Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Teaching in the clouds (literally)

As we executed our assigned missed-approach procedures off of the VOR 17 approach at McGregor, the ground rapidly faded from view. Passing through 3,500 feet, we were now in actual IMC (for you non-pilots, we were in the clouds). This definitely wasn't my first time in IMC, but there was a difference. Now, I was in the right seat. I was the instructor.

As we climbed into the cloud, the day's convection gave us a couple of "spikes" on our Vertical Speed Indicator. In this situation, if you pay too much attention to this and too little attention to your Airspeed Indicator and Altimeter, you'll let yourself get fooled into thinking you're in a climb. Push the nose over, start building excessive airspeed and/or mistrusting your instruments, and you're in trouble.

I'll admit that as we got ready to go I was thinking about a colleague in Houston who got a little cocky and took an instrument student up in weather that was down to minimums on lesson #1. He was rewarded for his hubris with a case of the "leans" (where you basically don't know which was is up). They survived it, but I've seen the flightpath on and it wasn't pretty.

Shortly after entering the clouds, my student (who is, by the way, progressing well) had a moment of fixation on the VSI and I could tell he was beginning to get the leans. He didn't panic, but I think he got a little overwhelmed. It surprised me how quickly I was able to get the airplane straightened out and calm him down, all while keeping us on the assigned leg of the approach.

To be fair, he really didn't freak out on me---he stayed really calm, and although I knew he was pretty concerned and he admitted later that I'd taken over exactly when he needed me to, I think this was a good experience for him. He knows what fixation looks like in real-world flying, and what the leans feel like. The importance of the instrument scan never had a better demonstration. Maybe yesterday will keep him alive someday.

I'm not trying to make a big deal out of what really was a minor event. I've just always harbored this suspicion that my first time instructing in actual IMC would be some kind of defining moment for me as a pilot. And I think I was right.

I talked to a fellow instructor yesterday---I almost feel cheesy calling him a "fellow" instructor because he has 1800 hours in the right seat---who told me that at 1800 hours he's still trying to figure out what kind of instructor he is. I'm sure I'll be the same way. We always have to adapt to the student, the conditions, and the airplane. But moments like yesterday nudge me in the right direction, proving to me that I'm good at this and I'm meant to do this.

I'm flying with the same student again tomorrow, and I'm ready to go back into the clouds with him.

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