Flying is based on seeing. You use your eyesight to gather and use your knowledge. Even though Luke Skywalker could close his eyes, use The Force and fly a successful combat mission, you're going to need your ability to see if you want to land your airplane. Humans are visual creatures.
In a logical world, IFR flight would be based on sound, not sight. It isn't. You learn now to visually interpret instruments and cathode ray tubes on your airplane's panel and then at the end of an instrument approach you strain your eyes to see the approach lights and runway.
Since you have two perfectly functional ears and since they work perfectly well even when your eyes are tightly closed it would make more sense to base flying through zero visibility conditions trusting your ears, not your eyes.
We've copied birds when it came to airfoil design and control surface construction but perhaps when it comes to navigation and instrument flight we should have copied the bat.
One animal we certainly have not used in our aviation designs is the humble canine. I suppose if we did, we'd always feel the need to circle our tiedown spot at least three times before we park our airplanes and hundred hour inspections would be mandated at 14.3 hours (in dog hours). It probably is a good thing that DaVinci and the Wrights didn't copy the dog when they designed flying machines.
One trait of dogs that goes unnoticed and underutilized in flying is their tremendous sense of smell. It is said that dogs have about a thousand times better sniffers than humans. It makes me wonder about all the nasty things they get very close to in order to smell, but that is their problem, not mine.
Many times, the very first sign of an in-flight problem that a pilot gets is a whiff of trouble—a bad smell or one that just doesn't belong. Of the two electrical fires I've had on board airliners the very first clue was that burning wire smell that preceded the actual smoke.
Hard-won experience, not flight training teaches you which smells to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. The same electrical scent I mentioned earlier could have just been the galley ovens heating up. There is a very subtle difference between a hot galley oven and a burning wire insulator. Experienced pilots know which is which, because it means the difference between an emergency landing and a toasted cheese sandwich.
Burning wires aren't the only smell cues on an airplane. Hot air conditioning packs have their signature scent. You can walk past a lavatory and without opening the door, you nose tells you about its status and occupant. Flight around a group of thunderstorms produces a sort of ozone stench.
On smaller aircraft the smells aren't missing—if anything, they are more important. Carbon monoxide springs to mind as the one thing you really ought to be able to smell, but sadly, cannot.
With winter weather coming up and the prospect of firing up those janitrol heaters, this bears some thought. In the case of carbon monoxide you have to trust your detector—you have one, don't you?
From an instructor's standpoint, I have to say that I've gotten scent cues more than once from my students. Anybody that has been crammed into a Cessna 152 with a student will tell you that there is a definite "smell of fear" or at least a "smell of stress and concern" that students can put out.
The flip side of that, of course, could come from students who climb into a trainer on a hundred-degree day and sit next to a CFI who is in hour seven of his or her fight day. No deodorant can make a hot instructor smell like a cinnamon roll after a long hot day of teaching.
An instructor's job entails teaching their students to use all of their senses. First, when they are pre-solo, we teach them to trust their feelings. For example, a coordinated turn has a much different feel than one that isn't in the groove. We introduce them to the feeling that they get in a 60-degree bank with a two g condition. Then, when we teach instrument flight we ask our charges to ignore feelings and trust sight and knowledge.
Sound plays a large role. Students learn right away that an aircraft descending power-off sounds much different than one at cruise or in a climb. We demand that they listen to the radios and learn how to translate the bird squawks and inane chatter they hear into coherent messages. The first time they hear an ATIS it makes no sense. Later, they learn to filter out the sounds that mean nothing and concentrate on what the need to know.
In the same way they learn to listen to ATC and weed out the chatter using only what they need. When they get very good they can build a sort of "sound picture" out of all the sounds they are hearing. They can tell if a controller is aware or has had a "loss of picture." They can sync the engines on their twin easily using just their ears.
Past the stage of student in the aviation circle of life, we aircraft owners know every sound and peep our airplanes have. During my 10 years flying captain on the MD-88, even with the locked cockpit door between me and my people in the back, I could go a long way in figuring out what was going on back there just by the sounds I heard.
For example, during really bad turbulence, right after I turned the seatbelt sign on I could tell if the Flight Attendants were sitting down because the forward jump seat makes a definite "clumping" sound when butts hit it.
When I flew skydivers in a beat-up Cessna 182 it took about 10 flights before I got over the sound of an empty airplane with no doors in a high speed dive after the jumpers were away and I was split-essing my way back for the next batch.
My nose began its aviation training years ago when I was a 16-year-old line boy in Lakeland, Fla. The first thing you obviously learn as a line boy is that not only do the different grades of aviation fuel have different colors, they have different smells as well.
You could tell what kind of day the FBO was having by simply catching a whiff of the line crew at the end of the shift. If we reeked of kerosene then we had a big biz-jet day and the FBO probably made some money. If we smelled like stale tobacco and coffee we obviously had a slow day of sitting under wings, drinking java and smoking. A 12-hour day working the line in the heat of a Florida summer left you with a definite need to be hosed down before you could go on that night's date.
Different aviation oils had definitely different smells. Anybody can easily tell the difference between 50w detergent and 50w straight. Piece of cake!
Part of everybody's early aviation learning, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, ought to include a tour as a line person. How else could you learn the smell of the lav service truck, the scent of a crowded pilot lounge during a long thunderstorm afternoon or the odor of a working maintenance shop?
People tend to complain about smells around an airport today but how can you get angry at the scent of a big radial engine starting? Who in their right mind hasn't at least once caught the subtle hint of executive power and privilege that emanates from a Gulfstream when the door opens and that combination of fine leather seats and expensive booze hits you?
New aircraft have a much better smell than a new car and it is worth the trip to the factory just to take part in the nasal nirvana that a brand new airplane cabin can evoke. Personally, my nose has a preference for older, more mature aircraft. My earliest line boy memories include sitting in a 100-degree Lodestar cockpit and smelling the dust, old leather and history.
Later, sitting the cockpit of a P-51 or Corsair had their own scents. Anybody sniff a Tri-Pacer? They smell different than a Cessna 195, don't they?
It isn't just aircraft, tugs, fuel and oil that assail your snoot in the world of flying. How about the corn roast at Sun 'n Fun? The great smell of a biz-jet as it turns in front of you to begin its taxi to the runway?
They say that smell is the sense that leaves you with the deepest memories and emotional attachments. I think that is true. I can't tell you the names of three people that worked at Eddy Hudson's aircraft maintenance shop in Tallahassee but I remember with perfect clarity the smells the yearly mullet fish fry and cookout he held in his hangar every fall.
To this day, the strongest emotion of my early days of flying come from the hot and musty cockpits of old Cessnas and Pipers. The bouquet of Mr. Robert's orange juice dispenser at Roberts Flying Service, The rank stink of my line crew boss, Burr Amick, as he lit up another hand rolled cigarette. It is all in my head through my nose.
Perhaps someday flight training text books will include "scratch and sniff" sections to acquaint the new people with their nasal aviation heritage but doubt it. It is up to us instructors to make sure that our students really stop and smell the roses and make it a part of their training and flying lives.
Kevin Garrison's aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Florida. He came up through general aviation and is currently a senior 767 captain. When not frightening passengers, Kevin plays tennis and lives on a horse farm in Kentucky where he writes unsold humor projects and believes professional wrestling is real and all else is bogus.
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