Flight instructors carry those little soap suction cups around in their flight bags like prized currency; I know I always did when I instructed. They were invaluable tools; and we all know what they’re used for. Most students despise the very sight of them, too, because their emergence means partial-panel work is next. And if a student is savvy enough to sneak a quick glance at his instructor at that particular moment he might catch a menacing, evil sneer on the teacher’s face – in jest of course; all instructors well understand that not many of us enjoy partial-panel flying.
But how many of us continue to carry these pliable and unlikely instruments of torture after we’re through instructing others in the art of flying? There was one time in particular that I was very glad I had two of them.
I was flying the daily mail run in a saddle-worn Cessna 402 out of Abingdon, Virginia, through Roanoke and Lynchburg, and then on to Richmond on a very cloudy, turbulent, rainy, miserable night in mid-March. We had just leveled out at 5000 feet and ten miles west of Goose intersection headed east to the Lynchburg VOR when the radar approach controller in Roanoke called to inform me that I appeared to be turning toward the north. He asked if that were the case, and if so, why.
I replied, “No, I am straight and level on a current heading of 085 degrees, and I show I am just left of course.” He deferred, saying that I was slightly north of course, but continuing to increase my divergence from the airway. So, at that moment my ears were telling me that something was wrong, but my eyes countered the suggestion – saying all was well. As a result, my brain decided to put my stomach on a red alert and prepare for the great purge. And I hate that feeling…
In just a few moments I began to see the VOR needle start creeping its way to the right – a sure indication that I was indeed turning northward – even though my instruments continued to show that we were still straight and level. A quick glance at the magnetic compass confirmed the fact that we were, sure enough, in a left turn. Right about then the airplane began a gradual descent, but the attitude indicator continued to deceive me by showing a straight and level flight condition. This was crazy, and initially anyway, I was very confused.
There are many philosophies that can be pondered at a time such as this, I suppose, but there is precious little time to do so. To make a long story short, I was dumbfounded to realize that I was experiencing a vacuum failure, and that both my attitude gyro and heading gyro were calling it quits for the night. I was actually in the initial stages of an emergency situation. Where were the warning bells, where were the red flags? I thought to myself: “How insidious and cowardly this scenario is. I’m losing everything, and nothing is doing anything in spite of it.”
I like to think that because of my training and experience as a flight instructor I was able to keep calm and think fairly quickly. I simply reached into my flight case on the seat next to me and retrieved two of those blessed fifty-cent suction cups. Quick as a wink, I put out of sight the two offending traitors that were, in concert, leading me to certain doom. With my mind fully engaged in a “damage-control” mindset, I settled down to some serious partial-panel flying and informed the audibly-anxious controller that I would just continue on to Richmond where the weather was VFR.
Of all the emotions I could have displayed that night, the one I defaulted to was anger. With a few choice words and phrases I let the vacuum pump and the company management know I was very displeased at their lack of commitment to duty and personnel. But I also realized that gyro failures in instrument conditions, while dangerous, are not to be allowed to control us; we are there to control them. When you are the pilot-in-command, command. Let the machine know you have dominion over it; not the other way around.