Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Our bodies lie to us sometimes

It's true. How do I know this, you ask? Well, I had a little bit of unplanned excitement last Friday night that was exacerbated by the lies my body told me.

As you may know, I 'm a pilot. (There's an old joke: How can you tell someone's a pilot? Don't worry, they'll tell you.) Anyway, I was on my own Friday while Sarah and her sister went to St. Louis to see the Indigo Girls. I decided to use some time to get some night flying in (in order to fly passengers at night, I'm required to have completed at least three takeoffs and landings at night in the last 90 days). The weather all day had been scuzzy, with low lying clouds and some rain. However, that night, the weather conditions for nearby airports were reported as clear, so I figured that I'd be okay stying close to the airport and getting my takeoffs and landings done.

Not so, as it turned out. As I took off and started climbing, I was no more than 500 feet above the ground when BOOM! - I couldn't see anything outside. No city lights, no horizon, no nothing. Those clouds are sneaky at night - they're as dark as the rest of the sky. In aviation parlance, I was in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), which means that you can't fly by looking outside for references. Now this in itself isn't a problem - that's why airplanes have instruments. The problem is that I haven't completed my training to be certified to fly in instrument conditions.

Fortunately, I have received some rudimentary training in instrument flying, and fortunately, some of that training must have taken hold, otherwise I might very well have been in a smoking hole near the airport instead of writing this. What we're taught when going into IMC (whether it's accidental or on purpose) is to stop looking outside and start concentrating on the instruments. Unless there's been a catastrophic system failure, the instruments are your ticket out of this mess.

The problems start when we listen to our bodies instead of trusting the instruments. Without an outside horizon for our eyes to reference, our bodies become quite disoriented because there are no cues available to interpret what our balance organs (the semicircular canals in our inner ear) are perceiving. The results are frequently bad: a small aircraft accident caused by spatial disorientation is fatal nine times out of ten.

So, here I am stuck in the clouds. Airplanes don't have a reverse gear; you can't just back up and get down to the runway the way you left, so that option is out. Meanwhile, I look at the instruments and realize I am in a climbing left turn that is getting quite steep. I wouldn't have known it if I hadn't been checking the instruments. So I straighten the airplane out and start ticking off my landing choices and getting the radios set up. Then I look at the instruments and see that I'm starting a downward spiral (again, my body doesn't know what's going on). Level the airplane. Flying on instruments by yourself really keeps you busy.

I did get back down on the ground safely, after about a half-hour of intense excitement. That was enough flying for one day. I learned the valuable lesson that your body can sometimes deceive you. Be careful!