Decisions & Experience

More dialogue on the decision-making processes of flying

94/02/11 18:50

From: E-Pilot To: DIPLOCAT Judith Bradt

I've been thinking about your letter for the past week, and hadn't quite decided what approach to take in answering. A lot of substance...

As I was writing this note, I discovered that it was more about life than about flying, and about what's involved in my head as I do these approaches. It is an important process, and relates to many things outside of flying.

Flying gets you into a completely different hemisphere of the brain. Most of your work, perhaps, is likely to be very linear, logical; flying, on the other hand, is sythesized: you must put together a great deal of information in a right-brain mode -- while following all the left-brain rules (FARs; Aircraft procedures, etc). In Bull Durham, Annie's garter was right-brain orientation for a left-brained pitcher.

I headed out two weeks ago to do some more of that, and then to ride backseat as an observer with someone who is slightly ahead of me in the training.

Riding as observer is an education -- particularly when you watch someone who is better than you, and someone who is worse. It's a way for you to see how things go right; how people plan; how other pilots set themselves up for success -- and failure. But you need an instructor's "eye" to make the most of the experience (observing as a method of constant critique, versus going along for the ride and occasionally noticing something which was glaringly in error).

Doing test preparation, I am occasionally stymied -- complete stunned loop -- by simple arithmetic questions like the ones you asked me months ago... ...I panic, however, when I don't know what that is. And all the more so because doing the wrong thing -- particuarly guessing wrong -- gets you killed.

My First Officer, and I were talking about this very thing earlier this week. Like him, I shared the initial frustration just after getting all my tickets and ratings of wondering why no one was willing, really, to hire me. After all, I'm as proficient and sharp as I'll ever be, right? My flying is likely to be at its best, my skills sharply honed. And to a degree, that's correct. But what the companies really want is experience -- and for a good reason.

Having EXPERIENCE helps a pilot -- and this point is pertinent to many of the points you made in your letter which, in part, follows -- make the correct and appropriate decisions which prevent them from making the mental errors which get people killed. In part, experience helps you develop the tough mental discipline that flying demands. Experience helps you to maintain that tough mental discipline while being relaxed -- what I often refer to as that "relaxed state of heightened awareness" -- and to "oversee" your own decisions much as an observer would. Experience is what gets you out into the airplane to master your latest challenge on a day when there are at least three good excuses not to (barring mental, physical or meteorological reasons contrary to safe operation). Thus, companies want someone who has developed that tough mental discipline, a product of experience, who can avoid situations which might bring out panic in the best of us.

I panic, however, when I don't know... ...and all the more so because doing the wrong thing -- particularly guessing wrong -- gets you killed.

Well, if getting killed is really that much of an overriding concern, perhaps you shouldn't fly. But I think you'd be miserable if you didn't. Judy, we all make mistakes. We all, at times, have to guess. Sometimes we guess wrong.

Yesterday, I guessed that we wouldn't have much of a delay going into SFO, based on the wx forecasts, trends, etc. I stuck a little extra fuel on anyway, and we launched. We had to hold 45 minutes and then got vectored around -- seemingly, endlessly -- and had to declare minimum fuel in order to get into SFO. A mistake on my part? Perhaps, but I don't think so.

The important thing for you to realize is that the training and experience all comes into play when we realize our situation and make the correct decisions in the face of our circumstances -- including communicating to ATC our predicament -- and taking timely, corrective actions. Two legs later, coming into SFO from Redding, we wound up in identical circumstances, having carried 1000# of extra fuel (more than a standard IFR flight required) -- with holding 45 minutes in moderate icing conditions which increased fuel consumption badly. This time, I had a few more options and a lot more fuel with which to deal with the unexpected.

Guessing wrong isn't so much of a sin in flying, as long as you have the experience, training, knowledge, and foresight to help you guess on the conservative side and to know -- in advance -- what areas that guessing wrong will result in fatalities. What you do once you find you're in error is equally important, too.

Fuel, weather (including icing), weight and balance, and performance are areas which are most likely the areas that will get you into the most serious problems at your level of experience. There's a great many of these types of problems which you can avoid by thorough and considered pre-flight planning -- so you can avoid the subsequent panic situation. Always leave yourself an "out" -- including having an intermediate airport you can put into if you have enroute problems.

Thorough pre-flight planning, and maintaining sight of the "big picture" (situational awareness) while in flight will help you avoid having to deal with panic later. Experience is the key -- though there's much to say for good training and equipment.

Overcoming the panic, thereafter to to plunge in and clear my mind and do the job, is often hard. I find this at work sometimes. Also, this is the same kind of agonizing stall or stumbling point that I reach and cannot get past in the Awful Dream.

Don't worry too much about the Awful Dream. That's your lack of experience speaking to you. This will be cured. Just get off your duff to do it.

Interesting, but how to minimize or overcome the Panic Point?

Like the scouts say, "Be prepared." Avoid the panic through doing a thorough job of pre-flight planning. We all make mistakes, and some things happen no matter how well you have prepared: we do, after all, operate complex machines in an equally complex control environment. If, after all the training, planning, etc, etc, you find yourself in difficulty, have the discipline and courage to confess your problems to ATC before allowing them to minimize or eliminate your other options (such as landing at an intermediate airport). Don't be afraid to land at an intermediate airport to get fuel. Don't forget the 180 degree turn (strategic advance to the rear.) Always ask yourself, in flight, "What if I guessed wrong?" Assume that you have, and keep planning for other logical options. In other words, keep your options open.

Keeping your options open gives you a great deal of confidence, something which will prove itself time and time again once you get the experience you lack. Keep in mind that although you're probably at your sharpest immediately after (or before) getting your instrument ticket, until you're flying a large turbojet aircraft capable of flying above the weather and/or in heavy icing, you are going to be limited to flying when there's no icing, and when the weather isn't quite unstable.

As a flight instructor and former Chief Pilot, I wasn't as much concerned by a pilot's mistakes (unless they were very big ones) as I was with what did he/she do after making the mistake. A mistake corrected quickly was less important to me than a pilot making a mistake and never noticing it. Understand? Obviously, you can expect a certain level of competence at this level of the industry -- so the mistakes shouldn't be major ones. No one that I'm aware of expects perfection. I made some errors on my ATP checkride, but passed because I caught the mistake and corrected it or, in the case of an approach, missed.

I have not yet figured out how to be more selective about what to concentrate on and what to push aside mentally in order to get the most important things done.

Setting priorities is obviously important. In flying, what was once important can quickly change; the reverse is true as well. Mental discipline is the key. Confidence is useful. Experience is essential.

I am learning to be a bit more patient with myself. As I get better at that, my concentration will also improve. I did a couple of fast, flat landings, though -- I have not quite gotten the mental sequence of what to watch and manage in order to slow down on final so that I'm basically just above landing speed at the MDA or DH. Twice, I knew that I was not rationally processing the mental inputs I had from the instruments and using that information to decide whether I needed to alter pitch, power or both; I was just ditzing around without any clear method in mind to achieve the desired performance. I need to think through that a little more carefully. I find it takes a lot of mental preparation as well as planning to fly well.

Well, to some degree, I understand what you mean about not rationally processing inputs and using that information to make changes in pitch, power or both. This, again, is a matter of experience. You should be able to fly the aircraft well enough to make the changes required without really spending much time in thought about what you're doing. After all, you can walk down stairs without thinking left-right-left-right-left, right?

I don't know what you're flying right now, but whatever it is, it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that you need to slow down in order to land. In fact, at your current level of experience, I'd strongly recommend that you have the airplane stabilized for the approach before crossing the final approach fix! A stabilized approach means that you can go visual and land with a minimum of airspeed and/or configuration changes.

Next: Frustration & Breakthrough

Judy & JJ
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