From the Flight Deck: Intuitively Obvious – intuition

From the Flight Deck: Intuitively Obvious – intuition

A  leisure activity for all of us, but also a source of research and study for professional pilots and writers, aviation periodicals help to keep us in-the-know. There’s a heap of them and they’re more palatable than manuals, graphs and regulations. We read them to keep up with developments in the industry including new airplanes and avionics, pay, politics, powerplants, security and maintenance, and to live the adventures of others vicariously – including the disasters and near-disasters of fellow aviators. If we admit that we are vulnerable to the same disasters and force ourselves to contemplate how we would react, it will improve our decision making. As a writer, reading the stack of magazines also helps to keep us from repeating what others have said. One magazine from the heap recently published an article about intuition and decision making. The topic bears repeating and makes for a good New Year’s resolution. And therein lies the tale….

Dewey Defeats Truman!

Duke Prop feathered in flightAs the right engine oil pressure slid from green to yellow, and without immediately quantifying the reasons, I was certain it should be shut down. The future could be ugly if not: a seized engine, maybe a fire, a thrown prop blade, broken motor mounts and the inability to feather. The difficulty of the resulting single-pilot, single-engine GPS approach to 400/1 with new avionics was a neglected afterthought. Apparently, intuition has its priorities – one disaster at a time please; it saved the motor first, then the golf clubs. I’m grateful it all worked, but it made me reflect on decision making. I’d been pecking away at a story about decision making and pilot intuition for a while – ever since a lightning strike caused a compressor stall and engine roll-back in the MD-80 over a year ago (“Shocking” March, 2014 T&T).

I was finally coaxed into finishing the story by the above episode in the Duke. But because of the lag-time between writing and publication, particularly when only pecking, a writer from another magazine beat me to print. So, here I am, going missed approach, my article retracting into the wheel well of unfinished articles. Back into the dark clouds of second place while he taxis to the sunny ramp with his article about pilot intuition held high: “Dewey Defeats Truman!” A crowd cheering like he just delivered the Beatles to America. I should have trusted my intuition and pecked faster – I like cheering crowds and a sunny ramp. Now relegated to a metaphysical musing after a missed approach, there’s not enough fuel to divert nor time to peck. But since you may have missed the other article, I’ll offer my story just the same; no cheering crowd and no Beatles. Something tells me you’ll appreciate it.

Spidey Sense

Ten years ago, pilots at my carrier flew about 75 hours per month; it’s now 90. Intuitively, the increase seems to be correlated to the company’s coffers. But not what you’d choose to do as you approach age 60 – and beyond. Flying till-you-drop makes maintaining health, home, hangar and the airplane, as well as beating other writers to print, more challenging. But a sound-barrier-breaking acquaintance that had the Right Stuff once told me that the best way to become a better pilot was to get your ass in the air – and often. A recently-retired airline pilot friend with 40,000 plus hours said the same thing, mostly. The downside is that any spare time remaining is used to catch up on things that the 9 to 5 crowd are able to do every day. The upside to all of this flying, however, is that pilots with 20, 30, or 40k total time who continue to fly 90 hours each month may have ESP. No, not the sports channel: Extra Sensory Perception. It’s perception occurring independently of any of our sensory processes and includes telepathy, clairaudience, clairvoyance, precognition and retro cognition. A tantalizing hypothesis, but, at this point in our evolution, one still considered by most to be baloney, and I agree. However, the “Spidey-Sense” that experienced pilots develop is a real and proven trait. It’s called intuition.

Intuition is like your peripheral vision, you don’t notice it unless there is something to see. It comes from the recognition of things you’ve experienced before: sounds, smells, the timing of events or their sequence, temperature sensations and visual clues. When one or more of the hundreds of recognized and practiced sensory inputs are out of place, we get an alert – something doesn’t feel right. Like catching something out of the corner of your eye – a momentary glimpse. Intuition is a realization or conclusion that occurs rapidly. Some might mistakenly use the word instinct. Instinct is an inborn pattern of activity common to a given biological species. Birds build nests, spiders spin webs and salmon swim upstream because of instinct. Most human instincts are subdued by reason – who wants to swim upstream, anyway. Intuition is a proven phenomenon of the human mind and describes the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. When you see a tiny detail of a familiar design you instantly recognize the larger composition. The canopy of a certain airplane, a section of an airport diagram or a set of engine parameters, for example. Your intuition is what fills in the rest of the story. When confronted with a choice or situation, we use intuition to help complete a mental picture so as to recognize what is happening and what we should do about it.

Whether we’re alerted by automation or discover it on our own, a critical element of intuition is having enough experience (getting your ass into the air, and often) to recognize when something is askew. We may doubt our intuition, however, if the action we choose fails to yield the expected result. Several scenarios may reveal the problem: You did the wrong thing, like pulling back on the yoke while the stall warning system is activated or shutting down the wrong engine. Or, maybe your intuition was telling you to try three or four actions in a specific sequence and the first action wasn’t enough: fuel selector, fuel pumps, mixture or start lever, and mags or ignition, for example, after an engine failure/flameout. Perhaps your intuition was right but you accidentally pushed the wrong button or that particular button accessed an inoperative component. And, finally, your intuition and actions were correct, the system you accessed works just fine and it should have fixed the problem, but there is more happening that you have yet to discover.

16521268_lWell, Crap

Even the most experienced aviator can be confused initially. Maybe not confused, more like a rapid analysis of a condition for which you have yet to select a solution. In all of my serious system failures, I observed several consistent themes. First, is the two seconds of “No way… …seriously! Well, crap…” that flashes through your mind. The second consistent lesson is time compression. The fifteen minutes it takes you to deal with the situation will take a mental hour to get through; it’s like dog years. Also, your gut analysis, the first thing that comes to your mind, is probably right or really close; at least much more often than that of a less-experienced pilot. The operating manual for your airplane likely has a few procedures that you should memorize: engine failure on takeoff, rapid or explosive depressurization, runaway trim and various inflight fire scenarios, for example. A smart pilot would also know to perform these procedures right away once it was determined to be the likely solution. After that, we may or may not need to use our intuition again. Did the memory
procedure do what it was supposed to do? Are there more things going on than what the procedure covers? If the procedure didn’t work, or if there are other things happening, trust your intuition, because it’s real.

It Ain’t Over

A golf stroke begins with you seeing it in your mind and ends when the club contacts the ball. After that, it’s a matter of physics and geometry. All of the calculations, practice and intuition that went into hitting the ball become irrelevant. You can talk to the ball and lean left or right and it won’t change the trajectory – I know because I’ve tried. When flying an airplane, it ain’t over till it’s over (tip of the cap to Yogi) and you are the one who decides when it’s over. As you delve into the first T&T of the New Year, let’s resolve to gain experience as often as we can, including reliving the experiences of other pilots through their tales of success or failure. Allow yourself to admit that it could have been you in the left seat. It’s the fuel for developing intuition, and intuition can save your bacon – and your golf clubs. Have a safe and happy New Year my Spidey friends. Bet you had a feeling I’d say that.T&T

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