Ready to React? “Reflexive Skills!”

Any fan of action sports, whether it’s football or air racing, knows that the greatest moves and memorable moments are not in the huddle (reflective) but during time-critical (reflexive *1) immediate action. These “snapshot moments” are automatically deployed (but previously trained) skills that occur in a few microseconds. The reflective, thoughtful mind is slower and not even in gear. We certainly always should make plans (prebrief) on the sidelines or in the huddle, but the amazing moments come when the surprise blitz occurs and we must respond reflexively. This is especially true in “high-consequence sports” like aviation.

A fastball at 90mph takes only 4/10ths of a second (400 milliseconds) to reach the batter. It takes more than half that time, 250 milliseconds, just to make a decision whether to swing or not and execute that action perfectly. Psychologists still do not totally understand this subconscious process but some insights are available and important for pilots with other similar time-critical challenges.

The neural circuits that make the “snap judgment” to swing (or not) and tunes the response correctly, is not reflective and language-based. There is no time for this “slow thought.” Reflexive action is immediate and subconscious and comes only from hours of practice and rehearsal. These tuned-up brain circuits are developed through careful practice that is then myelinated for immediate, appropriate response. These memories are even stored in a different part of the brain (and this too requires a time investment). Though the practice and development occur as a methodical, conscious process, the resulting “immediate action capability” is then stored like books on a shelf ready to go with the correct triggers from the environment. Scenario flight training can develop judgment for the “when” but drill and repetition are essential to sharpen these reflexive pilot reactions.

Our action timeline for pilot decisions varies considerably depending on the challenge of the day.  In most operations, we have time to research, plan, and adapt a fairly predictable flight. And most challenges we face allow time to consider and decide a plan of action. But there are definitely moments in flying that require immediate, reflexive action that must be both appropriate and accurate to assure safety. These challenges require confidence and an appropriate “automatic” trained response.

In aviation, the times that require “reflexive action” are usually during take-off and landing or when “surprises” like loss of control inflight occur. These are time-critical and the brain circuit at work here is not the reflective (language) part, but the embedded, trained reflexive part. Not surprisingly, this is also where most accidents happen. (We spend only 5% of our time in the pattern, but 60-70% of accidents occur here.) Similarly, startle and loss of control require immediate and appropriate reactions, but this is the primary cause of fatal accidents. In both areas, drill and repetition practice is required to build the necessary basic skills for “immediate action” responses and safety. Without this practice, we are stepping up to the plate for a fastball and only only prepared for a slow pitch game.

Many researchers talk about “cognitive unavailability” when analyzing LOC-I or landing accidents. But cognitive (reflective) brain function is not involved here at all.  During time-critical reactions, especially with “startle incapacitation“, it is the “reflexive,” immediate action brain circuits that must respond appropriately to save us. These deeply-trained “reflexes” are either honed sharp from appropriate and recent practice, or we fail and crash (see “startle response“)

To be clear, cognitive “rehearsal” before every expected challenge is still valuable to prepare for potential surprises (e.g. pre-take-off briefing) This highly effective technique improves pilot response times by creating an alert state of mind (“code yellow“). But the kinetic skills in time-critical maneuvering must be automatic and appropriate, ready to deploy. Any “out-of-the-blue” surprise is going to require the subconscious implicit brain domain not “cognition.” There is a lot more to examine and explain in this area of operation – especially tips for the instructors who need to build these skills. We will examine those in future articles.

*1) The term “reflexive” is used here to mean “subconscious, habitual and unthinking behavior, not subject to conscious reflection or revie

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Author: David St. George

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

5 thoughts on “Ready to React? “Reflexive Skills!””

  1. Great article. Trying to “train out” the tendency to drive the airplane with ailerons in cross-wind landing situation takes a lot of repetitions.

    1. Great point Russell. We often see “driving” right from the initial power application on the runway as the plane drifts left (right aileron – arghh!). The next blog will talk about these deeply embedded “negative reflexes” everyone has built into us from 200K years of earth-bound operation (pull away from the ground) and many years of driving. Every CFI must be alert for these universal problems and work hard to “train them out” of every pilot (sometimes pretty advanced people). These persist in all of us (since we all walk and drive more than we fly!) That is one reason I prefer a stick-controlled aircraft…pretty natural to learn on too.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I don’t know exactly what you will include in the next article and may be jumping ahead, but there’s a correlation of this message to how we train in stalls, one of my favorite subjects. What you usually see recommended in stall entry is an emphasis on keeping perfect coordination. Of course that is good – don’t get into an incipient spin or worse. But it follows the reflective path – we know what’s coming – no surprises. To build reflexive skills, we also want to make plenty of those straight and turning stall entries not coordinated. I can tell you from thousands of such entries, you cannot predict how the airplane will react. One may be both wings stalling together, the next a left wing drop, and the next a right wing drop. But what is accomplishes is a chance to evaluate the pilot’s reflexive actions, which will then let the cfi identify some of these critical deficiencies that you have noted.

    1. Exactly Warren. That is why we developed SAFE “Envelope Extension Training” (get out if the “comfort zone!”) I recently took (another) UPRT course and they specifically introduce just slight yaw at stall to add the excitement. “Training OUT” our (incorrect) terrestrial reactions is also essential😀

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