Simulated Instrument-Only Flight

As part of getting a private pilot’s license, the FAA requires instruction in flying by instrument alone. Instrument ratings are a seperate deal all together, and let you fly routine flights in the fog or cloud - a region forbidden to the VFR only pilot. However, things happen. People make mistakes; weather changes, whatever. So, in the end, FAA requires at least basic training - enough to do a 180 safely to get out of the clouds you ran into, or to get help over the radio, and follow instructions.

First off, flying without outside reference is hard. Balance is hard without vision. I’ve experienced this outside of the plane environment, and after this weekend, while at the controls. Try walking in unfamiliar territory with your eyes shut - and notice how you tend to wobble a bit more. Or, keep track of what direction you’re going while you’re in the passenger seat of a car, keeping your eyes shut.

So, for the purposes of the exercise, we put on what they call a hood. Think blinders for horses, only these blinders block my view of the outside world, and still allow me to see all my instruments. The point is to learn to trust the instruments, and override the body’s sensations of what it thinks is happening.

My instructor put us into a steady turn while I had the blinders on. After a couple minutes of that, you really get used to the sensation, the pull of gravity, the centrigal force, etc. Especially, since you’re fairly balanced amongst all those forces when in a coordinated turn. “You have the controls, level us out.” Now, when you go and fix that turn, it feels like you’re going from straight to a turn - not from a turn to straight. This is VERY disorienting. I can see very much why periodically someone gets into the clouds, freaks, and plows into the terrain.

We spent over an hour doing this sort of thing. Turn this way, turn that way. Turn 180, stay at altitude, and keep it “standard rate”. Do a 360. Go up. Go down. Basically, his job was to watch traffic, keep me from killing us, and tell me what to do - much like an air traffic controller might, if I called in saying I got lost in the clouds. All this went pretty well after the first minute or two of disorientation.

I can say I was looking forward to this lesson. It was indeed fun. I could however see wanting to do more of it for practice. I’m not sure if I *want* an instrument rating. Scratch that - I want it, I’m just not sure I want to depend on the skills from it. Flying blind is not fun!

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