Stoicism Defeats “Magical Thinking”!

We need to be mentally prepared when we go flying. Aviation is what industrial analysts call a “high consequence area.” The consequences of even a small slip-up can be huge! 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 this can happen to all of us. Unless we make it personal, these cautions will not succeed. We need to be vigilant and fully aware when we go flying (not “fat, dumb, and happy”) We need to understand the internal failure process that causes these failures and how we can occasionally be guilty of this erroneous thinking.

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 planes than we can afford (or fly) and then occasionally 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 complex 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 surprising 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!

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Author: David St. George

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

15 thoughts on “Stoicism Defeats “Magical Thinking”!”

  1. Excellent advise and how we must realize our built in positive bias that can cause us to get into trouble not only in flying but living our everyday lives when decisions need to be made on a rational basis rather than a “gut” level.

  2. I could go on forever about normalization of deviance.
    One area that deserves special attention is in how we handle checklists. This of course is a huge area for discussion but I have found over an entire career teaching people how not to dent airplanes that if only one thing can be learned by a pilot about checklists that single thing can and has saved lives and prevented damaged aircraft.
    Here it is in a nutshell;
    Complacency and familiarization and routine are your mortal enemies as a pilot. If you learn to combat and defeat these things you will reap huge benefits over your career in aviation as a pilot.
    Rule 1. NEVER assume ANYTHING when it comes to a checklist whether it be written or a flow. Expect distraction and by doing so prepare for it.
    Rule 2. If you are distracted and have to remove yourself from a checklist DO NOT reenter the checklist where you left it but go back either to the beginning (if on the ground) or back several items (if in the air) to resume the checklist. This insures that the distraction hasn’t altered your procedure thus missing a checklist item.
    Rule 3. And this one is where pilots have some trouble, and I can’t stress enough the importance of getting this firmly implanted in your pilot’s skillset.
    When you turn final from your base turn (and this is especially important when flying complex retracts) REGARDLESS OF ANY CHECKLIST YOU HAVE JUST PERFORMED, do a final mnemonic (whether it be GUMPS or another favorite) verbally to yourself out loud, reaching out and touching the item with your hand as you verbalize it to yourself.
    You won’t believe how many pilots tell me “Why do it again when I’ve just done it a few moments before”.
    My answer has always been the same.
    literally EVERY pilot who ever landed wheels up had “just done it a few moments before”.

    Remember. As flight instructors we can teach them to pass the test…………or we can teach them to fly better than that…………………….A LOT BETTER !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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