Stoicism Defeats “Magical Thinking”!

During the recent AOPA national weather tour, we reviewed four fatal weather accidents. These pilots launched – and continued – into totally crappy weather  which they knew about before flight. They ignored any mitigating strategies or sensible alternates and predictably killed themselves (we pilots *do* suffer from “mission mentality”). Viewing this with a group of happy pilots – eating our usual Oreo cookies and swapping lies – was a totally depressing experience. We could find no technological or skill causal factor, just a sad failure of decision-making; “stop the stupidity.” It reminded me of those scary Signal 30 Films they showed in High School driver’s education. Our human defense to these exposures –  so we can fly another day –  is to convince ourselves that this must be “the other guy” not me! But truly it is all of us, and unless we make it personal, these cautions will not succeed. We need to understand the internal failure process that causes these failures and how we can be guilty.

The optimism bias is built into all humans. We think we will be luckier than our peers or there would be no state lotteries, no start up businesses (85% fail) and we all would be saving for retirement (instead of buying planes). Tali Sharot wrote a great book – The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain – examining every side of this interesting phenomenon. It got us out of the trees millions of years ago and still propels human effort and achievement. (And pilots seem to have a bigger dose of this tonic)

We humans also commonly exhibit a sense of superiority – not necessarily arrogance -but 90% of drivers say they are “above average” and the superiority bias has been replicated in every human endeavor. And pilots are not the steely-eyed rational thinkers we seem, but driven (like everyone else) by emotional motivations- that “mission mentality”? – and we often fall prey to “magical thinking.” How else would someone believe they could “stretch fuel” or fly through severe icing in a piston plane? We are dreamers who buy more plane than we can afford (or fly) and then occassionally try too hard to succeed. When you combine our built in optimism with over-confidence and confirmation bias, you have a toxic built-in mindset we need to monitor carefully and work to control (the most comples airspace is between our ears?)

The best antidote for this misplaced optimism might be the ancient Greek Stoic Philosophy and the process of  negative visualization – they call it the “premeditation of evils”. Used by warriors marching into battle, this approach is modeled nicely in a good pre-takeoff briefing. The idea is to realistically visualize and prepare for all the possible terrible outcomes before we go flying (instead of wearing the rose-colored glasses); “On the take-off before rotation, if I have any problem – fire, loss of control, or any suprising noise or malfunction – I will reduce the power, maintain the centerline and stop” Adding more detail and realism is even better; “if an engine fails before rotation, I will reduce power and stay on the runway…” and creates caution and readiness for action. This process requires us to be totally present, fully aware – what shooters call “condition yellow“. Surely this is not a rosy, happy picture, but it is not intended to be. A stoic is realistically placing all the risks on the table for an honest evaluation. Too much optimism is can easily harm us.

“Personal minimums” applied to every area of flight are also the same “premeditation of evils” when evaluating enroute weather and changing circumstances. “If the ceiling is below 3,000 agl and I am VFR only, I will turn around and land…” But the essential commitment that makes this process work is honesty, discipline and clearly imagining how terrible the outcome would be in a very personal setting. It would really suck to be in the hospital for three months and then walk with a limp for the rest of my life…or not come home at all.

I certainly don’t want to diminish anyone’s joy of flying with these recommendations, but we have to be honest about our job as pilots since the very real price is our life and those of our friends and family. And especially when teaching, honesty and careful modeling of risk management are essential. Clearly bad stuff happens too often in aviation and we have to pay attention.

The same human adaptation which normalizes risk can also diminish our healthy respect (and occasional fear) for the dangers of flight. Did you ever have a moment of clarity at altitude flying cross-country in the middle of the night and realize how bold some of this flying really is? With no appreciation for risk we can quickly become complacent and thus vulnerable. Fly as if your life depends on your success and both your skills and presence of mind will improve. It is essential to stay situationally aware of and protect yourself from importing too much optimism into our flight decisions. Fly safely (and often) out there!


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Our Subtle Safety Enemy: “Drift”

Serious pilots all embrace a commitment to the concept of safety and I hope no one –except perhaps our recent Seattle Q400 thief– wants to end up in a “smoking hole”. But despite this commitment and embracing best practices, we are constantly challenged by the subtle “drift” of normalizing.  “Procedural drift” is the result of our built-in human process of adaptation, driven by our urge to achieve greater efficiency and utility. Adaptation has made us the most successful species on earth, happily inhabiting every corner of the globe from the arctic to the slums of Mumbai. But it does not serve us well in maintaining safety in aviation.

The forces and adjustments that lead to “drift” are incremental, subtle and subconscious. As pilots, we are all self-selected, aggressive optimizers and we value the efficiency and utility of getting the job done (mission mentality). But in almost every case, this natural drive is opposed to our better angels of managing the risks and assuring safety. This dynamic process of “drift” starts with any non-standard procedure or short cut often very small. Let’s say that by “pushing the edge” a little, we are blessed with success. This may be a result of skill or entirely due to luck, but either way, with each “success” becomes a neurological and social “win” in our brain. Each success makes us feel good and reinforces the new behavior (see: brain chemical dopamine). With this change we start to “drift”and never assess “luck or skill.” Each success subtly transforms our personal standards and we subconsciously accept a new procedure that may add a risk. The GIV disaster at Bedford a few years ago was a perfect example of professionals who had drifted over years into a very unsafe operation. This crew was literally an “accident waiting to happen” and never through a conscious decision. This very same process fooled a very smart bunch of engineers and managers at NASA and brought down two US space shuttles! This process is built into our human software.

The normalization of deviance is defined as: “The gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the [person or] organization.” Seven years after Dr. Vaughan’s book was published, it struck again. The shuttle Columbia came apart due to damage in its heat shield as it was re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, and seven more astronauts died. NASA had fallen prey to the normalization of deviance for a second time. Shuttles returning with damaged heat shields had become the norm.

Especially in the vacuum of personal flying, with no additional training or any outside objective comparisons, a “personal standard” can develop into some very unique procedures quite contrary to safety. This is why the simple addition of hours does not create safer pilots; it may instead create a very weird and dangerous pilot. (And this is one reason professional pilots revisit the mother ship every six months) Without a supporting professional organization and regular critique, drift and normalizing are almost inevitable in piloting. That is why frequent training and an affiliation to a professional organization (yes- SAFE) with a strong Code of Ethics are essential.

Dr. Bill Rhodes, an Air Force Academy Instructor, has studied pilot personalities extensively and points out lots of warning signs. Almost every time the biggest talker in the room with the “fifty mission jacket” is exactly the person to avoid and ignore. Their personal belief in their own abilities and skills, with no objective standard or verification, has led them to become a dangerous and “creative” aviator (often with the biggest ego).

Especially if you are a new pilot or instructor and value professionalism and excellence in aviation, seek out a proven, professional mentor to guide your growth as you explore and develop your new skills. This is especially important if you are a new aviation educator, in the business of teaching even more pilots (see last week’s blog). We can only sustain a professional standard as a group if we are professionals bonded together; its the human condition. For more on this fascinating process of normalization and drift, see Sidney Dekker’s book “Drift Into Failure” (As a professor he even became a professional pilot to study this process in at work in aviation) It turns out the more errors we expose and talk about the safer we are — not by ignoring the problem. Join SAFE, we are here for you-fly safely (and often).


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

FAA has “Minimums”-We Need Better!

It was an honor to present during the Redbird Migration this week at AOPA. The message is critical to growing aviation and keeping us all safe: A newly certificated CFI (and all FAA certificates) only demonstrated the “minimum viable product” to earn this rating and needs more growth and seasoning to be truly functional. This is why Canada’s Class Four (new) CFI cannot legally teach without direct supervision and it takes a Class One to teach another CFI. The US is much more permissive.

All certificates granted by the FAA work this way- you now have only the bare minimums; just like “one mile, clear of clouds” or the “91.205 -required flight instruments.” If you just earned that CFI please remember, you have only an airspeed, altimeter and compass, so don’t charge into heavy weather.

Bridging the experience gap is the mission of SAFE, helping a new CFI “grow from good to great”and  building educational excellence. Please  join us, use our resources freely and get a mentor to build your skills. If you are an employer or flight school, use our resources and people. The critical piece is the awareness and agreement to embrace wise limits and stay humble; you start as an apprentice. With a new certificate at any level, embracing humility helps us learn daily in so many ways. And we have amazing resources at SAFE to help you. One of our board members has been a DPE for 41 years -more hours and years than most of us have even flown airplanes!

Wayman and Zoan at Redbird Migration

In a perfect world each new CFI goes to work for an experienced and watchful Chief CFI to bridge this gap and become  a truly effective educator. But we know this does not always happen. Mentoring, either locally or through SAFE, is the only other solution to improving and growing. We heard this same message again and again during Migration but one school owner (who manages 35 CFI-employees) boils this advice down to some simple guidance: “initially, CFIs can be pretty weak, but with a good ‘learning attitude’ and careful mentorship, they improve faster than you can believe.” And that is exactly what SAFE is here for; we help CFIs bridge the gap to become excellent educators. We need to cooperate on this to fix the 80% drop out rate and make stronger, safer pilots.

An important first step is to go beyond the inaccurate name “flight instructor” and embrace “aviation educator.” I know I beat this up in a previous blog, but in truth, we primarily educate people on the ground in a calm environment before and after each flight. (And we also teach in Redbirds or in front of a class of students) In the aircraft, we should be primarily reinforcing what we already presented on the ground where a brain can focus and learn effectively. In flight we allow our pilot in training to try out the new learning, make some mistakes and self-correct. In flight we provide a safe environment and gentle guidance. A good CFI is coaching very carefully not controlling.

I was fortunate to meet an expert in this technique this week at Redbird Migration. Mike McCurdy runs the celebrated IFR6 and Charleston Flight School. At his school, all initial exposures to every maneuver- from taxiing to landing – is introduced in his Redbird. Just as revealed in The Talent Code, guided repetition in the “struggle zone” builds proficiency, precision and good habits before subsequent reinforcement in the aircraft. Only after there is some demonstrated control and mastery does the pilot in training calibrate each maneuver in a real aircraft.

If you aren’t blessed with a Redbird, this same technique works in a plane but requires restraint and very careful pacing. Most CFIs attempt to cover too much too quickly in a misguided effort to be “efficient” and “progress rapidly” (I did this too originally). The result is a mess of half-learned maneuvers and lots of confusion (and ultimately slower progress). It is essential to patiently assure mastery at every basic level before moving on to more complicated maneuvers (oh yeah, wasn’t that somewhere in the FOI?)

And pace is surely very personal. I have completed several private pilots in 35 hours (Part 141) but they were especially gifted (also amazingly dedicated and lucky on weather). I call these clients the “magic bean” (from Jack and the Beanstalk) Plant them in fertile soil of good ground instruction then stand back and watch them grow. These blessed learners only require a little nudge here and there–Just show them once and they have it!

Then there are those that struggle continually and plateau, run out of money, then return after a while and slog onward. These are the ones who really teach you how to be an educator; patient, creative and caring. This is the (more typical) long game, but the rewards of success are greater for both student and educator.

If all this makes sense to you, you probably have already run this race, earned this T-shirt and might even be a Master CFI, DPE or veteran CFI. We need you at SAFE to help mentor (we have a very active program guiding new CFIs) If you think I am totally full of $h#t here (there is always a chance you might be right) *or* you might be in need of some mentoring yourself. My original chief instructor frustrated me to death reminding me “if the student has not learned, the instructor has failed to teach effectively.” Our “Good 2 Great™” program is open to all our members and we have specialists in every area of aviation. We all have worked hard and learned a lot, but aviation is a complicated and endlessly challenging occupation. Join us and help, there is always a new area to learn. Fly safely (and often)!


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

“Chunking” for Effective Learning

Facebook has many fans and detractors but it sure provides a view into a world I never knew existed (Walmart videos anyone?) Some aviation education posts are similarly horrifying in this regard.

In a recent post on an aviation forum, one CFI described a new student he picked up with only two lessons in his logbook: His first flight ever [!] was 3.5 hours with 42 landings (all touch and go’s). His second flight was 4.2 hours which was a cross-country >50nm with 1.5 hours of hood time. There are so many things wrong here I don’t know where to begin. But it certainly highlights the basic necessity in all education (and obviously lacking here) of presenting the right experiences in the correct order with the appropriate level of challenge. Deconstructing large, complex skills or ideas and assembling them into a meaningful, usable form (making sense of it in your personal way) is called “chunking!” This reduces “cognitive load” and allows for faster learning and operation and is one of many tools an instructor may use to facilitate learning.

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All complex learning projects require a reasonable outline or syllabus, mutually agreed upon, for a sensible order of presentation from basic to more complex.  This ensures both progress and incremental mastery while sustaining motivation. Learning to land on lesson #1, with no background skills or preparation, is like bloodying your face by continually running at a high wall and trying to get over it; painful and demoralizing. It is no wonder we have an 80% drop out rate in aviation!

So if “successful flight” is a high wall that new applicants encounter, “chunking” is providing a manageable staircase of appropriate steps to incrementally surmount that challenge.  Each step at the right time with the correct degree of challenge builds skills while maintaining motivation. “Everything-all-at-once” is always wrong–confusing, demoralizing and expensive! Continual progress requires a savvy aviation educator presenting learning challenges for each unique individual at a manageable rate (but also the encouragement and scaffolding to assure success). The correct steps will be different for everyone –and certainly also not by rote from a standard syllabus! Please shred those generic “CFI lesson plans” and embrace each lesson as a personal creative challenge for *you* as an educator.

Those pre/post briefings on every flight add the necessary meaning to the flight experience. This collaboration shares the larger mental model and calibrates performance achieved for anticipation of the next step forward. To this end it is not enough to be only a “flight instructor”. To achieve efficiency and success we must also be an astute, and compassionate fully-fleged “aviation educator” using a variety of tools and resources to assure educational success. (see last week’s rant: CFI vs AE) Ground time and simulators are a critical part of your toolkit as an educator.

Chunking correctly manages “cognitive load” mentioned in previous blogs, and places your learner at the appropriate level of challenge. This is the most effective way to build solid sustainable skills in any learning situation; it generates “broadband for the brain”.  Just flying in your “comfort zone”  does not build new skills and this can be the problem with “scenario training” too early in flight training. This often occurs because of an admirable attempt to “keep it all fun.” Unfortunately, “education by osmosis” fails to adequately engage the learner and build essential skills. Early flight lessons require some hard work at the correct level of challenge- -remember those necessary scales on the piano preceding your amazing Chopin recital? “Fantasy flight training” can’t efficiently build “aviation muscle memory” that precedes higher learning (though it certainly builds CFI hours).  As aerobatic competitors are fond of saying; “to get good, ya gotta go pull some Gs and burn avgas.” A good aviation educator has to achieve an effective balance of the skill building in the “struggle zone” but also integrate scenario/judgment opportunities at the appropriate time (no wonder we are so highly paid!)

In every activity “proper practice makes perfect” and this is also true for aviation educators.  There is a real difference between “one hour 2000 times” and “2000 unique hours of real teaching experience”. Please sign up to follow this blog (and offer your suggestions and comments!) A future blog will deal more with acquiring expert educator skills more rapidly (are we still learning?). Fly safely (and often!)


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!