“The time elapsing between the beginning of a stimulus and the beginning of an organism’s reaction to it.” That’s the definition of reaction time – if you don’t mind being called an organism, that is. Even if you do mind, it’s still the definition. Our high school driver’s education teacher used “age, experience and wisdom” as his retort to the class contention that our youth and quick reaction time made us better drivers than older, slower-thinking drivers. We had yet to learn that the quickest reaction time is the one in which you avoid the need to react quickly in the first place. And that it’s not good to infer that the teacher is old. It can be difficult to get such things through a teenager’s head, though, and some remain saddled with the cumbersome burden of a similar, slow-to-learn arrogance.
The top 12 percentile–that’s what I scored today using an internet reaction-time test–and I’m within a nine-iron of age 60. Another test categorized my reaction time as equivalent to that of age 40; not quite as fast as an arrogant high school kid. They were very simple physical tests, however, using the “click-now” function and were more similar to an arcade game than a useful measuring tool. Also, more of a hand-eye coordination assessment than a test of the ability to react, they didn’t require any decision making other than the recognition of a visual cue. There was no requirement for subject matter knowledge, analytical thinking or risk assessment. There were no time constraints like an approaching mountain, accumulating ice, low fuel or the end of a runway. There were no screaming passengers, no smoke filling the cabin, no sounds of accelerating air or a decelerating engine. You could not clip any trees, sink in the ocean, land short, or bend any metal, even if your decision was wrong or reaction inadequate. In other words, there was no pressure. No pressure except for that imposed by my arrogance while trying to get into the top ten percentile. Perhaps the most relevant factor as a pilot, however, was that the tests didn’t provide for “gotta-get-there-itis” or the option to not react at all.
If it ain’t broke…
Without a ballistic recovery system or an ejection seat, we must control the aircraft until it stops moving. The decisions we make determine that stopping point; where our flight path intersects the tangent of the horizon. We prefer that area to be a nice, long, paved runway. The need for us to react instantly in order to achieve this geometric solution is normally relegated to taking off, landing and perhaps avoiding a mid-air collision. Other than these examples, however, the need for a nanosecond analysis, decision and immediate reaction is uncommon; there is normally time to think. Not drawn-out, committee-meeting type thinking, but enough time for analysis. As in business and politics, however, our deliberation and analysis sometimes results in the correct decision to not take any action at all…for the moment. Some of our actions can be irrevocable, and a hurried decision, even when using well-developed intuition, can be incomplete, inadequate and occasionally disastrous. We have learned to slow down, analyze by cross-checking multiple sources, gather the data, evaluate the options, and then react, appropriately and deliberately. Only at the end of the process do we execute any physical portion of the reaction, which is the moving of a control – or five. An unnecessarily quick reaction could generate an unpleasant surprise and additional difficulties. The first few seconds, or even a full minute, when reacting to an event are therefore used for recognition, analysis, decision making, and then action, if any.
Flying single-pilot in the weather can elevate heart rates faster than a letter from the IRS or an engine failure at V1. Unlike a warm sunny day, or in days past when we could analyze and react more quickly, inflight events can become distressing. It may take more time and effort in the planning and execution of the flight to ensure a safe, smooth and stress-free operation. We are getting older and probably slower in thought and movement, maybe complacent and sometimes forgetful. Father Time is unstoppable and, for all of us, aging can move along more quickly than a fast moving cold front – and faster than we recognize. It’s common for the perpetually-young person in our minds to overestimate ability or to modify reality through hopeful optimism. We push ourselves, often without realizing, as if we were young and swift. We assume that we will think and react quickly when needed. The time to discover that we are not the teenager we once were is not during an inflight event. How do we recognize if we are experiencing diminishing abilities as time overtakes skill, cunning and luck – I mean, experience? There are clues and you may have seen them.
It could be the struggle to read back parts of a clearance, missing radio calls, forgetting or skipping some of a checklist, difficulty in remembering a speed, pressure or other operating tolerance or limitation. It could be anxiety in the execution of a climb-via or descend-via procedure, loading the wrong approach, trouble flying the approach, or a less-than-optimal landing. And not simply a hard landing, necessarily; one that touches down too far down the runway, not on centerline or at a too-fast or too-slow airspeed.
Nowadays, a common indicator of diminishing proficiency is remembering more slowly. Whether it’s an obscure GPS function, such as flying a parallel GPS track, or something used less often, like the missed approach mode, rapidly changing technology is a fine litmus test of our ability to learn, remember and to keep up with the airplane. Even a modern transponder with traffic and weather can trip us up as we swipe through the pages of data and information. Struggling with avionics or other systems is indicative of low proficiency or a change in our ability to think and react. Some say we remember more slowly not because our brains are older, and therefore slower, but because they are full of data and other “crap”, from years of experiences. And it simply takes more time to find the data in our full hard drives. Perhaps similar to creating a hot-path or an icon for the most frequently needed data, training and accessing the data more frequently can be a defense against this phenomenon.
In order to stay ahead of the airplane and avoid the need for quick reactions, we use checklists, an efficient and practiced instrument crosscheck, and we try to remember past experiences or the experiences of others. We stay within operating limitations, properly manipulate the flight and engine controls, and avoid letting the airplane touch anything other than rubber to runway. Initial and recurrent training helps to point out and correct our weak spots.
The MU-2 folks are very happy with the results that SFAR 108 (Special Federal Aviation Regulation) has produced in their pilot community. Perhaps we could follow their lead and accomplish the same type of training regimen. Most of us that fly turbines and larger vehicles already do so. And not necessarily to comply with or avoid further government-imposed regulation, or to satisfy the insurance underwriters and BOD, but in order to keep up and stay alive. Perhaps we can increase the frequency of our recurrent training to every six or nine months instead of once each year. If nothing else, we should grab a buddy as a safety pilot every couple of months and fly some approaches – including the missed. Throw in an unplanned diversion as well. Have your safety pilots select an airport without telling you in advance. And let them decide after which approach you should divert. It will force us into a short-notice reaction as we assess runways, the weather, approaches and make the fuel computations.
A pilot’s reaction time is based on his or her experience, knowledge, ability to access memory and forecast outcomes, and, unfortunately, age (not to infer that you’re old–the student driver remembers that part). Distractions, fatigue, complacency and lack of understanding are detriments to decision making and reaction time. What may have been a manageable flight in the past may now peg our fun-meter or fill our task-management diapers. If this type of apprehension occurs when we go flying, it’s the old organism in us telling the young organism that the demands of the task may be too high. We can avoid the areas of discomfort by re-route, re-schedule or cancellation. Or we can take a chance and continue with the hairs standing up on the back of our neck. Remember the old adage: “better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.” Let’s use our age, experience and wisdom to avoid the need to react quickly in the first place– no one wants a full diaper.