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Which Way is Up?

Flying an aircraft on visual (i.e. you can look through the windscreen and see where you're going) is one thing.  Flying on instruments - using a compass, altimeter and turn-and-bank indicator to fly, and if necessary take off and land an aircraft - in conditions of poor visibility is something entirely different, and requires a great deal more skill and nerve.  It's also a prerequisite for a professional military pilot, although pilot's instrument flying ability, and the ratings they receive in their regular routine examinations, vary considerably.

Dad was an instrument flying bigot and an extremely skilled pilot who spent a couple of years with T.C.E.U. (Transport Command Examining Unit) as a pilot examiner. 

A cat master Green C.I.R.E. 

This unimposing little piece of paper glued into Dad's log book, which was his own flying rating, and one he achieved consistently, represents the highest possible flying and instrument rating which could be achieved in RAF Transport Command at the time. He was an "A" Category (Exceptional) pilot, had a Master Green instrument rating and was also a Command Instrument Rating Examiner, which meant that he was qualified to grant another examiner I.R.E., or Instrument Rating Examiner, status.  In colloquial Transport Command parlance, this rating "entitled the holder to walk on water."

In bad weather, he would clip his maps over the windscreen so he didn't have to look at what he was flying through, and was quite capable of flying halfway round the world without ever looking out to see where he was going.  And in later life, acquaintances who were private pilots and didn't want to pay the considerable extra cost of an instrument rating would tell him about their frightening experiences going into cloud, expecting a sympathetic hearing from a "fellow pilot".  Instead, they would find themselves on the receiving end of a roasting of note from an old pro who regarded them as blithering, amateurish idiots for not at least learning to read their instruments and follow a heading without needing to peer out of a window every five seconds to see where they were going.

But even the the best instrument pilots suffer the occasional glitch....

Dad spent some time in 24 Squadron shepherding VIPs around, and on one occasion had to cart one of them around Canada and Newfoundland - in Hastings 491.

In Newfoundland, they flew into a snow blizzard, and Dad got whiteout.  This is an extremely dangerous phenomenon caused by heavy snowstorms and bright sunlight, in which the earth and horizon become completely indistinguishable visually from the sky - because it's all white from the snow.  It is extremely disorientating to the pilot (and, together with a GPS programming error, was responsible for a fatal DC-10 crash on a tour of Antarctica some years ago).

Dad was utterly disorientated, couldn't decide which way was up, and got so rattled that he decided his instruments had failed - the only time in his flying career when he made this error, one which could very easily have brought his flying to an abrupt end!  The fact that the wings were icing up badly and the aircraft was handling poorly didn't help, either (the ground crew later removed over a foot of ice from each wing!)

He decided to try to fly his way out of the storm by "the seat of his pants", as the extraordinarily skilled and intuitive pilots of his era put it, and to gain enough height to be able to orient himself visually.

So he climbed, as he thought, but things just didn't feel right, and the instruments still appeared to be responding.  Eventually, after becoming increasingly anxious, he decided that they might just be working after all, and that perhaps he had better trust them.  When he finally went back to flying on instruments, they told him that he was five hundred foot above the ground, upside-down.

The instruments were right.  He never ignored them again.


It would have been quite a high-profile crash.  This gentleman, who usually asked for Dad to be his pilot, was the passenger.