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Anders and I sat in the runup area as he set up our club's Cessna for some IFR practice in VFR conditions. I would be acting as safety pilot. It would be good experience for me, too, since I had an instrument proficiency check (IPC) coming up soon.

"OK, now how do I fly the departure with this GPS?" Anders asked rhetorically as he punched buttons. Our club's two airplanes have different GPS units, so it's always an adjustment switching from one to the other. After returning from a long trip in our Bonanza, he was shifting gears.

"You'll need to use OBS mode," I said.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "I know you need it when taking off in the other direction, but doesn't it do the right thing in this direction?"

"Nope," I said. "If you don't use OBS, it'll sequence you directly to the next fix without following the departure procedure."

"Hmm, OK," he said and continued his setup. I silently reminded myself of my sole responsibility for the flight: watch for traffic and terrain.

Soon we were cleared for departure and on our way, with Anders under the hood. Reaching the first waypoint, he turned to heading 040 as required by the departure procedure.

"Now you need OBS mode," I said. "See, it wants to send you directly to the next fix."

Anders pushed the OBS button and twisted the knob to set the desired course.

"It's not changing the course," Anders observed.

"No, it's not," I agreed. "Have you selected the right navigation source?" I asked. We both looked and saw that he had.

"Why isn't the course changing when you twist the knob?" I asked, puzzled. I looked at the terrain ahead. "It wants to send us through Mission Peak."

"Well, that's not going to work," Anders said.

He tried rebooting the unit, but now it complained about missing altitude data. "I think she's dead, Jim," he concluded. "You want to try clearing the flight plan and entering it again?" Anders asked.

"OK," I replied and twisted, bumped, and scrolled my way to the flight plan. I deleted it and started reprogramming from scratch, while Anders monitored what I was doing in his scan. Once I got the departure procedure entered, I started programming the approach procedure for our destination.

"No, you're done," he said. "I just want the departure procedure to see if it works."

"Almost done," I replied, deep in the button pushing.

"No, just switch back to the moving map. I want to try changing the OBS course."

I hesitated briefly. "Um, OK," I said and complied. There was no improvement.

"Let me switch the Nav source," I said, hovering over the avionics stack. "You can still use the VORs."

Exasperated, Anders said, "I'm the pilot!" reminding me of my role. He said it with a smile, but his message was clear.

"Sorry!" I replied and backed off. He was right, of course. I knew better than to interfere with the PIC's flying, but for some reason I just couldn't help myself.

"Well, with the GPS like this, we're done for the night anyway," Anders said. He called Norcal Approach and canceled IFR, telling them we were returning to San Jose. As we approached the airport, I acknowledged my transgression.

"Hey, I apologize for my Buttinsky tendencies this evening," I said. "I'm usually much better about that."

"Yes, you are!" Anders agreed, more puzzled than annoyed at that point.

After we landed, we discussed the needed repairs to the GPS and chuckled a bit about my little outbreak of "Cockpit Resource Mismanagement."

That evening, I did a little soul searching to see if I could spot the source of my behavior. In the past, whenever I've had a "control freak" moment, it's almost always been because of some concern or anxiety. I realized that part of me was anticipating my IPC and was fixated on control in the IFR environment. Troubleshooting the GPS put that part of me over the top and I lost track of my role. Rather than just doing what Anders asked, I wanted to take control of the situation.

I'm always amazed at the insights I get into my own psyche just by flying airplanes. In the end it was a valuable lesson.

Even if it was at my buddy's expense…

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IPC

The GPS display was black. The attitude indicator and heading indicator were covered by yellow sticky-notes. I was being vectored for a VOR approach at Stockton, California.

"Skyhawk 377, 6 miles from the VOR, fly heading 280 to intercept the final approach course, maintain two thousand five hundred until established, cleared for the VOR 29 right approach," said the Norcal Approach controller.

"280, 2,500, cleared approach," I responded. With the final approach course crossing an aging VOR a few miles from the airport, this was a challenging approach under the best of circumstances. Throw in partial-panel, afternoon central-valley thermals, and a long time away from instrument flying, and it all added up to a workout.

My wife Janet and I have been planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia with my parents. Although the area is infamous for its cloudy, rainy weather, an instrument-rated pilot in an IFR-equipped airplane should have a reasonable chance of getting around, especially with warm, early-September temperatures. There was just one little hitch: between work demands and a tight budget, I'd let my instrument currency lapse. I needed an instrument proficiency check (IPC) to fly IFR again, and with only a few weeks left until the trip, it needed to be soon.

"I know it's short notice, but are you available for an IPC on Sunday?" said my e-mail to my instrument instructor Bill.

"How about Monday?" came his reply. Sure, why not? I could take a few hours off work. We chatted by phone the day before to do some planning.

"I'd like you to pick three approaches and a challenging hold, maybe at an intersection," Bill told me. "Also spend a couple of hours studying the oral-exam material. I'll ask you a few questions about the topics I think are most important."

So, I spent much of Sunday hitting the books and mentally reviewing my IFR procedures. I printed out and studied the current approach procedures, visualizing how I would set up the cockpit to fly them. I did some "flying" using the flight sim on my computer, but I was having trouble with the hardware, so it wasn't very helpful. "I'm just gonna have to think it through," I thought to myself.

The partial-panel VOR approach went pretty well. I stayed on course and on altitude, ending up in a position from which I could have landed safely. I started a climb to start the missed approach.

"Hell, my mixture's still lean," I said out loud. "I forgot my pre-landing checklist at the final approach fix." Except for this oversight, though, the approaches went well. Admittedly, I took full advantage of the tolerances allowed by the practical test standards, but I didn't bust them. On the whole, I was pleased.

"You did great," Bill said after I took off the hood and we started back towards San Jose. "I have just a few minor comments." We saved the debriefing for after the flight.

"On that 4-mile, teardrop procedure turn, you should turn to parallel the course after the first minute outbound. That'll make it easier to intercept the final approach course inbound," Bill said. "Also, remember to run your pre-landing checklist and start your timer at the final-approach fix! Other than that, it all went really well. You're proficient!" he said, handing me back my freshly endorsed logbook.

Part of me would like to credit my performance to some rare skill or talent, but I know better. It's just preparation that made the difference. The time spent visualizing how I was going to do things made the flying itself so much easier than it would have been otherwise. It was a reminder that a huge part of cockpit confidence is having practiced, reliable procedures.

"How'd it go?" my wife Janet asked when I got home.

"Great!" I told her. "It's really good to be instrument current." Striking a melodramatic pose, I emoted, "I feel like a whole pilot again!"

She just smiled and rolled her eyes. She's used to it.

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"Look at your altitude! What the hell's the matter with you?!" the instructor bellowed.

The student, already frustrated and overwhelmed, was now also feeling embarrassed and angry at a time when he needed to be flying the airplane. At that moment, flying seemed like more hassle than it was worth.

Fortunately, this story is entirely fictional. I personally have been extremely fortunate to train with very competent, professional, and empathetic instructors, as have most of the pilots I know. We all hear stories, however, about instructors like our fictional Mr. Bellows. My friend Dave told the story of his instrument checkride with an examiner who spent almost the entire time shouting and deriding him. To Dave's credit, he managed to filter out the abuse and focus on flying the airplane. He passed. Still, I find it hard to imagine any valid purpose for the examiner's behavior. To create a "realistic distraction" as mandated by the practical test standards? I don't buy it. A few instances of subtle misdirection such as a dropped pen or some extraneous conversation are enough to determine whether the applicant can stay focused.

Of course, we pay instructors and examiners to give us criticism, but there are plenty of other critics in aviation. We only have to look at ourselves to know that. Have you ever read one of those "never again" stories or accident reports and thought, "What was that bozo thinking?" Yeah, so have I. It's not that I think we shouldn't be critical of our own actions or those of others. Constructive criticism is essential for our development as pilots. It's the personal judgments—the "what's the matter with you" or "bozo" comments—that can be damaging, especially for new pilots who don't yet have a solid confidence in their abilities.

So everybody's a critic and a lot of people aren't very sensitive about it. What to do? My friend Maria and I were having lunch and discussing a challenge she was having at work. I'd been Maria's manager for several years, so we'd seen our share of office politics together. She told me about a colleague who was probably in over his head, feeling insecure, and looking for someone to blame, so he picked her.

While I was deciding how much to pity him, Maria said, "You know, I finally figured out that I don't have to take it personally—even when it's meant that way!"

Amen, sister! As it turned out, her professional, results-oriented attitude made her colleague's attempts to scapegoat her transparent to everyone. She came out of the encounter with her credibility enhanced, and her colleague was left with little choice but to play ball.

We can follow Maria's example whenever someone gives us grief over our flying, whether it's an overt attack, a subtle dig, or "that look" that implies that we just don't have the "right stuff." Over time, I've come to decide that others' opinions about my value as a person (whether positive or negative) aren't relevant to me. Opinions about my actions and results, however, can be very instructive. Filtering out personal judgments from criticism allows me to identify the kernels of truth that might help improve my results. This means regardless of how people express themselves, I can absorb whatever can be learned from their criticism and let the rest roll off. I won't claim this is easy—it often takes concerted effort—but I can start by reminding myself that it's possible:

I don't have to take this personally—even if it's meant that way.

That said, I don't think it's ever necessary to tolerate abuse, especially when we're footing the bill. Here's how I'd hope our little fiction story would continue following Mr. Bellows's outburst.

The student leveled the airplane on a safe heading and then responded to his instructor:

"Mr. Bellows, I'm your customer. Please keep your comments constructive and respectful and avoid personal judgments. If you're not willing or able to do that, I'll find an instructor who is."

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In the early 1970s, astronaut Michael Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11) wrote a fascinating book, Carrying the Fire, about his experiences in the US space program. It's a book I think all pilots should read and one that anyone interested in flying and space exploration will enjoy.

I was particularly struck by a passage in which Collins describes a phenomenon he observed in test pilots and astronauts: an unspoken credo he called "death before embarrassment." He projected that this attitude contributed to many flight-test crashes. The idea is that the pilot is actually more afraid of embarrassing himself than he is of dying, and so avoids taking necessary actions in an emergency situation rather than admit failure.

Like most people, I tend to imagine that military test pilots and astronauts must be the most confident pilots around, and they have reason to be. They are among the best trained, most skilled, and most disciplined pilots anywhere, with extensive experience handling unfamiliar aircraft and situations. The thought that they might be afraid of embarrassing themselves had never occurred to me.

This got me thinking about my own experience. Like every pilot, I've done some embarrassing things in airplanes over the years (and they've been a rich source of material for this blog). I've always made a concerted effort to learn from these incidents to improve my flying, but if I'm honest with myself, I'll admit that perhaps an even greater motivation has been to avoid the embarrassment in the future. In fact, I realize that the fear of embarrassment has often been lurking just under the surface. It hasn't been a conscious fear, but more a of habit of anxiety that probably goes back to childhood (and is probably related to the high pulse rate I talked about last week). I find myself wondering how this fear of embarrassment has asserted itself in other areas of my life. What actions have I avoided for fear of appearing inadequate or incompetent?

Over time, as we have repeated positive experiences, the fear of embarrassment becomes less frequent and less severe. This is part of the natural process of developing confidence. But as we gain experience and confidence, and as others develop higher expectations of us, that old fear of embarrassment can reassert itself. Most people will forgive a student or low-time pilot a rough landing, but once you have a few hundred hours under your belt, you're supposed to know better. The likelihood of a military test pilot making that same rough landing is very small, but its potential for embarrassment would be that much greater. After all, these pilots are in a very exacting and competitive line of work, and I imagine that egos are built on the perception of competence and the esteem of peers.

This is why I prefer to focus on flying well rather than being a good pilot. The distinction is subtle but important. If my goal is to be regarded as a good pilot, I might be tempted to deny, suppress, and conceal any weaknesses in my flying. If I focus instead on flying well, I'm more likely to recognize and address deficiencies and improve my flying. I'll never be a military test pilot, but I can aspire to their skill level—not because of what it might mean about me, but for the sheer enjoyment of it.

As for that pesky and often hard to recognize fear of embarrassment, I've identified a few telltale signs. When I notice a vague anxiety that I find hard to explain, it's often a clue that that old fear is asserting itself. That's when I remind myself to practice observe-act-observe, focus on the results I want, and above all, not take the situation personally.

But what if our mistakes do meet with disapproval or derision from our peers? More about that next week…

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The sun was low on the horizon and the distant towering cumulus clouds glowed red-orange in the fading light. I was flying my club's A36 Bonanza with my instructor Rick, a former Naval aviator and Bonanza and Baron Pilot Proficiency Program (BPPP) instructor, and we were working on my checkout in the airplane. Rick has owned and flown Bonanzas and Barons for a long time and knows them inside and out, so I was in good hands. We were on our way to Grass Valley, his home airport, so I could get some night cross-country time and some experience with that unfamiliar, mid-elevation runway in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. A leisurely dinner was also part of the plan.

I had recently bought a pulse-oxymeter, a device for measuring blood oxygen saturation and I handed it Rick to try. He put it on his finger and pressed the button. After a few seconds it indicated good oxygenation and a pulse rate of about 72.

"Cool gadget," Rick said. "This would be useful for long trips at altitude."

Then I put the device on my finger. It showed good oxygenation and a pulse rate of 120. Rick glanced at the display, did a double-take, and then looked at me.

"I must have more confidence in the pilot than you do," he said with a wry smile.

"120?!" I thought to myself. That was a shock. My usual resting pulse is about 60. I didn't feel particularly anxious, and in fact the flight was going well. The Bonanza was a lot more aircraft than the Cessnas and gliders I'd flown before and I was still very new to it, so I suppose it made sense that I would be on "high alert," but it felt like there was more to it than that. There was no time to dwell on it, though—I had an airplane to fly.

It was dusk when we arrived at Grass Valley and I made a passable approach and landing on the downsloping runway. After a quick tour of Rick's hangar, where his car was parked, we headed into town for dinner at one of his favorite places. We had a great time, enjoying the food, the hangar talk, and as much flirting with the charming waitress as is appropriate for middle-aged, married men. (Did we happen to mention that we're pilots? It's possible.) Our only regret was missing out on the local microbrew, but we still had flying to do.

The return trip to San Jose provided plenty of good learning experiences, including an aborted takeoff (note to self: heels on the floor!), leaning for density altitude, and some nighttime pilotage. It was a great flight.

Afterwards, though, I kept coming back to that crazy high pulse rate. Did it mean anything? I started monitoring my pulse occasionally when flying and noticed that it was usually pretty high, even during low-workload phases of routine flights. What if anything was that pulse rate telling me? As I mulled it over, I became aware of a specific anxiety that was lurking in my subconscious: fear of in-flight engine failure.

More to the point, I realized I had doubts about my skills for handling an engine failure. Once identified, those doubts were easy to address by spending some quality time with the POH, mentally rehearsing its emergency procedures, and practicing dead-stick descents and landing approaches from cruise altitude. This was a big confidence booster.

I noticed, though, that my pulse rate still tends to be a bit high when I'm flying. I don't see it as a "problem" that needs to be "fixed" but rather as a clue. Recently, I realized that some of my early fears about low-altitude stall-spin accidents were never fully resolved; they were just overbalanced by improved skills and positive experiences. I take this as a sign that I need to explore the performance envelope until I really understand the edges of that envelope. It's time for some training in upset recoveries, emergency maneuvers, and aerobatics! Watch this space for more about that…

It's been years since that flight to Grass Valley, but it's still providing new lessons. I think that might be true of every flight I've ever made, and writing this blog helps me mine those past flights for lessons that I might otherwise miss.

After putting the airplane away for the night, Rick and I did a quick debrief and scheduled our next lesson.

"G'night, buddy—good flying today!" he said as he headed to his car.

"Thanks, Rick! See you next time," I replied as I locked up the hangar.

Mission accomplished—high pulse rate and all.

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