Instrument Flying

I remember well the afternoon a few years ago when I went up in an airplane with an instructor for a lesson on flying using the control panel instruments only with no reference to the surrounding countryside.

It was a crystal clear day, though a few gusty winds were blowing. We left the field, flying due north into a chilly wind blowing directly against us. When we reached the right altitude, the instructor put a special hood over my head so that all I could see was the instrument panel. After an hour’s lesson we stopped in an airport about a hundred miles north to eat and make another check on the weather.

It was early evening when we climbed into the airplane for our return flight. Both of us were a little nervous because a small storm was moving into our flight path, and as we climbed toward the clouds we could feel the increased power of the winds. Now we would have an opportunity for some real instrument flying.

I wasn’t really worried until the instructor told me to put on the hood because I was going to fly us home. As we flew into the storm, the weather started tossing us around. But the instructor assured me that things were well under control: all I had to do was fly by the instruments just as I had done in practice, and follow his directions.

As the minutes went by and we flew deeper into the turbulence, a terrible fear began to grip me and I began to feel a dizziness as if the airplane were in a turn, slightly diving. Panicking, I started making what I perceived as corrections to our flight. My instructor had to tell me four times that the instruments were correct and that I should trust them, not my own judgment.

After several more minutes of agony and constant reassurances from my instructor that the instruments were indeed telling the truth, I couldn’t take the suspense any longer and tore off the hood to see for myself. When I looked through the window, all I could see was the rain streaking out of a pitch-black sky at us. My face went pale, and a terrified expression swept over me.

My instructor said, “Norman, you’ve been sitting here for twenty-five minutes with a clear signal and true instruments to follow, but you’ve steered off course thirty-two times and have dropped the airplane nine hundred feet in elevation. Now you really don’t know where you are. Let me show you something.”

He took the controls and with little effort started climbing up through the clouds. Eight hundred feet later we were above the tops of the clouds that were glistening under the light of a beautiful full moon. In the near distance on the side of a hill we saw two large red lights on top of a broadcasting tower. On the other side of that hill through an opening in the clouds we could see a faint green and white airport light flashing out a signal that to us meant home.

After a safe landing, I felt that I had been taught one of those great lessons we are sent here to earth to learn: that the Lord gives us fine instruments, a good strong signal, and many clear markers, and still we sometimes stray from their indications and fall into a sea of confusion. Yet if we will trust those signals and follow them, whether we fully understand them or not, we will be able to fly above the clouds, safe and secure, knowing our course and our destination.

[illustration] Illustrated by Scott Snow

Norman J. Poulsen, father of two, is the elders quorum instructor in the Brigham Young University Sixtieth Ward.