The Day I Became an Instrument Pilot

I’m lucky in a lot of ways. Unlike the flight training many get—a few hours here, a few hours there, as family and finances permit—mine was completed in conjunction with a local junior college in their airline pilot preparation program. I went from wet behind the ears to 200 hours and Commercial & Instrument in about 18 months. There are advantages.

The school was, at the time, one of the largest flight school operators in the country (Burnside-Ott) and we flew out of what was, at the time, the busiest airport in the world (Opa Locka, OPF). I had three instructors during each of the course sections—Private, Commercial, Instrument—all imparting different kinds of skill and knowledge to this 20 year old.

One day, probably halfway through my instrument training, we took off from OPF, with me under the hood. It was a typical early summer day in South Florida, probably 3,000 scattered, 20 miles visibility. My instructor had me climb to an altitude (probably about 1,500) and then had me execute some turns. Between all the hood time I'd had in my Commercial syllabus plus the Blue Seal training for my Private, and the hood and Link time in the Instrument syllabus, the actual stick and rudder “flying on instruments” part was pretty much duck soup for me. In any event, there was a mixture of stark bright shafts of sun then the softened light when we flew through the shadows of the clouds. It didn’t register at the time, but the differing light from those alternating sun/shadows were cast on my lap. There’s no amount of hood obstruction that can mask that, but since I was concentrating on the gauges, it was unremarkable.

“Turn right, heading 180,” my instructor said. Turn the yoke, slight right rudder, slight back pressure. Scan the gauges, get standard rate on the needle then neutralize the ailerons. Scan the gauges, watch the altitude, at 175° start rolling back left, Scan the gauges, roll level, release the back pressure—there, just like always. Scan the gauges, but scanning the lap wasn’t a conscious part of the routine.

“Turn left, heading 120,” my instructor said, setting me on another path to demonstrate my skill. Same as before—turn the yoke, slight left rudder, slight back pressure. Scan the gauges, get standard rate…roll level, release the back pressure. Scan the gauges—just like always…except—this doesn't feel right. The instruments are telling me I'm level at 1500 and heading 120°, but I feel like the wings aren’t level. I crank a little aileron to level them, something frequently done when flying visually, especially in South Florida with its daily dose of thermal activity and regular bumps—aah, that feels better—but then, in my continuous scan, I see the compass start to turn. Whaaa?

Checking the artificial horizon, I see that, indeed, my wings weren’t level, so with a little aileron, I leveled them again. But the uneasy, unlevel feeling came back and I again corrected it by a little aileron. Scan the gauges and, damn! I’m turning. At that point two parts of my body were struggling for control. My brain ultimately told me to “believe the instruments” and I corrected back to level. And, sure enough the feeling that I wasn’t level came back. But this time the subconscious yearning to believe what I saw and not what I felt came to the fore and I disregarded the inner ear message and settled on the eyes and brain message.

“Turn right, heading…” my instructor yawned, never (probably) aware of the major battle that had just taken place mere inches to his left. The rest of the flight went smoothly and during it I realized that those corpuscular shafts had been influencing me—causing me to react initially to visual cues which were not part of the instrument flying protocol. I had proved to myself that the instruments are the be-all and end-all of instrument flying and that there were more competitors for contrarian response than from the inner ear. But more importantly, I learned that I had the strength to overcome the sensory urges from my body and promote, instead, the logical conclusions gleaned from the gauges.

That lesson was huge. That was the day I became an instrument pilot.

Last updated: 16 May 2010

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