Outward looking mastery vs. inward looking precision: musings about the differences between Commercial and Instrument flight
In 2017 I decided it was the year to complete my long started, then stopped, then re-started process of attaining my instrument rating. I chronicled the process in Gotta get that Rating. 2020 dawned with promise of the commercial certificate and we all know what happened to those promises. Yet on July 5th 2020 I passed my commercial check ride in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, where I learned to fly some 18 years ago.
Inward focused precision
I recently flew another round-trip to Oregon which was 90% IMC due the massive wildfires. My route was pretty much right up the gut of California, in between the TFRs and on in to Oregon. The situation in the Northwest wasn’t much better as wind driven wildfires began to pop up in Central Oregon. Hand-flying 5 hours on instruments in my Mooney M20E with no autopilot is mentally exhausting. On the way to my fuel stop I was given delay vectors and a hold for the [RNAV] approach. The airport was covered in dense smoke with visual contact only 30 feet above minimums. I was never so happy to see a VASI. I flew the ODP out and was happy to finally get above the smoke at 8K. The visibility on the trip home was much worse. In the 5.5 hours of flying I only had ground reference for the first and last 30 minutes of the flight. As I shot the RNAV into fuel stop [Yuba airport] I was just so grateful that I had great flight instruction, a solid IFR platform in the Mooney, and the ability to focus my attention [mostly] inside the airplane.
Flying in IMC requires extensive planning, mental discipline, ability to follow instructions from ATC, and constant focus on your instrument scan. In contrast the commercial relies on the artistry of looking outside, focusing on smooth flying and planning for the safety and comfort of your passengers. In no way am I saying that instrument and commercial flying don’t share characteristics, but for me, it seems like I am using different parts of my brain for the nuanced differences.
Outward focused mastery
On one of the last days of my commercial training I was flying from the LA Basin [Fullerton] to French Valley [F70] airport. I had done some of the planning for this short hop noting the location of the freeways, surrounding terrain, lake, and direction of the airport from town. As usual, I had my IPad on with Foreflight, and the 530W proudly displaying the magenta line to F70. About ten minutes into the flight my instructor, Mike Jesch, fiendishly turned the 530 to another page and disabled the geo-referencing on the IPad. He said, “Now what are you going to do?” What I did next was an example of my instrument training as I slowed the airplane down, centered VORs and triangulated the location of the airport based on radials. It took me at least two minutes of looking out, then in, out then inside. Mike gently said, “Is there anything else you could be looking at, perhaps outside?” Then it dawned on me to locate the freeway I was following, to identify the hills before the airport and the lake that was off in the distance. I also noted that if this was a real situation on a commercial flight, I would have let ATC know of the failure and asked for a vector to confirm what I was seeing on the ground.
Flying to commercial standards is all about smoothness, precision, and planning for passengers. Training was intensive and consisted of the learning and demonstration of the elements included in the ACS. Folks had told me that I would love flying the “fun” commercial maneuvers [chandelle, steep spiral, lazy 8, 180 power off landing, steep turns, 8s on pylons etc.]. I didn’t really experience the “fun” part of it until the very last day of training with Mike. As I was demonstrating elements for my check ride prep, I found myself zooming down during a lazy 8 and thought, “Yeah, this is fun being totally in control of this airplane.”
As I prepared for my Commercial check ride, there was a distinct change in my thought process from “do as you planned, or are told by ATC” instrument flying toward what I call, “Pro-Pilot” thinking. My DPE gave me the following cross-country scenario:
So much for an easy fire season– lightning has sparked a big wind-driven fire over by Sandpoint, ID, causing a bit of a panic. Newly hired by a Part 135 group that has extensive Forest Service contracts, you have been tasked to fly two Incident Commanders from your base, The Dalles OR (KDLS), to the Sandpoint airport (KSZT) in your aircraft, where they will join the hastily assembled Hot Shot crews waiting to take on the fire. You have recently noticed that your turn coordinator has been really noisy on startup, but you have not had an opportunity to have it checked out. The firefighters think they weigh around 180lbs and plan on taking roughly 60lbs of gear each. They really need to be in Sandpoint by noon, so plan accordingly.
As a private pilot you would, of course, think about inoperative equipment, weight, fuel, weather and routing, but as a Pro-Pilot I planned around:
- passenger comfort
- weighing passengers and luggage
- loading of passengers/bags for CG
- prevailing weather, wind, smoke conditions
- scenic , yet efficient route
- communication with passengers re: expectations of flight
- route with less potential for turbulence
- instrument currency/approaches if needed
- route near airports/highways
- choosing alternate airports with rental cars, calculated driving distance
- timing details to get the firefighters to Sandpoint by noon
It goes without saying that the instrument and commercial check ride differed greatly. However, knowledge of systems, safe practices, and aeronautical decision making were very much the same. Instrument flying is challenging due to the lack of visual cues and intense focus inside the airplane. Commercial flying is challenging because you must focus on the safety and comfort of your passengers, who see an airplane as merely a mode of transportation.
Gaining my instrument rating made me a better, safer, pilot. The rating has increased the quality of my flying life. The commercial certificate opens up the pro-pilot part of my flying career. Both have changed me for the better. Now I am focused on the multi-engine Commercial rating in late September. Then I promised myself I would get the rest of 2020 for fun flying.
Remember that a great pilot uses both mastery while looking outside the airplane and thoughtful precision while looking inside. Whether you are thinking about getting a new rating or certificate or purchasing a plane or club ownership this time, where we are home-based might be the perfect opportunity. I hope to see you all out there in 2021.