Sunday, March 4, 2012

Finding the Cure

During my first instrument flying lesson, deep in the last century, we were climbing through the marine layer at Carlsbad-Palomar. My instructor, Tom Carroll, was an ex-Marine who didn't hesitate to ask students to do hard stuff, and had flown with me enough at that stage to trust me to have my first "hood time" be actual IFR.

"Hey, Jim," he asked, suddenly, "At 100 knots, how far do you go in one minute."

When faced with this kind of calculation, even a proficient mathematician rolls his (or her) eyes up into the back of his (or her) head. It's an instinct, like ducking. And when your eyes are in the back of your head, they are not on the instruments. That's the real lesson: keep your eyes on the instruments.

Ever since then, when people are starting to get the hang of instrument flying, I ask them Tom's question. The Federal Aviation Administration calls this a "realistic distraction," and some of the Flight Instructor training materials suggest dropping a pencil as a realistic distraction. Everybody laughs at this, rightly so. But the calculation is realistic, a distraction that might actually come up in flight.

Today's student was doing quite well under the hood, so I asked him how far we would go at 100 knots in one minute.

"One-point-six-seven miles," he shot back, almost before the question was out of my mouth.

He's a new student, and I had not suspected that he was so good at mental math; few are, right? But now I needed a realistic distraction. I figured if he was good at numbers maybe spelling would get him.

"How do you spell Philadelphia."

He answered, more slowly, and we lost 100' of altitude and turned 10 degrees. That's a realistic distraction!

Then I had him trim the airplane to the best of his ability, so that all was required was a feather touch on the yoke. "OK, now spell Penicillin."

"P-E-N-A-."

"Nope," I interrupted.

"P-E-N-N-."

"Uh-uh," I said. This was turning into a realistic distraction

"P-E-N-E?"

"Sorry."

But then we got to the good part: while he had been working so hard at visualizing a difficult-to-spell word, the altitude hadn't budged.

So penicillin is the cure to teaching pilots to trim.



After the flight we found ourselves in a lively hangar flying session, and I was chided because spelling is not part of instrument flying. But I had a reply: how many times have you heard "Ahh, Center, how do you spell the name of that intersection you just cleared us to? I can't find it in the box."

Spelling counts.

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