License to Learn: A Pilot’s Learning Curve is Unending

License to Learn: A Pilot’s Learning Curve is Unending

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. – Captain A. G. Lamplugh

You have undoubtedly discovered along your hallowed, obstacle-strewn path to aviation enlightenment, that something is learned or re-learned in the course of every trip. If we’re lucky, those lessons are rewarding, only
occasionally embarrassing but seldom unforgiving. 

As you read in last month’s column, “Big Foot Flies Again,” I awkwardly tripped over a couple of private-pilot-level obstacles in the Duke and embarrassingly re-learned that deliberate checklist discipline is required at all levels of experience and that during landing, careless foot placement can induce a Rogaine-resistant thin spot on the tires. Pilots are not alone in their exposure to errors in technique, episodes of enlightenment nor to thinning of various pieces-parts. Perhaps we can better appreciate our learning curve by reviewing and comparing the hallowed path of aviators to that of others.

There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot.  – Chuck Yeager

“Complications” by Dr. Atul Gawande is a book about the learning curve and mistakes made in the medical profession, particularly by surgeons as they progress from student, to intern, resident, attending, fellow and chief. He describes the critical and sometimes painful events that occur while gaining proficiency. Dr. Gawande asserts that in surgery, skill and confidence are learned (often humiliatingly, sometimes tragically) through experience. And that it’s practice, not talent that is the primary determinant of a surgeon’s ability. General Chuck Yeager once said that there are no natural born pilots. Athletes, welders, surgeons, pilots and a myriad of other skilled professions that require mental and physical dexterity, endurance,
concentration, stamina, oftentimes inspiration and sometimes just plain-old grit, all share this developmental maxim because none are born with “natural ability.” We all must continuously struggle, to one degree or another, along our obstacle-strewn path to proficiency. 

Pattern Recognition: Brain Cells to Spare

A defining trait of the proficient professional is that they move problem solving into an automatic mode, learning to supplement experience, intuition and judgement with behaviors more like those often attributed to a computer algorithm. Pattern recognition is developed through experience and allows us to more readily and intuitively recognize a departure from the norm. A surgeon that normally operates in automatic mode has a significant advantage. Because of pattern recognition, the surgeon that does only hernia repairs for example, has brain cells to spare when a novel situation happens or as a patient’s condition destabilizes. But novel situations usually require conscious thought and a seat-of-the-pants workaround solution, which is often slower to develop, more difficult to execute and more prone to error. 

Dr. Gawande’s observations encouraged me to think about pilots and our own continuous, sometimes frustrating path to aviation enlightenment. The automatic-mode axiom can ring true in aviation if we have flown for many years or the same machine for many hours. Eventually, a novel situation is a certainty for pilots as well. Our safety net during any situation (whether previously encountered or during an event that they say could never happen), is pattern recognition, past training and habitual use of checklists.  

“Complications” by Dr. Atul Gawande asserts that it’s practice, not talent that is the primary determinant of a surgeon’s ability.

Willingness to Engage in Sustained Training 

Upon successful completion of a private pilot checkride, as the pilot is handed their temporary certificate, examiners will often say, “this is a license to learn.” The inference being that even though you may now be legal to carry passengers, there remains vast amounts of knowledge, judgement and skill to acquire and retain. This is likely true in any endeavor that requires a combination of intelligence, judgement, physical dexterity and coordination. Especially when operating a complex machine in an environment that, like the sea, is unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect. 

From student pilot to ATP, those of us that have flown for many hours can attest to the sometimes hair-raising truth and wisdom of that examiner’s decree. Our learning curve is unending due to changes in regulations, configuration of airframes and powerplants (whether by choice or by AD), advancements in electronics and avionics. A pilot’s learning goes well beyond the first few hundred or even first few thousand hours. Conscious learning becomes unconscious knowledge, then knowledge and practice becomes ability, skill, judgement, competence and talent. The most important talent we develop may in fact be having a tolerance for continuous and deliberate practice, or in other words, the willingness to engage in sustained training. We must acquiesce to being a lifelong student because once we have mastered the basic mechanics of flying an airplane, we are forever destined to experience many more learning curves in avionics, regulations, airspace management and aircraft operating systems. 

Having been placed resolutely onto the modern technology learning curve myself, I often feel like the new kid at school or one of Dr. Gawande’s surgical interns. It started with upgrading the Duke’s 1970’s-era Collins/King suite to a modern WAAS/ LPV GPS and touch-screen ADS-B transponder. Followed by a forced move from the MD-80’s round-dial, wire and cable-driven pilot’s-plane, to the all glass, LNAV/VNAV, data-linked and HUD equipped 737-800. And most recently, a change from my 98’ bare-bones 4WD Ford Explorer (with 322,000 miles) to a brand-new, all-glass, Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. 

All that I really needed was something with 4WD to move the Duke in and out of the hangar. But what I got communicates with my phone, tablet, the Jeep systems monitoring center (and probably the IRS), has motion sensing, chassis raising and keyless, touch-screen everything – oh, and 4WD. With no self-aware HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey) to say, “I’m sorry Kevin, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” I’m often one touch-screen entry away from being lost, in the ditch or worse, locked onto a rap station on the satellite radio. At least in the 737, my FO can caution me against touchscreen errors. In the GA world, we don’t have HAL or an FO to monitor and assist with our learning curve. And if the situation becomes unforgiving, this can become an issue. There is simply no way to fly a single engine Cat III on the HUD if you’re locked onto a rap station.

Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time. -Theodore Roosevelt 

The most important talent we as pilots develop may in fact be having a tolerance for continuous and deliberate practice.

Part 121 accidents occur at a rate of about four per one million flights. Part 135 accidents occur at a rate of about six per one million flights. And GA accidents see a slightly higher rate with around 19 accidents per million flights. Fatality rates are about six per million for both Part 121 and GA, and about one per million flights for Part 135. In 2017, of the 220,000 aircraft that are classified as GA, 347 people died in 209 accidents. We have all championed these statistics as compared to driving because the numbers are impressive and dramatic. Unfortunately, few things are as dramatic as an airplane crash and these hard earned and impressive crash statistics usually fall to an unreceptive audience. 

Especially in the Part 121 world where passengers fixate not only on the rare accidents, but critical social maneuvers such as control of the center-seat armrest. Most non-pilots, nonetheless, remain in awe of aviation and the feat of piloting. But just as there is a first time for every surgical procedure, marble sculpture, vertical TIG weld, there is a first time for unsupervised flight in a complex airplane. As pilots, we must use every resource available both while learning and once proficient: checklists, FO’s, ATC, risk assessment and self-assessment tools as well as thorough planning to ensure we are free of carelessness or neglect.

No matter the qualification, there is much available for us pilots to learn and remember along our path. There is always another airplane, a different avionics suite, and new policies and procedures to master. Aviation in itself may not be inherently dangerous. But similar to a surgeon who has accomplished thousands of hernia repairs, as they attempt their first gall bladder removal, awesome may not be the word to describe our first step onto the learning curve. When we read about challenging events encountered by other pilots, or about managing risk, when we face personal medical issues or learn new procedures, we begin the learning process anew – and we re-confirm that ours is indeed a license to learn. 

Personally, I’m comfortably progressing in the 737-800 and with the new avionics in the Duke. For now, all that remains is to get up to speed in the Jeep. And this may take a while longer because according to Siri, my Jeep thinks I have still have that “new-owner” smell.

Author’s Note:

This month, we say goodbye to our editor, Dianne White who published my first article in T & T titled “Issues” in which I tell the story of an engine failure at gear retraction in the MD-80. Throwing turbine blades through the cowling (sound familiar?), we ignited a grass fire at MIA but had no injuries. One hundred twenty articles later, I can’t thank her enough for wading through 190,000 of my written words strewn with ceaseless contractions, parenthetical statements and occasionally, Shakespearean English. And we welcome to the magazine’s left seat Rebecca Groom Jacobs, whose articles have appeared in T & T for over a year. May you find the editor’s path to be not inherently dangerous but rewarding, only occasionally embarrassing and never unforgiving.

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