Commercial Maneuvers and Cross-Country

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2.5 yesterday KPTK-KMBS-KPTK. I’m seriously considering the commercial certificate, but I have very little PIC cross-country time to places more than 50 nm away. Partly because I got my instrument rating under Part 141, which doesn’t require PIC cross-country time. So I started the day with 22.6 and ended with 25.1.

Even if I’m just going to go out and maneuver, I’m making a real effort to try to touch someplace more than 50 nm away every time. That usually means Saginaw (KMBS). The weather tends to come in longitudinal fronts so, if it’s clear at Pontiac, there’s a decent chance that it’s clear on the way to Saginaw. Or at least a better chance than there is that it’ll be clear somewhere to the west. (I have no problem with east as a cardinal heading, but east for me is Canada and the attendant administrative hassles.)

There was a huge 80 to 100-mile wide cloud deck centered on Saginaw, but it was at least 5,000 feet AGL, which allowed us to fly 4,500 MSL on the way up and 5,500 MSL on the way back. Shot the ILS Rwy 23 and did a pretty decent job of it.

This is also my third flight in the 172RG. I’ll have the 10 hours of retractable time required for the commercial done in the next flight or two, but I think I’ll probably fly this aircraft for the checkride (whenever that happens), so I have no problem getting a lot more time in it.

The other objective was to go see the commercial maneuvers and, in particular, chandelles, lazy eights, steep spirals, and eights on pylons. We haven’t has ceilings that would allow for these maneuvers on any of my prior scheduled flights this year in the RG, so I was really pleased to finally get to do them.

As many of you know, I’m not a natural pilot. I’ve had to really work hard to get the maneuvers right. The instrument rating was easier for me than the private, believe it or not. I just don’t have a good kinesthetic sense. Or at least not the kinesthetic sense of the 23-year-old CFIs with whom I so often fly. Punks! (Extraordinarily talented punks that I greatly admire, by the way.)

So I was really pleased by my performance yesterday. Yeah, I have some polishing to do on a lot of the maneuvers, but I actually flew them reasonably well! I think I love lazy eights. Everything changing in all three axes, but changing at rates and with relationships that you command. And Chandelles are just plain majestic on a cold day when you get really nose-up and climb with brute strength.

Maybe I got the kinesthetic sense after all in a weird way when attitude instrument flying finally clicked for me. I do attitude instrument flying very well and maybe the hood made me pay attention to what was going on empirically (according to the gages) so that I can nail stuff like that now VFR. Even with the distraction of a view out the window!

Anyway, I can see a lot of trips to Saginaw in my future, as well as training for the commercial maneuvers. I have a lot of time to build before I’m qualified to do the checkride, but hey – it’s flying. Please don’t throw me in that briar patch!

The obligatory CFI shot. Meet Dale. He’s a graduate of Western Michigan University’s aviation program and flew well on the commercial demonstrations.

This is the thi9rd different CFI I’ve had in three flights in the RG. Everyone’s a little different in terms of how he or she flies and teaches and that’s fine. But I need to come up with my own checklists and flows for this aircraft.

More than once I had an issue with the gear. Nothing huge. I don’t think that I would have landed gear up. But nearly-as-stupid things like wondering why climb performance sucked so badly after recovering from eights on pylons and heading for home. And then having Dale remind be that we could bring up the gear if we didn’t want to dangle them all the way home.

I do fear the gear-up landing. For myself, I know that mistakes like that are usually task overload. And the best thing for that is to have checklists that I understand and that I can run every time. I think I’ll clear up the gear thing and lots of other issues (prop, carb heat, clearing the engine, and other things that I missed at various times) when I can really sit down with all of the information I’ve received from those with whom I’ve flown the RG and put together my own checklists.

Dale had a particularly good flow. Red, blue, green. Red for the mix, blue for the prop, and then green for the gear-down light (and look out the window for a wheel). Probably easier to remember than GUMPS for that airplane. Anyway, I’ll integrate the best of the pest and go from there.

CAP Form 5 for round-gage instruments scheduled for Sunday at Ann Arbor (KARB). I’m going to go back to DCT Aviation and fly some sim on Saturday to prepare, but I think I have a pretty good chance of passing. We’re flying a C-172R, N992CP (CAPFLIGHT 2028) and CAP SM Scott Gilliland will also be doing his VFR Form 5 that day.

As you might recall, I got Form 5′ed VFR-only in August. They had a C-172P for the check with a panel that I’d never flown. I didn’t want to try to do a full-up instrument checkride on a strange panel, so I elected to go VFR only. Now that I have the chance to fly a C-172R (in which I have something like 80 hours in model and five hours in this particular aircraft), I feel good to go for the instrument ride. It has an Apollo GPS, which which I have only the most rudimentary VFR experience, but we’re not going to be flying any RNAV approaches. Still, I like having the instrument approach overlays for situational awareness and I need to get through the manual before Sunday to see if I can get that part down.

I did the weight and balance and, as long as we launch with 30 gallons of fuel or less, we can probably fit all three in the aircraft. Might be cool. I haven’t ridden in the back seat of a C-172 since I was a kid. Might be nice to see someone else fly for a change. Of course, that means a peanut gallery for my part of the ride, but Scott’s a good guy and will probably remember to reposition his mic before laughing out loud.

Administering the ride will be check airman Capt Alex Craig, who has solid aerobatic and other credentials and flies a Bonanza when he’s not serving with CAP.

As always, I enjoy objective tests of my pilot skills. And a CAP Form 5 check is always a worthy test.

Spatial Disorientation Simulator

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen online right here by clicking:

I spent some time recently at the Great Lakes Aviation Conference and Expo in Novi, Michigan. While there, I took advantage of the opportunity to go through the Spatial Disorientation Simulator made available by the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute.

It’s a box that contains a single seat with a video screen and flight controls in front of it. You sit in the box in the dark and you fly some basic maneuvers like a climb and some turns. You have a horizon for the first bit of the climb and then you ascend into the clouds.

While you’re concentrating on flying, the box you’re sitting in rotates around its vertical axis something like seven to 12 times per minute. It’ll also pitch forward and back a little.

The simulator lets you experience two vestibular/somatogyral illusions: The coriolis illusion and the illusion that can put you in the so-called graveyard spiral.

The coriolis illusion occurs when you stimulate the semicircular canals by suddenly tilting your head while the aircraft is turning. The simulator rotates slowly for several minutes while you’re flying a simulator. You get used to the rotation and you begin to accept the sensations from your semicircular canals as telling you that you’re flying straight and level. When you move your head forward or back after this, you get the sense that the aircraft is moving in all three axes. I got the sense when I moved my head forward that the aircraft was snapping down and to the right. And the opposite when I moved my head back.

The graveyard spiral happens when you return to level flight after a prolonged bank turn. When you enter the turn, you feel the sensation of a turn in the same direction. If the turn continues for an extended period of time, you lose the turning sensation. Your body has settled into a stabilized mode that’s more or less just like level flight. Then you level the wings. That produces a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction. If you believe the illusion of the turn (and it’s very compelling), you’ll re-enter the original turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of the opposite turn.

If you re-enter the turn, you’ll continue in that turn and you’ll start losing altitude. If you pull to get the altitude back or apply power, you’ll only make the turn tighter. If you don’t recognize the illusion and level the wings, you’ll continue the left turn and keep losing altitude until you augur in.

The smooth rotation of the box lets your vestibular system get used to that rotation so that leaning forward and back gives you the coriolis illusion. It can also change rotation to give you that really, really convincing feeling that might lead to a graveyard spiral.

Today’s episode comes in two phases. First, I take the MP3 recorder into the box and fly the simulation. The simulation takes something like nine minutes, most of which is pretty quiet and consists of my flying a climbing turn. I’m going to accelerate the process by fading the audio up and down to tell you where I’ve omitted audio. You’ll hear the simulator giving me vectors and other instructions and, after each of the effects, the initial explanation of the effect that I just felt. You’ll also hear me give a “whoah” at appropriate times. I had intended to give a little more commentary, but I found that the illusions were so compelling that I was processing them myself and couldn’t really talk much about them. I guess that’s what the commentary on the show is for.

At the FAA staff’s suggestion, I exaggerated my head movements to really experience the effect. Note that I didn’t have to move my head much at all to get a really wild sensation in the graveyard spiral demonstration.

So here’s the simulator ride.


Afterward, I talked to Rogers Shaw, the team leader of the Airman Educational Personnel. Here’s the interview.


The take-home for this episode is that the things that the textbook tells you about physiological illusions are real. They’re very real. Even though I knew for a fact that I was in a box in an exhibit hall in Novi, Michigan, the sense of opposite rotation was overwhelming. If you’re going to fly on instruments or without a good horizon, you need to know that these illusions can happen and that they can happen to you. I’m glad that I experienced them for the first time in a simulator in Novi and not in an aircraft.

If you have the opportunity, go through this simulation. But even if you don’t, know and understand that your noggin is much more likely than your instruments to lead you astray. Flying in the clouds takes discipline in a number of different respects. Probably the most important is the discipline to get on your gages and believe them, even when everything you’re used to from walking around on the ground is screaming that things are wildly amiss.

Instrument flight is transcendental in many different ways. My personal favorite is breaking out of a cloud layer in a climb and then dragging my wheels in the cloud tops. But the price for that is building the ability to transcend what your senses have told you all your life and to rely on the science and instrumentation in front of you.

Thanks to the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute for bringing the simulator to Novi. Make sure to watch for it at a conference or other event near you.

FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute
Aerospace Medical Education Division
AAM-400, PO Box 25082
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73125
Telephone: 405-954-4837
Fax: 405-954-2305