Image of T-38 cockpit from a very interesting article about the T-38 that you should read: http://www.warbirdalley.com/articles/t38pr.htm
A military pilot quickly develops a faith in their aeronautical instruments akin to a religious fervor.
To the military pilot, the mission comes first. Their role is weapon system operator: Drop bombs on time, on target. Deliver goods on time, to the right location. Deliver fuel in flight on time, at a precise location. Obtain recon on time, on target. Piloting the aircraft must be almost second nature since it is merely the means to a successful mission. And being an excellent weapon system operator means you trust the weapon system instruments more that you trust your own senses.
Sure, we pilots know that the airspeed provided by the cockpit “speedometer” is merely an “indicated” airspeed based on the difference in pitot tube pressures near the nose of the aircraft. It is neither true speed in the air nor our speed relative to the ground. Our altitude is based on barometric pressure, not real altitude above the ever changing ground level. We are even aware of the differences between the direction we are headed, true magnetic north, and Earth spin axis north. We even abandon that scheme altogether as we pass close to the North or South Pole.
So how can we pilots believe anything we see in the cockpit?
One day I was taking off out of a Navy airfield in Northern California near the ocean. There was a layer of clouds that was really a lifting fog. I blasted down the runway and rotated the aircraft for takeoff. As I followed my pre-planned departure, and just feet off the ground, I scanned the cockpit instruments while keeping a close look outside the cockpit for any other aircraft, birds, or other hazards.
Something wasn’t right.
My vertical velocity indicator was not moving upwards to the correct number, but hesitating. It seemed to be considering moving to the negative. If true, this is bad since the ground is very close down there and the ground is not where I want to be.
I can clearly see the world around me. I had not yet entered the cloud layer above. I certainly should believe my own eyes over a silly vertical velocity indicator.
If I had, I might not have survived that takeoff. In the split second I noticed the funny instrument reading, I believed it. Having believed it, I looked for the reason, which immediately became obvious to me. My airspeed indicator was easing too high as well. The bottom of the cloud bank I was approaching was very flat, but inclined compared to the ground. And I had instinctively adjusted my climb out angle in visual reference to the bottom of the cloud. This resulted in a climb out that would have quickly become a descent and a flaming ball of aluminum somewhere off the end of the runway I had just left.
I adjusted my climb out based on my instruments and I doubt anyone but me even noticed the little jog the aircraft made in an otherwise perfect flight.
There was one more thing to do.
“Hey, Bill?” I said to my back-seater over the intercom. “What are you doing back there?”
“Oh, just looking at the IFR Sup and map, Charlie. You’re on the right heading.”
“Um, you might want to pay more attention to the take off and climb out first. I could have killed you just now.” THAT got his attention.
If you have another person with you, use them. If you are the other person, pay attention. Just because you don’t have your hands on the controls at that particular phase of flight, it doesn’t mean you should trust the other person completely. If that person makes a mistake, you are still both dead.
Flying a little two seat supersonic jet (a T-38) out of Nellis AFB one night, I was the other person. Being a quick learner when it comes to avoiding death, I was paying careful attention to the takeoff and climb out. I was paying particular attention to the cockpit instruments because it was a clear, starry night. And, classically, the tiny pinpoint ground lights of the Nevada desert were indistinguishable from the tiny pinpoint lights of the stars. Looking outside, I was presented with a beautiful view. But I had no idea where the horizon was. And without a proper horizon, I was in the same fix as I was in my previous tale. How do you ensure you are flying upwards to the right point in the sky if you have no idea what “up” is? In fact, my body was telling me that I was tilted 45 degrees to the right while the instruments were telling me that all was well. I was just thinking to myself that I was happy to NOT be at the controls while feeling so giddy when…
From the pilot in the front: “Hey, Charlie, can you take the aircraft? Man, I’ve got NO idea what my orientation is!”
I shook the stick (as per procedure) and said: “I have the aircraft”. I proceeded to continue the climb out until the front seater could regain his equilibrium and resume the controls. This was made easier for me since the back seat of a T-38 has less of a view than the front. I literally hunkered down and focused on the cockpit, trying my hardest NOT to look outside.
I was very grateful for my training, my faith in my instruments, and the fact that my buddy had the good sense to ask me to take over rather than wait until a problem began to develop with our flight path or orientation (which I am confident I would have spotted instantly).
So, a military pilot quickly develops a faith in their aeronautical instruments akin to a religious fervor.
All of this is a preamble to my next story which takes place in a KC-135, in the weather, with no visual references, flying in formation with 4 F-4s over the cold North Atlantic, when our instrumentation failed.
This photo emphasizes the fake horizon. What I experienced was like this but many more random dots of light