In my infancy in Aviation history, I remember flying my brand spanking new Mooney M20J with an instructor and my wife to the East Hampton Airport (formerly KHTO, now KJPX). The flight was only 45 minutes and the weather was blue skies and smooth. Upon turning downwind over the destination airport, I was executing a bit more of a Boeing 747 pattern than a Mooney-like pattern. I mean, I could see the runway on downwind without squinting my eyes. The instructor, a bright eyed and hold-all-criticism-back kind of a guy, was leaning a little into my right shoulder. I was oblivious to his intention, so I soldiered along and finally, as his spine angle kept increasing, I turned the base leg. As I lined up the runway, I felt he was leaning into me again as I tried to correct the alignment for the final approach. Finally, I landed to my immense relief, and probably to the unsaid emotions of the instructor.
I remembered that day for no other reason than that. So, it got me thinking. What if we can click open the brain vault of the pilot in the left seat and blow into it the whispers of when and how. Teaching aviation skills would be so easy. I think I might have found a mechanism which I call the “Leans and the Taps.”
I tried the “Leans” on a pilot whom I was teaching and suggested that if he saw me lean left or right, he was to take the cue that he had to turn. And if he felt pressure on the rudder pedals, it was me getting his attention for him not using the rudder. And if I was leaning forward towards the yoke, well, that gets obvious in a hurry. The result was I was able to get his attention only when leaning into him and via the rudder pressure. Ok, there must be another way, I thought. This wasn’t working well.
We now move on to trick number two. This was the “Tap” method by using a pencil and the boom microphone. When I felt the pilot was deviating from the straight and level during a procedure or a missed required function, I would tap the boom microphone instead of a litany of words. That seemed to work in IFR training in instrument conditions, but not in VFR conditions. While flying approaches in IFR conditions, one of the pilots tended to the “heavy-hand syndrome.” He would look for radios or navigation equipment on the panel to fiddle with, and his body would follow and bring the hand clutching to the yoke with him. The result was a 45-degree bank in under 10 seconds while in the clouds.
It comes as no surprise that I had to put my knee on the right side of the yoke to prevent the gross movements and use the tapping to get his attention. It worked! After a few increasing louder taps, he figured what was more annoying. And it wasn’t the clouds. Voila! I had found the holy grail or so I thought. In VFR conditions however, with the tapping, all I heard was, “That is annoying!” Aha! Maybe, I thought, I had gotten his attention without uttering a word in that scenario. He seemed to progressively do better, requiring in the end, a flight without the taps.
Was this it? Is this how we crack open the brain vault of the pilot who sits next to us? Protected by the headset separator without uttering words? It seems that a combination of both mechanisms worked like a charm. However, it is imperative that the pilot and the CFI have familiarized themselves with the technique before embarking on the flight.
And with all such manners of techniques that fill our minds with “how to,” there are necessarily problems that come into play. One such problem was verbalized by a friend pilot with whom I was trying out this technique. He asked, “Sounds good, but if that is the crutch that the pilot uses, how will it work when he is in the soup alone and there is no leaning and tapping going on?” A very sound argument to dismantle my entire scaffolding of the “CFIs for Dummies” book attempt.
And that is exactly what I encountered in flight one winter’s day over Pennsylvania. At 5,000 feet, we were coasting along in a smooth-as-butter atmospheric reverie when the clouds started to fill in the gaps ahead. My left seat guy was instrument rated and the aircraft was IFR equipped, but there was a hitch. When we entered the clouds, the pilot turned towards me and asked if I could reach in the backseat and get him his foggles. His autopilot was not functional because of a manually popped circuit-breaker, and hand-flying the aircraft was the deal of the day. In VFR conditions everything was a breeze, but filing IFR and then flying the route in IMC is the real deal.
I inquired about the need for foggles since we were in IMC. He said that he was comfortable wearing them becuase that way, he could feel it was really VFR and he was in a simulation. Hmm, I thought, no leanings or tapping was going to fix this. And it would take time to fix this little mystery. Perhaps more experience with a flight instructor would help too. It did! The human mind is a truly amazing design of information retention and expression. Sometimes there is a disconnect between the two and that is where we need to lay down new pathways to allow streamlined efficiency of thought and action.
As we march along this path of “how to,” we seem to collapse the mysteries of aviation lore. Instrument flight in IMC is the perfect place to help an instrument rated pilot excel in his abilities. A certain degree of caution and a tingle up the spine in entering clouds is a good thing, in my opinion. It puts our senses on full alert to the potentials that exist. It makes us take note of every nuance and jug-beat of the engine and every needle hesitation most of the time. It brings me back to what then, is the best method of gently entering that piece of bone that guards the the brain.
Perhaps it is simpler than the “Leans and the Taps.” A quiet means of communication with examples and experience might be the answer. Respecting the bounds of a nervous or fatigued or ill-prepared pilot and helping guide him or her to safety via a gentle push and pull of understanding the logic of the knowledge he or she has learned. Harsh attitudes are never instructive and complacent nuances lead to false understandings. It is the give, and then the ask, that guide understanding of the knowledge that wins the day. We gently fill the tube of knowledge with good information and then help the pilot squeeze it out during every flight. Over time, a vocabulary of thoughts begins to form and is expressed out in the gentlest of actions, in a light touch, in a symphony of slow and methodical movements, like the Maestro’s hands in Robert Schumann’s Piano quintet in E-minor.
Be Gentle in correcting mistakes.
And above all, watch for the Aha moment. That moment when the breakthrough occurs is what should guide all of us as flight instructors.