Saturday, February 28, 2009

Over The Hood

Instrument instruction is its own world, because doing it right requires the instructor to do so many jobs.

First, the instructor has to understand instrument flying. Well, that's impossible. Instrument flying is an infinite series of small realizations that eventually sums to something huge. While you can leave ignorance behind you, mastery never gets any closer. So really the first job of the instructor is to have the desire to understand instrument flying.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that the instructor once had a good start toward understanding instrument flying, but that has stagnated or even backslid. Almost every instrument instructor I know has, at one point, confessed "I thought I was staying sharp by watching, but I was wrong." The cure for this is for the instructor to fly instruments regularly, but that may be difficult on what CFIIs usually earn. In my case, though, I have the two club planes and a day job, and while money is tight at our house (see my last post), I can afford to take some time to at least fly under the hood, barely performing to ATP standards.

Next, the instructor has to be patient. We are teaching something difficult; a lot of pilots start instrument training but don't finish, and a lot of pilots look back over a long career and declare instrument training to have been the most difficult part. We need to remember how difficult it was for us.

And so the iPhone version of XPlane has been kicking my ego around. A couple of the aircraft have EFIS panels. I have a few hundred hours of experience in various EFIS aircraft (not a lot by some standards), but each one is different. For XPlane, the iPhone itself is the yoke: tilt it toward you to pitch up, tilt it away from you to pitch down, and rotate it left or right for aileron control. Hold it rotated to the right and it simulates an aileron roll. This is a little twitchy, so let me just say that I seldom fly it to ATP standards (it includes a few ILS approaches). I am struggling just as hard as my students. (The HUD is a different matter: its velocity vector enables you to fly with extreme precision.)

So, the little simulator in my pocket is great. But it's not a real airplane! And that leads to the hardest part of the instructor's job: safety pilot. Because all the time that the student is under the hood, it is up to the instructor to keep the airplane from hitting something. (The FARs require that the safety pilot has a medical certificate to be sure that the guy keeping watch meets the vision requirements of 14CFR67.) It doesn't matter how insightful and fair your critiques of your student are if he does not live to try it again at a later date.

And now I find that being safety pilot takes up a large part of my instruction time. This was my inspiration from Jim Ralph, the FAA inspector who gave me my initial CFI checkride. Jim was so quick and so funny that it was exhausting to be around him. He had no stomach for BS, whether from the FAA (which he called it the "F'ing A A") or from anyone else. He was a great stick and a great student of every corner of aeronautical knowledge.

Jim's pet peeve (besides Hilary Clinton, who was First Lady when I met him) was midair collisions. "I am not going to die in a midair collision," he said, "and when we're flying I'll bet I see 10 airplanes that you don't see." This was not a statement about his perfect vision: it was a statement about his perfect lookout.

I made Jim very happy once. He had come to watch me give training in GPS approaches for a 135 operator, one of the first to take advantage of the new technology. The Director of Operations was flying the 414, and I was in the right seat. Jim sat in back, and, as is customary, several airport bums were riding along. One of them was a new CFI, working on his CFII, and as we did our procedure turn I said, "Hey, Ben, see how the procedure turn is right over the freeway? You know lots of pilots follow the freeway, so you need to keep your head out of the cockpit through here because there's bound to be lots of traffic." Jim smiled.

Well, Jim was right, he died of cancer, not in a midair collision. But now when I have a student under the hood I act like Jim is in the back seat, critiquing my lookout and spotting more planes than I do. And I do a good scan for traffic.

A funny story, at least to me. I was at a local safety meeting, sitting next to one of my instrument students who has his own airplane, a very nice twin. We're upstairs in the classroom, sitting in the same ratty chairs that were there when I moved here in 1991. Some of them are a little wobbly, so I didn't notice that I had set mine down on his foot.

"Ow!" he screamed, "you're on my foot!"

"Hey," I replied, "when I said 'dead foot - dead engine,' I meant it!"

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