"What's your reference heading?" my instructor Bill asked. I was weaving drunkenly back and forth across the localizer beam and porpoising all over the glide slope in my attempt fly an ILS approach into Stockton airport in California's Central Valley.
"Um—oh, I don't know!" I said with exasperation.
I was really struggling, noticing excursions from my desired course and glide path too late, reacting too much, and overshooting repeatedly. After the flight, having worked my whole adult life in a corporate environment, I recognized what I'd been doing on that ILS. It's called "micro-management!" If you've ever worked for a boss who constantly second-guessed your work, spent most of his time with you giving excruciatingly detailed instructions, and never allowed you any creativity or initiative, you know how ineffective, inefficient, and downright maddening this behavior can be.
And yet we often do it to ourselves without even realizing it! That's exactly what I was doing that day as I jerked and wiggled my way down the ILS. Hunched over the yoke and staring intently at the instruments until my head hurt, I was trying to consciously direct my body's every movement to bend the airplane's path to my will.
It didn't work very well.
Why not? Because that's not what the conscious mind is good at. It's good at focusing on one high-order concept at a time. It's lousy at focusing on a flood of sensory input and directing the entire body to respond in a certain way. In the beginning of our training, we have to focus consciously on physical actions like aircraft control and scanning the instruments because our brain stem doesn't yet know how to do these things automatically. One of the main goals of training is to give the brain stem the experience it needs to do them—and to give our conscious mind confidence in this set of abilities.
Over time, we naturally move from micro- to macro-management. As a manager in a business, if I make sure that my employees have the right training and skills for their jobs, and I clearly communicate to them what I want them to accomplish, I can trust them to figure out how to accomplish it. As a long-time manager myself, having practiced both micro- and macro-management over the years, I can confirm that the latter works much better—for all involved!
Similarly, if I train well in an airplane, I can trust my brain stem to handle the physical part of flying on its own, just as I trust a skilled employee to know her job and do it better than I can. As my instrument training progressed and I gained experience, I found those ILSs getting smoother the less I had to think consciously about aircraft control. As my brain stem got the hang of holding headings, altitudes, bank angles, airspeeds and descent rates, I could focus my attention on the traffic around me, the condition of the runway, my plan for a missed approach—all the high-level planning tasks that only the cerebral cortex can do.
As we coasted down the ILS into Salinas a few months later, the needles were perfectly centered, as I subconsciously responded to subtle little excursions from my desired path before they became noticeable to an observer—in this case Bill—or even to my own conscious mind.
Bill reached over and tapped the course deviation indicator and chuckled, "Is this thing broken? It's not moving!"
I smiled and thought ahead to my upcoming missed approach as I kept up my habitual scan of the instruments. What a difference a little macro-management makes!
Filed under Pilot by