I like to fly. Lots of reasons, but here’s one of the best: there is a moment during an instrument departure when – just for an instant – your head breaks out of the clouds but your body still feels engulfed in the mist. For those amazing few seconds you have a real, stationary frame of reference, and the sensation of brightening whiteness, followed by that incredible rush of speed as you punch through the top of the cloud deck, and the cotton turns to a blur as it roars past your ears…well, that’s worth the work it takes to do such things.
On the last day before my Instrument checkride, I departed from Santa Monica airport with my flight instructor to my right and my gorgeous pilot girlfriend in the back seat. We were given a clearance to climb to 4,000 ft. out to an intersection called SADDE. I expected we’d pop right out of the thin marine layer in a few seconds, as we usually did. But nooooo. This was several thousand feet thick – and dense. I can tell you in all honesty we could not see the wing tips ten feet away. It’s like the windows were painted white. Flying on instruments is just like regular flying, only you can’t see anything.
So barreling through the air at about 180 mph, I began my right turn towards SADDE. A glance down at the Turn Coordinator, a nice standard rate turn to the right, airspeed’s good, the engine seems happy…and then I notice that the Attitude Indicator – also known as an Artificial Horizon and my main view of the world outside – is showing me in a turn to the left, and increasing – fast.
Turn Coordinator showing right turn…Artificial Horizon showing one to the left. And in that instant, I felt something grab me by the toes. It was the sharp, tearing claws of panic, working their way into my shoes. I’ve had two engine failures in my flying career, and both of them were immediately followed by this same sick feeling. That fear has to be stepped on right now. If you start thinking about the hundreds of JFK Juniors I’ve read about and all the airplane wreckage scraped off mountainsides like the one I was approaching, then you are already most of the way to being dead.
Craig, we got a problem here. That was what I said, if in a vocal pitch that only dogs and flight instructors could hear. The turn coordinator and the AI are telling me different things!
He turns and looks at me calmly. Bummer!, he says casually, showing why the vast majority of CFI’s are not killed in training accidents but rather choked to death, found with finger-shaped bruises to the left side of the neck.
Then he gave me the best piece of advice I have ever received.
Kick its ass, he said. And that was it.
But that was all I needed to hear. God damn right! I’ll kick its ass!
That’s a decision you make…a decision to not be ruled by fear and panic. It is a decision to take all of those hard-wired instincts that have brought us so far – the fear of falling, the rising desire to just call for help then curl up in a ball – and put them away. Forget what the seat of your pants is telling you: that’s an express elevator down to an NTSC report with your name on it. The Attitude Indicator shows a turn to the left. Turn coordinator shows a turn to the right. But! Both the heading indicator and the whiskey compass also show a turn to the right. The A.I. – my only intuitive look at the world outside – is lying to me. I force myself to realize it is outvoted. We’re not turning left, like the little airplane wings on the little horizon in the little picture. We’re turning right.
This is the essence of training: the ability to do the right thing, not the instinctive thing. It is the voluntary placement of the human above the animal, the cerebral cortex above our reptile brain, which can be very LOUD in times like these. It is, in the end, a call to trust: trust your instruments, trust your airplane, trust your training and ultimately to trust yourself. This willing shift, this prying the claws of emotion from the inner voice of reason… this is the very essence of civilization. Trust what thousands of people have literally given their lives to teach us, even if it goes against instinct, survival and fear. Trust... It’s what makes the whole thing work.
Meanwhile, I need to notify Air Traffic Control that we’ve got a problem.
Socal approach, Experimental One Echo Foxtrot has a failed attitude indicator.
One Echo Foxtrot, roger. Do you wish to continue the approach?
No sir. What I’d really like is for someone to get a really big f***ing ladder and get us out of this mess.
Affirmative, One Echo Foxtrot will continue inbound on the ILS to Burbank.
One Echo Foxtrot, roger.
It’s much, much later that I wonder how and why the human animal – which when you get right down to it should really only need enough brainpower to make a sharp stick to throw at a gazelle – has enough reserve neuron connections to build a civilization so complex that a hairless ape like myself can chase a set of white needles across a four-inch instrument, while hurtling blind a mile up in the air at 150 knots without leaving nail and bite marks on the plexiglass. But, somehow, that’s what I did.
A few minutes later, I could see a patch of ground directly below, and then, after a little more needlework, we popped out beneath the layer. There, dead ahead, were the flashing approach strobes…Burbank Airport, right where those damn little white needles said it would be. Truth to tell, I was actually slightly to the left of the runway centerline, and Craig, my mute flight instructor in the seat next to me, was slightly to the right of it. That is a hell of a feeling, coming home to civilization, to an airport beacon right where it was supposed to be, to leave death up in the grey soup just this once with a weird, indescribable, clearly paradoxical mixture of burning pride and deep humility.
How many people were there with me that day? Not just the obvious two – Dana and Craig, whose support kept my monkey brain in the back of my head to return to throw pooh another day. How many guys were watching me on radar, keeping me separated from far, far better men and women who do this in their sleep up there? How many people did it take to make the instruments, to mine the silica for the glass, to tap the rubber for the wires? Who laid the asphalt on the runways, who built the filaments in the approach strobes, and who attached the ceramic tips to my spark plugs? And how many millions of other unseen connections had to be made to allow me to do, routinely, and on a middle-class salary, what billions of dead men and women would have given a lifetime to taste – just once. In those few minutes I just told you of, I stood on the shoulders of millions of my brothers and sisters, not the least of which were two sons of a preacher from Dayton, Ohio – now long dead but with me in spirit every day. I was atop a pyramid of dedication, hard work, ingenuity and progress, following rules written in the blood of the stupid and the brave and the unlucky.
I had tossed myself a mile into the air and landed safe in this Web of Trust.
Bill Whittle is one of the most beautiful writer's I've ever read. Please, go to Eject! Eject!Eject! and read all his stuff--the link is on my sidebar!