Artificial Horizon


Roger A. Jurack


Our feet made quiet, wet noises as we walked through the shallow puddles on the ramp. It was the only sound in the damp evening until he asked the question.

"Why do they call it the 'artificial horizon'?"

Coming from almost any other flight student, it would have been rhetorical, even frivolous; coming from Duane it deserved serious consideration.

* * *

He'd walked into the airport office at Kitsap three weeks ago. Setting down a worn flight bag, he introduced himself with a shy and self-deprecating manner as a 'lost Alaskan' in search of an instrument rating. His pilgrimage wasn't unusual: the economics and practicality of instrument flight training made the Seattle area a popular Mecca for advanced flight students. All of the electronic navigational aids and airport approaches were within short flying times, and the soggy Puget Sound weather provided invaluable actual instrument experience. The tuition from these aviation vagabonds was a mainstay for area flight schools, and competition for students was cutthroat.

Duane and I had flown almost daily since his arrival. He exhibited consummate skill in his flying, and his immediate and thorough grasp of the complex rules and mechanics governing instrument flight was nothing short of dazzling. Instructions never had to be repeated, he never asked questions, and his scores on the syllabus written exams never dipped below 100%. He was a flight instructor's dream student.

He was also a complete enigma. On his training application forms, he'd left blank the areas for 'Next of Kin' and 'Home Address'. When I asked him about it, he'd hesitantly and apologetically admitted that he'd been raised by several different families and had no permanent home. In the end he wrote down his temporary Seattle address. Whenever I tried to engage him in casual conversation about his aviation ambitions, his replies were laconic and vague -- the complete antithesis of my usual students who--unless restrained--will happily go on for hours about their hopes for aviation fame and fortune; emphasis on 'fortune'. But Duane simply smiled and said that flying was "in his blood". After three weeks with him, I still had to admit to myself that I didn't even know what he planned to do once he obtained his instrument rating.

* * *

His unanswered question hung in the air as we began the preflight.

While newer generation aviators call it the "Attitude Indicator" or "Horizontal Situation Indicator" or "HSI", everyone who's ever been to a movie with an airplane in it immediately recognizes the centerpiece cockpit instrument with the little airplane silhouette that shows whether the plane is turning, climbing or descending relative to the horizon--the 'artificial" horizon. The instrument provides pilots a rapid stabilizing reference when the visual horizon is hidden by night or some other unfavorable combination of weather and light. Even the newest student pilot immediately understands its purpose and display, and often has to be forcibly weaned from continually staring at it. A skilled and advanced pilot like Duane had to know all of that.

"Well?" Duane looked at me over the engine cowling; he was still waiting for his answer.

"What would you call it," I temporized, still trying to understand his reasoning behind the question.

"You're waffling, Mr. Instructor." There was quiet amusement in his eyes, but his overall expression remained serious and attentive.

"Very well, student Duane," I was determined to match his mood in case he was setting me up. "The FAA Instrument Flight Manual defines the."

"I know all that. What I want to know is why they call it 'artificial'--doesn't it actually represent the horizon?"

"Well certainly, but the true horizon is out there, as far as we can see." I waved my arm in an expansive gesture toward the limit of our sight which, in the lowering mist and the evening, wasn't very far.

"But in the cockpit, when the night or weather closes in, the horizon on the instrument panel is as far as we can see, so using your definition it is the true horizon. Yes?" His logic was slightly irritating.

"Duane, it isn't the actual horizon, it just represents the horizon! It's a mechanical imitation, so that dumb pilots like us can keep the plane right side up when we can't see outside!" This was nonsense and I felt myself getting defensive. "Now, do you suppose we can get on with the preflight before the weather shuts us down?" But he continued, unabashed.

"So if it's an imitation, is that why the instrument manufacturers paint the part that's supposed to represent the sky blue, and the ground black?" He stared at me steadily, unperturbed, and the humor still played in his eyes.

"Of course that's the reason! Duane, what's gotten into you?"

"Well what if someone painted it wrong or assembled it wrong? What if the blue was where the ground should be, and the black was where the sky should be? Would you still trust it?" A flicker of a smile betrayed him and I took a deep breath and let go of my frustration.

"All right, Duane, what's the joke? You already know the answers to everything you've asked me, so why is it 'pick-on-instructor-night' tonight?" His smile vanished and his eyes looked intently into mine.

"For the last three weeks you've been training me to always trust the instruments and ignore what my other senses may be telling me. All the textbooks agree with you. But haven't you ever been betrayed by those instruments you trust so much?

"Come on, Duane! Of course instruments fail sometimes--that's why we teach you to use all of them and constantly crosscheck to make sure they agree." My frustration was coming back in spades: this was a student who had aced his FAA instrument written exam, was a check-ride away from the rating that would allow him to fly airplanes in every kind of weather, and he was asking questions that more properly befitted a zero-time beginner!

"Instrument failure isn't what I was asking about."

"Then what the..."

"..haven't they ever misrepresented to you?" He became very watchful as he awaited my response.

"Look Duane, instruments are glass and plastic and metal. They work with pressure diaphragms, microchips, gyroscopes, clockwork gears and tubing. They use electricity and they use vacuum. They either function or they do not. They have to operate within the limits and tolerance we prescribe or they go in the trashcan. They are not evil little gremlins with personalities that can choose between truth and mischief. Now will you please tell me what's behind all this?" It was the longest explanation I had ever made to him.

He didn't answer, but instead turned back to the airplane and went steadily and efficiently through the rest of the preflight. When it was complete, we sat next to each other in silence as he finished the cockpit checks. I nurtured a growing sense of unease over his behavior. It's common for students to progress in a series of 'plateaus' with small crises of confidence separating the escalating levels of achievement. Perhaps the twin pressures of the weather tonight and the impending formal check-ride with the FAA had finally cracked his hitherto unassailable confidence.

"Duane, if you'd rather not fly tonight.?" He looked at me, and in the dim light his expression reflected anything but tension.

"Let's aviate--we just may learn something." His mimicry of my standard pre-takeoff benediction eased my misgivings.

"Hey, that's my line trainee!" He looked at me with the briefest of smiles.

"Maybe so."

* * *

If Duane was feeling any pressure, it didn't show in his flying. For the next two hours I had nothing to do but sit and watch as he handled the radios, the navigation, and the airplane. Nothing he did required the slightest correction or comment, and not for the first time I wondered whimsically if he was an ancient and experienced aviator reincarnate, who had come back to prove to me how unskilled and ignorant I really was.

As the flight progressed, the weather became marginal. Early on, the lights from the cities draped around the throat of Puget Sound had shown through breaks in the undercast, delightfully shading the clouds edges in silver and amber. The precise tic-tac-toe of the city designers revealed itself in the dark crosshatches and blocks of light visible below. But a Pacific weather front had moved in, and the light-show on the ground was now hidden by a thick and rumpled layer of cloud. All across the Sound, airport weather observations were beginning to report rain and fog. Above it, we seemed to be suspended under a canopy of stars and moonlight. The air was still, and only the flight instruments reported our progress over the undulating field of moon-silvered cotton.

Duane had flown flawless instrument approaches at five airports, and as it approached the witching hour, we headed home. Live weather observations at Kitsap had ended two hours before, and the air traffic controllers at Seattle Center expressed concern for us.

"14 Victor, this is Seattle Center. Last observation Kitsap, ceiling indefinite, sky obscured, visibility one eighth of a mile in fog. Acknowledge." For those unfamiliar with the official language of the Federal Aviation Administration, the translation was simple: the weather was down-to-the-ground lousy, and we'd be lucky to get in.

"Seattle, 14 Victor. Roger." Duane's voice was level and calm, and I looked over at him. Student or not, he knew as well as I that he would have to fly his final approach as low as he could legally go, and even then it was unlikely we would be able to land. Our other option was simply to forget Kitsap and fly to our chosen alternate, Seattle-Tacoma, and sleep in the terminal until the weather let us back in at the home field. I was the instructor and responsible for this flight, but Duane had to learn something about decision-making--perhaps the most important aspect of instrument training. I leaned over to him so that he could hear me above the engine and slipstream noise, but Seattle Center pre-empted me.

"14 victor, Seattle. Request intentions?" A fair question.

"Seattle, 14 victor, request vectors to intercept the Kitsap localizer. We'll take a look." The 'localizer' is the very directional electronic beam that lines the airplane up with the centerline of the runway. Flying the localizer is the aviation equivalent of tip-toeing a high-wire. When combined with another electronic beam called the glide-slope--which angles slightly upward from the end of the runway--the whole effort is referred to as a 'precision approach' and requires the pilot's complete and unflinching mastery of his airplane and his instruments. Duane hadn't even hesitated. I brushed my forehead with the back of my hand and was mildly surprised to find that it came away moist.

* * *

I needn't have worried. Duane locked on the localizer and flew down the glideslope like he was riding down a playground slide. Even though the clouds had absorbed us and streams of rain crawled over the cockpit windows, he slumped in his seat completely relaxed. Visibility was zero. We continued down, and I watched the altimeter unwind to a thousand feet. To five hundred. To three hundred. The lowest we could safely and legally descend unless we had the runway in sight was 258 feet. I saw us at 290, 280, 270--we were still in cloud. I waited for Duane to add power and climb away. 260 feet. With a will of its own, my hand moved toward the throttle.

"Wait!" It was a command.

250 feet. His hand on the throttle blocked mine.

240 feet.

"Duane!!" I shouted at him, and he looked at me. A smile played at the corners of his mouth.

230 feet.

"For God's sake Duane, climb!!" Against every written and unwritten rule I seized the controls began to fight him for the airplane. We porpoised in the air and the altimeter sagged.

100 feet.

We were still wrapped in cloud and descending fast.

50 feet.

We were going to die.

Zero feet.

"D-u-a-a-n-n-n-e!" The scream took all the breath I had left, and my eyes closed involuntarily against the crash.

Nothing happened. There was no scream of aluminum against concrete--no explosion of plexiglas. There was no final G force that would have made us integral parts of the crushed mass of the airplane. At low power the engine ran smoothly on.

"Look Teach," his voice was gentle, almost sad. I opened my eyes.

Stars!! Every sense in me recoiled. Moonlight!! But the moonlight was coming from below us! I reached for the instrument panel to steady myself against instant and raging vertigo. Looking up I could see the gray-cotton woolly layer of clouds through which we had just descended --but now it was a ceiling instead of an undercast! I looked to the instruments for sanity. They dutifully reported to me that we were still descending. The altimeter continued to unwind through zero altitude and its upper limit. Ee were at 100,000 feet and descending - descending toward the moon! I looked at the artificial horizon, and it confirmed that the airplane was proceeding slightly nose-down toward the black-painted earth, yet outside we were surrounded by stars and the under-hung moon. The ceiling of cloud receded upward. We continued downward to--what? Infinity?

Duane watched me fight to absorb it. He gestured toward the artificial horizon, pointing his finger at the blue 'sky' section.

"Maybe they got it wrong this time, Teach. Or maybe instruments can lie?"

All I could do was watch as waves of vertigo and disbelief alternated their attacks. He pushed in full power and, arguing against every one of my aviation instincts, rolled the plane inverted. The moon swung smoothly into the sky above, and the layer of clouds slipped beneath us. The altimeter reversed itself and we began to climb (descend?) toward the cloud layer. When we approached zero feet--this time coming from below--Duane cut power and eased the airplane onto the cloud-deck. Tendrils of vapor swirled around us. The wheels chirped and rumbled, impossibly but unmistakably announcing the fact that we had landed! The airplane rolled to a stop. Duane shut down the electronics and pulled the mixture. Except for the metallic tick of the cooling engine, we sat in utter silence.

If you asked me how much time passed before I was able to fully look at him, I could never tell you. When I did, he leaned toward me with an inscrutable expression.

"Nobody knows it all Teach," he paused "at least not yet." Then he leaned back, unbuckled his safety belt, opened the door and stepped out. Leaving the door open, he turned and extended his hand.

"Coming? We just may learn something--" Deeply in shock, all I could do was tremble and shake my head. He gave me a last look, saluted casually and walked away. Stunned and unbelieving I watched until the swirling gray vapor swallowed him. I swear that I heard his footsteps die away in the clouds.

* * *

I never flew again. They probably would never have let me anyway, but it doesn't matter.

In the first light of the morning they rapped on the window of the plane and I looked into the angry face of the airport manager. I had no explanation for why the airplane was parked on the centerline, halfway down the runway, engine cold. I had no explanation to give Seattle Air Traffic Control for why I'd never closed out the instrument flight plan, even though their radar had shown that we landed shortly after midnight. There was no explanation I could give to the smirking taxi driver when he dropped me off at Duane's 'temporary' address--as if I didn't know that no-one actually lives at the Space Needle! There were no explanations for anything.

And I keep asking myself what I might have learned that night if only I'd been able to take his hand and follow him through the clouds.



The airplane broke out of the clouds, reasonably aligned with the runway, coming down in a wing-rocking descent. In the cockpit the student fought hard to hold onto the approach. Watching her exaggerated labors, the instructor spoke to her calmly.

"Steady.steady.let the airplane fly.just nudge it when you need to. Don't make it so can see the runway now.steady."

She relaxed and began her transition to land. Ground fog steamed from the concrete. As the plane touched down she abruptly swore, put on full power and jerked it back into the air.

"SONOFABITCH!! Did you see that? Did you see HIM?" She looked wild-eyed at the instructor.

"Easy! Yes, I saw him. Just circle around and we'll land on the crosswind runway."

The landing was rough and they taxied back to the ramp in silence. Still visibly shaken, she shut down the engine and began to fill out her logbook.

"What kind of crazy person walks down the centerline of a runway on a foggy night?" She looked over at him accusingly, demanding an explanation for the inexplicable. For a long moment he looked out the side window into the fog, and then he looked back at her.

"I thought he was finally gone," he paused as though musing "but it's just someone searching for something. Something he lost, maybe." She digested his answer briefly and rejected it.

"What can you lose on a runway? In the fog?" Now that the shock was wearing off, she was angry. He signed her logbook and handed it back to her.

"Maybe faith."

"Faith," she looked up from studying his signature. "Faith?" she repeated dubiously.

"Faith in his knowledge; faith in his airplane; faith in his instruments--perhaps faith in himself. Who can say?" He smiled at her, opened the door of the airplane and stepped out.

"How can you lose faith in your instruments" she pressed, "they're the only things that make sense! If you don't trust the instruments up there you'll go crazy!" He didn't reply but shook his head, still faintly smiling.

She zipped her flight bag and hurried to catch him.

"Same time tomorrow?" He stopped and looked back.

"Sure thing. We'll aviate. We just may learn something." And he walked into the mist.

She called after him:

"Thanks Duane."





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Author Bio

Roger writes from broad life perspective, having earned a living in several diverse fields: Naval aviation for 22 years (now retired); Foreign Service communications officer in the Middle East; a Montana law enforcement officer; a commercial pilot and flight instructor, and a long-haul professional driver. He even drew a paycheck once for 'bucking' hay bales (at ten cents apiece) on a Montana ranch! He wryly comments that writing fiction is his latest attempt at starvation.

For many years Roger's writing appeared in military and governmental technical publications, but he has only recently forayed into the world of fiction. His work has been published in Alien Skin magazine, Nocturnal Ooze Magazine, Twilight Times, and Anotherealm.

He writes and resides with his wife (and staunch critic) Carolyn, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior and his much beloved Springer Spaniels.

Read another story by Roger:
"The Writer's Block






"Artificial Horizon" Copyright © 2003 Roger A. Jurack. First published in Alien Skin Magazine in 2003. All rights reserved.
Re-printed by permission of the author.


This page last updated 07-27-04.

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