Learning Tired

This exchange focuses on instructor-student communications...and trying to learn complex stuff when you're tired.

94/05/11 00:01
From: E-pilot To: DIPLOCAT Judith Bradt

No edits. I would like to offer you just thoughts the way they are today, willing to take whatever criticisms you offer. I'm just feeling weary, more than anything. Just sort of warm-front-drizzly-weary of this effort, and not wanting to face six hours of "preparation for your IFR flight test" tapes -- which my instructor asked me to take notes of because he disagrees with some of the advice there but doesn't remember which parts.

Sometimes, I get tired of being positive about things. After last night's lesson, last night was one of them. I cannot even say that it was an accomplishment to be completely without emotion or frustration when things went wrong with some of the approaches. My instructor was giving me so many bits of information or advice -- a number of which I asked him to hold onto until we got down -- that I felt it wasn't even my airplane anymore. I was concentrating on what I thought I was supposed to do, and then he would tell me to do something else -- twice, in contradiction of a clearance or instruction that I had already heard and received and was acting on. Analysis: he was hearing the clearances he EXPECTED to hear, not the ones that were issued. This is disturbing.

This is clearly a mistake on his part -- he isn't communicating very well -- and an instructor is -- by definition -- supposed to do it better than anyone!) This is compounded by you, Judy, not questioning him or immediately, repeat, IMMEDIATELY asking him to confirm his instructions withwhich you note variance. You, as the student, should ask ATC to confirm the instructions if you think HE (your instructor) has it wrong.

I get tired of being positive about things... I wasn't going to have an argument with him up there; I had too much else to do. You are right, I do get prickly. However, I don't lash out at people; you get to see me get prickly because you and I don't communicate in real time. I have time to think about what you say and decide how I feel about it. My anger almost always arises from frustration, and mostly from frustration with myself for not acting much more quickly on an instinct that a particular thing or event is Not Right, but instead letting it show its bloom of full colours (or fester into maleficent and possibly dangerous prominence) until confronting it.

In flying, you CANNOT sit there and let bad instructions, clearances orinformation quietly get you killed. You MUST learn how to confront thingswithout letting them get to the point where you're fighting panic (or anger or frustration or whatever...)

It was late, he was tired, I was tired -- very mentally weary. I had studied the approaches, and run through written and mental checklists of things in my mind. I was furious with him on the way home. I wanted him to let me fly the approaches and if I got messed up to just let me figure it out -- just like I would have to do in real life. Maybe that was unreasonable, as this WAS real life (as in, we were flying with a live clearance, and had to be where we were supposed to be).

Some important points:
You're tired, and he's tired. He should know better. YOU now know better.

Frankly, learning to fly instruments is one of the most unnatural things
you're ever going to do in your entire life -- you're learning to extendyour senses beyond the flight deck and do what no other creature on earth can do -- fly and maneuver in the blind. It's frustrating! There's nothing wrong with that. It's frustrating, also, because intense learning experiences ARE frustrating -- particularly when you get to the saturation point and you can look at things without really reading them; you hear things without really listening; etc, etc.

You mentioned elsewhere in your letter "I keep looking...without seeing it...I didn't have the MAP procedure clearly in mind..." See the warning signs? You're reaching a saturation point. You've reached a point, on that particular evening and at that time, of overload.When you get there, you need to realize that there's little to be accomplished at that point other than getting good and frustrated, or, worse yet, having some first-hand experience at accident practice.

Goodness, Judy! You work a demanding job and have your head filled with a zillion details spinning around the information loop at 70 MHz, and --probably at your lowest physical and mental acuity state, expect to go out and fly, thus risking physical and mental burnout WHILE you're at the sharp end. Surprise, surprise, surprise. The brain overloads, and the best you can do is fight back tears and self-rage for, what, being stupid? Nahh.

You're just human.

You're working hard at your office, and then go out to the airport to process a few zillion other things with countless trillions of details to juggle and sort while some motor-mouth CFI is going on and on about less and less with ATC blaring in your ears, the systems taking a convenient crap at the same time and you wonder why you're feeling a little frustrated.

Sometimes I wonder why instrument students just don't run into a spinning propeller at the conclusion of a lesson.

He said -- and I'm sure you will confirm -- that I had studied the approaches too much. I freely admit that I had spent a lot of time doing that. Maybe I just concentrated too hard and therefore lost my focus...is that nonsense? I find it hard even when I'm sitting at home reviewing what I expect to do for a flight, it's very difficult to put into mental sequence all the things that I will have to do. And when I am flying the approach, and all I really need to get from the approach plate is:

the DH/MDA
the IAF
the FAF
the target altitudes
the MAP / MAP procedure

Well, I get a lot more out of an approach plate than that, but now isn't the time to go over that. In terms of concentrating too hard, I'd suggest that you should mentally fly your approaches at lunch -- if you must fly after work -- and not prepare too much immediately before flying. Give the mind some time to get through the processing stack before dumping more into the hopper. You can be too prepared, I guess, but I think your problem, in part, comes from being at your lowest physical and mental state while trying to go out and fly...

I keep looking back at the plate anyway, as if I have looked at the information without seeing it, and been unable to pick up the information I need and put it into the correctly-shaped mental box for the information. I need to somehow put the entire plate into a mental HUD equivalent.

Don't feel too bad. I constantly have to ask the miss instructions from the PNF (pilot not flying) while doing an approach to mins -- particularly when I know there's a good chance I'll miss (or when I'm on a checkride...)

He almost never reinforces the things I do right, and just lists the things I did wrong; I have to stop him time and again to write down the point positively so that it will stick as a positive reinforcer. He is quick to just list this stuff as if (a) I will remember it just because he said it, and (b) by him telling me the things I did wrong, I will therefore not do them anymore.

Maybe your instructor should learn -- for himself -- that people do much better when THEY de-brief the flight but HE reinforces the positive before and after the de-brief. Most instructors NEVER learn the secret of the GOOD instructors: let the STUDENT state what went wrong; let them ASK what went wrong if they don't know or can't figure it out for themselves. Tell people what they're doing right; have them self-critique the flight; and you'll have students lining up at your door because you're known to be the world's best instructor.

He suggested that I not interrupt my scan for quite so long when I am checking radio frequencies -- that I tune part of the frequency, look back at the instruments, and change another part of it. It seems to take me a long time to move the knobs to the right frequency, and when I do, I tend to drift off heading.

This is tough -- particularly when you're flying an airplane not equipped with a comm system capable of storing frequencies. Anything which breaks the scan can -- repeat, CAN -- be bad. You just have to learn to include the radios as a part of your scan, the same as you learn to adjust course bars and directional gyros, etc, etc. Try it peripherally, too.

And we lost radios again. No, it was not the alternator or the battery; he thinks the 9-volt battery in his intercom went dead. Unfortunately, we lost first com2, then com1, though the navs were working, when we were inbound for the ILS. He unplugged a bunch of the intercom cords and plugged in the mic and took over the radio communications; approach, breaking up, switched us over to the tower, which came in fine.

The approach heading was 162. IAD had asked me to fly 120 heading in, and then moved me to 060. Then we started to break up. I didn't understand, once we were in communication with the tower at Manassas, that I was supposed to continue to approach; one of the tower's instructions finished with something about a westward heading to join the downwind, and I thought we were being told to break off the ILS approach. Then Tom got left and right confused, and told me to fly away from the LOC, when he wanted me to fly towards it. I didn't think we had been cleared for the approach, so I didn't know what I was supposed to do.

Seems he's at his saturation point, too.

I DID follow one of your suggestions, and call the tower to find out whether they would be able to offer me the clearances I wanted for my set of local approaches, and found out the useful information that towards 8:30 p.m. that was unlikely as they had a lot of incoming traffic then. This was most helpful to know, as I had some idea of an alternative request when they were unable to accomodate my initial request. Thanks. That was off to a pretty good start.

Good. You're learning!

Oh, yeah: again, the aircraft I wanted wasn't available. I was in the Warrior again, and I didn't know until I got out to the airplane that this one didn't have DME. Tom advised me to inform ground of the revision when I picked up the clearance. I had expected DME, and had flown with it in almost all the other flights. This was too bad; it wasn't REQUIRED for any of the approaches, but would have been darn nice to have on two of them.

Why did the business change the airplane? You MUST tell them, in no uncertain terms, that you've scheduled a particular airplane and if they don't want to honor the commitment of the schedule, you'll consider alternate arrangements.

As I flew inbound to the VOR, I was cleared for the 17 approach, which was actually the 14 approach. I made what was in retrospect the wrong kind of radio call: instead of asking him to say again, as I was pretty sure of which approach he meant -- which left him with the impression that I didn't understand him -- Tom advised that I ought to have repeated back "cleared for the VOR 14, Warrenton. So we're having this little discussion about gratuitous radio calls, and I'm thinking, I don't want to hear about this right now. What I did wasn't the best choice, but it wasn't wrong, either.

This is a VERY IMPORTANT POINT: ambiguity kills. ASK the controller to say again his instructions and DO read back the instructions (legally, it's a clearance!) each and every time. If the controller screws up, or misses that you read back the wrong information, he will be charged with the error -- NOT YOU! NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER assume that you know what he meant.

I then (surprise) miscalculated the heading I would need to fly in crossing the VOR in order to enter the pt. The outbound track was published as 299. I looked at that and decided that, coming in from the east, I needed to fly 300. This is junk. I needed to fly 270, which was about what I was doing anyway. He asked me what heading I intended when I reached the VOR and was not doing 270, and I thought about it and realized I had made the wrong choice and corrected. I don't know why I picked the wrong heading.

I suspect that OVERLOAD is working here. Stop flying when you're exhausted.

I made a smooth entry into the pt, but didn't turn far enough right before stopping to see if the needle was coming in. I had forgotten that I needed to turn right until I was 45 degrees shy of the desired heading for the inbound track and wait until the needle came in. In sitting down beforehand, I was confused about this anyway, and all I could think of was trying to figure out ho many minutes/seconds the turn would be in case I had real or enforced gyro failure, and had not been able to figure out the answer. Tom asked me why I was stopping at 030, and told me to keep going around to to the 45 degree-point -- by which time, rewardingly, I was tracking that thing very well indeed. However, I realized just after started the time once I hit the FAF at 2.2 miles out that I should have started the time at the IAF at 7.6 NM. You know what I did? I actually roughed out, at 90 knots, about how long 2.2 NM was going to take me at 90, and did the miss at exactly the right place. This was gratifying.

You did the mental gymnastics when it counted. Good. Now if the flight school hadn't sent your originally-scheduled airplane out on a charter or some other flight, you'd have had DME -- which is what you needed.

I didn't have the MAP procedure clearly in my mind (WHY?WHY?WHY?), and had to look twice at the plate. I wanted to make sure that I had positive rate of climb before lifting the flaps, and between those two things, I went apparently four miles out before turning...and even then, I was flying so the needle was centred, to return direct to the VOR as instructed when I called in the miss, but was flying a FROM flag, and didn't realize that I neded to turn 180 degrees---you know, like it's depicted and described in tw different places on the plate? I got confused.

I'm getting confused, too. And I'm not nearly as tired as you seemed to have been.

Again, flying single pilot, you have to rely on practicing the mental game of STICKING ESSENTIAL INFORMATION someplace where you can immediately retrieve it. What helps is a quick review of the first two or three essential instructions of the missed approach procedure so that you can at least get away from the ground and obstacles and get safely airborne – then, you can set the missed approach up on your radios and call the missed.

I did correctly work out which way I was going to turn to intercept the outbound heading from the VOR. I felt a little blind without DME, on which I had I suppose come to rely too much for location information. As we passed where the NDB was supposed to be, Tom told me that I'd missed a reporting point. Two things were wrong, and there was a third procedural error involved, too. First, I had neglected to test the ADF on the ground. If I had, I should have noticed that its switch was on "ANT" not "ADF", and changed it. I had wondered idly whether the needle was pointing to where I expected it to be; no, it wasn't, but I was too mentally crowded to figure out why not and correct the problem. Again, cockpit was getting dark, ADF was on the far side, I couldn't see it that well and it didn't occur to me to look at its switch. Tom identified the problem, by which time we were past the NDB and needed to get reoriented. We hadn't missed a reporting point, as I wasn't told to report over the NDB. The controller was busy, and just told us to report pt outbound. We were only outbound from the IAF...or, trying to be, at that point. (I DID ident the NDB -- and all my navaids on this flight, actually -- but didn't keep its beeper going low in the background like I was supposed to for the entire approach).

A couple of errors like these and I'll think fondly of you when reading the accident report.

ALWAYS check, anytime that you brief an approach that the gear is able to serve you as planned. Check the ADF for ADF/ANT; check the comm/nav switches so that you can hear the ident of the NDB and can hear the marker beacons as you pass them.

So next, Tom tells me to fly the outbound heading. My idea is to turn to fly a heading 20 degrees less than the heading outbound from the NDB, in order to intercept that track, and get set up for PT outbound. No, no; he wants me to fly the pt outbound heading NOW, so that I can tell from the NDB needle where I am. This is information overload. I cannot process this information, and I have no idea why he is telling me this. I do it anyway, and watch the ADF needle without comprehension, and eventually simply make the inbound portion of the pt, reporting to ATC that I'm at the end of PT inbound, turning outbound. I'm cleared for the approach. I get slightly screwed up about which bearing I'm on to the station; by the time I get it right, it turns out that I started the PT so close in that I'm already over the station. I call a miss, and tell Tom I want to do that one again. He helpfully suggests asking for clearance to the NDB rather than the VOR to save some time, and I agree. My instructions are to fly direct to the NDB. Turn, Turn, Turn, he calls out. I have gotten confused again, and am flying a course direct to the VOR, not the NDB.

Information overload is right.

I fight a strong interest in giving up and going home, but it's not even a passionate interest. It's like I'm completely dead inside; this is like swatting a fly in an otherwise sterile room. I don't even have any anger at making these mistakes. Afterwards, I don't know whether this is constructive or regressive. Thinking about it now, it was probably helpful, as anger and frustration create even more problems and utterly stall thought processes. I guess it was good.

Judy, you can see how fruitless it is to fly when you're exhausted or reaching a point of overload in your day. You're making mistakes because you're tired. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Your instructor isn't doing much better, and to compound the problem, you're flying at an FBO whose management doesn't think much about breaking commitments about airplanes, etc, etc. No wonder why you're having trouble.

I don't remember much about doing the next NDB approach...but it was a good one. I put the flaps in too soon, I think, on one of the approaches, and was reminded when we returned that the FAF is the place to do that. I DID do a reasonably good job of remembering to slow to 90 knots when crossing the IAF.

Not remembering much about an approach is NOT a good sign. You should remember what you did right and why more so than what went wrong.

You know, I kind of like NDB approaches. Don't ask me why. They just seem friendly. I associate them with this little lonely transmitter atsome out-of-the-way airport with maybe good burgers...(and I don't even like burgers all that much...) They are less complicated, in some ways, that ILS.

NDB approaches are tough -- they're a little difficult to figure out. Until you learn to fly an RMI.

Tom started shouting at me, because he thought that I was unable to hear him with the BOSE headset still noise-cancelling. I will have to let him try it to understand what it does and doesn't make quieter. I could actually hear the transmissions better than he could, and could certainly hear him just fine. I just missed hearing the Manassas controller because I guess I had mentally check out and was waiting for Tom to convey their instructions to me -- which sometimes we do when he is simulating an ASR approach.

Yelling at someone in a student-instructor relationship is a grave mistake.Yelling at a student in an airplane is also a grave mistake.

Needless to say, that isn't an approach that should have been continued. We needed to land, because control was so busy they weren't too interested in giving us another shot at it...and after all the foregoing, I don't know how constructive it would have been.

Well, the NEXT time you get yourself into this situation, you'll probably remember that it doesn't pay to fly when you're not at your peak mentally and physically.

I did get into the pattern nicely at 1200 feet, and flew a good approach -- the lights were white with just a tinge of pink -- which I was told was lower than it should have been at night, and it was a gratuitously lovely landing. All the time, I heard him thinking "nose wheel. She's going to whack the nosewheel." He didn't even remember the landing. Now, you yourself have told me that artforms in night landings are really beside the point. I was just pleased that it was set up well, and concluded well.

Well, I've done more good night landings by accident than by design.

Oh, I suppose it wasn't a disastrous flight; there were just all these loose pieces hanging all over the place, and I find it's an enormous effort to try and scoop them up and string them together in the right order, like graduated beads. All things I know; and no reason why I should not be doing all of them extremely well at this point.

I call what you went through a rough learning experience -- just the type that encourages most people to quit their instrument training. The fact that you didn't, and haven't quit, says a lot for you. The instructor is paid to HELP you learn without feeling rectally raped in the process. The business is supposed to honor commitments about aircraft in order to give you the proper tools to learn -- rather than foisting some junk off on you so that you can experience something less than success due to changes they made for greater profitability (or whatever excuse they have to offer...)

Also, I was "up" for this flight; I had looked forward to it, especially after having to cancel last Sunday. Even though I had had a long week of some really mind-numbing stuff (and I am getting really worn down by all the work involved in running one of my projects: I know all the things that need to be done, and I could tell someone what to do if the right person were there, but I no longer feel like doing it even though I am the only one who can right now), I had changed gears happily on the train on the way out to the airport. As my early June mexico trip was cancelled, I am not under particular pressure to finish within the next 10 days. I had studied, and put a lot of mental energy into affirming my confidence in my abilities to do this lesson. I was, at the end of the lesson, just utterly weary, and didn't have the mental energy to sit down with Tom and tell him what I need from him as an instructor (I know better than to tell just about anyone "here are all the things I don't like about you"). And maybe I just don't know. I'm just so tired of trying without things working all that well. Visualizations, affirmation, concentration...all this effort...does it ever get easier? Or, if it does, does that simply mean that one is on the slope of skills decline for want of constantly striving to hone a finer edge? This is just so hard sometimes. (Sniff. Sniff. Drip.)

This is a very, very important point I'm going to make, and I'd like it to sink in as far as it can. You state....(I) didn't have the mental energy to sit down with Tom and tell him what I need from him as an instructor...

You'd better do this, and the next time you see him. And you'd better keep repeating this to him until it sinks in for him. You'll teach him, perhaps, a lesson he needs to learn, and learn to stick up for yourself ("Assert yourself") until he does better. One result of him learning to do better is that you'll do better. Obviously, the way NOT to approach him is by stating that he's acting like an ass -- though he is. You can insist, also, that he's going to be short-tempered and overloaded himself, you'd like to insure that he's in proper condition to fly.

Talk with him about your concerns, Judy. He OBVIOUSLY was overloaded, as you were. He's got the legal responsibility to cancel the lesson if he's not in proper condition mentally and/or physically.

Does it ever get easier?


Well, that's not true. There are always a million new hurdles to overcome in flying, new stuff to learn, new equipment and techniques to master. If instrument flying was easy, there'd be a lot fewer accidents, regulations and FAA people.

Those who are good at it have probably gone through the same trials you have of late: they've come away feeling wet, exhausted, frustrated and demeaned. And they got right back at the books and the flying, mentally flew the procedures time and time again after they first got a good night's sleep.

And no, you know I don't give up.

Yes, and that's one reason why you're likely to be good at instrument flying. If you keep working at it, but, from now on, with realistic limits...

JJ had come to pick me up, and overheard some of the debrief. Tom is just syntactically incoherent sometimes. I really do not understand him, more and more often, and have to restate and clarify more and more frequently. Maybe he was just tired at the end of the day; I suspect his mind was partly on the air races he's heading out to crew for for the next 10 days.

Tired, yes. Distracted, yes. Incoherent? Think about getting into a relationship with someone who IS willing to put themselves into your education 100%, not just on a come-as-you-are basis. After all, you're the customer...

Tomorrow, if the front edge of the cold front blows through early, I will fly...with a different instructor. And do those approaches again.

As you did. Good. I'm glad you got a different perspective.

As you said, the ability is there. I have all the pieces. I just don't know what I need to do to bring them together. The answer is probably just to go practice.

First, you need to get a good night's sleep, and keep working on flying in that RELAXED state of heightened awareness.

And, hey, everybody has down days.

I can't tell you how tough my instructors made it on me when I was going through my instrument ticket IN A BARON, no less. I had to fly with some jackass who positively disliked me and sabotaged the lessons through lack of participation in any sense. I changed instructors after the first three or four simulator lessons, after I figured out that it simply wasn't a matter of me being stupid. Fred just stuck me in the simulator and didn't offer a single suggestion about WHY things weren't working -- all he did was offer a running, non-stop criticism of my mistakes without going back to basics and showing me HOW to fly instruments properly. I don't think he really knew HOW to fly instruments himself, in hindsight, and he certainly didn't know how to teach. It wasn't until 1980, some five years later, that I had a clue what I was doing wrong -- and had a GREAT instructor take my instrument flying apart and put it back together again.

There. Thanks for listening.

It goes beyond just listening.

Flying, one finds, is not a once-off qualification. How is it that so many of life's more interesting challenges are not certificates to hang on wall, but perishable skills that must be practiced and honed and learned and re-learned?

Perishable skills, indeed. But what is more important is that you need to be at an optimum of mental and physical states in order to fly well – anytime -- and far more so when the flying involves instruments. Optimum, Judy, is NOT the LOWEST acceptable level of minimum mental and physical readiness. You can look forward to something emotionally, and yet the body and mins WILL fail you.

Advice? Comments? Entrusting a somewhat battered self unto you,

I've related the bad news for the most part.

The good news is that almost everyone goes through a very rough time learning to fly instruments -- it IS an unnatural act where you learn to disregard your senses in order to fly "blind".

The typical instrument student reaches a threshold where they butt their heads against the wall, trying to force something into their brain but without success. This stage of frustration is the BEST time for a pilot to relax a little and back off temporarily, because, usually, as soon as they do, the drive gets them going afterwhile and they crash through the barriers of learning that frustrated them earlier.

It does get better. Sometimes it gets a little easier, too. Particularly when you get to fly with better equipment.


Next: IFR Lesson -- A Better One

Judy & JJ
Bradt.com Home