Aug 2, 2008

On Seeing ....

One day in the early history of aviation some pilot dared to fly into clouds and the term Vertigo was coined - perhaps from a contraction of olde German for "Where'd he go?". No one knows the name of this intrepid aviator and if he or she actually survived the encounter, but eventually someone must have come back alive. And I'm betting they immediately sat down to figure out what pilots need to fly "blind." This led to the invention of flight instruments, which until recently looked something like this:

Nicknamed the standard "six pack" they comprise (from left to right across the top): Airspeed Indicator, Attitude Indicator and Altimeter. (while across the bottom we have): Turn Coordinator; Direction Indicator and Vertical Speed Indicator.

Each instrument has its idiosyncrasies that we must respect. But they aren't mysterious. Pilots can control the aircraft using only these gauges after a few hours of practice. We can even cut the casings open to analyze how the guts work if we want to understand them better.

Today, a typical flight panel looks something like this:

Situational awareness is definitely enhanced. Especially if the screen also includes an electronic map. But now the potential for information overload looms. And don't bother cutting anything open. Besides voiding your warranty you won't find much to look at besides microchips, solder and wafer boards.

But, the demands on the aviator remain the same.

During visual flight training pilots expand their normal perception abilities to navigate in three dimensions. And we get pretty good at it. But even at our best we're still pretty awkward compared to say, birds. When we add instruments to our bag of tricks though, we extend our flight envelope beyond our feathered mentors.

But it's a strange and unnatural experience. Our brains must now convert what our eyes see into something we can comprehend about the world around us. A world we know well but must see more with our memories than our vision. It's a little like viewing the Mona Lisa through coke bottle glasses and recalling what that smile really looks like.

Maneuvering an aircraft this way is much more demanding than visual flight. That's why, when the weather is poor airport traffic backs up. Approaches take longer. Everything takes longer. We need more time and airspace to make things happen.

Consequently, at the end of a long day's work as we turn towards that final landing there's nothing so sweet to a pilot's ears as an ATIS* message declaring: "Visual approaches are in effect..."

(*ATIS: Automatic Terminal Information Service - a report of current weather conditions)


jcal7 said...

One of the most challenging things I've ever done was get my IFR rating. Harder than graduating great colleges and grad school. The difficulty of changing the way your brain is wired to view the world through 6 different and distinct images is really tough, but when it clicks, it really clicks. I have noticed the toughest part is not being either "in" the IFR frame of mind or "out" of it, but transitioning (either way) is crazy hard.

ifrflyer said...

I agree. The transition phase is definitely the most challenging. Not so much when there is a sudden, clear jump from one to the other, but more when the conditions are marginal VFR and I'm cleared to fly a visual approach behind traffic that I can hardly see.

Eventually I learned to fly IFR all the time, and just add the window view as one more tool in the scan. That worked much better.