U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


August 2001 




Thought for the month...

In aviation we essentially have two choices - the right choice, or no choice at all.

REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION, ETC, ETC..... As the hour for solo approaches, flight instructors usually concentrate on takeoffs and landings. By repeated exposure to the elements associated with landing an aircraft under various conditions, we imprint or program that behavior in our memory. Initially, landings require a completely conscious effort. As a pre-solo student, we are totally absorbed in trying to sort out all the information attacking our brain. As training progresses, the task becomes familiar and eventually we can accomplish additional tasks while landing, such as talking on the radio. While landings are never fully automatic, repetition allows us to develop habits that move many of the skills required into the realm of automatic activity.

Our mind is like a computer in many ways. The conscious level is very much like a hard drive. It takes more energy to operate in the conscious mode so our brain prefers to put as much activity into habit (auto mode) as possible. If it must react to a change, the first place our brain will look is in the RAM (habits) for a solution. If it finds something close, it will go with that, if not, it will go to the hard disk (conscious control) and seek a knowledge-based solution. If it can't find adequate information there, then some bad things happen. The stress level kicks into high gear and our body reverts to some basic survival skills. Heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and perspiration all increase in response to adrenaline being released. Our stress levels may exceed our ability to cope and we can go into overload. At that point, even simple tasks become impossible. The old Abbott and Costello movie where Lou meets Frankenstein and tries to yell for help but nothing comes out - is real.

The fact that many flying skills can be performed by habit is a good thing. The auto mode is actually called skill-based performance, and it is how we accomplish highly practiced tasks. We switch to rule-based performance when it is necessary to modify a preprogrammed behavior. At the rule-based level, we apply a stored solution to the problem. Much of this still occurs at the subconscious level. If we don't have a big supply of stored solutions to select from the habit pattern selection made by our brain might not be appropriate for the situation.

My habit is to move the landing gear handle when I am downwind, abeam my intended touchdown point. That's a routine function and is an automatic response. On final, someone pulls out on the runway in front of me, forcing me to abort my landing. The conscious part of the brain must handle this dangerous or difficult situation. Re-entering downwind, my conscious brain is busy considering evil options to employ against the inconsiderate pilot who forced my go-around. Since there has been a change to the routine, the sub-conscious part of my brain checks in with rule-based performance to find out if there is a stored solution to the situation, and low and behold, there is one - move the landing gear handle when abeam the touchdown point. Whether I recognize that I have just raised the gear instead of lowering it will depend upon what other stored solutions I have. Am I programmed to use a checklist after a go-around? Is a final gear check part of my habit pattern? Is my conscious brain so distracted by anger that it will not respond to a warning horn and red lights?

One of the findings of a recent University of Illinois study revealed that roughly 80% of all general aviation accidents are attributed to skill-based errors. Skill-based errors are associated with deficiencies in training and proficiency. If we haven't been trained, we won't have any stored solutions, and we probably won't have the knowledge to consciously deal with a dangerous situation. If we aren't proficient at doing a go-around, it won't be a solution we can count on. If our training has only included the procedures for adding power and iniating a climb, but not included the use of a "you've just been distracted checklist", it may not be adequate to prevent a skill-based error such as a gear-up landing.

Meaningful repetition is the correct way to develop good habits, and good habits ensure that we have an adequate supply of suitable solutions. Our flight instructors have the initial requirement for instilling good habits, but it's an individual responsibility to continue the process. Just going up and boring holes in the sky may not be very productive, and may even develop bad habits. Certainly getting recurrent training from a competent CFI who challenges us with new experiences is an excellent way to increase our data base, but we can do a lot for ourselves as well. By reviewing the rules and standards for each flight, we can challenge ourselves to fly with precision. By establishing specific standards for each flight, we maintain our stress/arousal level at an acceptable point to ensure optimal performance that will make the flight more fun and keep our brain ready to make the correct choices when required. In aviation, we essentially have only two choices.

Upcoming Events

August 23rd
91/135 Operator Safety Seminar
St. Louis FSDO
8AM to 3PM

September 15th
St. Louis Soaring Association
Open House and Safety Day
Highland Airport
Highland IL

October 17th
Surviving on Spirit of St Louis Airport
Thunder Aviation Hangar 3
7 to 9 PM

December 13th (new date)
AOPA Air Safety Foundation: Fuel Awareness
Florissant Valley College
Multi-Purpose Room
7 to 9 PM

Operations Safety Program Manager
1-800-322-8876 extension 4835