Technique: Instinctive response

'Mediated behavior' saves the day

June 1, 2009

Can a pilot stumble through stalls, botch the balked landing, turn terribly, and still impress a check pilot more than another pilot whose maneuvers are sharp as a tack?

Absolutely, and not because the observer can’t tell the difference. The check pilot may grasp that the out-of-practice pilot is rusty, but has superior know-how. Rust can be dealt with. That’s why you have that “dual instruction received” column in your logbook, and those forms in the back for flight reviews. But give me a pilot who lacks the gut skills that make flying a safe activity, and I’ll give you a reason why they should have kept issuing paper pilot certificates (they’re easier to rip up than plastic ones). I’ll also give you that pilot’s phone number, because I don’t want to fly with him. Not at the going rates, anyway. That’s my gut reaction—my instinctive response.

And that’s what this discussion is about: the instinctive responses of pilots to what occurs in flight. This is about instantaneous initial reactions, not perfect performance to practical test standards, nor some “six easy steps to mastering eights-on-pylons.” This is about those first couple of seconds after you realize that you’ve got to do something about something—actually, it’s about that instant when you realize that you just did something about something without conscious effort.

The dictionary definition of instinct as “a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity” doesn’t work because there’s nothing natural about a flying human being and what such a creature might do in a given circumstance. The next definition, “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason” also fails on numerous counts. Then I hit pay dirt in Webster’s definition 2b: “Behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level.” This definition does not struggle with where the behaviors came from, or whether they can be altered. Mediated behavior seems to allow wiggle room for further mediation, which is fitting for the rusty pilot described above.

Let’s go back and take another look at the aerial klutz mentioned earlier, and see how he might transform into a poster boy for excellence in flight. He’s airborne now on his much-needed flight review, suffering through a long and bump-strewn interval of flight at minimum controllable airspeed. The radio calls his number and informs him: “Traffic 12 o’clock, two miles, opposite direction, type and altitude unknown.” This is worth checking on, and in so doing, he unwittingly increases the pitch attitude a bit, and banks slightly as he leans to and fro to scan the horizon. Looking back, he doesn’t remember what he reacted to first: the wail of the stall warning, or the thump-and-dip of the tail buffeting. Nor does he remember pushing forward on the yoke while slamming—yes, slamming—right rudder in a sublime, if startled, act of recovery. He won’t get high marks for touch, or for division of attention, but the response was correct and instinctive, per definition 2b. His behavior was “mediated by reactions below the conscious level.”

We could torment this particular victim further to illustrate various ways pilots mediate their behavior to avoid trouble, but let’s look at another pilot’s thought process and ask if we could improve on it ourselves.

There he is, the precocious airline-bound student pilot, flying a heading of 270 degrees out over the ocean. The New England coast has begun to disappear behind the wing struts as the student (who now flies for a so-called legacy airline) holds course and altitude like the future pro he is.

Wait a minute—New England is located on the East Coast. How can we be headed west, out to sea? The question was worth positing to the trainee, who reaches for his sectional chart to check things. He darts a suspicious glance toward the right seat. Flight instructors are tricky individuals, full of guile. Maybe this isn’t really the ocean over which he is flying. He ruffles his chart, looks down at the fishing boats, the pleasure craft, islands, a lighthouse. Yup, that’s the ocean. There are a couple of big lakes near here, but none that stretch to the horizon, or contain whales and icebergs.

The air is bumpy. “Makes it hard to read that swinging compass,” hints the instructor cheerfully. The student nods agreeably; he knows that he is being had—but how? It takes about one more nautical mile—literally, nautical—before the light lights. Who knows when the CFI found a stealthy opportunity to sabotage the directional gyro precisely 180 degrees from his compass heading. And if Jason is reading this today in his condo in Atlanta, sorry, kid, neither do I anymore. But that was the last time he ever let a precessed gyro get the better of him.

Sometimes flying demands a firm decision when conditions don’t offer a clear course of action. Training should emphasize that a gut sense of what’s safest should control. Consider an encounter requiring instrument flying—intentional or otherwise. As soon as those first wisps of cloud collide with the windshield, go on the gauges and stay there, keeping your head still. There’s no way to know for sure, but it’s tempting to wonder how many loss-of-control accidents might have been avoided if the pilots made a positive transition to attitude instrument flying rather than trying to cling to disappearing or intermittent visual references. This is behavior mediation that only good training and lots of practice can provide. Good technique is obvious, even under a covering of rust.

Routine visual flying taps instinctive behavior too. Checking that your gear’s down at a standard time in your landing approach is a winner. Then check it again, even if just to impress me. Then check it again just before it really matters. And when I say check the gear, I mean actually turn your head sideways, look outside, and eyeball the gear when you can. Knowing that you have a green light is nice, but that doesn’t finish the job—you won’t roll very far on a green light. You can make the process even more likely to be performed on every flight by clearly articulating “Gear: down and locked,” every time you check. Then, when you switch back to a fixed-gear aircraft, keep running your checks rather than discontinuing the habit. Sound silly? Pilots who switch between different types of aircraft face challenges in maintaining procedural discipline. You may be extremely persuasive arguing against this, but I’d prefer it if you’d just humor me and do it.

Tuning a spare radio one radio frequency ahead of your communications is another habit which, once established, can save you time in a hectic moment or preclude trouble if your nav log with the frequencies written down on it slips to the floor. Think of it as insurance against airspace incursions, knowing that the day will arrive when you’ll wish you’d developed the habit, or be glad you did.

Aviators know that instinctive pilot responses redefine breathless news accounts of airborne emergencies as examples of a well-trained airman’s calm and poise. Engine stops? Fly the airplane. That means get the nose down, now—the most fundamental instinctive response. Check the fuel selector, fuel quantity, engine gauges. Then proceed as published to a restart or a landing.

You just leveled off on a cross-country when the engine sputters momentarily, then regains power. Under VFR, my reflexes shout, “Climb!” This could be useful both for glide range, and for emergency communications. The next reflexive act is to add carb heat. Troubleshoot.

Guarding the throttle when climbing or descending is a habit that should be instinctive but often isn’t. Throttles do creep back from the full-forward, locked position. Trouble can result.

Go-arounds are telltale about technique and reactions. When a landing goes awry, punch it up and get out of there. Don’t bungle the maneuver by raising the flaps all at once, or uttering irate commentary on the radio, or hauling back on the yoke in alarm. Hit that throttle, close the carb heat. A nose-down swipe at the trim and some instinctive forward yoke will prevent excessive pitch-up as the engine comes alive. Is there an exception to the throttle-first doctrine? Yes. In a constant-speed prop-equipped airplane, be sure to set low pitch (high rpm) on the prop control first. Of the unmediated responses flight instructors see most, bad go-arounds top the list. A pity, because real-life go-arounds are so common.

Incomplete training that did not drive those reactions to the less-than-conscious level is one cause of such problems. But hindering many pilots’ responses is another phenomenon, one that the AOPA Air Safety Foundation identifies as a reluctance to come to grips with adverse developments. This mental meltdown makes frequent appearances in narrow-escape narratives. “I could not believe this was happening to me,” recounts a pilot. Quoting the ASF’s Emergency Procedures Safety Advisor, “When confronted with an emergency situation, unprepared pilots have a tendency to work their way through several mental stages (shock, denial, acceptance) before finally taking action, wasting valuable time in the process. In a time-critical situation, those extra seconds can mean the difference between an acceptable outcome and something much worse.”

Think about the situations you have faced—and aced—during your flying, and others that might have been hand-led better. Try and imagine whether you would be more prepared now, whether your response would be automatic—just your initial, instinctive response. (Much more action will follow it as the scope of the problem becomes clear.) That first reaction could make all the difference.

All this is why observing whether a pilot reacts appropriately to a stall buffet or a go-around is more important to me than whether he held altitude perfectly in a steep turn or rolled out precisely afterwards. They are the qualities I’d watch for when checking you out in a rental aircraft, while giving you a flight review, or before sending you for a checkride. Smoothness is always the goal, too, but snapping to the right action in a pinch is higher on the point scale. Train your brain, and your hands and feet will follow.

Dan Namowitz is a freelance writer and CFI living in Maine.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.