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"Watch the VSI- SIR!" A salutary lesson in instrument flying.

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"Watch the VSI- SIR!" A salutary lesson in instrument flying.

Old 20th Jun 2012, 11:01
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"Watch the VSI- SIR!" A salutary lesson in instrument flying.

On 15 June a thread appeared in PPRuNe DG&P General Aviation and questions. It concerned a fatal accident at night to a Cessna 310 that crashed very shortly after takeoff at Bathurst Island. NT. ATSB published a possible cause as somatogravic illusion that may have caused the pilot to mis-read his instruments. It was pure speculation because ATSB were unable to pin-point the real cause of the accident.

With most general aviation light twins of that vintage, the absence of recording data in the aircraft inevitably means the cause of accidents of this type is unknown - not a satisfactory outcome considering most pilots try to learn from accidents to others.

Some years ago in Auckland, a Convair 580 (turbo-prop version of the Convair 440 Metropolitan) flew into the water shortly after liftoff on a dark moonless night. It was the first officer's first flight in a Convair and she was was conducting the takeoff from the copilot seat as part of endorsement on type. The aircraft carried a known defect to the copilots artificial horizon in that on previous flights it was known to give faulty pitch and roll indications. The Convair used flaps for takeoff and normally these would not be retracted until the aircraft reached a safe height - nominally 500 feet. This was because there could be a marked trim change as the flaps retracted.

The investigation revealed that the captain had a personal habit of selecting the flaps up as soon as the landing gear started to retract - in other words around 100 feet. . Like most aircraft of its type, flap retraction caused a nose down change of trim. The Convair never got above 150 feet before it gently nosed over into the water. The crew did not survive. The investigation revealed the first officer was not only faced with a black night departure for her first trip on type but also had a faulty artificial horizon and a captain who was in the habit of retracting the flaps unannounced at a very low altitude.

A similar crash happened in 1950 at Camden when a Lockheed Hudson crewed by two pilots took off shortly after midnight into poor visibility and drizzle. A witness observed the landing lights of the aircraft as it climbed and then as it descended into rising ground half a mile from the departure end of the runway. The captain was an experienced Hudson pilot with many night take offs to his credit. The investigation into this fatal accident concluded (speculated) the aircraft had stalled during initial climb and recovery was not possible at that height. Why did the Hudson stall? It was impossible to say.

It has been always known that some types of suction driven artificial horizons are subject to acceleration errors where pitch and bank angle errors may cause the instrument to give erroneous information. Typically, acceleration on take off will cause a slight angle of bank and slight pitch attitude change in the artificial horizon. Pilots are warned to cross-check with their compass and turn and bank indicator to ensure they are not foiled by acceleration errors on the artificial horizon. Some vintage artificial horizons may have a gyro caging mechanism to aid quick erection of the AH should it topple in a steep turn or when first starting the engines. In theory, before take off drills should include checking the gyro caging mechanism is indeed uncaged. It doesn't take much to imagine what could happen if the aircraft takes off at night with its artificial horizon locked in the level flight (caged) position.

The following story written a few years back by a RAAF flying instructor reveals how even an experienced pilot can relax his concentration on his instruments during a night take off and find himself in a `Nearer My God to Thee`, situation. (With apologies to the author of that well known hymn)

The story is called:
"A Likeable Bloke"

The first officer calls him “Captain” or “Skipper” although one well known low cost carrier even allows “Mate.” The latter airline prides itself on team spirit where everyone is considered equal. I am talking of course about the captain of an airliner. Back in the Fifties when I was a lowly Sergeant-Pilot, if the captain was a commissioned officer he was “Sir” although “Skipper” was OK while airborne.

This story does not entail airliners but rather a large twin-tailed four-engined bomber originally called a Lancaster Mk 4 - later renamed the Lincoln. My squadron was equipped with eight of these aircraft as well as a Mustang and a Wirraway and we were based at Townsville in North Queensland. Those who fly regularly to Townsville will know that runway 01 is the main runway; the northern end not far from the sea with the 1600 ft high peaks of Magnetic Island just five miles ahead on the extended runway centerline.

Among the squadron crews were experienced pilots who had braved anti-aircraft guns and night fighters over Nazi Germany during the Second World War. One such veteran had recently been posted to the squadron from a desk job in RAAF Headquarters and he was eagerly looking forward to getting his hands on the Lincoln. A delightfully cheery character he wore a row of campaign ribbons including the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and held the rank of Squadron Leader. For the sake of anonymity I shall call him Bill. At the time, I was the squadron qualified flying instructor (QFI) appointed to conduct type rating and instrument rating tests. With twenty pilots to look after I was kept busy with both day and night flying.

Bill was scheduled to undergo a night proficiency check on the Lincoln; a difficult aircraft to land at the best of times because of the limited view over its long nose. Our version was in fact called the Long Nose Lincoln to distinguish it from the original blunt nose of the Lancaster.

Now, while Bill was far more experienced on bombers than I as his instructor, he was not that current on night flying – hence the reason for a dual check. Always in a teasing manner he made it clear he felt the dual check was unnecessary given his extensive night flying experience; much of it over hostile territory. In turn I had learned the hard way that many flying hours in a log book did not always add up to top class competency.

Apart from a few lights from holiday shacks on the beaches of Magnetic Island, there was nothing but sheer blackness over the water after take off. The wind was calm; a great relief as far as I was concerned, especially as cross-wind landings at night in the Lincoln were not easy. The instrument panel was designed for single pilot operation with no flight instruments for the copilot or instructor. The copilot’s seat was a small fold down stool set below the level of the pilot who sat on a raised pedestal. In order to monitor the pilot’s instrument flying it was necessary for the instructor to lean well over to see the instrument panel to avoid excessive parallax error.

After Bill had conducted several touch and go landings I briefed him that after the next take off, we would turn right out of the circuit and climb to 4000 feet on instruments before returning for a VHF/DF instrument approach and let-down. His landings were well executed and I began to relax a little knowing that his hard earned experience would make an instrument let down a piece of cake.

At five hundred feet after take off, Bill asked for the take off flap to be retracted and accelerated towards the en-route climb speed of 140 knots. As he turned a few degrees right on course to Cape Bowling Green (a coastal headland invisible in the darkness and 20 miles away), I adjusted the four pitch and throttle levers to set climb power. Like most aircraft of that era, retraction of the flaps caused a noticeable pitch down trim change. The unsteady beat of engine noise indicated the propellers were not synchronised and so I concentrated on moving the offending pitch control lever until the revs were all equal.

It was then I noticed out of the corner of my eyes that the needle of the rate of climb indicator previously pegged at 500 feet per minute, was now showing level flight and that the altimeter had stopped its steady climb. From 140 knots the ASI was now showing a slow but steady increasing reading. Bill was locked on to instruments but seemingly unaware of the attitude change caused by the slow retraction of the flaps. As an instructor I had observed a similar problem during the course of night instrument departures, but rarely with experienced pilots.

Very gently the VSI began to show a descent, the little aeroplane of the artificial horizon showing on the horizon bar and not above it. The aircraft was now in a rate one right turn and slowly descending from a peak height of 800 feet above the sea. Obviously, Bill was unaware of the impending danger and I had to decide whether to warn him then and there – or see if and when he spotted the problem. The low range radio altimeter furnished the extra confirmation we were definitely descending. At 300 feet indicated on the radio altimeter it was time to act and I called urgently through the oxygen mask microphone “ Watch the VSI – Sir!” With that came an oath from the squadron leader who jerked back on the control column into a climbing attitude.

There was no doubt in my mind that the Lincoln would have eventually hit the sea except for my support call. The rest of the flight was uneventful and after we had landed, I gently reminded the squadron leader of the need to watch the trim change with flap retraction - especially in IMC. Perhaps it was a momentary aberration that could happen to anyone, but certainly he could offer no explanation.

Some weeks later I was posted to a desk job in Melbourne but not before I had briefed my replacement on the event described. That short discussion may have prevented a potential accident in the months to come. The squadron had deployed several Lincolns to Darwin for anti-submarine exercise with units of the Royal Australian Navy. One of the captains was Bill the squadron leader. His copilot was a young Sergeant recently graduated and with precious few hours on the Lincoln.

On completion of the deployment, the Lincolns departed for Townsville at midnight – a flight of seven hours. Navigation was by astro sextant and high frequency radio bearings, with each aircraft setting course from over the top of Darwin aerodrome. This required a climbing right turn after take off. The departure flight path lay over mangrove swamps to the immediate south of the airport and home to hordes of crocodiles; certainly not an ideal place to ditch. Each Lincoln carried several passengers – ground crew or spare pilots - one of whom was the new flying instructor who had replaced me. The noise level down at the back of the Lincoln was incredibly painful to the ears and the instructor decided to sleep in the bomb aimer’s seat in the nose of the aircraft where the view was superb. The captain of that aircraft was Bill.

The night was dark with occasional moonlight slanting through low level broken cloud cover. Bill conducted the take off and easing into a climbing right hand turn at 500 feet, he asked the copilot for climb power then flaps up. With four throttles and four pitch levers to contend with the inexperienced copilot concentrated his attention on adjusting the four manifold pressure and rpm needles, cursing quietly into his switched off microphone at the unsteady beat of un-synchronised propellers. It is clear he could not have been monitoring the flight instruments at this critical stage of departure otherwise he would have surely seen the VSI gently moving from positive rate of climb to gentle rate of descent.

In the bomb-aimers seat, the instructor glanced at his watch and made a mental note of the airborne time. Soon after he felt the gradual sink as the flaps were retracted and heard the change of propeller synchronization indicating the setting of climb power. A single moon beam reflected briefly off the rancid waters of the mangrove swamp below and then darkness as the Lincoln flew through patches of low cloud. Seconds later another moon beam allowed the instructor a fleeting brief glimpse of the ground – this time measurably closer. The normally imperturbable instructor quickly realized the aircraft was much lower than before and still descending. In an instant he recalled my earlier warning about Bill’s flight with me a few weeks earlier and switching on his microphone he shouted “For Christ’s sake Pull up – Pull up.” There was a muffled oath from “Sir” in the left hand seat and the aircraft began to climb…..

Soon after this incident, the Lincolns were replaced by Lockheed Neptune long range anti-submarine aircraft. Among the crews posted to undergo the Neptune conversion course was Bill the squadron leader. He was to be flight commander of the new Neptune squadron at Townsville. Despite his engaging personality and undoubted high quality flying experience, Bill, perhaps fortuitously - failed the conversion course; deemed lacking the skills to fly the Neptune – a modern sophisticated type after the basic wartime design of the old Lincoln bomber.

Instead he lived to serve out a well earned retirement desk job posting as Commanding Officer of a small Air Training Corps unit close to his boyhood home. All this happened nearly sixty years ago so Bill would be well over 80 years old by now, if he is still around. I hope he is - because he was a likeable bloke.
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 11:20
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Excellent reading!
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 12:10
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The Somatogravic illusion

The take-off at Alice Springs on a dark night is a real “black hole” affair, and with the tower closed, completely uncontrolled. One evening, taxing out our traffic was an Ansett 146, inbound for a landing towards the north, while our take-off was towards the south. Now he was a little earlier than he said he was going to be, and we were a little later, so as I rotated the windscreen was full of BAe146 landing lights at about 800 feet! Keeping a wary eye on the lights, I began a right hand turn to avoid at about 300 feet. Pete then called out “SH!T !! Pull UP!”

I heaved back on the controls, and looked down at the cockpit instruments, where I saw a rate of descent of 1000 fpm, and a radio altitude of just 50 feet.

That was another “near death” experience, about TWO seconds to impact on the desert floor, with no chance of survival. It was over 15 years ago, and my heart still races thinking about it.

The somatogravic illusion occurs with high performance aircraft, and a lack of visual cues. As the aircraft accelerates (which it does with take-off thrust if you lower the nose) the sense organs of the inner ear are thrown back – and the head assumes that it is pointing up into the sky (i.e. still climbing.)

The problems with distractions are that they are so distracting in fact, if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be distracted The trick to survival is realizing that you are distracted.

Pete, the Captain's 14,000 hours experience was looking at the instruments when my 1,400 hours was looking out of the window – and that saved our lives. (It’s funny how you don’t appreciate 14,000 hours experience when you are in your mid twenties with 1,400 hours )
From some of my GA and airline stories I wrote about a few years ago:
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 12:56
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From some of my GA and airline stories I wrote about a few years ago:
Thanks Checkboard. I had hoped the opening post would bring a few good stories for the younger generation of Ppruners to learn from. It worked, too
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 12:59
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From 200' on approach to a cotton field it was main lights on, which were dual 600w work lights. Later we had triple 600w lights which is some 2 million candle power !
Sounds like a modern version of the Dam Busters minus the anti-aircraft guns
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 13:50
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I don't have much to add to this topic except the following. This particular way of frightening/killing yourself is about the only one I haven't managed to impose on myself - I have frightened myself in just about every other way aeroplanes offer the unwary/inexperienced/stupid.

Maybe because in my GA career that spanned a decade and nearly 7000hrs I only did about 120 night hours (PNG was just like that) so, people might suggest, maybe I was just lucky.

No it wasn't all luck, or even mostly luck.

For starters I reckon in my first 5000hrs I would be lucky, VERY lucky, to have spent 200 hrs sitting behind an autopilot. That does wonders for your scan. It was also an era when we did IF renewals every 6 mths. I was also lucky enough to have had somewhere along the way an IFR instructor or check pilot (I wish I could remember exactly who because I owe him a lot) who drummed into me how important the IVSI/VSI was in your scan.


If you think about it it borders on true to say that it may be THE most important instrument in the panel for truly precise flying. If you want to fly VERY accurately S+L for instance its virtually a waste of time to look at the altimeter after you level off - even a normal VSI (an IVSI is much better) will show you a divergence in altitude that is ABOUT to happen - the altimeter shows you it HAS happened. An IVSI/VSI is equally important in climbing and descending - if you want to fly precisely the VSI should be deeply ingrained in your primary scan. Its probably true to say my scan takes in the IVSI/VSI 10 times for every once I look at the altimeter and as often as I look at the A/H or HSI/DG.

Too I can distinctly remember lining up for a takeoff in a Queenair to fly a load of newspapers across the Owen Stanleys at 0400, as I did a lot, or a C402A departing Kieta to fly to Lae (direct at night long before GPS and with no autopilot or raft - was I ever that stupid?) and articles/stories that I had read, like those above, would pop into my head - and as I rotated into the blackness I would be saying to myself "Just fly the fricken plane away from the ground!!!"

Thats why I never tire of reading the above type posts/articles. Because NEXT time, even after 16000hrs, I might manage to frighten myself this way too.

Last edited by Chimbu chuckles; 20th Jun 2012 at 14:04.
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 13:53
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Great read!! Thanks....
I was always told. 'the VSI is your friend'...
Still and always will be relevant...
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 14:18
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One of the most important think Chimbu chuckles has taught me is to fly the VSI.

A most significant thing.

Great post Centauraus and chuckles
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 16:18
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There was a Kingair 200 that crashed taking off at night from Wondai, QLD. It would have been about 20 years ago. Wondai is a nice grass strip, a bit north of Kingaroy. Being a country area it doesn't have much in the way of surrounding lights ie close to none.

The accident report surmises that somatogravic effects were the cause. Nothing was found wrong with the plane or pilot's records.
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 18:45
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Don't come here that often anymore as there is little content that is new and/or of interest.
This thread is a worthy read and again the resident fountains of knowledge Chuck and Centaurus provide sobering anecdotes, that are worthy reading for all.
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 22:29
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Wonderful stuff.

I was always taught, and firmly believe, that during a circling approach (day or night) the IVSI is the only instrument you look at during those moments you are looking inside the cockpit. This would seem to be validated by Checkboard's experience.
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Old 20th Jun 2012, 23:52
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Fantastic post, thankyou for taking the time to write that.
My 2 cents....
Some aircraft I've flown (particularly fast turbo props), only need a couple of degrees nose down (or not even) before the VSI takes you on a wild goose chase down to 1000fpm-1500fpm etc...
It's a trap for new players, especially in the circling area on a marginal day....
Scan scan scan.... (and include old mate VSI)!

Last edited by 2p!ssed2drive; 20th Jun 2012 at 23:54.
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 01:03
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Yes...great post centaurus...always something valid and interesting to say...re the VSI it's also invaluable when doing min weather (or any other) circuits...selecting flap just before base and pushing the nose down using the AH will only help so much...the scan has to include the VSI to get the real picture for rate of descent...otherwise you may find yourself flying straight and level with no descent at all, or worse still climbing/ballooning as the flaps are going down...the somotagravic effects are very real and are deadly at night...have experienced it taking off and landing into flared strips in the middle of nowhere during my time flying aerial medical...seems to me the only effective bulwark against it is a good scan which needs to include the VSI...
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 01:27
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E & H raises a good point about VS on approach.
"Half ground-speed plus 50" used to be taught for 3 degree approach.
[gs = 140kts, then vs = 700 + 50 ==750fpm]

re Wondai: when I was instructing there in mid 80s we installed the runway lights. Had some interesting times there, one 172 would have impacted just shy of the Kingair's later crash site if the dual check had been solo!
That student was reminded of the AH/VS requirement straight after a night take-off!

After I had left CG for the airlines one of my old companies pilots decked the C310 at longreach on a night take-off, simply flew it into the ground off the end of the runway at high speed! He was unhurt. I blamed his real estate agent / part time instructor who preached the "level off and accelerate to cruise climb speed while reducing power to 25/25 while at 10'!" method of departure!
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 02:08
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There was a Kingair 200 that crashed taking off at night from Wondai, QLD. It would have been about 20 years ago. Wondai is a nice grass strip, a bit north of Kingaroy. Being a country area it doesn't have much in the way of surrounding lights ie close to none.

The accident report surmises that somatogravic effects were the cause. Nothing was found wrong with the plane or pilot's records
And this is what concerns me. Every aircraft accelerates during take off be it day or night. Fighters take off from aircraft carriers with enormous acceleration generated by the catapult. Of course we don't hear about those crashes if and when they occur. But it seems to me whenever there is a nightime accident after take off in Australia where ATSB are unable to make definate findings as to the cause of why the pilot flew into the ground, the bogeyman of somatogravic illusion is brought up as a probable cause.
If all human beings who fly aeroplanes at night are wide open to the effects of this medical illusion, then how come more don't crash? Surely the answer to that question is basic instrument flying skill? Disregarding for a moment instrument errors caused by gyro design, the next thing is the skill required to conduct an instrument lift off into a black night.

During instrument flying training in general aviation flying schools, it is rare to have the student go on to instruments from the moment he lifts off the ground. The lack of effective instrument flying simulation often means there is always part of a visual horizon visible out of the corner of the students eye especially when using a baseball hat or `hood. It might be called cheating but who hasn't cheated during instrument flying training if he can get away with it?

In flying training, most simulated instrument take offs involve the student going on to full instruments never below 2-500 ft. By then the aircraft is usually in a steady unaccelerated climb. If CPL/instrument rating students are to be prepared for outback commercial operations at night, then more effective instrument flying instruction is needed. In turn, that means good instruction from preferably an experienced instructor. Often they are hard to find leaving a new instructor blind leading the blind as it were. In other words what I am trying to convey is that good instrument flying ability is an obvious requirement if you intend to fly into black night instrument conditions.

One ATSB report into a night departure accident stated the pilot had recently passed his command instrument rating; the inference being he must have been competent on instruments. But did the test involve a black night take off? Probably not. Therefore if it wasn't his lack of instrument flying skill that may have been a factor in why he flew into the ground, it leaves an investigator with the only other possibility that the real culprit was the dreaded somatogravic effect that lies in wait for every unwary pilot who does a black night takeoff.

If we accept that a good instrument pilot will not fly back into the ground on a dark night take off, it follows that an incompetent (and that includes lack of currency) pilot runs that risk under the stated conditions. Pilots could markedly increase their departure instrument flying skills at night by spending time in a synthetic trainer, and ensuring the last part of the take off roll and rotation (liftoff in a light single or twin) is completed on instruments.

It means that landing gear and flap retraction is on instruments relatively close to the ground as the aircraft climbs. Trim changes may occur. Of course somatogravic illusion cannot be simulated in a synthetic trainer but excellent instrument flying skills will usually save the day (or in this case, the black night). With many excellent synthetic trainers around, a couple of hundred dollars spent in one of these may be a life-saving investment.

And a word to ATSB. In future accidents of this type - and no doubt they will happen from time to time - investigators could look closely at the instrument flying training and currency (if any) given to the pilot on the type of aircraft involved. There may be clues to the accident. The mere fact a pilot may hold an instrument rating means nothing when it comes to black night departures. This is especially where the pilot has been used to engaging the automatic pilot and any flight director shortly after lift off.

Last edited by sheppey; 21st Jun 2012 at 02:22.
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 02:22
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most simulated instrument take offs involve the student going on to full instruments never below 2-500 ft.

That's new to me.

My initial training involved 10 hours under the hood from engine start to engine stop with the instructor pattering me through taxy and landings etc. as required ... including aerobatics.

Progressing to I/F training, I don't recall ever getting much more than to the intial pitch attitude in the takeoff flare before the hood/screens were up. It would have been earlier except that we would have been in each other's way.

200 - 500ft doesn't sound like any sort of I/F training I've ever seen or been involved with ?
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 03:02
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Good story.

I've always considered the VSI to be one of the most important parts of my 6-pack. AH's can be deceptive even when used correctly, especially when taking off or climbing and the VSI albiet a little slow to respond sometimes, is usually the ultimate source of truth.
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 03:02
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I used to teach at Quirindi, near Tamworth, NSW. It's black as buggery there at night. The town is some distance from the airstrip. I thought it was a great place for someone to learn to fly at night. Every take-off was into inky blackness, and every approach was a black hole approach (except for those bloody cloudless full moon nights. It was nearly as good as daylight once your eyes had adapted).

For instrument flying I've always tried to get the student 'head down' ASAP after take-off. Not at first though. To start I'd give them a few hundred feet then reduce the transition height as their skills developed. I also did IF engine start to engine stop flights with some students, depending on their skill. I certainly remember having to do the same when I was learning.
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 05:23
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Excellent posts Centaurus and Chuckles.

My first ever solo night T/O in a PA-31 was from an airfield in far SW Queensland and can still remember the chill that ran up my spine when I noted that I had let the RoC decrease just after reducing to climb power.

Thankfully I had maintained full power until reaching LSALT.
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Old 21st Jun 2012, 05:47
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Great food for thought. The illusions can be very real, and have no doubt caught out many a luckless pilot. I personally don't rely on the VSI after takeoff, but do use the Attitude Indicator. I hold ten degrees nose up (or more if a jet) until above at least 500 feet and don't touch anything but the gear, leaving power and flap at the takeoff setting until then. I guess is it possible for an AI to fail, but it is easy to check that the airplane is climbing and that is all I need at that point. The actual rate is not that important. Watching the AI also helps to keep the wings level and that stops a rapid descent building up if the airplane overbanks.
KE lost a B747 at Stansted when the captain's AI failed, so it is not an infallible method, but the VSI tells you what has happened, it does not tell you what is about to happen, as does the AI.
Good stuff to think about before it is needed.
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