Saturday, July 15, 2006

I screwed up!

The FAA defines learning as "a change in behavior resulting from experience," which means flight instructors need to be keen observers of human behavior in order to determine if learning has occurred. Much of a flight instructor's job involves on-going evaluation of a pilot's behavior in several dimensions and then providing constructive, critical feedback to the pilot. How they talk on the radio, how they use aircraft systems, and how well they comply with standard procedures for aircraft operation all need to be carefully observed. Having instructed for several years, I've come to the conclusion that good pilots, like most good all-around human beings, tend to be good at two very difficult, yet important tasks.

The first skill is freely admitting that you have made an error. Most of us don't want to make mistakes and each of us tend to be our own harshest critic. Pilots in particular tend to be compulsive about, and identify strongly with, the quality of their performance. When a mistake is made and recognized, this understandably makes us uncomfortable and may create cognitive dissonance. But before a error can be corrected, we have to recognize that a mistake has been made. Flight instructors need to be good diplomats, because many pilots simply don't want to recognize their errors or they want to explain them away.

Denial and rationalization are two traits that do not serve a pilot well, because they cut you off from the very experience that can improve your performance. It's unlikely that you can change your behavior (learn) if you can't accept what just happened. After taking eight different FAA knowledge tests, seven FAA check rides, numerous proficiency and simulator checks, and countless FBO aircraft check outs, I think I have finally learned to readily and freely admit when I've made a mistake while piloting an aircraft.

The sooner a pilot can learn the skill of admitting they have screwed up, forgot, or overlooked something, the safer they will be. A good instructor doesn't just point out mistakes and faults, they also offer insight into how the problem occurred and strategies the pilot can use to improve their performance.

For student pilots and pilots training for a new certificate or rating, being able to quickly learn from your mistakes will save you time and money. And if you need any evidence that saving time and money are important, look no further than the ever rising price of avgas. Once you've admitted to an error, to yourself as well as to others, you now have the opportunity to learn (change your behavior).

I strive to temper the feedback I give to pilots by emphasizing the difference between minor errors and mistakes that could kill you. Most of the time, pilots make benign mistakes that, in and of themselves, are not dangerous. The problem is that a chain of mistakes, even if they are benign when considered separately, can compound and add up to something dangerous, maybe even deadly.

So the goal of a good pilot is not to avoid making any mistakes, but to recognize and correct the ones that s/he makes. As Hamish said so eloquently, expecting perfection of yourself might turn out to be the most deadly form of arrogance.


Sky Captain said...

Thanks, again, John, for your timely comments...

Yesterday I was up with my flying buddy and I was in the right seat. After a bit, she decided she'd rather look for marine mammals than fly (!?) and so gave me the aircraft. I flew from the right seat for a while which was fine since I will soon be making a habit out of it when I set out to earn my CFI wings. Did steep turns for a bit whenever she spotted a critter. I noticed the sight picture was peculiar and I had the impression the nose was actually pointed down, though the VSI was perfectly aligned on zero. I did okay, in general, though I did lose a hundred feet at one point and I was none too pleased about that. I was even less pleased that she spotted it before I had a chance to correct it and mentioned it. Damned ego. Anyway, eventually we headed back in and I was given the left base to 36 by the man in the tower. I was doing my best to arrive at least two miles out to the traffic pattern at eighty knots and TPA, which is 800 feet. I was intent on making the approach as solid as I have come to expect from myself when sitting in the left seat. When we arrived, I was pretty much where I wanted to be power and altitude -wise, but found that my power setting wasn't bleeding off airspeed as quickly as I wanted, so I added 10 degrees of flaps and within 30 seconds, another fifteen. I decided to set power to 1500 at that point, hoping that would help take care of my problem. It quickly came time to turn final and I annoyed to find we were still at five hundred feet and two whites on the VASI. I added the final notch of flaps, hoping to get things stabilized for the final approach. That still didn't get us where we needed to be, so I needed to take additional action. I pulled out the remaining power with about a half mile final remaining. Airspeed was at least 70 knots and the wind was 330@10, so I forward slipped for a bit to shed some altitude and airspeed. Things weren't as solid as I had anticipated and the left seater was making unhappy noises into her Bose. I'd gotten down to the glideslope, at least, but the airspeed was hovering around 60 with a few hundred feet left before the threshold. I began fiddling with the power, as much to appease my co-pilot as to get to the runway. We crossed the numbers and the stall horn was now going off as I flared and I was getting an earful about my energy management. I put it down on one wheel but then it bounced over to the other and I was trying to figure how things had gone from bad to crappy so quickly when it settled down on the mains and finally the nosegear. At least I was on my beloved center line and airspeed was coming off just in time for us to follow the little yellow line onto the taxiway in short order. A discussion ensued regarding my continued approach to landing when the airspeed was less than our collective CFI had admonished me - 70 knots. I knew she was right, but I didn't feel that the outcome was in doubt and so wasn't willing to concede the point. However, I knew that she was right and that I can't do that sort of thing and expect to get away with it every time. In addtion, she's a remarkably reasonable person and didn't make things worse for me and my bruised ego by continuing to belabor the point.

Getting back to your posting, I have been reading the FAA's Instructor Handbook and so immediately recognized your opening statement and just knew you were talking to me! I hope I have learned a couple of things here, most of all to accept constructive criticism for what it is and not to get caught up in those mindsets which can lead to unsafe behaviours in the cockpit.

John said...

Interesting observations, captain.

I've already had two people contact me, thinking that I must have written that post specifically for them. Guess it's a lesson we all have to learn.