The needles were perfectly centered and absolutely still as we coasted down the ILS into Salinas, California. My instructor Bill reached over and tapped the instrument, saying with a smile, "Is this thing broken?" Believe it or not, it was working perfectly and I was flying a beautiful approach. It was one of those vanishingly rare days when I was completely "in the zone"—detecting tiny deviations in vertical speed and heading and responding with micro-adjustments on the controls to compensate—and it felt effortless, just like breathing.
I've had that experience just a few times while flying, and it's awesome. As remarkable as it is, though, it's just an example of what I've come to call the observe-act-observe cycle. Actually, everyone is familiar with this idea even if they don't call it by that name. For example, when driving a car, we observe that the road ahead curves. We take an action by turning the steering wheel a certain amount. We observe whether we're turning at the right rate and adjust the wheel as necessary. We repeat the process until the car is following the right path. This process can be awkward, such as when we're driving an unfamiliar car, but when we're "in the zone," observation merges with action in one smooth, continuous flow that requires no thought or effort. It's beautiful.
And then there are other times.
"You better get back over to the left," Bill warned.
The localizer needle was at about half-scale deflection as I flew the ILS into San Luis Obispo, California. We were making the long IFR cross-country flight required for my instrument training. Try as I might, I could not stay on course. It didn't make any sense. Every time I fought my way back over to the localizer and resumed what I thought was a reasonable heading, I found myself off course again. I struggled all the way down until we finally made a circling approach to land.
"Why was that so hard?" I asked Bill once we were on the ground.
"You had a howling crosswind from the left," he answered. "You didn't seem to want to maintain the wind correction you needed to stay on course."
The terrain surrounding the localizer course at San Luis Obispo channels and amplifies the prevailing winds, making for very challenging approaches. Now I understood why Bill had smiled slightly when I suggested it as our first approach of the day. He knew I was in for a valuable lesson.
I realized that I'd brought to the situation the assumption that only a certain range of wind-correction headings were "reasonable." So, being unwilling to fly the "unreasonable" heading that was actually required, I kept getting blown off course. My assumption had blinded me to the evidence provided by the instruments. That's why it was so hard.
As different as these two ILS approaches were, my learning process at San Luis Obispo was also an example of the observe-act-observe cycle. I observed that I didn't understand a recent experience, so I took the action of analyzing it and asking for help. Bill's comment about my behavior cued me to observe a previously hidden assumption that was limiting my actions.
I've come to regard the observe-act-observe cycle as my single most powerful tool for maintaining the confidence I need to fly safely and well. In fact, I've found that when I'm having one of those "what the hell?" moments like my ILS into San Luis Obispo, there's usually a hidden assumption or belief behind it. That's my cue to ask some simple questions: What do I notice? What can I do? What are the results? This simple idea is at the heart of the book I'm writing, The Confident Pilot.
Focusing on the observe-act-observe cycle has another important benefit. I allows me to take events less personally and realize that they don't have to mean anything about me—even when the needles aren't perfectly centered.
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