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Instructor Tips

The Fog Factor

There's little argument that the human brain is a wildly capable, magical machine. It is so untapped that we seldom use more than a small percentage of its capabilities. That's the good news. The bad news is that when introduced to new situations, the brain has such a pronounced spool-up time that it often takes practically nothing to cause it to freeze up, leaving us with nothing but a blank screen to look at. That's what training is all about. Its function is to get the brain up to speed so it is capable of receiving new data and then doing something with it. That's all well and good, but it doesn't change the fact that, at the very beginning of any new learning experience, there are times when you might as well have a cranium full of Silly Putty.

Because the brain takes a while to warm to new circumstances, it struggles with the new input for a period of time. If you think back, you'll realize that a classic example of brain overload was the first time you came in to make a landing. There you were, strapped into a tiny tin box hurtling at the ground at what seemed like a ridiculous speed. Your ears were hearing words from your instructor, "Hold a nose attitude that gives you 65 mph and put down another notch of flaps." Your brain, however, only received about every third word and could make no sense of any of them.

While your instructor was talking to you, you were trying to remember which controlled the speed-throttle or attitude? And that runway was still rushing at you. The air seemed alive, and the airplane was moving up and down, right and left. The instructor was droning away as if he were on verbal autopilot. Amazingly, he actually expected you to be listening and understanding. "Notice how the runway numbers appear to be moving toward you, indicating...." What runway numbers? To you, the top of the windshield was blue and the bottom was brown. Beyond that, all detail was lost on you.

That feeling of everything rushing into your brain but having none of it make sense lasts for only a short time in any new situation, but it is very real. In those kinds of situations, the brain does its version of what your eyes are supposed to do when looking at one of those pictures in which a million dots suddenly transform themselves into an image. Your eyes focus short, and nothing is clearly defined. When your brain is assaulted with too much sensory input, it sees everything, but nothing is in focus. I call that the "fog factor." You're seeing it all, but you can't pull out individual pieces of information and make them mean anything.

In flight training, both the student and the instructor need to know that the fog factor exists and sometimes the student's brain is going to freeze up. The most efficient way to accelerate through brain fog is to push for a little while, then land and send the student home to think about it. Nothing clears up the fog faster than some out-of-cockpit introspection. A pilot who thinks about his flying at night always comes back the next day better than when he left.

As an instructor, it's important to let your students know that this kind of thing is going to happen, if only because it helps to keep down frustration and apprehension levels. If they finish a lesson feeling as though they don't get it, but know that the inability to comprehend is a temporary thing, your students won't be nearly as discouraged. If brain overload wasn't temporary, every student would drop out after a few lessons, and aviation would have ground to a halt at Kitty Hawk.

It's also important that you, the instructor, know what's happening so you don't try to cram too much into a brain that's already overflowing. Pushing too hard when the fog is thick inevitably creates frustration.

Be aware that the fog will come and go as you get into different areas of training. The fog bank will probably roll in for the first time the instant your student crawls into the cockpit and is expected to do something intelligent. The environment is strange, and at first the panel looks indecipherable. Once everything on it has been explained, it'll all make sense.

One of the best things you can do at this point is to encourage your students to spend some time just sitting in the airplane while it's tied down. Give them the chance to soak up the environment. If that's impossible, encourage them to spend some time with a commercially available cockpit poster to get them used to the panel. (Make sure they use a poster of a training airplane. Staring at the panel of a Learjet or Boeing 777 will only make things worse.) You want the cockpit to be a place in which your students are comfortable so that they can make their brains work more efficiently.

The next time your students wander into a mental fog bank will probably be when introduced to stalls. How quickly your students flash through the fog and into the clear air of understanding has to do with how well you prepare them on the ground and how well you describe what the students will be feeling, seeing, and hearing. It's important that they know what to expect so the strange sensations don't set the fog into motion.

Your students are sure to get the brain-behind-the-curve feeling. Don't let the fog affect your enthusiasm or theirs. Having your brain fog over is a fact of life in any learning experience. The only people who don't experience the fog factor are those who never try anything new, and wouldn't that be boring?

By Budd Davisson

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