The first and most important element of aircraft control under instrument flight conditions is trusting the instruments. Pilots who rely upon their own sensations are on a quick ride to their deaths. The instruments are the only reliable means of determining pitch, bank and yaw. Non-instrument rated pilots are often killed in instrument conditions largely based on their failure to follow their instruments, rather than their instincts.
This is what makes an instrument failure such a major emergency under instrument conditions. This is why instrument students train under partial panel conditions, and why they are expected to be able to maintain control of the airplane under these conditions. My most recent training has been in partial panel conditions.
During a flight Thursday, I received a lesson in trusting the instruments and spatial disorientation. My instructor had directed me to complete the VOR 34 approach at Carroll County (DMW). Upon reaching the missed approach point, and not seeing the airport, I initiated the missed approach procedure. A missed approach procedure is ordinarily a bad day to begin with, since it means that the pilot was unable to land at the airport with that particular approach. Under partial panel this is an extremly bad day, because it means that the pilot must initiate a climb to clear the terrain, while maintaining control of the airplane under a high workload situation and lacking one or more crucial instruments.
I initiated my missed approach, which called for a climbing left turn back to the VOR to hold. I established a climb, and then retracted my flaps. What I failed to realize is that I also pushed the yoke over (my flaps are between the seats, and require me to lean down to retract them), placing the airplane into a left turning dive. The resulting acceleration resulted in the head-up illusion and I believed the airplane was pitching upward, despite all indications to the contrary on the vertical speed indicator and the altimeter.
This is not an uncommon illusion, often suffered at night by pilots. Since I never cheat while flying under the hood by looking out the windows, I was for all intents and purposes flying solely by reference to my instruments and subject to the illusions that come with this. But for that brief moment, I was trusting my instincts over my instruments – a terrible mistake to make in instrument conditions!
It was a terrific reminder that trusting the instruments is the only way to fly an airplane without reference to the horizon. Despite the fact that pulling back on the yoke caused a sensation of descending due to the deceleration, I forced myself to trust the instruments and right the airplane. For best results, trust the instruments!