Practice? For What!

"Do you see a dry lakebed over on your side of the plane?" I asked my front-seat passenger.

"And if I don't?"

I passed our aeronautical chart across to my bearded friend, Len, a professor at the University of Nevada.  He likes to answer questions with questions.

In the conterminous United States, there are few places you can fly where radio navigation is not abundant. The country is sprinkled with hundreds of omnirange stations, for you to tune in and steer by. Like TV stations before cable, they are limited to line-of-sight transmission, which means that at lower altitudes in hilly terrain, you sometimes cannot receive even a nearby station.

Such was the case once for a flight to the Grand Canyon. No big deal. You simply use 'pilotage.' There is something called GPS, of course, Global Position System -- except this particular flight took place in the early eighties before light planes were generally equipped with GPS, which works everywhere -- well, all over the globe, anyway. Unless your GPS is on the fritz.

"We're too low to use radio navigation," I explained to Len. "But wouldn't you rather stay down here and enjoy the view?"

"Don't tell me you're 'dead reckoning'," Len grumped.

"I won't."

Len peered down at the desert below. With a shrug, he handed me back the chart. On my side of the plane, I spotted a mining camp I had been looking for. I noted the time and computed our groundspeed.

"Dead nuts on course, Len," said I with a grin. "You can be dead sure that our destination is dead ahead."

If Len was amused, he hid it well. I told him that according to one theory, the 'dead' in front of 'reckoning' is an unclever variant of 'ded', which is short for 'deductive'.  "I prefer the term 'pilotage'."

"So do I," said Len.

For the next hour, until we received a useable signal from Grand Canyon VOR, I delighted in primitive, radio-free pathfinding. I was Saint-Exupery in Wind, Sand, and Stars.

Our course took us over terrain which is deservedly called the Badlands of the West. Get lost out there and you're history. Meanwhile, for checkpoints you have a few dusty trails that all look alike -- the same must be said for hills and gorges, buttes and extinct volcanoes. Everywhere sage and sand.

At one point I became carried away with my 'orienteering' aloft, predicting and pointing out obscure landmarks in the rapidly changing scene below. "This is really good practice," I exulted.

"Practice?" mused Len. "For what!"

Rajgarh strode into my office one Monday morning while I was on the phone. I gestured an invitation to take a chair. He reached across my desk and pressed the hook switch. I put down the phone.

"What's the idea, Dick?" asked I, more surprised than annoyed.

Rajgarh is an elegant, dark-skinned chap from India. We had nothing in common except that we both flew airplanes, which means we had everything in common. I may have been the only person he allowed to Americanize his name, first to Richard, then Dick.

We had swapped a few flying stories. Rajgarh's were always told in exquisite English diction. I was about to hear his latest.

"Won't you please instruct your secretary to intercept your communications," he said and sat down.

It had happened that very weekend. He was flying with his wife and another couple in a rented Bonanza, westward from someplace in Arizona. Without warning, the engine swallowed a valve at 12,500 feet on a moonless night. The lights of Needles were barely visible in the distance, shaped by a curve in the Colorado River.

No way can I tell Dick's story as well as he did. Suffice it to say that he glided the crippled plane safely for a straight-in landing.

"I was somewhat high," he said in conclusion, referring to altitude not state-of-mind. "An 'S-turn' during final approach took care of the matter most satisfactorily."

"And your passengers?" I asked.

"Our wives exhibited serene composure throughout the whole experience," said Rajgarh, smiling brightly. "The other gentleman, though, fainted."

We both laughed.

Dick held up his hand: "Which might not have been especially inconvenient, except that, as you may know, the Bonanza has only one door. Unconscious, the fellow became an obstacle to our egress."

Dick and I sat for a while, nodding solemnly to each other without speaking.

Throughout every flight, we single-engine pilots warily study the environment below -- within "gliding-distance" -- ever cognizant of the surface winds, looking for level places with clear approaches. 

We play out in our minds frantic scenarios brought on when that noisy contraption up front stops swinging those paddles around.

Each landing approach is a rehearsal for some silent moment when pushing in the throttle will be unavailing.

I stood up and offered Rajgarh my hand. "Ya just can't be sure ya c'n do it 'til ya do it, can ya."

"Indeed," he said. "One never can certify absolutely to one's own competence in regards to a given task until one has been afforded an opportunity to accomplish it."

An engine-out landing is like cardiopulmonary resuscitation, something you practice for but hope you never have to do. Dick's words are equally true of all practiced skills, including those required for intended tasks: delivering a baby, pleading in court, and -- well, landing an airplane on instruments.

Which reminds me of a story...

Instrument flying takes practice. The regulations require "six hours of IFR every six months." It is not always easy for the weekend pilot to stay 'current'.  Often the weather is merely too good. Yet, consider the devastation I once experienced, following a period of many months with no practice.

Toward the end of an especially tiring interval on full instruments, I was cleared to the LIZZE intersection. For the moment, that was my limit. Until told otherwise, I had to fly a holding pattern, which is quite a challenge for a pilot out of practice. While turning inbound, I was given permission to "ladder down."

Excuse me, I must acknowledge the call.

    "Out of five for four thousand."
Descending now. Watch that turn coordinator. Am I ever rusty! Wonder what LIZZE stands for.

Any moment I should be told to proceed inbound for landing at La Verne Brackett near Pomona, California.

    Still holding. Level at 4,000. Coming up on LIZZE again.
My first trip into Brackett was in Two-Four Fox with Penny back in 1967. A 28-year-old brunette with freckles and long tresses, Penny was intent on becoming one of this country's first female airline pilots. She was accumulating hours in the right seat of light planes giving instrument training.
    "Expect further clearance at :20 past the hour. Time now is :17."
Three minutes, not four.  Hmm, if I fly the outbound leg for only 30 seconds, that will also cut 30 seconds off the inbound leg. I shall hit LIZZE inbound toward the airport in exactly three minutes. Hot dog!

Most of my time with Penny was spent practicing approaches -- you should excuse the expression -- "under the hood." That particular training session, approaching Brackett, was made especially memorable: We were flying in and out of cold, soggy clouds, and --

Oops, back to business.

    Outbound from LIZZE now.  Start timing.
Fighting turbulence is tiresome. I'm looking forward to getting this flight over with. Where is that approach clearance?

Penny liked to ask me hypothetical questions during the most critical times, intended to load me up while I was already busy under the hood. "What would you do if you lost contact with Approach Control?" she asked.

"I would..."

All at once and with no warning, the engine made an awful sound: "Ratta-tatta, ratta-tatta,..." Like a Gatling gun. I checked the manifold pressure. It was low. By reflex, my right hand pulled on the carburetor heat. The sound got worse, the sure sign of carburetor ice. The stuff had accumulated gradually, unnoticed. Now chunks were breaking off directly into the intake manifold.

    Turning inbound toward LIZZE again. Check altitude.
No clearance yet.  That probably means another four minutes of holding.

Where was I in my story? -- oh, yes: Engines don't run on ice, so, of course, ours sputtered and gasped and shook the whole plane.

"Do you understand the question?" Penny demanded.

Right about then, I was ready to rip off the hood and look for a hole in the clouds. Practice is over. No time for games. "Come on, Penny. We have a problem here!"

"What is your 'clearance limit'?" she asked.

"Umm, well, I haven't been cleared for the approach yet, but..." The engine coughed, rattling its mounts again. I might have wanted to say shit but didn't.  It was the sixties, you know, and there was a lady present. I took a shuddering breath. "I should continue to the outer marker and then try to contact the tower, I guess."

"And if the tower doesn't answer?"

"Penny, I do not remember right this minute what the regs say."

She proceeded to recite chapter and verse on no-radio approaches. While she spoke, I sneaked a peek under the hood. She was staring straight ahead. Her face was as leaden as the solid clouds outside the window. She swallowed hard. "You will not find any regulation that requires you to stay in a holding pattern if your one and only engine quits!"

In retrospect, that line makes me chuckle.

Thirty seconds are up, time to turn inbound again toward LIZZE.

    Bank left; watch heading indicator.
Nobody can say I didn't get my money's worth from that lesson. The engine in Two-Four Fox did eventually smooth out. "Cleared for the approach," said the controller, cheerfully. "Contact the tower at the outer marker, good day."

"Do us both a favor," said Penny. "Carry an extra thousand feet on final." It was her first experience with carburetor ice, too.

    "Cleared for the approach; contact the tower at the outer marker."
Hah!  Same as that day so long ago with Penny. Imagine practicing an instrument approach with your carburetor icing up.

Descending now on the ILS, I see the localizer needle telling me I am on course for the runway at Brackett. I may be rusty, but it's coming back. Penny taught me well. Wonder if she made it as an airline pilot.

The idea now is to level off and intercept the glide-slope for the final descent.

    Level at 3,200 feet.
On course for Brackett now, just waiting for the needle to drop through. There it is -- panel light and tone.
    Key the mike. "Outer marker, inbound."
Four and a half miles from touch-down. There is much to do. First jot down the time.

"Time won't wait," Penny would be saying. "Funny how difficult clocks are to read when you're on instruments."

Funny, yeah.

    Reduce power, apply carburetor heat.
Don't want any goddam ice this time.

There was another time, I remember well: Penny was giving me a practice session on the GCA at El Toro, when all of a sudden...

Uh-ho.  The radio.

    Punch in the tower frequency.
Instead of reminiscing about Penny, I should have been setting up the radio. The frequency for Brackett tower is 118.2, so... On the panel I see that I have descended below the glide-slope and I am drifting right of course.
    Correcting left, increase power.
Now my wings are banked left, continuing the turn. What heading did I want?
    Still below the glide-slope.
For some reason, I feel compelled to finish setting in the tower frequency. Gotta tell the tower I'm almost there. Pick up microphone for a quick call.
    "Brackett Tower, Two-Four Fox, outer marker -- "
Penny slapped my hand. "Never drop the plane to fly the microphone."
    Mininum descent altitude? -- check it.
What's this? Am I correcting the wrong way? And now the glide-slope needle is saying "Fly up!"
    Wings overbanking, left.
"Watch your heading!" Penny would be shouting.  Oh, right, and there is a low hill on the left, south of the airport. I gotta take a quick look at the chart for runway heading.
    Wipe hand on trouserleg.
"You're not supposed to go below 1,660 feet!"
    Altimeter reads...cripes!  Altimeter reads 1,400.
The turn is tightening. Heading: 210 degrees -- way off. I am angling toward that damn hill!
    Full power, pull-up.
Things have gone to hell.
    Too late.
Terrain dead ahead. Shit.

I unstrapped my knee-board, and stood up, trembling. My legs could barely lift my weight. I pulled the curtain back and stepped out of the simulator.

"Not too good," said Gary, my instructor for the instrument refresher course that day. "For starters, look at these holding patterns." He pointed to the tracings recorded by the plotter.

What were supposed to be racetracks looked more like kidney beans.

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