It’s funny the way that things associate in your mind. I’ve been flying a little bit these days, all under visual meteorological conditions, since practically the only instruments kept up to snuff in the Vargas we fly are the altimeter and airspeed indicators. Not like the little planes were ever intended for instrument flight.
I’ve been flying the odd instrument approach on my laptop, dreaming of someday flying hither and yon despite the occasional puff of cloud or veil of mist. And heading to work today on the bike I was faced with the kind of fog an FA-18 pilot would silently fume at, knowing that his odds of breaking the surly decreased with each passing moment. It brought so many things back.
Riding a motorcycle in traffic is as close to flying as a man can get without actually strapping on a plane – your sense of being a part of a machine and operating it on the margins is very similar to flying at low level in a fighter because the wise rider – like the fighter pilot – is constantly aware of his environment in the way an automobile driver does not ordinarily need to be. There are no coffee cups to sip from, no emails or text messages to check, no NPR reporters to shout at when driving a bike. You are entirely in the moment.
Flying is like that.
They break you into instrument flying gradually in flight training. Simulators all the way through of course, and plenty of time “under the bag” in basic and advanced jets, but you don’t get your solo “cloud card” in the actual airplane until fairly late in the process. Relatively early in the advanced training syllabus, but some 230 hours into a rigorous and winnowing process for all that.
Private pilots are free to auger in at their discretion – the Navy expects that every man will do his duty and bring the fracking airplane back.
Aircraft instrumentation is broken down into three categories: Control, power, and performance. The control group consists chiefly of an attitude display of some sort – gyros indicating pitch and bank in most aircraft, while power instruments display engine parameters: Throttle setting, RPM, exhaust gas temperature, oil pressure, and fuel flow. Performance instruments synthesize the contributions of the previous two: Airspeed, altitude, rate of descent.
The instrument pilot in up and away flight will spend most of his time on the attitude gyro, scanning his performance instruments alternately before coming home to the gyro again. If you keep the wings level, the compass shouldn’t wander much, and if you set the proper nose attitude airspeed, altitude and rate of descent tend to take care of themselves, given the proper power setting. Attitude is everything, both in life and in instrument flight. The attitude gyro in most military aircraft is divided between gray (sky) and black (ground). Gray is good, black is bad. Nose attitude controls airspeed, power controls rate of descent.
When you’re flying formation in bad weather you give it all over to God, however. Or to your flight lead, at least. Who might as well be God. He owns the whole ball of wax; attitude, airspeed, altitude. There’s scant opportunity to dart your head away from the lead to glance at your instruments when you’re clagging around in the serious goo – the most immediate danger is a mid-air collision, and a mid-air is always the wingman’s fault. You stay on your lead’s wing as though your life depends upon it, because it does. Match his nose attitude and bank angle, airspeed control becomes a matter of nose-to-tail. The marriage that’s lasted 50 years probably has a little less trust in it than the relationship between a wingman and a man he might have met for the first time an hour or so ago, at least when he’s leading you through the clouds.
Today’s fog reminded me of one hop I had with a Marine captain called “Spud” way back in the way back when. It was an intercept hop – a lead in for air combat maneuvering – and the home drome was socked in from eight hundred feet to 35,000 on the way to the operating area. We made a formation take off from the field, I had a moment or two to get the airplane cleaned up and stabilized, then- poof! – we were in it for thirty minutes at least. Which can seem like an eternity, when you’re flying wing and admitting discomfort is considered a critical weakness. Weird weather, perfect visibility to fifty feet away, but no reference at all to the world beyond that. I felt like I was flying formation on an airplane painted on a gray canvas. It was surreal.
Your inner ear messes with you in that kind of weather. You can end up feeling like you’re upside down, with every synapse screaming at you to level the wings and climb! It’s called vertigo, and the antidote is trust. Complete, self-abnegating trust. Giving it all over.
I broke out of the weather over the coast feeling like a prisoner escaping from jail, spent another thirty minutes performing high speed radar intercepts and then it was time to head back into the clag. Another 30 minutes lining the wingtip missile launcher up on my flight lead’s ejection seat head box, squaring off the exhaust pipes to lock myself into proper parade position. Matching every move he made. Entirely in the moment. It was nerve wracking, but eventually he coordinated separate ground controlled approaches – thankfully while we were still above 2000 feet. I broke away when he kissed me off, leveled off as he descended and was never so happy to once again be master of my own fate.
It doesn’t always go smoothly of course. When I was in basic jets a kid ahead of me in advanced was flying on the wing of his lead in some really nasty stuff. Locked in position, doing the best he could. Shortly after take-off, the lead spent a little too much time looking over his shoulder, making sure that his student was staying in position. He was out of trim I guess, but whatever the reason, he let his airplane roll into a “unusual attitude”, even as the wingie stayed locked in formation.
The lead was lucky to have an instructor-under-training in his back seat. Less personally invested in the student’s performance perhaps, the back seater came back into the cockpit in time to see the attitude gyro filling up with black – the lower half of the display. The ground half. The altimeter was unwinding, the airspeed increasing.
He wrestled the flight controls from the front seat pilot, leveled the wings, levered the nose back towards the horizon. Sensing the building g-forces, he pulled the throttle to idle and deployed the speedbrakes to minimize the radius of turn. The radar altimeter went off, still set for 200 feet. The spinning altimeter started to unwind more slowly, paused. Started to wind back up again. The backseater closed the speedbrakes and advanced the throttle again. Once safely recovered, the two of them looked back on their right wing. Saw nothing there at all. I never asked them what that felt like. There are some things you don’t want to know.
The student never had a chance. I suspect that when the lead disappeared suddenly in the goo, he tried desperately for the critical moment to find him again, because staying in formation was the one thread tying him to the world that we know. None of the instruments could have made any sense, the sound of the radar altimeter going off could not be processed in a world literally turned upside down. And then the darkness fell.
You trust because you have to, because there are no other choices.
The instructor pilot went to the fleet. His backseater qualified as an instructor pilot in time.
Everyone agreed that it was a lovely service. The missing man formation was especially well flown.
It’s funny the way things associate in your mind.