Saturday, October 13, 2012

Controlled Flight into Terrain

Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT). A pilot flies straight into a hill or a mountain or the ground with their aircraft under complete control, unknowing that they are flying to their death. I never thought I would do that. Fortunately, the experience I had today was in a simulator, so no one was hurt, not even my ego. I'm hoping the experience will cement in my mind the importance of something that I heard many times from my CFI and in the seminars I attended at the AOPA Summit; situational awareness. Knowing where you are. It can be absolutely critical. Good situational awareness can save your life, poor situational awareness can kill you (or prematurely end a simulation!).

The experience started off innocently enough. I had signed up for an hour in the full motion RedBird simulator at the summit, figuring it would be fun to learn a little about how to use a G1000. I showed up at 2:20 for my 2:30 start time and the guys running the sims said they were just informed everything had to shut down at 3. So my session would be shortened. Then there was a little girl, no more than 8 years old, who wanted to fly the simulator because she flew on her daddy's lap all the time and wanted to fly without his help. Of course, I was happy to let her get some time in before me.

Finally its my turn. The instructor is apologetic and in a hurry. The plane was positioned on the runway at Henderson Nevada airport (where the little girl successfully landed it) and he was thinking quickly about what to set up for me to do. I told him I'd be happy to fly an ILS approach somewhere. So he decided to set up some low ceilings and winds and set me up for the ILS RWY 12L approach at North Las Vegas airport. He grabbed an iPad and showed me the approach plate.

A portion of the approach plate for the ILS Rwy 12L into North Las Vegas.
While he was setting up the simulation I was figuring out how to program nav radios on this simulated G1000 and trying to figure out where to look to get critical information like airspeed, altitude, climb/descent, heading, turn rate, etc, etc on this very unfamiliar screen.

I decide I'm ready to go and we take off from Henderson into low clouds. The plane is in the clouds rather quickly and I'm on the instruments, using a G1000 for the first time to give me the information I need to control the plane. I climb on runway heading, figure out how to get a 75 knots airspeed, trim and wait for the promised radar vectors for the localizer at North Las Vegas. The instructor, playing controller, clears me to 6200 feet (the altitude for intercept with the localizer at the IAF). He then starts giving me radar vectors. It took a bit to figure out where the turn coordinator is (there isn't), RPM gauge is (on the other screen), etc, etc. but no matter what I kept the plane under control and even caught the simulated updrafts and down drafts, turbulence and winds and managed them.

The instructor kept playing with the display on the right hand screen to give himself a better idea of where the plane was in the simulation so he could give me good vectors. I ignored the information on that screen as a result, I didn't know what he was doing or what info he was showing, so I concentrated on flying the plane. I got vector after vector and figured out how to tell if I was doing a standard rate turn or not. The instructor was commenting on how well I was doing jumping into a totally unfamiliar environment with the G1000 simulation.

I was feeling pretty good and was getting into the rhythm of the flight.  I had been flying on a heading of 360 for a minute or so and noticed the simulated grey in front of the simulated plane turning to brown. I double checked my altitude (still 6200 as it should be) and said, "What is that?" A half a second later I found out.  Thunk was the simulated sound of the plane flying straight into a rock face and the screen went dark. Simulation over. If this was a real flight, I'd be dead. The instructor had given me radar vectors straight into the 8154 ft peak just south west of the localizer course.

The instructor was very apologetic after that. I said to him, "When a controller makes a mistake..." and he immediately said, "A pilot dies." He felt very bad. And yeah, in a way, it was his fault for vectoring me into a mountain.  And yes, I had only a couple moments to study the approach plate, and this was an unfamiliar set of instrumentation, etc. etc. On the other hand, I looked at the approach plate and didn't even make a mental note of the terrain around that approach. I knew what direction I was going and approximately where I was but I didn't relate that to the terrain. I didn't even try.  Real controllers make mistakes, real pilots die if they are not on top of where they are and where they're going and what they will encounter on the way, if they can see it or not.

In the brief debrief the instructor apologized again. I pointed out it would have been good for me to take more time to study the plate and understand the terrain and correlate that to where I was. He said I must have a great flight instructor to be able to switch to a totally unfamiliar set of instruments and be able to fly as well as I did. That made me feel better. But I feel like if I had listened to my CFI a bit better maybe I would have had a better idea of what was going on and perhaps not flown into a mountain.

In the end I'll never know... but I can certainly tell you, this experience was one that I hope will teach me to forever maintain awareness of terrain and where I am on instrument approaches. If that happens, this could be some of the most valuable flight training I've ever had.

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