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How Do I Do That?

One afternoon after a particularly enjoyable local glider flight I was sitting in the FBO's office with Jim, the gliderport's owner, during one of his rare, brief respites from work. Not content to let the man rest, I asked him about something I'd been struggling with: centering thermals.

I'd noticed that the experienced pilots, especially those who did competition flying, seemed able to find the strong central core of a thermal quickly and climb faster than newbies like me. I'd been taught that the indications on the variometer, the main instrument used for detecting lift, had a lag of several seconds, so the part of a thermalling turn that showed the highest variometer reading was actually quite a bit past the strongest part of the thermal. I'd learned about timing the lag and inferring how many degrees behind me the core really was, but I found in practice it often seemed more complicated than that. I asked Jim how he did it.

"Let's see, how do I do that?" he asked himself aloud. It was clear that centering thermals had become so natural for him that he hadn't thought consciously about the technique in a long time. "You just develop a feeling for it," he said finally. "In the heat of competition, you don't have time to think about it."

I've since realized that many of the skills involved in flying work this way. Take crosswind landings, for example. When I was first learning, I really had to think about what I was doing. "The wind's from the left, so I need left aileron and right rudder." But as I gained experience, I developed "muscle memory" (or more accurately "brain-stem memory") for the technique and I no longer had to think about it. Nowadays I unconsciously and automatically correct for drift with the ailerons and point the nose with the rudder.

One of the main advantages of this wisdom beyond conscious thought is that it frees the mind to direct attention elsewhere. When flying gliders, for example, there's a lot to pay attention to: the location of other traffic, your altitude and gliding range, telltale signs that indicate where to find lift, how soaring conditions are developing, possible off-field landing areas—the list goes on. If you had to think about how to center a thermal while paying attention to all that you'd have an unmanageable workload.

Over time I've come to trust the process of developing this kind of subconscious wisdom, but early in my training, I often found it discouraging when I couldn't consciously juggle everything at once. When learning a new skill I might despair that it would take forever to get the hang of it. But looking back, I'm amazed at how quickly those skills actually developed. Usually, it took just a few hours, or even minutes, to commit to "brain-stem memory" a completely new skill such as forward slips or steep turns.

So what's the best way to develop this wisdom beyond conscious thought? In my experience, it's all about attention, trust, and persistence. As I begin training in earnest for a new certificate, these will be my watchwords.

This is going to be fun!

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