Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Intuition and Intellect

If I could know what to do
and know when to do it.
When to lay back
and when to get to it,
Mama I'd be a true blue guru man ...

Eric Bibb
from "Guru Man Blues"
I often observe pilots as they fly and think "why are they doing that?" Sometimes I think, "why aren't they doing this?" I'm not trying to be vague, it's just that the "this" and "that" of flying an airplane is so wide ranging, I'm not sure where to start.

I'll be the first to admit that there are at least a dozen ways to do most anything in an aircraft. As long as the desired effect is achieved and the aircraft is operated within the manufacturer's limits, I'm pretty accepting of any technique a pilot wants to use. Some flying tasks lend themselves to procedures and methods while others require creativity and intuition. The problem is that many pilots are methodical when they should be creative and vice-a-versa. I've come to the conclusion that people who fly airplanes fall into two broad categories.

The first is people who say "These are the recommended procedures? I'll learn them, use them, and improvise when I have to." The second group of people say "These are the recommended procedures? I bet I can fly and not use any of them!" Pilots don't usually say these things out loud, but actions speak louder than words. Giving instruction to the latter group is more challenging and tiring than the former.

A few areas where I think a step-by-step procedural approach is best include takeoff and landing performance, weight and balance calculations, and aircraft maintenance. Some pilots don't give takeoff performance or the possibility of a rejected takeoff a second thought, relying instead on intuition and induction - "I've always been able to takeoff on runway 15 before without any problem, so why should a takeoff today be any different?" This approach to performance planning can be remarkably successful and repeatable, until you forget that you're at gross weight and don't notice the temperature is 38˚C and you have a slight tailwind.

Weight and balance is another area where many pilots apply what can only be described as a "don't ask, don't calculate" policy, sometimes with tragic results. Weight and balance calculations are tiresome, so I've developed some electronic spreadsheets that I provide, free of charge, to those I instruct. There really isn't a good reason for not doing a weight and balance if you're carrying more than one person in the typical 4-seat GA airplane.

Many pilots, owners, and operators take an imaginative approach to inoperative equipment and maintenance. Most of the time this involves denial, if not outright lying. Inoperative equipment and maintenance is the number one area for making people head to the anti-authority roundhouse, where they are promptly cornered.

And yet I know that creativity and intuition play a crucial role in flying an airplane. Consider a visual approach to landing. You have a procedure for configuration, airspeed, and power settings at various points through the traffic pattern. Intuition is what takes over when the tower asks you to extend your downwind leg or make a short approach. You have to throw your recipe out the window and rely on your feel for flying.

To develop intuition, you need to be patient, and you need to have experience. You also need to make mistakes and learn from your mistakes. Patience is what I most often see lacking in pilots. They seem to forget that the plane they are flying is moving through a fluid and that nothing happens instantaneously in the air. Airspeed changes are gradual, power changes take time to have an effect, flaps extend gradually. That's why you have to think ahead. The plane will not respond immediately, so you have to have faith born of experience. You have to imagine (as the old saw goes) where you want the plane to be in the next few minutes instead of passively waiting to see what will happen next.

Put another way, with apologies to Mr. Bibb:
If I could know when to descend
And when to reduce throttle
When to make tracks,
when to add flaps and dawdle,
Momma I'd be a true blue pilot man


Jack said...

Very nice John. That's a lot of leather!

You're too nice on the partial panel torture if you're only covering up one instument. When I was getting my instrument rating, the covers always came out in pairs. Speaking of which, I need to do that the next time I'm out practicing approaches.

John said...

Ah, you're the second person to comment on the partial panel thing. As I said in the caption, it was partial partial panel at this stage in his training.

Don't worry, I have more instrument covers ...

Tony Harrison said...

G'day John,

I think you have hit the nail on the head when looking at pilot personalities. Not many pilots fall into the 'a bit from column A and a bit from column B', most are usually all A or all B.

I fly with a guy who improvises the whole way, except during run up checks, where he'll spend 15 minutes going through each item on the checklist, and if he misses one or makes a mistake, goes back to the beginning.

All well and good to check things on the ground, but then to start improvising in the air, and you are on a slippery slope!

Oh well, an equal number of takes offs and landings so far, and no one has been hurt. Yet.

Take care

Anonymous said...

Hey there John, Dano from Boston...

Patience. Watch a student pilot (and some certificated) trying to force a 172 onto the ground and it just makes your butt-cheeks clench. Mine anyways.

"Let it land...gravity and induced drag ALWAYS win."

You know the sight: roundout 30 feet off the runway, 80 knots indicated...a quick pump forward followed by an immediate level-off attempt. In their head they MUST think they're somehow cheating physics and science.

"I can force it down, but before it realizes it's descending, I'll level off! No speed increase!"

Learning is the change in behavior as a result of experience. Insanity is repeating the same process in the same manner using the same technique, but expecting a different outcome.

Live the dream.