Partial Panel Training and Unusual Attitudes

I’m nearing the end of my formal instrument training, with only a half a dozen or so lessons remaining before I’ll be prepared to take a checkride. Much of the training has been uneventful and focused on making it possible to handle routine instrument flights: attitude instrument flying, instrument approaches, radio communications, flight planning and the like. Recently I’ve been working on the last major piece of the puzzle: emergency procedures and, specifically, partial panel procedures.

For the uninitiated, partial panel flying is flying the airplane without reference to one or more instruments, usually the primary attitude and heading instruments. Loss of these instruments can occur in a vacuum system failure, and though rare, is often fatal for pilots who are not prepared for such an emergency. Thus, the FAA has given particular attention to partial panel emergency operations, because they have the potential to save a pilot’s life in a real emergency. But flying the airplane without attitude or bank information is very much like flying the airplane with one’s eyes closed, and is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in aviation training.

The last five lessons have been on partial panel operations. I have started to get better at it, and I’m working on an instrument approach under partial panel conditions. Today’s approach actually started quite well, with a stable hold at a given altitude and a good inbound course with a mostly centered needle. I quickly reached my minimums, and only had to reach the visual descent point to look up for the airport and be in visual conditions.

At that moment, I lost focus on what I was doing. Partial panel work is a total mental game, centered almost entirely upon keeping one’s focus on the task at hand. As soon as I lost focus, I also lost control of the airplane. It’s a humbling experience to have a flight instructor grab the controls to right an airplane that only seconds before was on a fairly stable approach. On a checkride that would mark an automatic failure. In a real emergency that could very well be the last thing I ever did.

Everyone who earns an instrument rating says it’s the hardest rating they’ve ever earned, and with good reason: it’s incredibly challenging. Flying with an artificial horizon is hard; flying without one and relying upon six other instruments to make up the difference is even harder. The focus required is tremendously challenging. The FAA made a good decision to emphasize partial panel approaches – they are hard, and in a real emergency, it would be easy to do what I did today without having an instructor nearby to correct the problem.

With any luck I’ll nail it tomorrow!