Savvy CFI: “Baked In” Human Pilot Problems!

We humans contain “baked-in” reactions driven by our land-based biology that are extremely dangerous in flight. Our human “operating system” evolved over thousands of years of terrestrial existence and contains some unique inbred vulnerabilities that serve us poorly once airborne. Flight training is largely a concerted effort to overwrite these very deep visceral reactions with “unnatural” trained piloting responses; overcoming the “monkey pull” response. The durability of these newly trained responses depends on the depth of the initial imprint and the recency of review and reinforcement. This last is a very important point. I believe our biology (and fear) will drag us back to unsafe piloting operations without recent flight experience and reinforcement of correct responses. As pilots, we naturally revert to our unsafe terrestrial reactions through interference and the passage of time.

EvolvedIntoPilotOur most dangerous “naturally human” tendency I see demonstrated as a CFI (and even unfortunately as a DPE)  is the baked-in human reaction of pulling away from the ground. This is especially apparent in new (or rusty) pilots and leads directly to the unfortunate “loss of control inflight” (our most pernicious safety problem in GA). New student pilots, all to some degree fearful and tentative, initially achieve success and comfort by turning and maneuvering at altitude. As soon as they get into the pattern down low, the nose keeps coming up and airspeed drops off (especially in the turns). All pilots, seemingly because of their human nature, unconsciously raise the aircraft nose to get away when they see the green earth coming closer. This fear and “monkey pull” response seems to be baked into our operating system; an instinctive and erroneous impulse to achieve safety. Sound aerodynamic knowledge and careful flight training tells us that exactly the opposite response is necessary. Every safe pilot must substitute a trained “unload” response to overwrite this natural “monkey pull” tendency. This same “monkey pull” appears on final approach if the plane gets low at a constant airspeed.  As the runway starts rising in the windscreen and the ground comes closer, you will see the yoke coming back in the aircraft (oh so naturally) with a poorly trained pilot. Witness the B-777 “seawall approach” in San Francisco and endless other examples.

fuseliftAnother related problem that seems to be baked-in and must be carefully trained out is a fear of banking and the resulting turning of the plane with the rudders alone. If you are a long-time aviator I know this seems inconceivable but please reach way back with me and imagine those first flights accurately. (I still teach those first lessons to a lot of people and see the very tangible fear) For all future safety, a pilot must from the very beginning  be able to turn confidently (and coordinated) with a reasonable bank. Unless a pilot gets comfortable banking the plane with coordinated controls and learns to enjoy the bank, they will somewhere deep inside fear turning and instead skid the plane to achieve a turn. Again, this is where comprehensive aerodynamic understanding is the necessary tool to overwrite an initial “naturally human” aversion. Many fearful students have confessed they believe the plane will roll over. Other poorly trained pilots believe lift is unequal on the wings in a stable turn!

These original impressions in psychology are called “naive rendition.” A savvy instructor knows they must be addressed directly and overwritten with correct knowledge to create an enduringly safe pilot. Nervous pilots who never get comfortable banking, usually get increasingly cautious over time and develop the habit of skidding every turn. They limit their bank to 20 degrees and fly huge traffic patterns. Combine this with the “monkey pull” instinct and you can easily explain many LOC-I accidents. Additionally in a startle situation the erroneous response resurfaces. The roots of all these errors are psychological “baked-in” tendencies. Our human psychological payload is often ignored or not specifically addressed in flight training but this is the only path to durable flight safety.

Please make sure your students acquire good basic turning habits before proceeding to more complex maneuvers. Spending time on the basics and achieving a durable “trained response” (as well as stable, comfortable turns) is essential. Constant exposure is then necessary to retain this trained response since our “natural instincts” take over and misguide us in flight. Ultimately, through flight training and aerodynamic knowledge, we need to recognize and unravel these “natural” problems and substitute safe and aerodynamically sound flight reactions.

Future savvy CFI topics: fear, a natural reaction. No fear is dangerous, too much is paralyzing; where is your correct balance? We will also explore cognitive biases that can lead us into disaster; 90% of drivers believe they are better than average 🙂 Another rich area of inquiry is the “two minds problem.” Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow explores our human irrationality. We will see how this impacts our piloting success and safety.

In a stalled condition, the nose of every conventional aircraft falls toward mother earth. This is physics and happens every time. And the natural human reaction is to pull back away from the ground making the control situation worse.  Only high-quality flight training, both initial and recurrent, can overcome this deep human reaction of “panic and pull.” Education in the classroom yields understanding, but training on the controls in flight is necessary to build deep, reliable, and correct habits.

A good pilot is a healthy mix of mathematician, scientist and athlete, part mechanic and all curiosity.  They must know everything about their airplane;  control surfaces, power plant, the avionic systems, tire pressure.  Because, while the heart of an airplane is metal, fabric or composite;  the bloodstream fuel and oil, its brain is the person who flies it. Community Aviation

New pilots must be patiently taught the feel of slow flight and the correct reaction to an excessive angle of attack and full stalls. It is necessary to train deeply here and to slowly overcome the initial fear. It takes time and persistence to reach a level of comfort and control in high AOA flight. Our fatal accident statistics still demonstrate that we all need better initial education and more current repetition and review; Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I) is the #1 pilot killer.

Unfortunately, especially in larger airframes, pilots were taught for years to “power out of the stalls.” Even if initial training was accurate, many years of “negative stall training” overwrites habits. Historically there was very little emphasis on reducing the angle of attack in larger, powerful aircraft. Instead, the emphasis was on preventing altitude loss. The FAA recently added Expanded Envelope Training to the 121 regulations for every airline pilot recurrency. And the new ATP ACS puts a clear emphasis on reducing the angle of attack for stall recovery. But this may be “too little and too late” for many veteran pilots who experienced and reinforced “negative stall training” for so many years.

During my recent recurrent training in Florida, I witnessed a very experienced (though somewhat rusty) pilot attempt to recover an intentional stall with power and no reduction in angle of attack. This was shocking but eye-opening for me. He panicked, fought the controls, and eventually put the large jet simulator into the (virtual) ground. This was identical to the mishandling that resulted in the landmark accident of Colgan 3407. Negative initial stall training is very persistent and hidden away in our deepest habits. One important purpose of recurrent flight training is to discover, correct, and retrain these very deep habits we all depend on as pilots. Accurate habits must be immediately available or our lives are at risk in an upset situation.

Proper stall recovery training requires time and patience. Complete and thorough stall recovery training is seldom included in our current accelerated flight training environment. It is also the professional responsibility of every CFI to not only train correctly but also to create safe and complete pilots beyond the minimum ACS requirements. Many important skills are not required in the ACS test and are consequently not taught. The FAA puts its trust in professional educators here. Eradicating deeply embedded “negative stall training” takes even longer. Panic and pulling, combined with incomplete understanding, are the root problems behind many pilot deaths.  Releasing and unloading in a panic situation is a trained and very unnatural response.

Various versions of the FAA ACS initially allowed stall recovery “at the first indication” of a stall. Consequently, many recent pilots (and even CFIs) have never experienced, or gotten comfortable with, full stalls. These pilots often panic when full stalls are requested for higher-level certificates. Old-school flight training often included ballistic “falling leaf” stall recoveries during flight training, teaching rudder usage and demonstrating control of the nose-low stalled condition. Every pilot can benefit from this “extended training!”

Every pilot (and especially CFIs) should invest the time to take Rich Stowell’s FREE Learn-To-Turn Course. Then put these ideas to use with a good instructor practicing SAFE’s Extended Envelope Training. This builds comfort and correct control during high AOA flight conditions. Until the unload instinct overwrites “panic and pull” you are not a safe pilot. Safety requires expanding your flight envelope and training out of your comfort zone. Build correct and reliable habits; fly safely out there (and often).

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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