Flying in focus
Right from childhood spelling lists and maths tables, we learn by rote that learning by rote is education’s equivalent to doing time.
So there can’t be many interests or art forms where learning by rote is actually a source of real satisfaction and pleasure – to the point where you’d spend good money to indulge in more of it. And yet, last Sunday I spent more than an hour having the best time flying circuits.
In fact, I lost count of how many times I went around the pattern (which isn’t ideal but, fortunately, the $1 landing fee at Aldinga is capped at $10). It was something like 12. It might have been 14.
I’ve always liked flying circuits: You can condense a good portion of flying’s skill and satisfaction into those few minutes between applications of take-off power. Especially in a tail dragger.
They’re just too good to be the exclusive domain of student pilots.
The big picture
When I was first a student pilot (never stop learning!), circuits seemed to involve a fair amount of fixation on my landing point, with brief flicks to check instruments, make radio calls and manage the aircraft configuration.
But as my hours have built up, I found a surprising amount of ‘spare’ time, especially on the final leg, to take in the big picture – other traffic in the pattern (the circuit is a great place to test your situational awareness); what the windsock is doing; aircraft taxiing to the hold point; what a dam can tell me about the winds on approach; and even anticipating my next climb-out.
That’s not to say there are moments of nothing to do. All that ‘looking around’ is all part of being ahead of the aircraft. It’s all part of paying attention.
Flare, fire, smoke, stench
Often, in the attentive reverie of finals, I think about the passage in Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is The Hunter where he is a lowly co-pilot (in the days before CRM) of a DC-2, flying a night instrument approach into Newark.
Aware of his right-seater’s growing capability and confidence the Captain, Ross, starts lighting matches and holding them right in front of Gann’s nose as he flies. Flare, fire, smoke, stench… Match after match, while Gann tries to keep the 12-ton twin on speed and on slope.
But far from being a ‘sadist, sick with weird complexities’ it turns out Ross is giving Gann a pointed lesson in priorities.
“I snap the logbook shut and am about to stand up when I feel his heavy hand on my shoulder. My grip on the metal logbook tightens. If he tries one of his playful swings—
But his voice is surprisingly tired and so is his smile.
“Anyone can do this job when things are going right. In this business we play for keeps.”
Contemporary flight instruction is somewhat less in your face, but remembering Ross’s lesson to Ernest Gann always reminds me to stay focused too.
So if you’re interested in flying, I’m sure I hardly need to bring YouTube’s FlightChops to your attention. But if you missed his April 26th, 2019 episode What’s the biggest killer in Aviation? Now I know! you really should watch it:
Like this? Visit the FlightChops channel
In it, Steve and Dan Gryder give four CFIs the opportunity to land a DC-3. What the CFIs don’t realise is that they are part of an experiment to prove that most Loss Of Control (LoC) type accidents are fundamentally “Loss Of Focus” accidents.
Citing NTSB data (2008 – 2014) that shows Loss of Control is the single biggest killer in GA, Dan argues every one of these accidents can be traced back to a cockpit distraction.
So the hosts set up false gear not locked indication and see how many of their experienced subjects try to fix it while they continue flying the aircraft towards the ground or into a stall.
Not all of them fall into the trap, but the overall results aren’t pretty.
Playing for keeps
Like Captain Ross lighting matches in a book, FlightChops’ experiment doesn’t have to be experienced to be taken on board. Loss of focus can happen at any time. Loss of Control, loss of the aircraft, and loss of life can quickly follow.
As Adelaide Biplanes owner Martyn Smith said to me the first time we took his SportCub for a hop: “One thing they’re very good at is waiting for you to make a mistake.”
I intend to make them wait forever.
So even though I fly with the benefit of upset recovery training, I know how little value it will have if my upset happens 300 feet off the ground.
And that’s why I make a conscious effort to fly circuit number 12 (or 14) as attentively as I flew number 1.
It may feel like learning by rote – but it’s also learning to stay focused when complacency comes calling.
It’s training to play for keeps.