The Basic Six

Posted on January 20, 2014 by Richard Hoptroff

Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong SAR, 20th Jan 2014

How aviation has changed!  How I miss the old Kai Tak airport, where your entry to the entrepôt was through a corridor of skyscrapers.  I remember renting a Cessna from there to fly around the island.  Smoggy even then, but ten times worse now.

Later, at the tail end of the nineties, I was living Ottawa and bought an airplane.  I remember its registration: FUAQ - Foxtrot Uniform Alpha Quebec.  It was a Mooney - the fastest single-engined prop there was - it even had air brakes to slow it down on approach to an airfield.  I bought it in the hope of using it for business travel, and I did fly down to Boston and New York a few times.  Impressed though my customers were that I had flown there myself, I was covered in sweat, and oftentimes had oil spots on my shirt.  Glamorous? It was not.

I did, though, develop a fascination for instrument flying, where you rely on the "Basic Six" instruments: Airspeed, Attitude, Altimeter, Turn, Heading, Vertical Speed.  Add to that the magnetic compass and the engine RPM, and you've got serial redundancy.  If any one or more of those instruments fails, you can pretty well deduce what they should be saying from the others.  Beyond that, they're all driven from a variety of technologies, so if you lose electrical power, or the engine dies, at least half of the instruments will still work. 

When you learn to fly on instruments, you wear a hood so you can only see those instruments.  "Hey," you think, "this is just like a video game!"  Then your instructor starts putting Post-It notes over some of the instruments, and says things like "OK, power's out.  What are you going to do now?"  Then you remember you're flying a real airplane.  You're not being taught how to pass exams.  You're being taught how to survive.  How to understand the unforseeable.  In seconds.  Your life depends on it.

The end came one day when I was taking off.  The engine was on full throttle.  I was picking up speed along the runway, but the airspeed indicator wasn't giving me the OK to rotate.  Half the runway used up.  Definitely going very fast.  Airspeed says no.  Something wrong. Engine to idle. Brake hard. Don't lose control. "Tower, abort."  Off the end of the runway, I shoot way beyond the tarmac into the surrounding field, with the autumn grass seeds unexpectedly harvested onto the plane's wings. 

"Wow, that was a real smoker," says the Tower.  "Need a tow?"

It turned out an earwig had crawled into my pitot tube, so my airspeed indicator wouldn't even show if I was above the downtown driving limit.   It taught me for real the importance of not trusting your instruments and finding plan quickly if things don't add up. 

But for piloting, for me, that was it. Leave piloting to professionals who can focus on it.  Do one thing, but do it well.  It's always a good strategy.

It did leave me with a love of instrumentation, when done right, simply and consistently.  The Basic Six (intro photo) was an extremely well thought out array of instruments.  And it is universal. You know where to look when you step into a cockpit, whatever the crate you're flying.  A classic example of how complexity is simplified through familiarity.

Another thing it left me with is a love of watches.  I never wore a watch before I started flying.  But when you fly, it is mandatory (along with pen and paper, and, if flying at night, a torch).  Ever since I put one on my wrist, I've been fascinated with them, particularly complicated ones, because they remind me of those cockpit dashes I've had to leave behind.

Maybe that explains why I'm in the watchmaking business.  I'm just trying to compensate for the loss off FUAQ, pictured below.

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