instruments, and it will get you (back) into the habit of looking outside.
Challenge number three: Break out a chart. Believe it or not, they still print aeronautical charts on dead trees with this stuff called ink. And believe it or not, you actually can navigate with them—even though there’s no little blinking blue airplane on the map to show you where you are. Challenge yourself by planning a short flight using nothing but landmarks, then fly it with the Mark 1 eyeball and a chart on your lap.
Plan ahead. Study the chart and ask yourself what types of landmarks you might be able to recognize from the air. Leave your iPad in your flight bag so you’re not tempted to cheat, and if the airplane has GPS, turn it off or cover it up.
If you’ve not done visual navigation—also called dead reckoning—you might be surprised at how hard it can be to judge distances between the chart and the outside world. Let’s see, is that hill over there the one on the chart…or is it that one waaaaaaay out on the horizon? Good features to navigate by include rivers, lakes, unusual bends in roads, and unique terrain features.
Flying by chart and ground reference is a great way to guarantee that you’ll spend half your time looking outside the airplane. It also will sharpen your skill set for the worst-case scenario: having to get somewhere safely if all your fancy gear craps out. Paper charts never sustain electrical failures, computer freezes, or dead batteries.
Challenge number four: Fly to the North Pole. That funny-looking box on the windshield is called a compass. That’s right, just like the ones used on ships back in the Age of Sail. Before the advent of radios, the compass (along with following railroad tracks) used to be the way to navigate an airplane, and compasses remain required equipment in most airplanes today per FAR 91.205(b)(3), which says you must have a “magnetic direction indicator” for VFR flight in a Standard category aircraft.
So your next head-in-the-clouds challenge is to fly a course to a neighboring airport using nothing but the compass to navigate.
Break out the chart we talked about above. Draw a line on it between your home airport and your destination (it’s OK to draw on charts, really it is), then use your plotter to determine the true course. Next, check for the magnetic variation over your course. Variation is the difference between magnetic north and geographic north in any given location. Simply put, your compass points in the wrong direction and you have to correct for it.
Variation is marked on sectional charts with dashed magenta lines that run at a mild angle across the chart in a more or less north/south direction. Pick one from the middle of your flight path. If the variation is easterly, subtract the number from your true course. If it’s westerly, add it. The memory cue is East is Least. Now you have your magnetic heading.
Can we fly now? Nope, not yet. Because your compass is a deviant. (No, not in that way.)
Magnetic deviation refers to compass errors introduced by an individual airplane’s metal structure and installed electronics. Use the correction card in the airplane to adjust your magnetic heading to get your compass course. This is the number on the compass card that you’ll fly.
It seems like a lot of work, but this is how it was done in the old days, and it got Lindbergh safely across an awful lot of water.
The easiest thing to do is just take this copy of Flight Training with you to the airport. But if you want to remember the whole process by heart, use the mnemonic True Virgins Make Dull Company (True course +/- Variation = Magnetic heading +/- Deviation = Compass course).
Next: Get in your airplane and take off. After a proper preflight, of course. Turn off your GPS. Turn off your navigation radios. Fly by the compass. Don’t forget that a compass acts funny in turns to the north or south, and during acceleration and deceleration, basically behaving itself only in level flight.
You’ll be surprised by how accurately you can get from here to there with a compass, and it’s a great way to peel your eyeballs off those glass screens. Plus, it puts you in touch with the aviators of yesteryear and sharpens your emergency skills. While automation and information-packed glass panels with moving maps are great, overreliance on them puts us at risk of losing basic airmanship skills. When we break free from our dependence on all the cockpit lights, bells, and whistles, we strengthen our basic ability to fly, which makes us better pilots—both with and without the fancy toys.
And in addition to improved flying skill, and the important safety issues of see and avoid, there’s one other good reason to keep your head in the clouds when you fly: The view can’t be beat.