Disclaimer: The flying exercise described here worked for me to push through some real fears I had. I definitely do not recommend doing this without having an experienced flight instructor in the plane who can help ensure the exercise can be accomplished safely.
One of the reasons I write this blog is to capture particularly meaningful, painful, fun or frustrating flights. I realized there is one flight I didn't write about yet. One of the most impactful training flights I did with my CFI as I was training for my PPL. While that flight lives in my memory as clear as day today, I know with age and time, memory will fade and this is one memory I don't want to lose. So I'll share it with you today.
Two years ago I was struggling my way through the end of my PPL. I had all of the basic learning done, cross countries completed, and it was down to working on PTS maneuvers. I took a week off from work and spent most of that week at the flight club, flying with my CFI and, when I wasn't flying with him, practicing. By the end of the week we were both frustrated. I had plateaued thoroughly and was not making any progress. I just wouldn't do what he was telling me to do. I couldn't make myself do it.
The last day of this week, after the last flight I finally broke down and admitted I couldn't do it because I was scared. I had scared myself landing the 172 a couple months before and I hadn't gotten over it. That fear was keeping me from changing my behavior and progressing. I was afraid of being out of control of the airplane over and on the runway. Especially afraid of swerving to the left side of the runway. That information gave my CFI something to work with. He promised to come up with something to help get me over this fear on our next flight lesson.
I faced my next lesson with some trepidation. My CFI started the discussion explaining two things (1) he had no intention of creating any additional paperwork for Mike, the owner of the flight club and (2) he firmly intended to go home to his wife and kids that night. So I would have to trust him that what we were going to do would not harm either of us or the plane. We were going to practice what he called unusual attitude recovery - over a runway. The intent was to show me just how bad you can set up for a landing and still be able to land safely, not just show me, but make me do it. We would head to Hollister for this exercise because that airport has a runway twice as long and wide as Reid-Hillview giving him the opportunity to repeat the exercise many times in each pass over the runway.
On the way there I was very tense. He kept reminding me to breath and stop clenching my hands. I remember the calm tone of voice he used as he tried to explain why I didn't need to be afraid, but I don't remember what he said. I just remember being very very uncomfortable. He explained we would fly to Hollister and fly an approach to the runway, on short final he would take the controls and put the plane in a bad attitude or location and then show me how easy it is to get the plane back on the centerline and land it, no matter what attitude it was in. After a couple with him demonstrating I would have to do it.
We got down to Hollister and he had me set for a normal approach (in 172s it was always a power off approach). On short final he took the controls, added power and put the plane right over the right edge of the runway with a nose up attitude. Then he swung the plane back to the centerline and landed it gently, easy as can be. Powered back up, swung the plane to the left, then pointed the nose right and down and flew it sideways down the runway, then landed again, light on the centerline. Powered back up, swung the plane to the side and pitched it awkwardly, gave me the controls and told me to land it on the centerline. I pulled power, put the plane over the centerline, aligned it with the direction of travel and pitched up carefully to bleed off airspeed. I landed it gently.
We taxied back, took off and did it again, this time he put the plane in the unusual attitude and I had to land it, on centerline, every time. He knew I was most uncomfortable with being to the left of the runway, so, of course, that's where the plane would start most of the time. I did some of my best landings in a very long time during that exercise. The last pass focused on handling the plane on the ground. He landed the plane deliberately off the centerline and had me steer the plane on the ground, quickly, back to the centerline. Pop the plane off the ground, land it again in another spot and I'd have to get it back on centerline. By the time we were done I had forgotten about being afraid and was having fun making the plane do what I needed it to do, no matter how weird it got.
I flew the approach back in to Reid-Hillview and it was a bit breezy. On short final there was a sudden gust that made the stall horn squeal for a second and the plane jumped to the side (another thing that had scared me months before). Without thinking my hands and feet moved instantly to put the plane back on the spot I needed it to remain lined up with the centerline. I did one of my best landings in months.
That specific flight lesson was a real breakthrough for me and helped shape the pilot I am today. It taught me I am never helpless in a plane, ever. I do not have to be a passenger along for the ride... I have the controls and I am in control of the result, be that by controlling the plane or allowing the plane to control itself. In both situations, it is the pilot who makes the decision, consciously or unconsciously, to either take or relinquish control. When I choose to take control, I am capable of creating the result I desire.