Seat of Your Pants

I am what you would call a seat of the pants pilot. What does that mean? It means that you feel, more than you see what the aircraft is doing. This phenomenon can translate to any type of vehicle, such as your car, or a semi-truck in my past life.

With a ground based vehicle, “seat of the pants” isn’t’ as meaningful. You are two dimensional, and visual cues are more than enough to keep you in tune to what the vehicle is doing. For those that drive their vehicles to their limits, i.e., race car drivers, feeling what the car is doing, before you see it offers great benefits. Eyes are slow. That is what separates the good race car drivers from the great drivers…feel.

I was told by an instructor in truck driving school, “You will never feel what that trailer is doing behind you.” This bothered me, since I was just a year of so out of Army flight school, and really learned to rely on feel to tell me what is going on with the vehicle. I was skeptical, but knew better than to challenge the wisdom of someone with much more experience than I.

He was wrong! I could feel what the trailer was doing, and the ability feel what the truck and trailer were doing, kept me out of trouble on many occasions. In all the years I drove truck, I think there was one time I looked in the mirror and was surprised by what my trailer was doing. Well, maybe twice. One time was rainy night in Chicago, some bone head came down the on ramp like he was the only person in the world. I was forced to lock up my breaks to keep from running him over. When I look in my right hand mirror, all I saw was trailer. The trailer was trying to pass me on the shoulder.

My possible second time was through my own stupidity. I was hot dogging along in Joliet, IL, and used my trailer brakes to slow me down as I threw my empty trailer into a clover leaf. As I neared the half way point of the clover leaf, I looked in my left mirror and was shocked to see the ass end of my trailer nearly off the roadway.

Both times I was able to recover the trailer and avoid the jack knife.

But it was more than feeling what the vehicle was doing. It is about being aware of where the stuff you cannot see is. Especially with a large vehicle. The UH-1H was over fifty-seven feet long with the rotor turning. There was no rear view mirrors to tell you where the tail boom was. You had to develop feel for it. Knocking off the tail rotor was a guaranteed rough landing.

The same was true with a semi truck. Yes, there was rear view mirrors, but there was a thing called blindside backing. Any backing where you were tracking the trailer path out the left side window or mirror, was sight side, and relatively easy. But if you were forced to back the trailer where you were attempting to track the trailer out the passenger side window and mirror, it was blind siding. But sometimes, you were asked to back into a spot that put a wall along the right side of the truck. Even though it was a sight side backing job, you could not see the wall in relation to the right side of the truck.

I ran into this situation picking up record labels at a print shop in a Chicago suburb. As was customary, you walked into the shipping dock, told the shipping clerk why you were there, and they told you where to back in. If they were feeling sadistic, they might tell you that they were on break, and you would have to wait until later in the afternoon. But on this particular afternoon, he directed me to back into door one. Door one was the one with a wall up against your right side, and the building and street configuration did not allow you to back straight inThe only option was to angle it in.  I could tell by the scars on the block wall that many a driver struggled with this task.

I opened my doors, set myself up, and with a little concentration and patience, within a few minutes I was standing on the dock at the back of my trailer, waiting for the shipping clerk to start loading.

“Your backed in already?” He asked, truly surprised that I was ready to load.

“Yup.” I answered.

“Damn, most drivers, when I give them door one, it takes them half the day to get backed in!” He responded with admiration.

“I have skills.” I replied as though it was no big deal.

“I guess!” He finished and loaded my truck.

My skill was having a feel for the parts of my truck I could not see. Though I could not see the far side of my trailer, I could tell by spatial relation, how far from that scarred up wall my fragile aluminum trailer skin was.

I was aware! Many truck drivers had no clue.

Having learned to fly in the real world, before the advent of computer games and game consoles put me at a bit of a disadvantage when these came along later. Even the simulator I learned instruments in, moved. Since my flying skills were developed hand in hand with my feel for flying, I found flight without feel frustrating.

Hovering especially is about feel. At least for me it was. If I felt a certain sensation in the seat of my pants, I responded with a proper control input. If my ears picked up a slight change in the sound of the engine, I responded with a glance at an instrument, and a quick adjustment in the throttle. Very little of my flying was done by what my eyes were telling me.

With a computer simulation, or game console, that is all you have. And it is severely limited. In real life, I can turn my head and look over my shoulder. Hard to do in a video game. Ace Combat tried to give you this ability, but you were so busy in a dog fight, it was nearly impossible to remember that you can look around if you used the left hat switch. It was also incredibly disorienting and sensitive. With practice, you eventually learned to peek over your shoulder. But in a dog fight, there was just too much going on.

Plain old muscle memory tells you to turn you head in the real cockpit.

When I forayed into Microsoft’s, Flight Simulator, I did okay in the airplanes, because they want to fly straight and level by design. But the helicopter was a brutal struggle that always ended in a pixilated fireball.

My next and last foray into virtual helicopter flying was trying a training simulator for RC helicopters on my Playstation. This went as well as the Microsoft Flight Simulator attempt. Before long, I was over correcting, and eventually the simulated toy helicopter bounced off the turf, and I was hitting the Retry button.

I am a good pilot, and started to wonder what the hell the disconnect was.

Slowly the realization dawned in my dim mind.

I could not feel what the helicopter was doing. Because I learned to fly them by feel, it would take a considerable amount of effort to learn to fly them by sight.

I didn’t want to!

I decided flying the pretend thing wasn’t worth retraining myself to fly the way everyone else did. I liked being a I feel pilot, and didn’t want to change.

It was about a month ago I flew an airplane for the first time in almost twenty years. I was amazed at how quickly the feel came back. Within minutes, the controls went from awkward to familiar. With a little effort and concentration, I was able to relax my grip on the yoke, and I was flying like an old pro. My scan, the visual part of flying, was slow to come back, and never really did become optimum.

But I could feel everything the aircraft was doing, and it fit like an old glove.

That is an experience I will plan on exploring much more often going forward.

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