In the beginning airplanes had no instruments beyond a sort of fuel gauge and the pilot’s eyes, ears, and rump. That didn’t last long, and so airspeed indicators, altimeters, oil pressure and temperature gauges, and other useful things appeared. Rate-of-climb indicators, compasses and then heading indicators (which didn’t wag as much as a whisky compass and are usually easier to read in turbulence. Usually), attitude indicators to help the pilot determine if he was still level or if his inner-ear had gotten out of kilter with the airplane, radios, landing-gear position indicators, and other gauges, lights, and read-outs soon filled the instrument panel to the brim. And it was good, but . . . non-standard.
In the beginning nothing was standard, so you got panels like:
When instruments are tucked anywhere they can be shoe-horned in, it is referred to as a “shotgun panel.” If it is your airplane and that’s all you fly, you get used to where things are and it makes sense and can work very well. But woe betide someone who is used to the now usual and customary, and who gets distracted . . .
So, a number of years ago, I rented a Cessna 182. This happened to be an older model, just how older I prefer not to say, but older. The plane had been taken care of and came from a dry climate, had functioning instruments and radios, a decent interior (aside from that little problem with the seat latch . . . Yeah, you know that AD, I can tell), and was great for what I needed. However, it had a bit of a shotgun instrument panel, in that the altimeter and rate-of-climb indicators were not there in a stack on the right side. The rate-of-climb lived in the upper left corner, and the altimeter hid behind the control yoke. The Cessna 182 has a Y shaped control column for the ailerons and elevator instead of the stick of fighter pilot and Cub fame. Oh, and the altimeter itself had non-standard hands, it was so old. The rental people warned me about the odd panel, but the plane flew nicely and they were quite happy to take my money.
The 182 and I got along fine for several months. Then I took it to New Mexico, or tried to. We had a weather front coming and I’d planned the trip to get ahead of the weather, get to Las Vegas, go for New Mexican food, and come home. I got 2/3 of the way and the weather at Las Vegas turned from good to workable to yuck in twenty minutes. I took this as a sign that Someone did not plan for me to go to Las Vegas that day, and I turned around. The front moved a lot faster than forecast, and I started getting a little nervous about getting back to Amarillo.
At the time, Tuccumcari still had a real live weather office, so I checked in with them. Amarillo was OK, but TCC had begun clouding over. I was not instrument rated, and while I knew the locations of most of the antennae and such in the area, scud-running was not something I had trained for and doing it in something as fast and heavy as the 182 would be foolish. So I got busy looking for back-up locations if Amarillo went down before I got there. The plane had no auto-pilot, so I set things to it would stay more or less upright if I let go for a few seconds and started rooting around for a different chart (Amarillo straddles two charts) and looking at my options.
I glanced at the panel, saw that the wings were level, and returned to hunting. Looked at the wings, looked at the chart. Looked at the heading indicator, looked at the chart. Looked up and realized that all I could see out the windscreen was brown and the altimeter had shed almost two thousand feet. Oh sheep! I levelled out 800′ above the ground, which was still safe for that stretch of countryside but a lot lower than I wanted to be. I climbed back up to the proper cruising altitude and got my little self to Amarillo and the ground right quick.
I knew that the altimeter was not where I thought it should be. But I kept glancing at the wrong thing, saw that it was level more or less, and went back to the chart. And when I did see the altimeter, I was looking at the wrong hand – hundreds instead of thousands.
What did I learn? That you have to aviate, navigate, and communicate, in that order. That shotgun panels cannot be taken for granted. That distractions will bite you in the rump, hard. And that I needed to get an instrument rating. But that’s a story (saga) for a different time.