Safety Pilot in IMC

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This article originally appeared in IFR magazine, Mar. 2006.

Flying the System

Bill's CFII was a 767 captain who wanted him to get as much real experience as possible. They hunted low-pressure systems from the West Coast to the Great Lakes during a wet February, sniffing out whatever light icing they could find. For those thinking, "Can you spell 'NTSB'?" I suggest you think about the typical instrument training under the hood. I recall flipping my visor up and down, but it's the day we launched in sour weather that sticks in my mind. I emerged hooked on training in the real thing. No hood can ever be as honest as a blank windscreen.

Into the Soup, Sans CFI

My CFII beckoned me to the dark clouds, just as Bill's did, so when Bill's instructor left to feed his airline job, I was open to flying with Bill so he could practice -- and practice in actual conditions. Yes, Darwin might argue against getting in an airplane with anyone learning in IMC, but Bill had several hours of actual conditions while instrument training in his Cessna R182. He was also a gifted pilot with an innate finesse. He owned the airplane where the latest 750 of his 2000-plus hours were in this one cockpit. I reasoned that, if his control manipulation was so subliminal, then all of his focused attention would be solely on IFR. The dynamic between us was one of respect and camaraderie -- though colored by him having four times my hours. On the other hand, my actual time outweighed my simulated, both added to a healthy proportion of my total time, and all of it was in our neighboring airspace. So we were each more senior than the other in our own respective ways. If there ever was a time to agree on PIC, this was it. Because students can't legally file, it had to be me. If I said, "My plane," it was hands off, no questions asked -- especially when he disagreed. If not, I was out. It was my responsibility, my license, and my name on the flight plan. Then again, it was his plane, his insurance, his -- well -- life, trusting my decision, should he have to override his own instinct. He agreed to my conditions, but I secretly tested him to be sure. We did his first VOR approach in somewhat marginal weather, just to feel it out. I waited until his radials and altitudes were at their most acceptable when I deceitfully called "my plane" and he let go. I could see him flinch, but to his credit he gave up the controls and did so with hands up as if cops had guns. He fought his instincts and trusted mine, though his scowl stunk up the cockpit with silent profanity. Fair enough. It was settled. We'd be flying partners every dawn before work, when the marine layer was thickest. I was convinced I was right in helping him out, but I had no idea how much I'd learn about what I already knew.

How Long a Leash?

On a 400-foot overcast morning while strapping in and checking ATIS, Bill demanded I not guide, remind, or help in any way. He said he'd never learn by only reacting to prodding and wanted the freedom to mess up. I understood his request -- instructors have a way of talking at just the wrong moment -- but watching localizer and radial needles swinging like pendulums, with pantomimed duct tape across my mouth, losing my situational awareness, and staring into nothing but gray was taxing. I started reading our CNN scroll at the bottom of the screen. After snarling at each other on the first flight, we clearly needed parameters. He wanted total freedom and I wanted him on the black lines. Here's how we figured it. The checkride allows maximum deviations of 100 feet and 10 degrees. I was willing to give him plus or minus 300 feet and 30 degrees in cruise (though I told him 200 and 20) with no more than three dots of needle deflection. Any more than that and I took the controls. Speed? In SoCal, land of private jets, the only speed we worry about is max. speed to the marker. It isn't until you have to put into words what you know that you will understand how complicated it can be. Condensing your jumbled thoughts into short, simple, sound bites are what a student needs most, but it's hard to be succinct and surgical in your explanations.

Trusting the Newbie

I now understand why all of my three instructors talked too much. They, too, wanted to make it home. It isn't until you have to put into words the jumbled principles that orbit within your instincts that you will realize how valuable it is to be able to trust the novice on your left, and how to dilute your point to the fewest words in the densest way so your student will not just hear -- but listen forever. Flying with Bill also taught me how to shut up and allow other ways of flying (potato, poh-tah-toe, pitch, power). There are many ways to fly that are as valid as how I learned. One study in the early '50s placed cameras on pilots' eyes to see how the best scanned instruments. They all had their personal patterns, but every one had one thing in common: They scanned everything, and very rapidly. We all fly with personal habits. As long as you nail your altitude, speed, and heading -- while having the next intersection already dialed in -- you're golden. We all have our personal limits. And if you don't have the mettle to help someone you trust in IMC, you're probably wiser than I and you're not alone. But something happens when you do. Last month, Bill called me up and asked if I'd be his safety pilot while he refreshed his skills. A storm front was rolling in and I realized I was grinning.
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