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Sensory Overload

I could hardly contain myself as my wife Gail and I arrived at the local nontowered airport in northwestern Pennsylvania. This was the day of Gail's introductory flight in a sailplane, a day we both hoped would prove my point that flying really wasn't all that difficult or complicated - especially in a glider. What neither of us realized, however, was how important introductory flights are in helping first-timers decide if flying is something they want to pursue.

The relaxed atmosphere of this soaring school was a perfect match to Gail's surprisingly casual attitude about flying.

Once Gail was introduced to the owner of the soaring school, a 20,000-hour-plus airline-and-everything-else professional and her CFI for the flight, the ground briefing began. Almost 20 years with Gail has taught me a great deal about her body language. I could tell something wasn't right. Her introductory flight was quickly becoming a sensory-filled expedition of immense proportions.

Standing within earshot, I was hearing things like opposite aileron yaw, lift, drag, yaw string, rudder, spoiler, and a concise collection of meteorological terms. Good grief, I thought, Gail doesn't even know what an aileron is.

As she positioned herself in the front seat, she was exceedingly preoccupied with dozens of terms and concepts that made no sense to her whatsoever.

The before-takeoff checklist was no different. Then came the flight itself. Once behind the tow plane, although only briefly at the controls herself, Gail was told to watch for proper tow position, check the horizon, be mindful of slack in the towrope. Then, when asked to do so, pull firmly on the red release knob. This is where phase two of her sensory overload began.

Gail was totally unaware of what to expect when she gave a solid yank on that knob. The sudden wham of the release and the quick climbing right turn that followed were a complete surprise. There was no fear or panic, just a sudden inrush of motion sensation that thrust her already overloaded senses into hyperdrive.

The 10-minute glide above the airport and subsequent landing were consistent with what had already taken place. Yaw string, horizon, rudder; they all kept coming at her. Because of her overloaded senses, Gail was unable to enjoy what should have been a pleasant introductory flight.

What Should Have Happened

This flight had quite an impact on both Gail and me. Our personal post-flight debriefing lasted all the way home and into the evening as we reflected on the day's events. As a teacher, pilot, and former CFI, I listened carefully as she recounted her experience. It didn't take long for us to agree that what had happened to Gail was a classic case of sensory overload.

In most training environments, we learn primarily from what we see and hear. During flight training, however, we experience the sensations of movement, touch, and even smell, along with what we see and hear. If we fill this additional burden on the senses with new experiences, we may push our mental capacities beyond reasonable limits. Our body then responds to this sensory overload by effectively turning off some of what is coming in. We may not hear, see, or even feel what's going on in our immediate environment. What a terrible waste of a first-time flying experience.

Introductory flights should be an introduction to flying. They should not be a first lesson. Any learning that takes place should occur because of what the participant experiences, not because of deliberate training, however well-intentioned.

Once the would-be pilot is introduced to the person responsible for the introductory flight, a short preflight briefing is in order, with an emphasis on safety. This should involve a minimum number of terms and concepts unfamiliar to the newcomer. This will prevent sensory overload from starting. First-timers are usually more interested in getting airborne, anyway.

The before-takeoff phase of the introductory flight should find the fledgling aviator doing as little as possible. Let the participant enjoy what is about to be his or her first flying experience. As the flight continues, the pilot in command should instruct the passenger to look outside of the aircraft. The newcomer can identify predominant landmarks and locate other aircraft, thus minimizing sensory input. If she wants to manipulate the flight controls, the passenger can follow the lead of the PIC by trying a few gentle turns. At no time during the introductory flight should the PIC execute an abrupt or risky maneuver.

After touchdown, the debriefing should be entirely participant-focused. How did you like the flight? Did things on the ground look as you imagined? Was there anything you didn't like about your experience? Keep the questions positive, and don't discuss technical things unless asked by the would-be pilot.

Here is a simple plan that will minimize the possibility of sensory overload during an introductory flight:

  • During preflight, focus on safety and avoid terms and theory.
  • Never surprise the participant with a change in plan or an unexpected maneuver.
  • Never require the passenger to do anything unless it is absolutely necessary.
  • First-timers want to see the view. Let them look for things outside of the aircraft.
  • During the post-flight debriefing, ask questions about them and their experience, not about flying and the weather.

Gail has decided to give flying gliders another chance. We agree that the second time may need to be under a different circumstances. We both want to see her soaring with nature. We just want her to get there without having to experience that dreaded sensory overload.

Richard Hassler is a former CFI who teaches college-level electronics technology. He has more than 570 hours total time and is a commercial pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings.

By Richard Hassler

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