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Habit

"Gas: fullest tank; undercarriage: down and locked; mixture: rich; prop: forward," I called out as I entered the pattern in my club's A36 Bonanza on a left 45 for runway 31 at Hollister airport, just 40 miles Southeast of my home airport of San Jose. Following my usual practice, I did this "GUMP" check twice more: once on base leg and again on final approach.

In last week's post I described how conscious planning is a great way to ward off compulsive worrying. Good habits are another. One of the most important goals of flight training is to instill good cockpit habits while minimizing the bad. We pilots rely quite heavily on habits, and that's a good thing. They free our conscious attention from the repetitive and mechanical tasks involved in flying, making it easier to maintain good situational awareness and plan our next steps.

According to Webster's Dictionary, one of the definitions of habit is, "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary." Because habits are involuntary, we don't have to think about them; they operate largely outside our conscious awareness. In instrument flight training, the first and most important skill that we learn is the instrument scan. At first, it requires conscious effort to scan the instruments effectively, but over time the scan becomes automatic. That's why it's so important to learn and practice a good scan—developing bad scan habits at this stage can make it much harder to learn to fly instruments well.

Often, when I've become aware of some aspect of my flying that isn't going well, the problem has been either a bad habit or a good habit that's not sufficiently ingrained. There were several times when I landed my club's Cessna 172, turned off the runway, and found that I forgot to pull the carburetor heat on before landing. This tended to happen only at towered airports, and I eventually figured out why it was happening—my checklist habit was to apply carb heat when turning downwind in the pattern. At towered fields, however, I was often given a base-leg or straight-in entry, so there was no downwind leg! My carb-heat habit wasn't triggered in this case, causing a potentially dangerous situation. In response, I consciously practiced a new habit until it became automatic: applying carb heat when reducing throttle below a certain level (and turning it off when applying full throttle, as for a go-around).

Having good and reliable habits in the cockpit and my pre- and post-flight activities brings peace of mind and contributes to a legitimate confidence in my abilities. In fact, when I become aware of some unease or anxiety, it often implies the need for developing a new habit. I've even come to apply this idea in my work and personal life. My twice-monthly habit of reviewing and paying bills, for example, lets me rest easy at night, confident that my bills were paid on time. At work, I maintain a mind-map diagram showing all the major projects I'm managing, with notes on status and next steps. Reviewing this diagram several times a day helps me feel confident that I'm focusing my attention appropriately and effectively.

As I crossed the threshold of the long runway at Hollister, I started rolling off the throttle and gradually raising the nose for landing. Soon I touched down gently and rolled out… on the wheels! Pilots of retractable-gear airplanes can never take this for granted—but good habits really improve our chances.

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