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"The needle's barely off the peg. Why are you turning inbound already?" asked my instructor Bill.

"I'm used to the localizer coming in pretty fast," I responded. "ATC usually vectors me pretty close to the final approach fix."

"Not this time," Bill said. "We're still 15 miles from the localizer. If the needle's moving slowly, hold your intercept heading. When it starts to move faster, then you can follow it in."

This was my second attempt at the ILS RWY 29R approach at Stockton. The first, which I attempted pilot-nav, was… interesting. I was rusty! I don't fly IFR much, partly because, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the most IMC I usually see is the thin stratus layer that we punch through on Summer mornings to get on our way. By the time we return, it's usually burned off.

Also, at the price of gas these days, flying a lot of approaches gets expensive. That's why I prefer to do an instrument proficiency check (IPC) every six months. Even after paying for my instructor's time, the cost works out about the same as if I did the required currency flights with a safety pilot and I'm guaranteed to learn something working with Bill.

I resumed my intercept heading and watched the localizer needle gradually come in. This time the approach went much better, well within the instrument rating practical test standards. As we approached decision altitude, I went to full throttle and started the missed approach. It wasn't until we were well established on the missed and climbing that I noticed I'd left the carb heat on.

"Carb heat! I knew I was forgetting something. I've developed some bad habits!" I noted.

We went on to do a partial-panel GPS approach and hold and then asked for the ILS RWY 25R approach into Livermore. The localizer course into Livermore crosses the Altamont pass, with its forest of windmills, which give a pilot fair warning to expect a challenging approach. The winds this day did not disappoint, and at times I found it difficult just to maintain heading. Still, I did a good job of keeping the needles centered—until the infamous "last 200 feet," when they started misbehaving.

"Come on, you've been doing great," Bill said. "Don't lose it now!"

"Fifty feet to DA," I called out.

"OK, look up," Bill said. I found myself perfectly aligned… with the taxiway. I turned towards the runway, slowed down and started lowering flaps. Soon I touched down on runway 25R with a stiff left crosswind and taxied off.

"I know we say 'don't chase the needles,'" Bill said. "But you really have to in the last 200 feet of the ILS."

After a quick fuel stop, we made the short hop home to San Jose, doing a little partial-panel unusual attitude recovery practice along the way.

After the flight we did our usual debrief. "You started out a little rusty," Bill said, "but you pulled it together as we went along. By the end you were solidly within practical test standards. I'm happy to sign you off for another 6 months."

The lessons for the day were about intercepting the localizer, aggressively chasing the needles in the last 200 feet of the ILS, and the need to solidify my procedures under IFR.

I know my IFR skills are limited. Mostly I use them to punch through those thin stratus layers, but IFR currency is also really handy even in visual conditions when flying into complex airspace such as Seattle or LA. These days I don't fly "hard IFR." I set my personal minimums at a 1000-foot ceiling and 3 miles' visibility.

An important aspect of confidence is honest self-assessment, because good judgment requires accurate information. As the old saying goes, "By exercising superior judgment you can avoid the need to demonstrate superior skill."

But I'm still gonna break out my PC simulator and practice some ILS approaches anyway.

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On March 12 in Brownsville, Texas, air show performers Kyle and Amanda Franklin were entertaining the crowd with their trademark Pirated Skies routine just as they have countless other air show audiences with their flair for over-the-top dramatics and silliness. Amanda the wing walker was atop the wing while Kyle flew the big Waco biplane. At a critical moment in a low-altitude maneuver, the engine failed. Amanda had just enough time to climb back into the cockpit before the airplane crashed. An emergency crew quickly reached the scene, but not before Kyle and especially Amanda were badly burned.

As of this writing Kyle, although badly injured, is alert and communicating, but Amanda's injuries are very severe. She will have a very long road to recovery.

Whenever an airplane crashes, those of us who love flying are left to ask why. It's easy to wax philosophical and chalk it up to fate or to state the obvious that flying, especially air show routines like the Franklins', has certain unavoidable risks. Ernest K. Gann wrote one of the great aviation memoirs, Fate is The Hunter, with this thesis. When your number comes up, says Gann, it's all over.

I've never been satisfied with these dismissals. I find them too easy and glib and I refuse to resign myself to an inevitable and impersonal fate. Yes, there's precious little that we truly control in our lives, but we have enormous influence over the circumstances of our flying and our safety in the air.

I do my best to avoid second-guessing a pilot's decisions and actions. Kyle Franklin is a far more skilled and experienced aviator than I, and it certainly wasn't any lack of training or skill on his part that was responsible for this crash. Nevertheless, I feel a responsibility to learn as much as I can from such catastrophes to make my own flying safer.

Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (14 CFR 91.119) requires that, except when necessary for takeoff or landing, aircraft be flown at "an altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface." This regulation, together with FAR 91.13's prohibition against "careless or reckless operation," is actually quite a tall order. Most GA IFR flying, for example, is still done along Victor airways, which are located according to the ground-based navigation aids that define them. Little consideration seems to be given to safety, as many of these airways traverse inhospitable terrain where it would be very difficult, even from the minimum en route altitude, to glide to a safe landing in the event of an engine failure.

The advent of GPS has made flying direct from point to point so easy and fast that it's tempting to ignore the terrain along the route for the sake of convenience, even at the expense of increased risk. I find myself thinking more seriously these days about these regulations and the intent behind them, and I'm planning a series of posts on the topic over the coming weeks. This blog is about confidence in the cockpit, and in my opinion a confidence not rooted in the kinds of skills, knowledge, and judgment required to fly safely wouldn't be worth much.

In the meantime, however, I'm thinking about Kyle and Amanda Franklin. They're going to need a lot of help from our aviation community in their recovery. Donations towards their medical care are being accepted by the Moonlight Fund and the ICAS Foundation. Please give what you can.

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I sat in the glider's forward cockpit with my instructor Jimmy in the back seat. We'd just pulled the glider into position on the runway and were waiting for our hookup to the tow plane. As I started calling out the before-takeoff checklist, I knew other gliders were in the area, so I was a bit nervous about sitting on the runway.

"Controls, ballast, airbrakes, trim…"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down!" Jimmy interrupted. "It's been a couple weeks since you've flown and you're a little rusty. Take your time and be thorough."

I took a deep breath. "OK, I'll start over. Controls: free and correct; Ballast: none required and none installed; Seatbelts: secure; Instruments: altimeter set to field elevation; Trim: set for takeoff; Canopy: closed and latched; Airbrakes: cycled, closed, and locked."

"That's better," said Jimmy. "Ready when you are."

I signaled the tow pilot by waggling the rudder and soon we were off. Whatever else I learned that day, the lesson that stuck with me was "slow down."

Fellow pilot and blogger John Spiteri in one of his posts quotes his instructor Simon as saying "You can't rush aviation." Very succinctly put.

On the other hand, legitimate time sensitivities do arise in flying. One afternoon I flew my club's Cessna to nearby Reid Hillview airport, a busy training hub, to pick up my friends Tim and Janine for a short day trip. After I'd pulled the airplane out into the taxiway and got them strapped in, I was running my usual careful, unhurried checklist, when a man in a ground vehicle pulled up alongside and frantically held up four fingers and pointed behind me. I turned around to see four airplanes stacked up on the taxiway with nowhere to go so long as I sat there. In my lack of haste, I'd made an impressive snarl of ground traffic. Needless to say, the ground controller was a bit curt when I finally called for my taxi clearance.

How could I have maintained my usual thoroughness without delaying everyone else? Well, I could have loaded my passengers and accomplished all checklist items prior to engine start before pulling the airplane out onto the taxiway. If the area behind the airplane was clear, I could have even started up in the tie-down spot. A number of ideas occurred to me when I assessed the situation after the fact.

Instrument flying, with its high workload, also seems to impose urgencies, but these too can be minimized by careful planning in advance. Using the low-workload periods such as engine run-up and cruise to set up avionics and gather needed information greatly reduces the workload of approach and landing. And if I'm still feeling rushed, I can always throttle back or even request a hold or a delay vector until I feel caught up.

Even in emergencies, or perhaps especially then, prioritizing critical tasks and seeking help from all available sources including avionics, passengers, and ATC can lower workload and buy me time to make careful decisions rather than making things worse through rash action.

In my early flying, I often felt rushed and "behind the aircraft" simply because my skills hadn't yet transferred to "muscle memory" (or more accurately, brain-stem memory), but over time I've found that it almost always is possible just to slow down and enjoy the ride.

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My wife Janet, my instructor Paul, and I were walking the ramp at Castle airport, a former Air Force base in California's central valley. I was a student pilot in airplanes and we'd just completed the first leg of my first cross-country flight. It had been a great experience, with lots of pilotage and dead reckoning practice. Castle made for a convenient rest stop.

"Ready for the next leg?" Paul asked.

"Let's go," I answered. I started the engine and taxied to the active runway, a 12,000-feet long, 200 feet wide runway that was built for fully loaded B-52s. The airport now has an operating control tower, but on the day of our flight, that was still years in the future. We had the entire enormous airport to ourselves.

"Castle traffic, Skyhawk 737ZD is taking runway 31 for a straight-out departure Castle," I announced on the radio. Just as Paul had taught me, I visually scanned the traffic pattern and, seeing and hearing no one, I taxied onto the runway, throttled up, and started our takeoff roll. We were airborne about 50 feet off the deck when, without a word, Paul quickly reached over and pulled the throttle to idle.

My glider-pilot training kicked in and I shoved the yoke forward. The airplane lurched forward and we momentarily felt light in our seats. The ground came up quite quickly, so I did my best to stabilize our speed between 60 and 70 knots and started a no-flap flare for landing. We touched down gracelessly but safely a bit to the left of the centerline. Paul gave me the throttle back and I exited at the nearest taxiway.

"Good job!" he said. "Engine failure on takeoff is one of the most dangerous events in flying. You did just what you needed to do—get the nose down and maintain airspeed!"

"That wasn't so bad," said Janet from the back seat. I looked over at Paul.

"While you were in the bathroom I warned her I was going to do that and swore her to secrecy!" Paul explained.

I laughed. "I can't leave you two alone for a minute!"

Paul smiled, almost apologetically. "That exercise is really only effective when you don't know it's coming," he said.

He was right. By setting up a realistic engine-out simulation on takeoff, with an instructor in the right seat and nearly two miles of concrete ahead of us, Paul gave me the opportunity to experience one of aviation's great hazards in a safe and controlled way. By giving me a concrete reason to trust my training, the experience legitimately contributed to my confidence.

As we climbed away from Castle on our way to our next stop at Oakdale, I asked Paul, "Are you going to do that again any time soon?"

"You never know for sure what's going to happen," Paul said with a sly smile. "That's why you're training!"

He was right again, of course. If I had certainty, I wouldn't need confidence!

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One afternoon after a particularly enjoyable local glider flight I was sitting in the FBO's office with Jim, the gliderport's owner, during one of his rare, brief respites from work. Not content to let the man rest, I asked him about something I'd been struggling with: centering thermals.

I'd noticed that the experienced pilots, especially those who did competition flying, seemed able to find the strong central core of a thermal quickly and climb faster than newbies like me. I'd been taught that the indications on the variometer, the main instrument used for detecting lift, had a lag of several seconds, so the part of a thermalling turn that showed the highest variometer reading was actually quite a bit past the strongest part of the thermal. I'd learned about timing the lag and inferring how many degrees behind me the core really was, but I found in practice it often seemed more complicated than that. I asked Jim how he did it.

"Let's see, how do I do that?" he asked himself aloud. It was clear that centering thermals had become so natural for him that he hadn't thought consciously about the technique in a long time. "You just develop a feeling for it," he said finally. "In the heat of competition, you don't have time to think about it."

I've since realized that many of the skills involved in flying work this way. Take crosswind landings, for example. When I was first learning, I really had to think about what I was doing. "The wind's from the left, so I need left aileron and right rudder." But as I gained experience, I developed "muscle memory" (or more accurately "brain-stem memory") for the technique and I no longer had to think about it. Nowadays I unconsciously and automatically correct for drift with the ailerons and point the nose with the rudder.

One of the main advantages of this wisdom beyond conscious thought is that it frees the mind to direct attention elsewhere. When flying gliders, for example, there's a lot to pay attention to: the location of other traffic, your altitude and gliding range, telltale signs that indicate where to find lift, how soaring conditions are developing, possible off-field landing areas—the list goes on. If you had to think about how to center a thermal while paying attention to all that you'd have an unmanageable workload.

Over time I've come to trust the process of developing this kind of subconscious wisdom, but early in my training, I often found it discouraging when I couldn't consciously juggle everything at once. When learning a new skill I might despair that it would take forever to get the hang of it. But looking back, I'm amazed at how quickly those skills actually developed. Usually, it took just a few hours, or even minutes, to commit to "brain-stem memory" a completely new skill such as forward slips or steep turns.

So what's the best way to develop this wisdom beyond conscious thought? In my experience, it's all about attention, trust, and persistence. As I begin training in earnest for a new certificate, these will be my watchwords.

This is going to be fun!

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