Thursday, June 17, 2010

Making Mountains out of Molehills

I hate personal whining in blogs, but allow me to say briefly that the FAA "has done a lot of work" on my medical; I might hear something as soon as next week.

In the meantime I have gone to work resurrecting and redesigning a mountain flying course that I used to give. I created it for retail customers, and later made it part of the single-engine 135 syllabus. The new-hire charter pilots usually had about 600 hours and were active instructors, so they were sharp on the CFI stuff like short field landings and steep turns, but weren't ready for flying the fire patrols and Fish and Game flights that were the source of the single engine charters. So we reviewed mountain flying techniques ("Always be in a position where you can turn toward lower terrain"), then headed to the airplanes (182s).

The flying part was fun, and eye-opening. I would fly them into a bowl (there was a nice one within 10 miles of our home airport), and have them pick an escape heading; that would be where the terrain was most manageable. Mountain flying is like a pact with the Devil, and like "Shoeless" Joe Boyd in Damn Yankees you always need to have an escape clause in the contract.

We'd fly around the bowl for a while, admiring the scenery. Then "Put on the hood."

"What?" They all said that.

"Put on the hood."

And so they did.

Then came the eye-opening part. I hoped that they would immediately climb and turn toward the escape heading, but no pilot I ever trained did both, and many did neither. They just flew along, holding heading and altitude, as if all of a sudden this had become an instrument lesson. I would let the mountain get really big in the windshield, then have them take off the hood.

It was like the reveal in Trading Spaces. "Oh my God!" they all said, even the most devout non-swearers.

"That's why you pick an escape heading," I would say, and then we would go on to the next exercise.

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