Trust Your Instruments
December 20, 2017

Many years ago now, back in the late 80's, I was a young and ambitions SCUBA instructor.  I went through the various levels of SCUBA training fairly rapidly, and realized later when looking back that I really hadn't been trained very well when I initially took the Open Water Diver course.  When you're an Open Water diver, you're starting with nothing and by the time you are certified you basically have proven that you can survive underwater on a good day, if the emergency isn't too severe.  It was lucky that my favorite method of learning is generally to "read the manual", because a diligent reader I most definitely was,  so long as the topic was one that was interesting to me.  Training to be an instructor was actually some of the best general training I could have had.  It forces you to really absorb the material you read, and doesn't give you the chance to be a student who just goes through a 2 weekend course.  Once you pass your OWSI (Open Water SCUBA Instructor) course, you don't just know the material, but you know the importance of it and how to teach it.   It was by actually teaching compass navigation that I went from just being a glassy eyed student to being someone who knew the how's and why's.  But again, other than teaching, demonstrating, and observing a student swim out for maybe 100 kicks in one direction, reverse their compass, and return, it wasn't so much a critical skill as it was a learning exercise.  There was no risk, and you could cheat for the reward and simply swim back to the instructor.  Where it really hit home for me was when compass navigation was something I really had to rely on.  More life and death.

I was on an under-ice recovery of a pickup truck with a plow that went through a local lake.  It wasn't very deep...maybe 15', but the ice was too thin to pull the truck up through, and it was a couple hundred yards from shore.  We had a small hole cut near the pickup truck, and I had spent a day diving down with mostly zero visibility as I worked around the truck surrounded in silt, to attach lift balloons to it, to lighten the plow end of the truck.  The goal was to lighten or float the front of the truck, and then use a shore-based tow truck to tow the truck towards shore.  The requirement was to cut a very long hole, maybe 60' long and 10' wide, near shore, to provide a way for the truck to simply roll up the slope of the lake and rise through the ice.  But before we could tow the truck, we had to get a rope from the hole by the submerged truck all the way to shore, so the tow truck winch cable could be pulled back to the sunken vehicle.  I will never forget submerging myself under the ice, lifting my head above the water to view shore, then setting a compass course for the hole by shore.  Visibility in that lake is 10-15' on a good day.  You have to swim that couple hundred yards mostly blind, and very straight, or you won't make it to the other hole.  My saving grace was that I had a rope to tow with me to the other hole, that I could follow back if I were lost.  But, just the day before I had been entangled in some rope under the ice with an iced up, free-flowing regulator quickly draining my tank, so I wasn't too thrilled to have the rope with me in that respect.  After I set that compass heading, I started my swim.  In my mind, I heard my own voice telling me to do just like I told the students...."Trust your compass".  You see, that's the most critical part of compass navigation...that you trust your compass.  Your body, mind, and semi-circular ear canals will do everything they can to tell you to that you're off course, and need to turn, but your compass is your true guide, and if you keep it centered, you should arrive at least near when you aimed.  I probably repeated "Trust your compass." 50 times in that little swim, until I emerged safely in the other hole.  It was applying this lesson in life at this young stage that unknowingly set the stage for future adventures.

As time went on, I got into boating on Lake Superior, taking trips to places like Isle Royale.  One day I had to return home in fog, with maybe 500' visibility tops, and it's 19-20 nautical miles to shore.  With some light waves coming at us from a left quartering position, I thought it should be relatively easy to keep on heading, so I just lined up the course, and started going.  It wasn't long before it was just plain hard to see which way the waves were coming from.  My eyes played tricks on me.  I didn't have GPS back in those days, but I did have LORAN, and I looked at my plotter and was amazed to see that I had nearly driven in a circle.  "Woah, what an idiot!", I thought!  "You have to use your compass and trust your compass!"  So I did, and we happily kept nearly on heading, except for the few hundred times my body told me we needed to go left or right and I started easing in that direction, only to catch it when I glanced at the compass, and re-correct.   It was a fun challenge, but really again showed me how critical it is to use and trust your instruments.  You'd think that would have really drilled it into me, right?  Ha, yeah, right.

Flash forward now to about the year 2000 or so.  I'm now a private pilot, and decide after going on a very very cool IFR flight with a CFI as part of my complex checkout, that the instrument rating is definitely in my future.  The utility of an airplane is so greatly increased by an instrument rating, I couldn't see sitting at home when just above those drizzling clouds is a beautiful blue sky.  So I started my instrument rating with another young dude as a CFI, and we began learning how to fly with reference to instruments.  Under the hood this stuff was great fun.  I love a challenge more than anything, and in these days there were no moving map GPS's on the panel.  The best I had was an Airmap 100 GPS and I had a couple of CFI's tell me, "Forget about that thing, you won't have time for it anyway."   Man were THEY right!  I spent all of my instrument training trying to navigate by lining up dual VOR needles, keeping a glideslope centered, and even swinging the ADF around to point to the NDB for many approaches.  It was all so vague and crude in one respect, because in order to understand where you were, you not only had to know what to expect of the needles, but how those needles relate to your actual position over a charge or approach plate.  I was actually pretty dang good at that!  I was pretty impressed, and thought I was progressing real well.  That is, until THAT ONE DAY.  I had heard many times that if you're going to learn instrument flying, get training in ACTUAL conditions.  You wouldn't think wearing foggles would be so different from just having a real white-out outside your window, but it absolutely is.  I think today even by having an EFIS in front of you, you're pretty much cheating in that you not only have a great horizon representation, but also a moving map.  But whether it was from my standard six-pack instruments or my lack of experience, I was soon to understand that there was one very big difference between actual and simulated IFR.

A CFI-I friend of mine and I decided to head to KDLH and back, to get some good actual IFR practice.  As I climbed out towards KDLH and entered the clouds, instantly I was completely overtaken with vertigo.  I had read about "the leans", this nasty nasty physiological phenomenon, many times.  I had book learned it real well.  And by now, I knew that the goal was to "trust your instruments".  But until it happened to me, I wasn't expecting the absolute enormity of how this feeling can take over your body.  You can literally be in a 30 degree left bank, and be ABSOLUTELY convinced that you're in a 30 degree right bank.  NO QUESTIONS ASKED, you believe it.  My friend's voice was good comfort as I struggled to focus on the Artificial Horizon in front of me, and cross reference my turn coordinator, altimeter, and other instruments.  For him it was just another walk in the park.  Not too long prior he was slogging around the country in DC9's, flying behind the same crappy instruments as my 1977 Sundowner had.  Once we leveled out at 7,000', things began to get better for me.  I think the climb stage is the worst.  Level at 7,000 though, it was smooth and getting easier as time went by.  As we approached Duluth the controller noticed my slow speed and asked if they could vector me West to let other traffic fly the approach to KDLH runway 9 ahead of me.  I replied in the affirmative and we continued around with vectors every couple minutes.   My buddy stopped me at one point and I'll never forget him asking "So where are we right now on this approach plate?" and I pointed and was rewarded like the young pup I was, with a "good job!"  I was really getting into this stuff, and knew right where I was.

Before long it was time to fly the ILS to runway 9.  We were vectored for the ILS and headed inbound.  Ceilings were reported as 300' in light SNOW (what the heck!?! This wasn't even winter!?) with plenty of wind and gusts.  What had been a smooth flight turned into just the opposite as we intercepted the glideslope and localizer and headed downhill for the runway.  I say today with no uncertainty that my friend saved my life that day.  The gusts caused turbulence. The turbulence upset my equilibrium, and made my vertigo return like nothing I'd ever had.  I was turning the airplane the wrong direction, following my body more than the instruments.  I was fast and low on the glideslope when in my headset I heard the words "Slow the airplane down." in my pals booming voice.  I started to argue that I was below glideslope, and slowing down seemed counter intuitive, and that I was having a hard time fighting the leans.  It's lucky that he was no small dude, because I was doing everything I could on that flight to roll us over into terra firma. I could feel his firm hand fighting my erratic yoke movement, and then heard his voice again say, "Slow the airplane down." and once again I argued with him, and he said, "If you slow the airplane down it will all get easier."  With that I tried to focus hard on the attitude indicator and glideslope, pulled the power back on the airplane, and re-gained glideslope.  WHEW!  With maybe 30 kts lost, the turbulence was much less harsh, and the vertigo, while still there, was more manageable as well. And, with a little mushier feel to the controls, it was now harder for me to turn a small bad movement into a fatal one. :)  With my composure regaining it was time to start looking out the window as part of my scan to see if ground was becoming visible.  It didn't, until we started seeing some contact just as we were reaching 300' AGL, just as reported.  We broke out with the runway right in front of us, and it was a beautiful sight.  I will never forget that day, as it humbled me greatly as to my flying skills.  It was one of the most worthwhile moments in my entire life.  Thanks, Mike, by the way.  My knees shook as I entered the FBO for a quick rest before we turned around and headed home.  We were wearing shorts, of all things, having departed our area with temps in the mid-60's.  I was pretty fearful as we entered the cockpit for the return trip, but one thing I believe firmly is that if something shakes you, you need to confront it and get back on that horse, so I reluctantly got back in the cockpit and we fired it up. The return trip went MUCH better.

So it goes with all things must use and trust your instruments.  Without putting trust in your instruments, your faith in your ability to make the journey is minimized.  With flying, your goal is to never leave the ground unless the chance of making a safe trip is assured, based on your skills and planning.  Admittedly that doesn't mean you won't be tested along the way, but you should always know that your planning is solid and your journey will be a success.

The interesting tie-in that prompted this writing is that I was reminded of this the last 2 weeks as I was sitting in church, and saw the similarity we have with our relationship with God.  When you look at the statistics, the percentage of Christian believers is on the decline, and even over the past 10 years, people are putting less firmness in their belief in God and what the significance of what Jesus did for you really is.  It's as if people are thinking that it's all just a theory, not fact.  Now, I'm a thinking man, and I sometimes I can see how over-thinking something can lead you down the wrong path.  Admittedly there have been times when thoughts have popped into my head, especially when trying to rationalize some aspect of what I've been taught from the Bible or in church, that have lead me to think "but what if...".   It makes you wonder if there were possibly some conflict with the truths we've been taught.  To combat this, to be quite honest, I usually enlist the OTHER voice in my head (yeah, I have a lot of voices flying around in there!) to fight back, and verbally stick me back on the straight and narrow.  "KNOCK IT OFF, SATAN!",  I may say with a laugh.  I'm not stupid.  I know that we're constantly being pulled away from our path and from our beliefs and it's on purpose.  Evil can sometimes just show up as doubt, and before you come down on me for making doubt a nasty thing, remember that what Christians believe in is FAITH, and GRACE.  We *know* that we've been chosen, we *know* that we've been saved.  This is not something to question.  We *know* there is a God, and we *know* he gave his son for us.  While we may be tempted to sway those thoughts, if we are to have true FAITH, we must be happily willing to accept those things as true and believe without a doubt that there is a God, and he loves us.  His book, the bible, is our instrument.  There is plenty of factual information written by Christians AND non-Christians that will clearly illustrate that Jesus did exist, but the bible is our instrument by which we are guided in our FAITH.
We need to trust our instruments when we feel the leans of Satan come into our lives, and focus on our faith.  When someone asks you how you can believe in God, with their not being any proof...the answer is easy.  It's called Faith.  If there were proof, you wouldn't need faith.  Personally, having flown all over this country and seen the world from a macro view, and then read and learned so much about micro-physiology and many things on a micro scale, I am constantly and thoroughly impressed at the way the world was designed to function, and I see no option but to have Faith that there is a God who created it.  What I do NOT believe in, is that everything that we have, everything that we see, everything that we've studied, and every atomic interaction that created all the variety and function of every organism on earth, is all due to luck, and chance.  THAT is not something I could have faith in.  And if there is a God who created this amazing thing we call life, then certainly it is no stretch that he loves us, and sent his son Jesus to die for us, that some day we can have eternal life with him.

Now take that and ponder it as we enter this Christmas season in 2017!

Merry Christmas to you all!