Editor's Log

July 2003 Issue

Next Time, For Real

What good is being 90 percent proficient when you’re called on to do the other 10?

In the past year, a combination of forces has conspired to limit my cross-country flying and really put the kibosh on my instrument flying. Family responsibilities, the Lycoming TIO-540 ADs and a few other factors have kept me close to home.

However, I’ve done a bit of testing of both avionics and airplanes, and I fly the Citabria at least weekly, so my stick and rudder skills are sound. On the gauges, however, is another story.

I enlisted an instructor friend with a 172 to help me flog away some of the cobwebs. My basic flight by instruments was dead-on. Partial panel was no problem, in part because flying the Citabria never involves using a vacuum instrument.

Approach procedures were a little sloppy, but not bad and well within PTS standards. But just when I started getting cocky, the house of cards came tumbling down. I’d just flown an NDB approach to minimums and came out fairly close. We’d briefed a missed approach, and I applied power and started my climbing turn to the holding fix.

At least, I thought I did.

The Skyhawk turned. And I thought the airplane was climbing as best it could. (I hadn’t flown a 172 in nearly 10 years.)

“Ken, we’re descending.”

I applied back pressure to remedy.

My friend tapped the VSI, which showed a 200 fpm descent. I scanned the instruments again. There was that descent again. I couldn’t believe it. My body felt as if we were in a max performance climb. I started the “trust your gauges” mantra and eventually reconciled the internal feelings with the panel indications.

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered spatial disorientation, but it was by far the worst – and most convincing – episode I’d ever experienced. I finally understood on a visceral and emotional level what must happen in many of the accidents that involve pilots descending to the ground during an approach or missed approach.

As we flew toward the next approach, I kept thinking of what certainly would have happened if this had been for real.

Of course, we were in the air, so it was for real. But fortunately I’d had benign VFR weather and an expert instructor on my side. This time.

This flight served as a wakeup call that hard-won proficiency is a fleeting thing. It was a poignant reminder that instrument flight is particularly demanding. Being able to cope successfully with 90 percent of the task at hand is of no use when it takes that other 10 percent to bring the flight to a happy end.

-Ken Ibold