Basic Flying Instruments
By: Ralph Shultz

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Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were ever to fly into bad weather or lost your horizon reference? How could you control your plane without that visible horizon?

As you already know the safest thing would be to never let this happen. But what if you, as a Challenger or other similar aircraft pilot, found yourself in such a situation?

Many Challenger flyers have come from the ranks of GA with experience in light GA aircraft. These aircraft generally have instrumentation suited for IFR flying, Challengers and other U/L types don't. GA aircraft usually have much higher wing loadings and don't bounce around in choppy unstable air as much as the lower wing-loaded ultralight-types do.

Most GA pilots have received at least a few hours of training in the control of their aircraft while under the "hood." These pilots have probably already been introduced to what I'll call the concept of flight control by the use of "Basic Flight Instruments." This concept says that all flight instruments can tell the pilot more about the airplanes flight attitude and path than just what they were designed to do.

The key here is the introduction of the concept and training in reading and interpreting these instruments. With this knowledge, some practice and a cool head, pilots of ultralight-type aircraft will be better and safer.

This may be a good a time to point out that your basic flight instruments will not allow an untrained pilot to safely control an aircraft in true IFR flight for long. Actual flight statistics have shown that a pilot untrained in "instrument flight" may have only about two and a half minutes to live after proceeding into conditions requiring instrument flight competence.

This article is intended to introduce the concept of collectively reading and understanding of basic flight instruments to pilots of very light aircraft, such as the Challenger, and to pass on some flight control ideas that may help save your life if you ever find yourself in the "soup" so to speak.

The instruments found on most panels today include the following:

  1. Airspeed
  2. Altimeter
  3. Slip/Skid Indicator
  4. Compass
  5. Engine RPM

These are considered the principle "Basic Flight Instruments". Each of these instruments tells something about the others. Most pilots have been taught that flying in marginal VFR/IFR conditions requires an artificial horizon instrument. This is true, but all may not be lost without one.

Consider the following facts:

  1. An airplane will fly straight and level at a given power setting and speed.
  2. A proper turn is initiated by banking the wings.
  3. A properly rigged, balanced and trimmed airplane tends to continue, at least for a time, flying the maneuver it is in until some outside force changes it's course or behavior.

For this exercise let's assume you do not have an artificial horizon installed or working. Now think about the above facts for a moment. Thinking --- more thinking. Now think; what basic instrumentation does a pilot have on his panel to reinforce what he sees out the windshield?

Well let's look at what we have.

For wings level and turns there is the turn co-coordinator (if paneled), slip/skid indicator and the compass.

For flying at a constant altitude there is the altimeter and maybe the vertical speed indicator (if paneled). Well, maybe the airspeed indicator and what about the engine RPM?

Ahah you say, I think see where this is going.

All right then, lets talk it through some. Up until now we've been thinking in terms of reinforcing what a pilot SEES outside the cockpit. Now lets think in terms of not being able to see outside the cockpit, being unable to see the ground or the horizon.

Considering the above three observations or flight facts, a turn without a visual horizon can have serious ramifications. When the airplane is in an unplanned turn, its wing must also be banked (that is not level). Without the horizon this can lead to a more serious attitude. A pilot must learn to understand the airplane IS in a turn by noting what these instruments are showing.

Try to visualize what is happening when the compass is recording a changing azimuth, the altimeter showing a decreasing altitude reading and the airspeed indicator showing an increasing airspeed. Any two of these instrument readings can give a pilot some clues as to what may be happening to the aircraft's attitude and flight path.

A third instruments reading helps to nail it down even more. In this situation a pilot should recognize the plane is in a descending turn and his response should be to smoothly reduce the power to idle, keeping in mind any possible pitch changes this might result in.

Next, stop the aircraft's turn by centering the stick (ailerons) and applying the appropriate rudder. If this does not stop the turn, apply more aileron and rudder.

With the altitude decreasing, slight backpressure on the stick (elevators) should be added but only after the turn has been stopped (hint, check the compass). To add a lot of backpressure at this point could agitate the plane's flight condition making it much harder to recover to a normal flight attitude. The airspeed should begin to go down and then stabilize at a safe acceptable speed.

Don't rush to apply more stick backpressure or add power. Try not to chase the airspeed, as that will almost always have you behind the airplane and getting more behind with each cycle! Put in a correction and wait to see what effect it has before making further correctional inputs.

In some situations, particularly if you find yourself having to descend through a cloud, it is better to fly the airplane using the rudder and throttle alone, with very little or no stick inputs, making small correctional inputs only while keeping the heading and speed constant.

Remember too much speed and unleveled attitudes will kill the airplane and you along with it.

The number one killer in this scenario is the rightfully feared "death spiral", which is an increasingly steep descending and constantly tightening turn. If ever you think you may be falling victim to it remember above all else that it CANNOT be recovered from by adding backpressure to the stick.

Your best chance of survival may be to momentarily take your hands off the stick, cut the power and try to stop the turning (level the wing) with heavy rudder use. Once an uncomplicated dive is established, slowly and smoothly add backpressure while monitoring the airspeed throughout the dive recovery. Remember, you really want your wing to stay attached throughout the recovery.

It may pay you dividends to practice the skill of interpreting instrument indications as related to the airplanes flight path. Try to infer what each instrument is adding to your minds eye picture of what may be going down (pun intended).

One of the unusual attitudes new instrument pilots in training are put through goes something like this. The student is put under the hood and told to put his head down, bend forward, and look at the floor. The instructor then puts the airplane into a shallow dive with turns in both directions. It is then eased into a steep climb. Just at the stall the airplane is pushed over into something akin to a wingover. At that point the student is told he has the airplane.

Usually the first thing the student looks at is the artificial horizon instrument, no help there, it's tumbling. His next move is to try to determine, by a quick scan of the other instruments, whether or not his wings are level. At this point every fiber in the students body is screaming out to him conflicting signals about what attitude the plane is in and what the airplane is doing.

The student has, over and over, had it drummed into him that if he wants to survive he MUST NOT listen to these signals. He MUST, and I repeat MUST, believe what his eyes and instruments are telling him. This is very difficult because believe me what his body is telling him is NOT what the instruments are saying.

He has been taught that, after cutting the power and releasing the stick backpressure, getting the wings level (stopping the airplane from turning) is the most effective way to begin his recovery.

Well it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if you are to survive in a situation such as this you must be able to interpret your instruments, no two ways about it. You need not try anything as severe as the above attitude, but do try a few climbing and descending turns to a stall, watch your instruments to see how they respond to the maneuver. Take a flying buddy along just to be safe. With someone along you can actually do some instrument flying while under the "Hood".

The graphics below may help you in relating to and understanding what the instrument indications are telling you.

What the instruments are showing:

Figure 1A

All instruments steady, compass showing West
What the airplane is doing:

Figure 1B

Straight and level

Figure 2A

Airspeed dropping, altitude increasing,
ball centered and compass steady

Figure 2B

Straight ahead climb

Figure 3A

Speed increasing, altitude decreasing,
ball full right and compass moving south

Figure 3B

Stalled and dropping left wing and turning left

Figure 4A

Speed increasing, altitude decreasing, power
to idle, ball has been centered stopping compass

Figure 4B

Straight ahead normal dive recovery

Figure 5A

All instruments steady with cruise power

Figure 5B

Normal straight and level
- recovery complete

Note: This practice may convince you that trying to fly an airplane in IFR conditions for more than a couple of minutes without the proper instruments and training may be more than you ever want to tackle. So be it. At least you have done the mental exercises and you will be safer for it.

NOW HEAR ME ONCE AGAIN! I am not suggesting that your basic instruments will suffice to safely control an aircraft thru an IFR flight.

However, if caught in a situation of decreasing visibility due to darkness or flying into clouds or the horizon and the ground becoming obscured, they could be the only means by which you can try to save your life. We all know that flying into the conditions above are not smart or cool to do, but don't panic if you find yourself there. Instead, remind yourself why these instruments are called "Basic" instruments and learn to fly by interpreting what they are individually and collectively telling you.

Remember the often repeated advice about the 180 turn, it really is very good advice. Do it at the first signs of visual obstruction of the outside airspace. Try doing the mental excises, do some practice in flight and, if you ever have to, you may stand a better chance to make things better. Without this knowledge you might just as well bend over, pray and kiss your behind goodbye.

In summary, the basic instruments found in virtually every airplane flying today can keep its pilot more or less informed about its attitude and flight path. It remains for the pilot to learn more about what these instruments are really telling him and to believe those instruments over what his senses and his body are saying.

For those flying with electronic "Glass Panel" instrument packages, everything above is the same for you except you must refer to and learn to interpret your particular electronic instrument readings.

One last thought, in poor flight conditions, bad things usually start with an unleveled wing and a pilot not properly trained in the skills presented above.

Always fly with your head, stay ahead of the airplane and stay safe.