Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

Aviation Week's Business and Commercial Aviation focuses on business flying, mostly, with articles about the performance of light and medium jets, regulations, and the like.  It's usually technically correct and, even though I have no aspirations of flying jets, it is worth reading.

Sometimes it is a little dry, and that's what I expected as I started reading "Gearing up for the Go-Around" in the September, 2012 issue.  Go-arounds are a problem at every level of aviation from pre-solo trainers to heavy jets.  I think part of the problem is that, well, let me see, when was the last time I had to go around?  It's been years.  I fight the complacency by making go-arounds (in the form of missed approaches) part of my usual instrument practice, but the pilots I see for BFRs usually haven't tried to do a go-around since the last time I saw them for a BFR.

Luckily, most people do OK.

But I'm getting away from the article.  Buried in the statistics and proscriptions and prescriptions and analysis is a rather nuanced discussion of pilot personalities and the continuing failure of Crew Resource Management (CRM) ideas to influence how people fly.  The airlines have embraced CRM with all four arms (get it? Two pilots in a crew, so four arms?), but the corporate and charter worlds, by-and-large, have not.

I was as guilty of this as anyone when I was flying King Airs, although since my "first officers" were not legally qualified in the airplane there was a limit on what they could during a revenue flight.  But in trying to pay back the people who gave me experience, I gave them all of the experience I legally could.  This caused me a lot of trouble.  The worst spot for most of these pilots was Class B airspace, and a handful of them became catatonic (no exaggeration) trying to keep up with the rather calm and understanding approach controllers in Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.  So CRM went out the window and I had to do everything myself.

But I'm getting away from the article.

One sentence really caught my eye: "Pilots tend to be highly intelligent, but not intellectual, and concrete, linear thinkers, rather than abstract theorists."

Those are subtle distinctions, so let's look at them in more detail.

Of course pilots, especially instrument-rated pilots, are highly intelligent.  Instrument flying requires mastering a vast set of regulations, procedures, and rules-of-thumb in addition to the cognitive skill of interpreting instrument readings and the physical skill of manipulating the controls to put the airplane into the right position.  This would almost seem to be a good working definition of intelligence.

But are we intellectual?  That is the exclusive we, not the royal we, since as a mathematics professor who plays jazz, reads poetry, and regularly reads newspapers and on-line sources in four languages (only three of them well, mind you, but I try to read four), I like to think that I am an intellectual.

What does it mean to be intelligent but not an intellectual?  Here's one example, a chief pilot who told me to train his crews on "need-to-know, but not nice-to-know."  That's a difficult distinction for me to make, since in my flying history a lot of ideas have suddenly transitioned from the latter to the former, like some of the subtleties of handling the rush at a Class B airport.  Every CFII I flew with could quote the regulations and guidance on Class B operations, but without the "big picture" they had trouble putting this rote knowledge into action.

Remember, the FAA's Aviation Instructor's Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A) defines four levels of knowledge:

  • Rote
  • Understanding
  • Application
  • Correlation
Need-to-know doesn't get much past the Understanding level.

Another way to put this: the powers-that-be (Chief Pilots, Chief Instructors, etc) were discouraging pilots from being intellectuals.

The abstract theorists (Guilty-as-charged!  I'm a mathematics professor, and my research is extremely abstract) can let theory get in the way of practice; I have often seen it done.  The thing is, a pure theorist makes a lousy or even dangerous pilot.  One of my favorite admonitions to pilots is "Fly the airplane you're in."  Just because you saw someone do something in a Boeing, whether Dreamliner or Stearman, does not mean that it is a good thing to do in an Aztec or Mooney.  And, just because you can get away with something in a Centurion does not mean that you can do the same thing in a Citation.

I once had a pilot insist in flying under a sparking thunderstorm because the cloud over the diversion I suggested looked like it might develop into a thunderstorm.  His theory would have put us into a known risk to avoid a potential risk.  

I made him fly toward the blue sky.  That almost always works.

The bottom line is that pilots need to develop all aspects of their personalities to increase their chances of success.   That's right, I said personalities, the very core of each of our being.  It goes that deep.  If you can't see the big picture, you'll find yourself struck dumb by a simple request from a controller, and if you can't read the chart then all of your theories about navigation will steer you into a mountain.

And so you have to be prepared to go-around, both in approaching the runway and in approaching flying in general.  The plan you made may not get you successfully to the runway, so be ready to change it.  Keep studying the situation and looking for the correlation between ideas in aviation and ideas in life, and your career in each will be long and fulfilling.

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