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#156 Instrument Gazing

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One of the most famous movie lines is the one uttered by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz”.  As Dorothy, she turns to her dog and exclaims, “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”  You may have a similar epiphany if you fly at Tailwheel Town.

Judy Garland as "Dorothy" with her dog, "Toto"
Judy Garland as “Dorothy” with her dog, “Toto”

Among the first things Whuffos take note of when looking over an airplane is its interior and instrumentation.  In fact, if you want to see how experienced a “tire kicker” is, just look at where they go first when looking over an airplane.  If they start in the cockpit or with their nose pressed against a window, the chances are that they are a tyro.  The more experienced flyer will be looking at props, engines, control surfaces, landing gear and all the details that show on the exterior of the airplane.

I guess that it’s normal for those folks who don’t know much about flying to go to the instruments first.  Movies are partly to blame (picture actor Pat O’Brien

O'Brien, Pat
“Pull up, Kid… Pull up!”

looking upward and screaming, “pull up, Kid, Pull up!” as we keep cutting to a closeup of the airspeed indicator well over redline).  And, if the truth be known, I’m responsible for a bit of it myself in that regard. I remember blowing in a pitot tube while my brother and I were filming “Dawn Flight”.

Blowing in the Pitot tube to simulate high airspeed.

But how should we regard those instruments? Probably to be far less dependent  on them.  I’ve often given “lip service” to the fact that only one instrument is really important and that’s the oil pressure gauge. But I’ve got to admit that the only instrument that’s routinely covered in the 140 or the 172 is the turn coordinator.  To be the best teachers we can, we really ought to examine how we introduce the student to the airplane.  We really ought to be more like a mother bird, introducing her chick to the wonder of flight.  Do you suppose she tells that chick to keep an eye on that airspeed indicator or altimeter?  Of course not.  He doesn’t have one and she wouldn’t refer to it if he did.  We really ought to stop inculcating this over-reliance on instrumentation.  We do what we do because it’s easy.  We also tend to go with the herd and teach maneuvers by both attitude and instrument reference.  It’s called “integrated” flight instruction; a practice which I feel is a mistake.DSCN5378

Those who invented flight instruments didn’t expect that we’d gaze on their inventions and replace our Mark One Eyeballs with them.  They simply wanted us to have an accurate measurement of things like altitude, airspeed and vertical speed in order to “calibrate” our eyeballs and bodies.  Think about the airspeed instrument.  If you always make a power off approach, it only takes once to compare the pitch attitude of the airplane with the desired approach speed.  After that, it’s really not necessary to look at the airspeed indicator during the approach again.

You know what I think we oughta start doing?  I think we oughta start flying with virtually every instrument covered.  Let’s teach pitch.  Let’s teach the sound of the airstream.  Let’s teach how the world looks at 1,000 feet off the ground.

For flight instructors, there is another thing you can do:  Tell the student that few have ever crashed with the horizon being visible.  Or, when in doubt, put the nose on the horizon.  That takes care of airspeed in a pinch.

I learned a valuable lesson simply by watching one student’s over-reliance on one instrument.  And that instrument just may be the one I start with when I start covering all the rest of them (my turn coordinator has been covered for years).  We were flying Jeff Stanford’s lovely L2 in which I used to do Tailwheel Endorsements in St  Marys, GA.  As we passed the point of intended touchdown on the downwind, he had the carb heat on and had closed the throttle.  So far, so good.  After trimming for normal glide, he turned base and then final.  And that’s when he disclosed his weakness.  Sitting behind him, I noticed that the nose was much further down than it should be.  By lowering the nose, he’d changed the glide slope dramatically.  He may have increased the speed, but he was heading for the swamp short of the runway in which a bunch of ‘gators hung out, hungry for the flesh of dumb pilots.  I was perplexed and amazed.  Why were we heading for the swamp?  I asked him.

“He may have increased the speed, but he was heading for the swamp short of the runway in which a bunch of ‘gators hung out, hungry for the flesh of dumb pilots.”

“We’re just too high”, he replied and tapped the altimeter for emphasis.

Jeff and I had discussed that altimeter.  We’d both noticed that sometimes it kinda stuck as you descended, but after a few hundred feet it would become unstuck and quickly indicate the proper altitude.  All it took was a tap on its face to make it loosen up and indicate correctly. But neither of us really cared. The student had just given it such a tap and suddenly the altimeter’s needle swung counter clockwise and indicated the proper altitude.  He squawked and pulled back, unknowingly returning the airplane to the correct glide slope, its airspeed suddenly indicating the desired approach speed as well.

The metaphorical light bulb that is permanently affixed to my think bump suddenly illuminated as I realized what had happened.  He was actually depending on an instrument to tell him his altitude in the pattern.  And this “student” was a flier with a Private Pilot Certificate in his wallet.

To this day, I have been telling all of my students to ignore the altimeter, once on downwind.  You see, the human eye is actually more important than an altimeter.  It simply needs to be trained.  Just as the human body is as accurate as the ball of a turn coordinator and the human ear can recognize a change in airspeed.  A magnetic compass may swing erratically in turbulence while a human eye can nail a heading by paying attention to a point on the horizon that’s supposed to be dead ahead.

So if you show up at Tailwheel Town only to find that the only instrument on the 140 that’s visible is the oil pressure gauge, you’ll know that I took my own advice and that the days of instrument gazing are over.  You’ll also notice that, as in the “Wizard of Oz”, when Dorothy says to Toto, “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore”, you may say to yourself, “This sure isn’t the Acme Flying School…. We must be in Tailwheel Town!”