November 1, 2011
By Rod Machado
Aviation is an enterprise whose front end is loaded with warnings, caveats, regulation, and a dizzying supply of do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts).
Not even a Houdini can escape this saturation of safety information. Don’t get me wrong. Safety information is good, but too much good can be bad.
How many times do you think pilots can hear how stalling on final might flatten them out before they stop thinking about the message and focus on the flattening? It’s not long before every turn to final (or every thought about turning final) has pilots wondering if they’ll end up as a floor mat in Flatland.
Do all pilots worry this much? No. But those who do typically are safety conscious. They worry that they might not be able to fly as safely as they’d like to. Inasmuch as it’s hard to enjoy something while simultaneously worrying about it, it’s no wonder that some pilots find flying less pleasurable than they once did. Their aviation safety education has ruined their buzz. The razz outweighs the pizzazz.
You can see how this plays out when pilots prepare for a cross-country flight. Some begin obsessing about the weather several days in advance of a trip. Will I be able to fly with sufficient VFR margins? Will there be icing and thunderstorms during this IFR flight?
There’s nothing wrong with attempting to understand weather trends. Worrying about Mother Nature’s behavior a few days in advance of a trip, however, has absolutely no influence on what she actually does on departure day. When pilots finally arrive at the airport to fly, whatever reserves of pleasure they had accumulated in anticipation of the trip are deflated, diminished, and depleted. What a buzz killer.
An unfortunate byproduct of being a safety-conscious pilot is that someone might become a worry-burdened pilot. Of course, not all worry is bad. If you’re flying your amateur-built, Experimental Weevil at night while low on fuel over a place with a scary name such as Death Valley, then worry is good. It’s good because your worry might compel you to act sensibly by manning up and gassing up—although I’ve flown over that area and it’s possible you might end up flying through the valley of death where you shall fuel no Weevil.
Most of the time, however, worrying is bad. It accomplishes very little while increasing our anxiety. While your aviation safety training might compel you to worry, it’s your accumulated wisdom that tells you whether or not worrying actually matters. That’s why experienced pilots, who’ve grown wise as their logbooks thicken, understand that they are not meteorologists. They’re pilots, and they leave the weather forecasting to those who’ve spent years in school hunched over wet-pseudo-adiabatic-lapse-rate charts contemplating cloud convection and scoliosis remedies.
A pilot certificate doesn’t make you a meteorologist, nor does it make you a scheduled airline. But some pilots act like it does, at least in terms of how they worry about their flight planning. So if you’re a safety-conscious pilot who wants to enjoy more of the pleasures that flying has to offer while diminishing your burden of excessive worry, here’s what I suggest you do: Learn to predict the future.
In regard to the weather, you decide beforehand the conditions in which you will fly. Not anyone else, just you. If you have those conditions, you fly; if you don’t, you won’t. While you can’t predict the weather with any certainty, you can now predict your behavior with 100-percent certainty. Why is this important? As you probably remember from basic psychology, one of the greatest sources of stress is an unresolved relationship. That can be a relationship with another person, with the environment, or even with yourself. If you decide beforehand that you won’t fly unless you have certain minimum cloud-base height, visibility, convective index, and so on, then you’ve eliminated a major component creating your weather anxiety. Think about it this way: If you could predict the weather precisely, then you’d know that a particular flight would have the safety margins that would make you relaxed and happy. Since you can’t predict much beyond your own behavior, knowing that you won’t fly without these same safety margins should make you equally relaxed and happy. As far as your mind is concerned, it’s the same thing.
If you have an overactive worry gland (called a brain) that’s keeping you from having as much fun as you deserve in an airplane, then use this strategy for nearly everything you worry about. If you’re concerned about the mechanical condition of an airplane on departure day, then predict how you’ll behave on that day. Decide beforehand the minimum acceptable condition for the airplane you’ll fly. For example, commit to not flying an airplane if 5 percent of the panel consists of instruments and the other 95 percent is inoperative labels. If you’re worried about crosswinds, commit to not flying that day if the crosswind component is more than your maximum. Catch my drift?
This technique is a one-size-fits-all formula for helping you worry less about the things you can’t control (clouds, crosswinds, and maintenance) while allowing you to manage those things within your power to predict and control (how you’ll behave on departure day). So maximize your buzz thrill and avoid the buzz kill.
Visit the author’s blog. Aviation speaker and CFI Rod Machado has a black belt in tae kwon do.
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