Day 2: from Lincoln, NE to Boulder, CO

Mooney Seven Charlie Foxtrot

Today is a much lighter day than yesterday: just one 389 nautical mile leg to Boulder, CO (KBDU). At breakfast with Bill and Katie, we discuss the weather. Bill is flying to Mississippi for work, and will likely encounter rain and thunderstorms along the way. On the contrary, our weather to Boulder is absolutely perfect: blue skies, no wind, great visibility. After thanking Bill and Katie for their wonderful hospitality, we take off from Lincoln just behind Bill’s Cessna 182 and head west at 6,500 ft. As we are still climbing, we pass a Cessna 172 established at his cruising altitude — a nice reminder that the Mooney is faster than most single-engine piston aircraft.

From here on out, it’s just miles of farmland rolling past the windows: field after field of corn, occasionally interrupted by a cattle feedlot or a small town — usually centered around a…

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Day 1, Leg 3: Davenport to Lincoln, NE

Mooney Seven Charlie Foxtrot

As we prepare the third leg of the day from Davenport, IA to Lincoln, NE (KLNK), we notice another SIGMET and a big thunderstorm — the kind only the Midwest has — in the middle of our route.  Fortunately the storm is very local, so we decide to go around it to the north and overfly Des Moines, IA enroute to Lincoln, NE.  With Jim back in the left seat, we take off just after 3 pm.

As we contact Quad City Approach after takeoff, we just ask for flight following towards Lincoln, omitting to mention our plan to divert North.  We receive a concerned answer from the controller, wondering whether we are aware of the weather. After some explanations everything is fine, but it is nice to know that we have controllers double-checking the weather for us!

Around Des Moines, we spot the storms on our left: they look much…

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Day 1, Leg 2: Wood County, OH to Davenport, IA

Mooney Seven Charlie Foxtrot

Our next planned leg is to Davenport, IA (KDVN), just crossing south of the busy airspace surrounding Chicago O’Hare and Midway; Jean-Baptiste is in the left seat for this leg.  There are some slow-moving and isolated thunderstorm cells east and south of Chicago, so we go about 20 miles south of our planned route to stay well clear.  We take off from Wood County Airport and contact Toledo Approach then Fort Wayne Approach.  The landscape is now completely flat, with freshly planted corn fields, and the farms are further and further apart from each other — they will be even more apart in Iowa and Nebraska later in the day.  We eat lunch as we cruise west, taking turns flying as we enjoy sandwiches from Ithaca Bakery — not bad for an in-flight meal!

Even as far east as Fort Wayne, we are starting to see (not just on the radar…

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Day 1, Leg 1: Ithaca, NY to Wood County, OH

Mooney Seven Charlie Foxtrot

20140527_01_07.51Tuesday morning, the big day — the alarm goes off at 6 am.  A quick look at the weather at breakfast shows isolated thunderstorms along the route, but also a gigantic convective SIGMET (an advisory for serious weather that affects all aircraft, small and large) for most of the eastern United States. Not too promising, but since the weather in Ithaca and up until Chicago is good, we decide to follow closely the development of the thunderstorms with Flight Watch and on the iPads with the Stratus.  We’re sure to recreate the photo from the first pages of Flight of Passage before heading out.

Just after 8 am EDT we take off from Ithaca, with Wood County Airport in Bowling Green, OH (1G0) as our first fuel stop; Jim is the pilot in command for this first leg, and we end up alternating with each subsequent stop.  Ithaca Tower tells us…

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Your Brain on Google: I *Need* Those Devices!

google-memoria_thumbWe live in an environment saturated with digital devices. Increasingly we outsource primary mental functions to other processors and have become dependent electronic devices for even the most simple tasks (your brain on Google). You never saw someone so stressed as when the smart phone goes missing…we lost half our brain.

The classic analysis of this phenomenon is Jonathan Carr’s amazing book “The Shallows” He documents in himself (and also through the history of mankind) how we increasingly have outsourced brain function to achieve greater efficiency (but unfortunately diminished capability).  Ancient Greek poets could recite from memory poems that would take thousands of pages (or digital megabytes) to retain. Our current human is lucky if they can retain three phone numbers and what we should pick-up for dinner on the way home from work. Originally, this was “exosomatic” memory storage…write it down, publish it, record it so I do not forget. This trend began with writing tools and increasing literacy then accelerated exponentially as technology developed into the modern age. Now however, we increasingly access these devices not just for their memory but for their processing value. We “outsource” decisions in addition to data to our devices. Super scary: Our actual brain structures increasingly adapt also to merely scan information not process it deeply. How much technology does a modern pilot actually need to fly from one airport to another airport? I know pilots who’s required minimum equipment list includes at least an iPad and Stratus for a local VFR hop! What is your technological MEL?

POH For Your “Aviation Brain”

In the my previous article “Cognitive Traps” we explored our decision dilemma through the eyes of Nobel Prize recipient Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking: Fast and Slow”) He demonstrates quite clearly humans are by design “predictably irrational” when solving complex problems. We all possess two interconnected but competing brains in one cranium. The more primitive but extremely fast, massively parallel brain works largely on heuristics or “rules of thumb” developed to quickly solve relatively simple and repetitive everyday decisions. Kahneman calls this “system one” thinking. The more recently evolved,  sequential (but relatively slow) pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the meticulous and objective auditor of our actions and home to our “higher order thinking skills” (HOTS). This brain system deciphers unique or complex situations (Kahneman’s “system two” thinking) and plans complex cognitive behaviors. The PFC also provides our personality and is the arbiter of appropriate social behavior. Key piloting skills like  “situational awareness”, planning and judgement reside here.

BasicBrainWithout our automatic, low bandwidth “system one” heuristics we could not perform complex motor skills like flying. If every action required careful, conscious decision-making we would not get out of the starting blocks.   Typically, a student pilot cannot solo until they have developed their basic control skills to an “appropriate automatic” level because they would be too busy making slow deliberate decisions for every single action to function effectively. Most basic flying decisions have to be fast, automatic and appropriate to be useful (and safe). Imagine coming down final and encountering unannounced wind shear. Slow, deliberate decision-making will not work here. We must react with a correct trained response.

Trouble in life occurs when inappropriate heuristics are applied to novel or changing situations. Imagine you learned to drive in California and only much later encountered your first icy roads in the northeast. Your skills and automatic decisions would lead to disaster (unless overridden by the “system two” auditor). As an instructor I see this commonly with new students trying to steer a plane back onto the runway centerline on the ground utilizing the yoke. (“Oops, though I was driving a car!”) Another problem occurs when “system one” thinking is entirely in charge of the operation without the HOTS to audit and correct the process. I think we all experienced the “I do not know what I was thinking” moments or arrived somewhere in our car with no memory of the journey? Obviously no way to fly a plane but a good example of how thoroughly we can operate “on automatic.” These experiences are often the result of cognitive stress (I-M-S-A-F-E) that can often hijack the more nuanced PFC.  During high workload or diminished capability  the reptilian action/reaction “system one” processor takes over. It has often been said that the real experience of being fully “human” involves putting some space between stimulus and response for a more nuanced life experience. Buddhist monks exist entirely in the pre-frontal cortex (but apparently do not fly planes).

“System one” thinking is tricky (think card shark at the poker table) It operates largely out of sight of the “system two” conscious auditor. Imagine we successfully navigate lousy, lower than acceptable weather to get home and arrive safely. This successful outcome validates the poor decision (reinforcement) even though luck might be the important ingredient in this success , not skill! We now have a new (lower) standard of “acceptable” pilot behavior. This becomes the “new normal” without any conscious decision and risk creeps into our operation surreptitiously. Additionally, system one decisions are by structure only “good enough” or what psychologists call “satificing” rather than optimizing. Speed is of the essence so quality often suffers.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.10.47 PMUnfortunately,  though these two systems are largely separate, the deliberate, thoughtful “system two” brain is still largely influenced by “system one” filtered sensory input. Dr. Carl Spetzler from The Strategic Decision Group points out  “Use of the deliberative brain is so much slower that the intuitive brain has already made some judgments (first impressions) before we even start conscious deliberation. Even during careful deliberations, we take short cuts and reason by association rather than by correct inductive or deductive reasoning. We have many distortions in both brains that make us ‘predictably irrational.’ ” And if you think your teenager lacks this this kind of thoughtful decision making and risk management you are right. Our PFC structure is not fully formed until the age of 25.  Knowing when and how to balance and apply these two thinking systems may help achieve a higher level of safety in aviation. This skill of tuning up your mental processes in real time is the highly regarded skill called “metacognition.”

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So here is a POH to consciously operate your aviation brain:

First, as pilots, we must make sure our system one heuristics are accurate and current. Heuristics are skill sets and “rules of thumb” that run our flying in fast-changing situations. On that final approach when we experience a sudden wind shear, we must react automatically. This reaction must be appropriate, accurate and immediate to save the day. Frequently, “instinct” is all wrong and only recent skill practice and correct assembly of this skill system will result in a safe arrival. The example of inappropriately applying yoke pressure (driving) on the runway is only one egregious example. These people are automatically applying an incorrect heuristic and they do not get the result they anticipate.  To be safe we must train all the correct skills with some frequency. Practice makes permanent (but not necessarily “perfect”) and we must have and apply the correct “toolkit” to each situation. Think perhaps of “programming your own system” for success in this area. And if you do not practice frequently, you do not have the correct tools to do the job when the need arises and you won’t be safe.

Second, we must continually and carefully  filter our flying heuristics for poor decisions (coding errors?) that sneak into our system and become automatically embedded. This process is illustrated by the weather example above: erroneously reinforcing our poor decisions based entirely on  lucky outcomes. Another example is internalizing untested information discovered on the internet! It is essential to take the time and effort to objectively and honestly evaluate our decisions and performance against against an industry-accepted standard. A safe pilot must commit rigorous self-analysis with proper humility. Listening to the advice and counsel of respected counselors is essential for safety.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.22.40 PMA third important consideration is avoiding stressors like the I-M-S-A-F-E items we studied in aviation training and FAA Safety Seminars. (and now you know why!) “System two” higher order thinking skills get short-circuited when we are stressed and instead of thinking our way out of a complex situation carefully we react automatically. These stress factors may cause us to entirely miss important “decision points” due to fatigue or complacency. And though we engage the brain fully, be careful as Dr. Spretzler counsels: “Just becoming deliberative is no guarantee of making a quality choice. So for the most part, we make good’nuff decisions.”

A fourth suggestion is committing to standard operating procedures and clear checklist usage to provide an environment where abnormal or unusual events stand out clearly. Standardization gives us a greater opportunity to discover and manage decisions in a more controlled environment with proper tools. Avoiding surprises and controlling the variables should be a basic goal in aviation.  Critical to proper functioning is also creating enough time in your planning and piloting operations to deal with the inevitable surprises in a thoughtful manner. When we “put ourselves under the gun” and require immediate solutions (our brain on adrenaline) we short-circuit the thoughtful, objective solutions and again beg for a “system one” solution.

Lastly, an ongoing active “threat and error management system” is necessary to maintain our guard while piloting. This does not need to be paranoid hyper-vigilance but rather a sustained awareness that actively processes experience and sifts it for changes that might be important. The source of my favorite paradigm is Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the fighter pilot who perfected the energy management theories at the Top Gun School and later developed the F-16 at the Pentagon. His “Observe-Orient-Decide-Act” paradigm is widely accepted in every top business school as the most effective system to meet challenges in a time-limited, stressful and changing environment. This has been recast into “perceive-process and perform” for pilots.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.25.34 PMThe “perceive” step requires vigilance and active observation. A pilot should be alert for any changes or unusual circumstances incorporating the P-A-V-E elements in dynamic interplay. Next we must “process” or assess the meaning to decide if the detected change is threatening. “Process” also requires the generation of viable alternatives and options that would provide possible viable outcomes if action is required. Finally, the “perform” step requires commitment to the best course of action and aggressively working toward a successful outcome. In addition to action, the “perform” step also requires the evaluation of outcomes as we enter the 3P cycle again . This is the “fast and frugal” decision-making that pilots must embrace to be “surely safe” (as opposed to “maybe safe” where we are counting on luck or an easy ride)  Pilots do not sit at a white board and parse decisions academically in a sterile environment after the game. We are usually “in the trenches” in real time and require the best decision with limited time and information. This is called “optimization under constraint” or “fast and frugal decision-making.” More on this soon…fly safely!