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. Providing humans flight training, the only kind I have done incidentally :), is largely a concerted effort to overwrite these very basic visceral reactions with “unnatural” trained piloting responses. The durability of these new 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 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 tuning 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 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.

Please Join SAFE in our mission of pursuing aviation excellence. The amazing member benefits alone make this commitment painless and fun. See you at the airport.


Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

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