Thursday, January 22, 2009

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Down is Up - As
Simple as Black
and White

As VFR pilots, we keep our head out of the clouds, that's the law. With the exception of night flight – in which your instrument scan had better be of IFR-rated competency – VFR pilots usually have the horizon to act as a crutch for the brain.

Flight towards that $100 hamburger is golden, as long as you can see where the sky meets the Earth out in front of the prop. But in an IFR environment, that is not the case, and when all you have in the windscreen is soup, it is then that you discover one of the human body's major engineering flaws:
As a seasoned IFR student now, I have gobs of hood time. But recently, we started to fly "real world" instrument approaches through the IMC, to minimums. On one recent training session, trouble with vertigo started the minute Katy and I slipped into the clouds on takeoff. Once in the soup, I recall having a powerful sense that we were turning hard right, so instinctively, I turned just a little to the left to compensate. Only problem was that I was wings level at the time, so my heading drifted left off runway heading...a heading that was required for this particular departure procedure. My eyes saw the attitude indicator cheating left of level, but try as I might, I could not get my brain to instruct my left arm to turn the yoke back right to pick the heading back up. The struggle between the seat of my pants, my brain, and my arm was so intense that I just could not overcome the sensation that I was turning hard right in a death-spiral into someone's back yard.
Classic vertigo, so says my CFI-I...happens to everyone. But just what is this phenomenon anyway? Let's ask WebMD:
Vertigo (ver-ti′gō): A sensation of spinning or whirling motion. Vertigo implies a definite sensation of rotation of the subject or of objects about the subject in any plane.
O.K., so I made it out of the clouds in this training flight, and above the 3,000 msl tops, a magnificent sunset was painting the side of the clouds God looks at a flamboyant orange. Of course, I was back under the hood by this time – I only know about the sunset because CFI Jim was blasting away with his digital camera over my shoulder.
As I set up for the first approach of this flight, nerves set in as we descended towards the inevitable re-entry into the soup. And as if on cue, the minute I was in it, the same "right turn, Clyde" feeling swept over me. I fought the approach to an ugly missed, climbed back out of the muck and we headed back to Eugene to try it all again. On the second LOC approach, same thing happened, so I went missed AGAIN, got back on the sky side of the clouds, and began to sort out the whole situation. At this time, I requested to remove the "hood" and try an approach through the clouds without it. And on the third approach – an ILS – everything was groovy and I slid down the needle as if the glideslope was lubed up with Mr. Zog's Sex Wax.
When I got home, I read this from a FAA PDF on the topic:
"If you experience a visual illusion during flight (most pilots do at one time or another), have confidence in your instruments and ignore all conflicting signals your body gives you. Accidents usually happen as a result of a pilot’s indecision to rely on the instruments."
Today, I went up and upped my game by flying a near-perfect VOR-A into CVO...partial panel. With the HI and AI hidden by those diabolical little rubber circles all CFI's carry, I relied on the turn coordinator and the compass to get 'er done. And guess what? All I had to do was tell my brain to BUTT OUT of the conversation between the seat of my pants and the instruments, and BINGO, my left arm did exactly what the instruments told it to do.

Since CFI Jim says vertigo is a physical thing that cannot be trained out of a pilot, all we can do on the stick is know when it is happening and trust the instruments. Once you disconnect a wayward brain from the left arm and let the eyes interact with the instruments to fly the plane, it is amazing at how fast the sensation of vertigo disappears.

I believe this kind of training should be mandatory for all pilots, not just IFR students. I had almost 300 hours before starting IFR training, and had never experienced vertigo up close in the cockpit. But had I accidentally flown into a cloud by mistake while chasing a VFR hamburger, I might have ended up augering into a corn field.

But now, I can immediately detect when eyes, brain and seat-of-pants are askew, and engage my own personal VDDS (Vertigo Detection and Defense System) to keep 27W pointed where she needs to be pointed.