As pilots, we have an amazing diversity of “flying machines” available to us. Unfortunately, most of us never take the time and money necessary to explore these unique experiences. In other articles here I have advocated for “envelope expansion” in your regualr piston flying. This builds unique skills but also enhances safety in all your other flying. Other categories and classes of flying machines are the pathway to transferable skills and new perspectives. To stay safe in aviation, it’s essential to challenge our skills regularly and also reexamine our procedures from time to time with a fresh perspective. In this article I hope to inspire you to get out of your comfort zone a little and explore some new kinds of flying machines. This could be as simple as finally taking up your friend’s offer to experience flight in their Long-Ez – or try a glider ride at the local soaring school.
After a while in the air, everyone gets first ‘proficient’ at what they do regularly, then ‘comfortable’, and the very next stop is often ‘complacency.’ With complacency also comes the boredom of the “same-same round the pattern” flying and a diminishing safety margin if a surprise occurs. Very few of us challenge ourselves on a regular basis to get out of our “comfort zone” and build skills. The original excitement (and even the twinge of fear) from the new adventure soon goes away and we can get stale and rusty if we are not careful.
Not only is complacency damaging for safety, there is a definite trend of pilots dropping out after a bunch of years after they lose the original excitement of flight – the secret to longevity and growth is exploring new aviation adventures! The AOPA is currently partnering with the Recreational Aviation Foundation to encourage back-country flying “From Peaks to Pavement: Applying Lessons from the Backcountry” This is an excellent opportunity to restore challenge and adventure to your flying while building skills transferable to your everyday environment.
I learned to fly in 1970 and after acquiring all my ratings I ran a 141 flight school for 25 years. By necessity that means a lot of the same kind of repetitive flying. After 5 or 10 thousand hours of dual given, there is a diminishing level of new input in this flight environment (ask any CFI – the dreaded “burnout”). No matter how conscientiously you approach each day as a “fresh learning event” there is limited novelty and the human machine tends to stereotype each repetitive experience. As a pilot and especially as an instructor, you inevitably get stale and start “pattern matching” or stereotyping. This is a natural neurological process called “normalizing” – it’s complacency at work and not only is this bad for the piloting skills, it is also destructive to the instructional environment and safety. How many burned out CFIs have you experienced? I could feel the excitement diminish hour by hour, day by day and year after year!
Fortunately, I discovered gliders (and then everything else that flies) could provide not only a lift in excitement and motivation, but also a unique set of skills to reinvigorate my daily world of flight. Once you are a proficient glider pilot (or instructor), the way you understand (or teach) a power failure in a piston plane is increadibly richer and more detailed…what a unique perspective to bring to a piston lesson.
Maybe you are a Zen Master and can approach each moment as unique, but I found the easiest path to escape “normalizing” is exploring a variety of new aviation experiences. Humans adapt readily to each new environment and we stereotype internally without knowing it as part of our predictive perception. After a very short time, the scary edges and unusual procedures neurologically disappear and we get “comfortable” – even in the strangest environments – through normalizing. This process is a huge problem for safety because any pilot can subliminally adopt unsafe procedures through “drift” in everyday operations. Anything we do repeatedly becomes the “new normal.“
Exploring other aviation environments – and especially seeking instructional oversight and guidance with a creative professional – is necessary to gain perspective on our previously comfortable groove. We all need a shot of insight and excitement from time to time. I would encourage you to seek out and try some different flying. This experience will pay you back with new insights and skills that improve our skills and outlook. You will come back with a new perspective and fresh appreciation for your “normal” experience. Fly safely out there (and often!)
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