Can anybody fly the plane?
It's the fantasy of every pilot, the voice over the airliner's loudspeaker that asks, "Do we have any pilots on board?" Well, it finally happened to me recently, and I got my chance to say, "I'll fly!" The setting was fortunately not an emergency, but rather a routine flight whose copilot was delayed by a late connection. I was traveling on vacation, noticed the empty right seat in the cockpit, and volunteered to help fly the airplane to Orlando, where I wanted to go anyway, along with 212 other passengers.
Settling into the right (but wrong for me, as I normally occupy the left) seat, I realized how much of flying is a mind-set, honed by preparation, planning, and focused thought patterns. Dressed in my civvies, I felt like a fish out of water as I forced myself to preflight the copilot's side, read the checklists, move the proper switches (they look strange from over there!), and make the radio calls.
If you're a pilot, or in the process of becoming one, you've no doubt thought a lot about flying, but maybe haven't considered some of the "back of the brain" thoughts which pilots of all skills continually maintain. I've found that spooling up my brain is an anticipatory process that starts with the "I'm going flying today" idea and culminates in the orderly execution of all the events that lead to a successful flight. The more you fly, the more tricks you'll learn to keep those events in order, flowing smoothly (like planning a cross-country flight) so you'll know which actions to take and when. When you're new, the sequence is a mystery, but with each flight your comfort level rises.
This process will be repeated throughout your flying career. With each new airplane or skill level, you'll have that "fish out of water" feeling until you learn the routine, figure out a visual instrument scan pattern (or flow, as we call it in bigger airplanes) for each phase of flight, and store it in your own data bank for future reference.
If you're just beginning, don't expect to absorb it all at once. After more than 20,000 hours of flying, I still get that feeling every time I jump into a model of airplane that I've not flown recently. It's a safety net to remind you to give your flying machine the respect that it deserves, no matter how slick the avionics or how automated the controls. Using those basic skills of reading, reviewing a good checklist, and asking lots of questions will help you to avoid the "Why'd it do that, what's it going to do next?" feeling.
Karen Kahn is a captain for a major U.S. airline, a CFI, and author of Flight Guide for Success--Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Airline Pilot. See her Web site.