The following article first appeared in the October, 1961 issue of Air Facts. The wisdom found in Bob’s advice is still sound 50 years later. And, yes, we really did do “canyon approaches” back in the good old days.- Ed.
A Little on Instrument Flying
How to take the effort out of it.
To whittle one needs a sharp knife and to fly instruments in bad weather one needs sharp instrument flying ability. There’s enough to think about in weather without worrying about how to fly the airplane. That should be natural.
Well, how good is good? How do we get good? How do we stay that way?
Somewhere we learned to fly instruments, how to hold a heading and altitude, climb and descend, recover from unusual maneuvers — and we got a rating. But the next thing needed is to explore honestly how well we really fly instruments. Not how well, really, but how relaxed.
Before a person can obtain a rating, he must be able to confirm to certain standards. Grimly he can hold headings, keep altitude and sweat through the test, but what we need before any serious weather flying is done is an ability to fly instruments with freedom and ease so that it’s as automatic as flying on a nice clear day with a sharp cut horizon.
To do this we need practice and, in a way, it’s practice easy to get — it doesn’t even have to be under a hood or on instruments. Because if we fly with a purpose and demand close tolerances, we do the job.
A Way of Life
Let’s say we take off on a short sunshine flight to most anywhere. The flight should be pre-planned in our minds, even though the planning may be done quickly. But a thought toward what we are up to and how we are going is important. We pick a precise climb speed and decide on an altitude. Then while climbing we stick to that airspeed as closely as possible — a knot either way, two at the most. When the altitude we’ve planned on, or revised as we got in the sky and decided to fly higher or lower, is reached, we clamp on and hold it — fifty feet either side isn’t asking too much. Then we pick a heading and fly it within one or two degrees.
In other words, when we fly, we do it with a goal rather than just drifting around the sky wandering in altitude, air speed and direction.
The question pops into mind about the pilot looking inside too much while trying to fly so precisely and therefore not paying enough attention to traffic outside. But this is an important part of the “game” because the object is to fly with exactness and yet spend very little time looking at the instruments.
The Secret of Precision
The trickery of instrument flying is scanning, never allowing eyes to be locked and staring at one thing for more than an instant. Instrument flying is like juggling and to concentrate on one ball when there are four in the air means we’ll drop them all.
The thing we are after is an ability to look at an indication, get the message, do something about it and then pass on to the next thing in a motion that doesn’t stop but keeps going. This done successfully means we repeat and our scan gets back to the first thing before it has had a chance to run off on its own and get out of hand. Our simple flight, holding airspeed, altitude and heading can be done with only passing glances at the instrument panel in between good looking outside.
The idea of always flying with a purpose will bring about ease in instrument flight. Every flight should be flown with definite objectives and then a Spartan-like resolve to meet the exactness.
As it Gets Easier
As proficiency advances, we can throw in more stuff. Why not, as we fly along, tune in and set up an omni radial and fly it, stick right on it?
As our flight nears its destination, we can figure a rate of descent. By subtracting the field elevation from our altitude, we know how many feet to descent. An exact descent rate can be set up — 300 feet per minute has always been a popular figure in unpressurized airplanes — and then during descent we try to keep it as 300 feet per minute exactly.
We can enter pattern altitudes at the exact altitude and reduce to an exact airspeed. We can know our approach speed and stick to that and plan the approach to make it one of precision.
And all these things are done during VFR flying, with a minimum of looking inside the airplane, doing the job by scanning with eyes that wander all the time like a healthy male on a beach full of bikini-clad sweet things.
Goal: Subconscious Scanning
It is amazing how such flying will make one at ease flying instruments. And this ease is needed. When in instrument weather we need the ability to fiddle with radios, find information on confused charts, write down clearances, fix the carburetor heat, copy weather information and do a lot of other things. So it’s of big importance that we take the manual labor of flying by instruments in stride and not have any more fuss doing it than we do flying VFR. What it all boils down to is policing all our flying and creating exact standards. Everything we do, if done with a plan in mind and then followed, will reflect in all our flying and we will build character and give class to our technique that is like the difference between a neat house or one with dirty dishes piled in the sink.
Now someone may complain that such an attitude detracts from the freedom and fun of flying. Well it doesn’t, because once the habit is formed and the ability created there’s more freedom than ever.
But does this precision flying tell if I’m good when things get wild and out of control? Yes, it does, because with this ability to fly you simply don’t get into trouble and that’s important. If you scan quickly and often and keep the airplane exactly where it should be then it isn’t going to get in a wild spiral dive or go off in a desperate and unwanted maneuver.
But we should know about our ability with these tougher things. This requires a hood and a friend for looking outside. The idea is to demonstrate to yourself that you are master of the machine — and this doesn’t require any wild didos either.
Private Check System
We start simply by doing a turn with a bank angle of 45 degrees. Hold the airplane in the turn while keeping altitude within 50 feet. Not one 360 — a person can be lucky and with a nice entry make an “unconscious” 360 that’s perfect. What we want to do is grind her around for a good three turns — a 1080 — and if you hold altitude through it all, well, you’re a good man — or woman.
Now when the turns are finished let’s just reverse direction. If we’ve had the right wing down, then bring it up and over and go into a left turn and grind around for a 1080 that way still holding altitude within 50 feet.
After we’ve leveled off and rested a minute or two let’s do another steep turn by this time vary altitude during the turn. Establish a 500 feet per minute descent and descend 1000 feet, then level off again and continue the turn through 360 degrees, holding level within 50 feet. We don’t particularly advise this in reverse, that is, to try and climb while making a steep turn, because it’s leading in the direction of a stall and we are trying to keep away from wild maneuvers when you really don’t need them to prove the point that a person can fly instruments.
With steep turns out of the way we can start on an exercise that has become popular for instrument checks because it proves a pilot’s knowledge of the inter-relationships of stick, rudder and throttle and his ability to juggle a lot of balls at once.
Set up level flight at an airspeed about 30% above stall and hold exact altitude and heading for one minute. At the end of the minute put the gear down — if it’s retractable — and approach or landing flaps, whichever the airplane uses on approach and ILS, and descend at normal approach speed. Hold the heading and this descent configuration until 2000 feet are lost, then level off holding altitude and heading with the same configuration of gear and flaps as in the descent — hold it for one minute. At the end of the minute make a climbing turn, retract whatever is out and climb at normal climb speed back to the starting altitude, leveling off on a heading 180 degrees from the one you started on. In multi-engine airplanes they generally cut an engine during this climbing turn and this requires some clever work to keep her where you want to go. (I saw a guy do all this in a 707 while eating an apple! Talk about relaxed flying—!).
It’s a good maneuver because it gets at a lot of basic abilities plus concentration on timing, headings and altitudes. Being able to do the maneuver from memory is a good test too.
If a person can satisfy himself on his ability to turn steeply as mentioned and do the exercise outlined within close limits he should be able to keep out of trouble.
These maneuvers ought to be tried from time to time for a check on proficiency and to be certain we haven’t slipped.
We never will slip, get sloppy or out of practice, if we continually work toward precision and smoothness. And this returns to having a plan whenever flying and then flying with a smooth steel-edged neatness all the time.
Practice on instrument approaches can be done VFR too and it’s almost a sin to make a landing on an ILS-equipped runway, fair weather or foul, without turning it in and following the localizer and glideslope. If possible, every landing should be out of a practice approach even if one is looking out the window. If we are alone, flying ILS must be on a very glancing basis because observation of traffic and where the ground is demands attention, but even quick glances at the localizer, glide slope, heading and rate of climb tell us a lot. With a friend along we can concentrate more on the ILS, but we should look out too at frequent intervals.
Like an Autopilot
Flying with a purpose makes us better pilots. A good pilot is a busy pilot. He tunes in stations, takes bearings and plots them with at least his thumb nail if not with plotter and pencil. He follows an ADF and tracks in or out of a station, he computes true air speed, ground speed, and listens on the radio for what’s going on around him. And while he does all this he flies exact altitudes and headings. Flying this way can become automatic; then when the creepy white clouds fold over the airplane it really doesn’t make any difference.
Modern flying demands this kind of discipline and it will pay off when things get tough. Yes, unless you are lucky enough to fly sailplanes, the free drifting about the sky becomes more and more a thing of the past, but the new interests and challenges make up for it and flying remains as wonderful as ever.
Bob Buck was for a time the youngest licensed pilot in the United States and in 1930, at age 16, he broke the junior transcontinental speed record in a Pitcairn Mailwing. Because the age requirement for licensing was soon raised to 17, his record stands to this day. Bob went on to a career at TWA, flying as Captain in everything from the DC-2 to the 747. Bob became chief pilot of TWA in 1945, accepted delivery of the airline’s first Constellation, and flew the first TWA revenue flight in a 747. His book “Weather Flying” remains a best seller on that subject and his memoir “North Star over My Shoulder” was published in 2005. He was a steady contributor to Air Facts and to The Reader’s Digest. He died in 2007 at the age of 93.