Sunday, February 19, 2012

LIke a Rat in a Maze

Some of you must be old enough to remember the torture of the full-procedure ADF approach. The only navaid is a non-directional beacon, really a homing device, and the secondary devices were a stopwatch with a sweep second hand and your own mental map. Those of you who are older may remember flying a lost quadrant procedure off a four-course Range, a complex maneuver involving flying parallel and perpendicular to the range courses (not at the same time, of course), listening for the fade of the Morse Code 'A' or 'N' signals. (This procedure is now so obscure that the Wikipedia article on Low Frequency Radio Ranges omits it.)

At least the ADF approach gives you a needle pointing to the station; the range procedure didn't even provide that: your only cue was the volume of the Morse Code.

Learning these procedures made most people feel like a rat in a maze.

Aviation lore is everywhere, and an article in today's New York Times Magazine makes some important points about what the brain goes through while learning these approaches. How Companies Learn Your Secrets (author Charles Duhigg) might not catch your eye as pertinent to flying, but work with me on this.

Duhigg writes about how companies like Target mine their vast store of information to send consumers targeted (sorry, no pun intended) advertisements. People's consumer choices are pretty habitual - I chafed when my wife brought home the wrong brand of toothpaste recently - but habits are loosened during certain life events, like having a baby. How could Target know that a customer is pregnant without being told? Researchers found that women who were known to be pregnant (by participating in a baby registry, for example) had predictable changes in their consumption patterns, and, reversing the find, Target looked for those patterns to identify pregnant women and personalize the advertisements sent their way. This took some care, which is interesting but not relevant to flying, but suffice it to say that if you stick a lawnmower ad next to a diaper ad, people take both to be random.

Part of the insight behind this research is in the neurophysiology of habit formation, as studied by Ann Graybiel at MIT, who monitors brain activity in rats. The brain of a rat exposed to a new maze lights up all over, as the rat, sensing a chocolate reward awaiting down the correct path, studies and processes the maze, although the rat's behavior appears disorganized. But as the rat learns the maze, the brain becomes less active, leaving more rodent cognitive ability available for other rodent tasks.

Neuroscientists call this behavior "chunking," and note that it can be " complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all." Duhigg's "complicated" example is backing a car out of a driveway Hah! That's nothing compared to a partial-panel NDB approach.

One of the things I find most frustrating in flight instruction is encouraging pilots to form good habits, and this research convinces me that it's important to get better at this. "You won't invent something new when you're on fire," I used to say, but that didn't work. "Tune the localizer for every approach to an ILS runway," I used to say, not just because it needed to be a habit, but because "When you step up to turbine equipment it's an FAR that you stay above the glideslope." But neither my Promethean fire stick nor my shiny-jet carrot convinced many people that the habit was worth the effort.

I try to set a good example. If I'm approaching a runway with an instrument approach, I set the approach up, even if the weather is perfectly clear. It's a habit, and after 25 years [!] of instrument flying it is such an embedded habit that it takes no effort at all. That was not the case at the beginning of my career: the approach plate was a maze, I jumped around sniffing for the chocolate, my brain was lit up all over the place and, as is typical of new instrument pilots, I could barely keep up.

Habit? My training airport had an ILS with a VOR to the right of the course, one of whose radials defined the Final Approach Fix for the Localizer-only approach. On one of my first actual IFR flights, the ILS had a VOR to the left serving the same function. Starting down the glideslope, it appeared to me that the needle was on the wrong side, and thinking I was past "the marker" I stopped my descent. I figured it out in time to save the approach, but it was not the cool-as-a-cucumber approach I wanted my girlfriend to see.


Part of the difficulty is that habit comes from experience, which is exactly what new pilots lack. But that's what makes conscientious training more important. You don't have to make a big deal of it, but a quiet insistence that certain important things be done right every time might set the tone for a career of good habits. (Pilots with the 14CR135 minimum of 1200 hours total time should already have good habits, but that was not my experience.)

And I think the best thing for developing and keeping good habits is frequent instruction. Professional pilots get checked one or two times a year, depending on the equipment and rules, but private pilots (like me, these days) are only required a biennial flight review. (Speaking of which, mine is due next month.)

But the same applies to the instructor, even more so. The instructor's habits have to be perfect, or else the student won't see the lesson.

But then there's the money question. If you find a CFI like me, with a day job, you might be able to get a little check of your habits by offering a free lunch after a flight someplace interesting in an unusual airplane (hint, hint...).

Or here's another idea: find a like-minded pilot and share the expense of a habit-forming flight. We all know what the good habits are, so maybe if we watch out for each other we can reinforce them and keep ourselves safe.

Good habits? Let's see..

  • Get a standard weather briefing
  • Plan the flight - a computerized plan is more than enough
  • Do a thorough preflight inspection
  • Do a weight-and-balance for anything other than the most routine load ("two adults in front")
  • Carry current charts (this is easy with an EFB
  • If IFR rated, set up an instrument approach. If there's a safety pilot, fly the approach under the hood
  • Pick your landing spot, announce it, and hit it
  • Fly the airplane all the way to the tie-down (no texting, etc)
  • Tie it down properly

And make sure you enjoy the chocolate at the end of the maze.

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At February 22, 2012 at 9:53 AM , Blogger Nissa Mohler said...

I read that same article and almost sent it to my CFI. :) Now that I've progressed past my PPL check ride I've been noticing what portions of flight have become habit for me. When I notice that on one hand I'm pleased that things that used to take 100% attention are now second nature. On the other hand I get a bit concerned because I want to ensure the habit is correct ... so I double check myself. I'm starting instrument training next month. I'm looking forward to the new challenge.


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