Audio Blog, 10:00
With only one day remaining before the Phase 3 flight exam of Army pilot training, my best buddy John G. Ramiccio and I were in trouble. Neither one of us could consistently execute the critical maneuver needed to pass, the ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach.
The ILS approach allows a pilot to use cockpit instruments to safely land on an airport runway with minimal visibility. Regardless of the progress we had made so far in the first two phases, “washing out” of flight school was now a real possibility. Needless to say, we were stressed.
Ramiccio, nicknamed “Meech”, was a natural pilot, and an all-around good man. Smart, focused and practical, he also had a fantastic sense of humor that usually lightened the mood when the stress level was high during flight school. To this day, I consider him a good friend even though we have not actually seen each other in decades.
Note: Meech is a true patriot who has now served our country for over 34 years in various capacities including: Standardization Instructor Pilot, Instrument Flight Examiner, and Chief of the Flight Systems Branch at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. He currently is at the Naval War College enrolled in the prestigious Defense Senior Leadership Program.
But back to the story…
Whereas the first two phases of flight school focused on basic maneuvers such as hovering and autorotations, the third phase included eight weeks of instrument training, including flight simulator work and actual flight time in the UH-1 Huey helicopter.
Instrument proficiency is necessary to manage Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), weather conditions that require pilots to fly primarily by reference to instruments under instrument flight rules (IFR), rather than by outside visual references in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC).
We progressed from basic instrument procedures to flight on federal airways using FAA navigation systems and air traffic controlling agencies. If we could manage to successfully complete this phase, we would become instrument qualified and receive a helicopter instrument rating upon graduation.
The difficulty of learning how to fly the aircraft with instruments is that we had to demonstrate flight proficiency without actually looking outside of the aircraft. For flight students like Meech and I who had just recently learned how to control the bird, this was quite a mental and physical challenge. The experience was almost surreal, and could lead to dangerous illusions – Visual, Vestibular (related to fluid in the inner ear) or Proprioceptive (vibrations and feel) – that disorient the pilot and cause fatal mistakes, such as in the tragic crash of John F Kennedy, Jr.
Our Instrument Instructor Pilot was a small French fellow named Don Charest, on exchange from the French military. Instructor Charest was very rigid, precise man who spoke in a high-pitched voice with a fast cadence.
During training, he made sure that we did not look outside of the aircraft (to cheat) by making us wear the “hood”, a plastic helmet bill that funneled your vision into the cockpit. It was very unnerving at first, but learning to place confidence in the reliability of the instruments over your limited vision, is the foundation of all competent instrument-rated pilots.
That day, I was in the right seat, sweating profusely as I struggled to fly the aircraft under the hood. Instructor Charest was in the left seat, with his metal teacher’s pointer out, just lecturing away in his high-pitched voice. Charest used the pointer to identify important information on the cockpit dials, but had the highly annoying habit of tapping my helmet when he felt that I was not responding to his commands.
A good ILS approach keeps the horizontal and vertical lines pegged in a perfect cross, representing your accuracy in following the FAA’s designated safe ILS approach into an airport.
However, if the vertical needle gets pegged all the way to the right of the instrument, you have strayed too far left, and need to correct by turning the aircraft right to re-intercept the course. If the horizontal needle is pegged to the bottom of the instrument, you are too high above the designated glide path, and need sharpen your descent to get back on the glide path.
As I focused my tunnel vision on the cockpit instruments, the vertical needle was pegged all the way to the right…it was a mess.
“Now turn back right, Frankie.” Tap-tap-tap on the helmet.
I immediately followed his command and turned hard right but ended up overcorrecting, which then caused the needle to cross the center and peg to the far left. At that point, I could hear Charest barking out corrections.
“Come on. Turn left, Frankie.” tap-tap-tap.
Somehow, even with his verbal guidance, I was unable to keep the aircraft on the ILS course into the airport. I could feel my blood starting to boil, as I literally was flying “S” patterns on my approach into the airport, totally unacceptable to the heartless flight examiner who I would have to face the next day.
Frustration was building between us, as he thought I was ignoring his advice, but it simply was not working. So, I blew a gasket and literally screamed at him in the middle of the approach. “I’m in a *&#@*%@ left turn!” He screamed back at me.
I actually thought that when we landed at the airport, there was going to be a fistfight. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed moments later, or I would have been packing my bags the following morning.
Meech sat in the back “jump seat” just watching the ugliness, knowing that he was also not yet ready for tomorrow’s exam.
On the way back to the barracks, Meech and I talked about the day’s drama. We knew were “dead-men walking”. It was just a matter of time. We were going to “bust” the instrument flight exam in the morning, and the dream of earning the silver flight wings would likely end badly.
That night back at the barracks, just when we were out of solutions, I shared my dilemma with fellow student pilots, who had different instructors. From the discussion, they identified that the major problem was that we were overcorrecting in our turns in order to re-intercept the designated course, which was causing the overshoot and “S” turns.
Instead, they recommended that whenever we needed to get back on course, simply turn for second or two, then straighten the aircraft out and wait until the aircraft angle intercepted the course. It was a simple and practical solution, and we immediately understood how to implement it on the exam. The (mental) dark clouds parted, and the sun started to shine again!
The next morning, both Meech and I nailed the ILS approach during the flight exam. It was such a sweet turnaround in fortunes, in less than 24 hours, and paved the way to graduation day.
Whenever I think of that story, I am reminded of a valuable lesson: Sometimes it helps to get another perspective.
Instructor Charest was certainly a skilled and knowledgeable instructor pilot. However, on this one maneuver, he could not seem to communicate to Meech and I, the obvious solution. Of course, he probably had already identified what was happening, but he did not effectively articulate the solution in a manner that connected with us.
On the drive back from the flight line that day, I would have never imagined that a bunch of inexperienced fellow pilot wannabes would provide such a clear and workable solution. Sometimes, just when you are ready to accept a negative fate, you get lucky and stumble into a positive outcome.
This happens many times in education, personal relationships, sports and in the workplace.
For example, many relationships are saved when struggling couples decide to seek advice from a counselor who provides a fresh perspective.
A new professor can cause the proverbial light bulb to illuminate in a confused student’s mind by explaining a complex subject in a unique manner.
A creative coach can turn around a losing sports team in one year by simply instilling a positive attitude.
As many athletes have experienced, sometimes you just get lucky and the ball bounces your way. You just never know how things will turn out, so keep playing until the whistle blows.
Whenever you are frustrated in life and run out of ideas, go get a fresh perspective from a trusted source. It may work.
It ain’t over, until it’s over.