I was chatting with the impossibly energetic Sean D. Tucker at Oshkosh this summer and was, as usual, knocked over by his schedule. In addition to flying a bunch of air shows and devoting endless hours to being chairman of EAA Young Eagles, he was running around the world to climb extremely tall mountains.
To that list Sean told me he wanted to add learning to fly IFR. For all of his thousands of hours in the cockpit Sean does not fly IFR. And he is afraid to fly in the clouds. He told me it just flat out scares him not to be able to see the ground or the horizon.
For many of us who have watched Sean fly in every imaginable attitude–and some unimaginable to me–very close to the ground the idea that flying in the clouds frightens him is a surprise. But I have heard that from other air show performers. They just don’t like being in the clouds, and many simply won’t do it.
There are exceptions, of course. Gene Soucy comes to mind. Gene has been flying aerobatics and air shows for decades, but he also flew a career with the airlines which is totally instrument flying. Gene had even rigged up a set of removable IFR instruments in his Christen Eagle so he could punch into a cloud when necessary while trying to ferry his airplane from show to show during the many years he was part of the Eagles team. But Gene is something of an exception.
The thought of tumbling through the air in one of those gyroscopic maneuvers Sean and others have perfected scares the crap out of me. But, for me, flying into a cloud seems as ordinary as raising the landing gear. Why the big difference?
My guess is that the top aerobatic pilots like Sean almost never look inside the cockpit. When you watch those many “hero cam” videos of them flying their routine the head is in constant motion. They look rapidly from side to side at the wing tips. They throw their heads back to see the horizon and the ground which is not in its usual place. They even sometimes look straight ahead, but only briefly, and not at the instruments.
In aerobatics the view of the horizon and the ground is everything. That’s why many who fly competitive aerobatics put those protractor devices on the wingtips to visually line up the attitude angles with the horizon.
In instrument flying the horizon is also critical, but it’s artificial. The objective is to keep the airplane close to level. The maximum bank angle used in conventional IFR flying is 30 degrees. The goal is to constantly compare the indications from the primary flight instruments to stay on course, altitude and target airspeed while moving your head as little as possible. The big, abrupt head movements aerobatic pilots make are the perfect setup for vertigo when flying in the clouds.
Obviously military fighter pilots learn to fly all sorts of unusual attitudes based only on instruments so it’s not an impossible task. But even the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels don’t fly the extreme maneuvers that Sean and the other top air show pilots routinely fly.
I guess it all comes down to each of our own comfort zones. I see that Sean has checked off another of his mounting climb goals, so maybe IFR flying is next on the list. One thing I know for sure is that Sean has about a 1,000 percent better chance of becoming comfortable flying in the clouds than I do flying any part of his routine