License to Learn

Are you as good as you think you are?

March 1, 2010

“Too much of nothin’ can make a man feel ill at ease, One man’s temper might rise, while the other man’s temper might freeze. In the days of long confessions, we cannot mock a soul, When there’s too much of nothin’, no one has control.”

—“Too Much of Nothing”, Peter, Paul, and Mary

And sometimes too much of something isn’t such a good deal, either. I realized this when I set out to purchase a smartphone, which should be easy, right? Well, the only easy part about it was realizing that I didn’t feel so smart while shopping for one.

The choices among smartphones are only slightly fewer in number than pages in the government’s new health care bill. It seemed impossible to choose between the different features and benefits, until I applied a strategy appropriate for these situations. Stay tuned—more on that later. For now, there’s something to be said about how an abundance of choices can limit your ability to identify the best choice, especially if you fly airplanes. Call it the problem of “too much of somethin’.”

In many situations, having only one choice is hardly a desirable state for pilots. If an engine quits at low altitude off the departure end of the runway, beyond which there is a forest, then you’ve just entered the tree-trimming business. Timber! It’s clear cut that there is no struggle over choices here, mainly because the path ahead isn’t clear cut.

But too much of somethin’ can prove equally undesirable, especially if you attempt to evaluate each of the available choices. The sheer volume of work could easily immobilize your decision-making process, or you might feel stymied when choosing among equally good alternatives. Either disposition diminishes your ability to make effective cockpit decisions.

Perhaps this helps explain why the push-pull Cessna Skymaster once had the highest single-engine accident rate (as compared to conventional twins having the highest single-engine fatality rate). Clearly, an engine failure in a Skymaster doesn’t feel as threatening as an engine failure in a standard twin. That’s because excessively slow speeds encourage standard twins to behave like pancakes whose batter includes popcorn—they flip themselves over.

The Skymaster’s docile nature on one engine may lead pilots to feel they can choose from a larger number of landing sites. Choices, right? Instead of landing at the first suitable airport, a pilot might dilly-dally during the descent, rolling each juicy morsel of choice over in his mouth like a tasty gumball, only to run out of altitude or fuel. Delayed decisions like these often lead to nonfatal accidents, each demoting a pilot from skymaster to plowmaster.

You don’t have to be airborne to be immobilized by choices, either. It can happen on the ground. For instance, when planning a flight from the Far East (say, New York) to the Los Angeles area, should you fly the Idaho route? The Provo route? The Albuquerque route? The extreme southern El Paso route?

How do you choose when faced with so many choices? Here’s the strategy I promised: You begin by deciding what’s important to you by asking what you really want. As soon I knew the features I wanted in a phone, my choices were reduced to a few good options, which made my decision process easier. For example, what do you (or should you) want if you have an engine failure in a Skymaster? How about wanting to land at the nearest suitable airport in lieu of a distant airport having a Cessna maintenance facility, clothing mall, and nail salon? If you’re opting for that post-crash dapper look, it’s clear that you want the wrong thing.

So, what’s important to you when traveling west to Los Angeles? Nice scenery? Then fly the Idaho route. More manageable terrain, with nearby airports? Fly the Albuquerque route. Speed? Fly the Provo route. Good Mexican food? Don’t pass on El Paso.

My question is, “Do you know what’s important to you about flying airplanes in any given situation?” If not, perhaps Chingis Kahn can help. The Great Kahn established a vast Mongol empire—including many Mongolian BBQ outlets—all over Asia. He succeeded by enlisting the help of men with good skills to assist him—skills such as roughing people up, taking their things, and making them move. Chingis was a good sub-“Kahn” tractor, and that’s what you should be if you don’t know what’s important to you. You simply subcontract that question out to someone with enough experience to help you answer it.

Given the large variety of weather conditions in which you might fly, do you know which conditions are flyably safe? Do you know what’s important to you here? Should you avoid rain? Low visibilities at night? How much turbulence is too much? If you can’t answer questions like these, then you also need to enlist the help of experienced aviators to assist you in finding these answers. Any experienced CFI or aviation expert can help you determine what’s important to you (or should be) in any given situation, but you have to ask first. When you do, you’ll be in a much better position to cope with the problem of too much of somethin’.

I solved my phone dilemma by consulting a smartphone expert who explained what features and benefits will be important to me. That really helped. And I plan on calling him back to thank him—once I figure out how this phone works.

Rod Machado began flying at age 16 in 1970—which is why he knows Peter, Paul, and Mary lyrics. Visit the author’s blog.