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Training and Safety Tip: Avoid expectation bias

Think, visualize, then act

Talking on the radio at any nontowered airport I’d be a blend of Bob Hoover, Chesley Sullenberger, and Chuck Yeager. Unfortunately, that didn’t hold true at even the smallest, friendliest towered airport. Instead, I’d trip over my tongue. Stammer. Transpose my tail number. Misidentify which leg of the pattern I was reporting from. So, I came up with a solution—avoid controlled airspace when I could.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

A few years ago, I was flying in an air race that launched out of a towered airport, so I couldn’t use my usual "avoid controlled airspace" strategy. Adding to my anxiety was the risk that my race peers would hear me being most un-Hoover, Sully, and Yeageresque. But I put on a brave face and was fiercely determined to sound professional. One of the runways had a right-hand pattern. Approaching the airport, I ran a mental mantra: right-hand pattern, right-hand pattern, right-hand…. Naturally, air traffic control cleared me for a left-hand pattern. I read back the clearance correctly in my best Hoover-Sully-Yeager pilot voice and then cockily entered a right-hand pattern anyway, whereupon the tower (justifiably) read me the riot act for all to hear.

The mistake I made happened because of expectation bias. I was so expecting one thing that when something else was presented, it simply didn’t register. Our expectations become our reality. It’s actually fundamental to how our brains work, but it’s dangerous and can cause accidents.

While expectation bias can happen in any phase of flight, it’s most likely to happen during recurring operations. Ground control always assigns the same route, except today. You’re shooting touch and goes, and on the eighth liftoff, the tower tells you to make the opposite pattern.

Oddly, as I did, pilots often read back instructions correctly, but then our hands do the opposite of what comes out of our mouths. So, the trick is to take some extra time and process ATC communications before rushing to sound Hoover-Sully-Yeageresque on the radio. Think about what you have been asked to do, especially when it’s something similar to what you’ve been doing. Take a breath, pause a moment, and think. Visualize before talking and acting.

Will this slow down your response? Make you sound…stupid? Maybe, but not by much. And trust me on this: ATC would much rather we sound slow and stupid on the radio—while flying like Hoover-Sully-Yeager—than to sound great but fly stupidly.

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is a widely published aviation writer and columnist. He is an FAA Safety Team rep and a rare "double" Master Ground Instructor accredited by both NAFI and MICEP. An AOPA member since 1983, he holds a commercial pilot certificate and has a degree in aviation technology. He was recognized as a Distinguished Flight Instructor in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards.
Topics: Communication, Situational Awareness, Training and Safety
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