Budd Davisson, Flight Training
Strap on the Old Easy Chair for some DDFT (Day Dream Flight Training)
Flying is one of those endeavors in which we often spend so much time thinking bout the hardware we forget about the software. That's a potential problem, when you consider that the software is that jumbled code of bits and bytes we call our brain.
All activities which call for our hands to do something precise, whether it's building a rib for a model airplane (they do still do that sort of thing don't they?) or slipping down final to a feathery soft touchdown, start in our heads. Our hands are nothing more than dumb terminals, tools meant to carry out what the central hard drive is telling them. However, we almost universally make the comment, "...yeah, he's really good with his hands.." when what we should be saying is "...he really knows how to visualize what he wants to do and can make his hands do it..."
It all starts up stairs and flying an airplane is no different than painting a Mona Lisa. It all calls for getting the brain in synch with the hands and keeping the connection refreshed and active through out the excercise. Maybe that's why Michaelangelo laid on his back while painting the Cystine Chapel....he was resting between brush strokes.
There are lots of levels of the brain that need discussing, when it comes to flying. The most obvious one is the neuron stack that we call "skill." The less obvious brain tracks include things like exactly what kind of shape our brain is in that day and that leads to a bunch of other side tracks, all of which have a bearing on how well we'll fly that day, regardless of our skill level.
"Skill" is kept in one functioning department of the brain and we have to continually monitor and train it.
"Mental Condition" is an entirely different department but it is hardwired over to the Skill Department where it is able to add or detract from what the Skill Department is capable of doing on any given day.
First lets talk about skill and how we can advance that mentally.
Basically, flying is nothing more than knowing when to push and pull certain controls, knobs and buttons. In its simplist, most elemental form, that doesn't take a lot of brain power. It gets more complicated and requires more skill and, therefore, more brain power when the situation gets more complicated.
For instance, we can cruise along using only a small percentage of our brain power, say, 100K, when the wind is steady, right down the runway and there's no turbulence. Move the wind 30° right and we'll find ourselves asking a lot more of the Skill Department. Much more. We may be needing a megabyte or better.
Add gusts, some turbulence and an airsick passenger and we're probably making demands on the mental Skill Department that are bumping up against the max available.
What further complicates this entire issue is the rate at which we can access the skill information we've stored up. It is the access rate, the speed with which we can think and translate those thoughts into action, that determine how well we handle that situation.
There's the mistaken opinion that skill comes entirely from going out and physically excercising it repeatedly. That's both right and wrong. Yes, it must be excercised, meaning proficiency comes from doing. However, that's not all there is to it. Proficiency is actually a question of how much of the skill that was developed during practice is retained and that, folks, is a mental excercise, not a physical one.
The Skill Department of our brain is a big storage cabinet, a hard drive, in to which we stuff as much experience as we can. The question of profeciency and applied skill, nuances of the same thing, is how much of that information is still on our hard drive and how fast can we get at it.
Both the quantity and the accessibility of what we call "skill" can be greatly affected by what we do between flights.
Basically, if the only time we reach into our hard drive to manipulate information we've stockpiled is when we're flying, when we really need it, we will find much of it has wandered off to remote files, never to be seen again. Also, what information we do have won't be easily available because the access ports have become sticky with lack of use.
We've already determined that the hands which are handling the controls are slaved to the brain, which automatically says we should spend at least as much time excercising the brain as we do our hands.
We've said it in the past, but we can't expect to remember how to do something, if we never think about it. This is part of our past conversations about fighting brain drain.
Excercising the aero-lobe of our brains may sound silly, but don't ever under-estimate how well the brain reacts to nothing more than day dreaming. When you're fighting a hard crosswind, your brain will remember when you were thinking about that exact subject the day before and will be pre-programmed with all the parameters and conclusions you developed the day before.
If you come in to that crosswind with a brain which hasn't thought "crosswind" since the last time you flew, you're going to have to ramp-up the learning curve and try to access skill-files heavy with dust.
Fortunately, this is where a training tool we all own comes into play: The arm chair. This is also where one of our most precious personal skills comes to our aid...day dreaming. Precision day dreaming, by the way, is yet another skill we should stive to perfect for a lot of reasons, not the least of which it's one time when you're learning with no Hobbs meter running.
Day Dream Flight Training , DDFT, can't be logged, in case you're wondering, but it's so valuable, it should be.
The basis of DDFT is simply putting your mind in the cockpit a few seconds at a time and trying to direct those thoughts, rather than letting them run around aimlessly. Day dreams are normally pleasurable escapes from reality with no particular goal in mind. These, however, we're going to focus on given situations.
Day Dream Flight Training can actually be done anywhere at any time, but avoid doing it while driving. It's amazing how, once you've gotten the hang of day dreaming a flight situation, it can take over portions of your mind needed for what you're doing at the moment. Telling a traffic cop the reason you ran over the fire hydrant was because you were practicing ILS approaches in your mind won't work.
DDFT can, and should, kick into play the second you walk out the door headed towards the airport. You won't necessarily be trying to work out a particular skill, but you should at the very least visualize the cockpit you will be flying. Visualize how it looks out the windows on flair and where the various controls are located. What we're doing here is simply pre-conditioning your mind to the coming flight by putting your mind in the cockpit ahead of time. We're getting it warmed up, as it were.
Formal armchair Day Dream Flight Training involves sitting down and removing yourself from your present situation via the usual day dream mechanisms. You're putting your mind into the cockpit and actually flying it. Let's say it's the afforementioned gusty crosswind situation. Picture yourself coming down final and you're crabbing into the wind. Ask yourself how soon you should drop the wing and pull the nose around straight with rudder. Just for the heck of it, on this approach, do it about two thirds of the way down, so you're centering the runway with a wing down for the last bit of the approach.
Remember, we're day dreaming, so we don't actually have to continue the approach. We can rewind and reset our mental projectors any time we want. Fly this approach right down almost to touch down and press the reset button.
Let's fly the same approach but this time we won't put the crosswind correction in until we start to flair. When we visualize that, we realize we're working at dropping the wing and pulling the nose straight at the same time we're starting to flair and holding the airplane off while feeling for the ground. Maybe something tells us we're not comfortable with that situation. We're trying to sort out too many things at one time. Even in our day dream we see the images start to fog over with complexity.
Hit the reset button again.
Fly the same approach in your mind's eye and go back to doing it the way you did the first time. You find it mentally easier. Yeah, you say, doing the crosswind thing before flair does seem easier.
There, you've just made an important decision: You've found you are too easily overloaded when trying to introduce the crosswind correction while flairing. Maybe later, when you're more experienced, you'll combine the two, but right now you're going to separate them. Conversely, maybe while playing with dropping the wing while flairing, you noticed all you really have to do is lean the airplane against the drift and keep the nose straight with your feet, then the elevator is free to handle the flair. Once you noticed that, you fee more comfortable combining them.
Don't think a decision made in a day dream is going to leave you. Just the opposite is true. This was a conscious mental excercise in which you came to a conclusion which was un-fettered by the confusion of actually being in the air. It is likely to stay with you longer than the same decision made over the runway where it was later overpowered by events taking place later in the landing.
Obviously, the next thing to do is try out that day dream in the air just to confirm it. The important thing, however, is that you'll have already run the mental part of the excercise and it's just a matter of trying it with the hands involved. This same approach can be applied to everything from putting fuel in the tanks to flying four-point rolls. Run through it a bunch of times in your mind and, when it comes time to do it for real, it's just a matter of fitting reality to the template developed in your imagination.
We're not inventing any new concepts here. It is an accepted fact that fore thought will make any situation go more smoothly and no where is that more evident than in flying airplanes.
Earlier we mentioned that the Skill Department of our brain shared some cable connections with the Mental Condition department. If there is anything that is overlooked in preflighting an airplane it is our mental conditon and what it is likely to do to our skills.
Actually, the subject of mental condition is almost a separate subject in itself because it is so important.
Our mental condition is a gossamer, difficult to define assement that can be based on many parameters of which we'll only discuss a few. However, and this is very important, we should never consider flying an airplane when there's a mental warning light going off that says we're really not up to this flight.
How do we know that warning light is aglow? Well, for one thing, we may have a subliminal feeling that we're not really looking forward to the flight. Right there our mind is trying to tell us something. Another is that we may sit in the cockpit and "something" isn't right. Our hands aren't focused when they reach for a switch or a control. Or maybe we do reach for something and at the last moment realize that's not right. That should really set off the warning lights and you should start asking yourself if this flight is really necessary.
The check lists our Mental Condition department uses in accessing our state of readiness is long and convoluted but the most obvious items include:
-Distraction due to Stress: Is your mind pre-occupied with a singular subject, i.e. finances, relationship problems, health worries? If a given subject is dominating your thoughts, you should carefully evaluate your ability to shut that out of your mind while flying because it will nibble away at your skill level. Some people use flying as a way to escape that stress and it works. For others, it just compounds the situation.
-Fatigue: This is probably the most under-rated cause of accidents. We don't realize how quickly fatigue gobbles up even the most basic of skills. But that's not the dangerous part. The danger comes from the way in which fatigue fogs our judgement. It makes us slow to recognize bad situations and slows the internal exchange of information needed to resolve that situation.
-Apprehension: If you haven't flown for a while, it's common to be apprehensive about the flight. This in itself is neither unusual nor a problem. When the apprehension borders on fear, however, it can become a problem because it fogs all other thought processes. Unfortunately, you're the only one who can access the level of your apprehension. If you have serious doubts about your abilities, there's an easy cure. Go buy an hour of dual from your local CFI. He'll toss in a ton of peace of mind, free of charge.
The single most important thought about mental conditon is simply recognizing that its a factor. With that realization you'll know to look at yourself in a mental mirror and act accordingly.
In the mean time, strap on that old arm chair and let your mind wander off into the wild blue for a little Day Dream Flight Training. The best part is no one else knows you've just gone flying without them.