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Training and Safety Tip: Acronyms are memory aids

Study them last, not first

I know how you learned the alphabet. It was that song, wasn't it? What's more, I'd bet five gallons of 100LL that you can still sing it. And other than that you spent half your childhood thinking that el-meno-pee was a single letter. It worked out pretty well.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

Even more remarkable, think about how old you were when you learned that song. And here, decades later, you still know it. This is proof positive that it's possible to memorize complex strings of data before you understand what the data is. And that, as you'll soon see, is a double-edged sword.

Technically, this musical memory trick is called a mnemonic. But there's another equally effective way of embedding data strings in your head for later recall, and that's with the use of acronyms—assembling words or word-like strings from the letters of a list. As we have many lists in aviation, we have many acronyms.

You've likely learned ARROW is the acronym for the paperwork that needs to be in the airplane for it to be airworthy and AVIATE for the required inspections. Maybe SAFETY for passenger briefings and NW KRAFT for preflight. And as you reach higher certificate levels, the more acronyms there are. At the CFI level, one textbook helpfully lists 46 of them. But this sheer volume creates a risk: Instead of being used as memory aids, sometimes acronyms are memorized as if they were the end goal.

Take ATOMATOFLAMES, for instance, the acronym for the list of equipment mandated by FAR 91.205(b) for day VFR flight. It's such a bizarre little acronym that it's easy to remember. But I've seen young CFIs actually teach the acronym, instead of teaching the material!

Acronyms aren't lessons. They are memory aids to assist in the recall of lessons. By themselves, acronyms have no use.

So, as a learner, dedicate yourself first to understanding the material. Before you AVIATE, gain a deeper level of knowledge of the required inspections: their purpose, their regulatory basis, why each is important, and under what circumstances you can skip one. Then learn the acronym; it can come in handy. For example, when you are asked questions about the material under pressure, say, during the oral portion of your checkride.

But acronyms should always be the last thing you study. Never the first.

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: Training and Safety, Communication, Student
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