"You worked hard for that knowledge, now let's keep it from
pouring out through holes in your memory."
Budd Davisson ~ Flight Training
There is a mistaken idea that flying is a manual skill in which the hands and eyes are taught to work together to accomplish a given task. That's wrong. Flying isn't a manual skill at all. It's a mental skill and the role of the hands is to translate what the brain sees into reality. That's what makes learning to fly so difficult. We're trying to stuff new concepts, new understandings, new perceptions into a brain that's already stuffed with all the things necessary to live a normal life. The process of learning isn't easy. Much worse, a lot of what is stuffed in slowly disappears. It simply evaporates as if it was never there.
In simple terms: Everyones' brain leaks. Thoughts, information, skills, all believed to be firmly entrenched, simply slither down the brain drain never to be seen again. Unless, of course, some effort is made to plug the drain before the important stuff has a chance to disappear. Incidentally, a percentage of the learning is never lost, it is just hiding somewhere in the mental hard drive and we've forgotten what we named it.
Every form of educational activity has studied brain drain. It's a universal learning problem, but it seems more obvious, or maybe more critical, in learning to fly. This is probably because it's one thing to be unable to remember the date Caesar conquered Cleveland. It's something entirely different to forget how and when to flair for landing. The learning to fly brain drain works in three dimensions and is a lot more complicated than simply remembering facts and statistics.
All studies of brain drain arrive at essentially the same conclusions: Within an hour of walking out of the classroom or climbing out of the cockpit, a sizable chunk of what was learned has receded to the dark corners of your memory. It may still be there, but you can't recall it without something to jog it loose. By the next day, a similar amount is missing, some of it forever. Within a week or so, depending on the skill being learned and the individual, the loss rate will have leveled out. Things are still running down the drain, but at a slower rate. The more time between lessons, the more is lost.
The single most important factor in learning seems to be repetition with proper presentation running a close second. Do it over and over until it sticks. What frequent repetition does is repeatedly reload the brain. It's like shoveling sand into a leaking bucket. If it is periodically refilled before it's completely empty, each successive refilling takes less sand to fill it to the brim.
The real secret to keeping the bucket filled is to put sand in more often. The brain is exactly like that. Put knowledge in more often and there is less time for it to leak out. In other words: Fly more often and you forget less.
The ideal learning to fly situation is total immersion. You put your life on hold, check into your local flight training center and that's all you do. When not in the cockpit, you're in the books. That's the way the military has always done it. In a matter of months they took raw civilians off the street and made Mustang and B-17 pilots out of them. The process works.
In real life, total immersion doesn't work. It doesn't work because of two factors: First, most folks can't handle more than two, at the most three, lessons a day before fatigue turns their brain to silly putty. Second, this is real life, not the military. We have to live our own lives and schedule learning-to-fly around it.
The ideal, best-of-all-worlds, real-life situation would be to take one lesson a day. Here again, however, few people can do that.
The next ideal situation would be three times a week. More people can do that, but not many.
The absolute minimum should be once a week. Absolute minimum! At that rate, assuming no flights are canceled (a BIG assumption), you'd log 52 hours in a year. Since the national average for a pilots license is something like 64 hours, you'd be looking at 14 months to a license. Assuming a brain drain slippage of 25%, that puts the time period out to about 17 months. Assuming 20% of hops get canceled (we're being optimistic on that one), we're out to 20 months.
Looks discouraging doesn't it?
There's a secret here, however, Double up on the lessons, go to twice a week and you do more than cut the time in half because the brain drain percentage comes down. This makes the license period something like 9 months. Now we're talking!
Of course, not everyone can hit the airport twice a week. Some have a difficult time making it twice a month. If it's finances that keeps the scheduling spread out, then it is important you recognize two things: First, spreading out the schedule actually ends up costing much, much more and it might be wise to float a loan to support flight instruction. Second, just because you're not at the airport, or in the airplane doesn't mean you can't be learning and stopping the brain drain. There are lots of little tricks that don't cost a dime that can be used to bring the learning loss to nearly zero. We'll get at those in a minute.
Although we probably could have talked about commitment first, the foregoing discussion helps in the argument. What all learning-loss studies say about learning-to-fly is that you have to commit to the program. Learning to fly isn't something that happens only at the airport. It is an all-encompassing process that seeks to change your thought processes and add another dimension to your life. Actually it adds lots of dimensions and none of them should be taken lightly. This is not learning to improve your backhand or how to paint a more realistic bowl of fruit. Learning to fly is a serious endeavor in which the penalty for a lapse in learning can be painful, expensive and even fatal.
IF, you're going to learn to fly, make yourself a promise. Promise yourself that for the period of time during which you are taking flying lessons, you are going to do your best to push all other extraneous activities and thoughts out of your life. We're not asking you to stop living. We're just asking that you concentrate your entire being on the task at hand.
The result of recognizing and making the commitment is that you'll not only be a much better pilot much faster, but it will save lots and lots of money.
Do not confuse the plea for commitment for a bald-face statement which says you can't learn to fly if you don't fly at least twice a week. In fact, the less often you fly, the stronger your commitment must be to make up for brain drain. It is the once-a-month student who has to work the hardest and be the most committed. They are the ones who benefit most from brain drain tricks and procedures.
Fighting the Brain Drain: Useful Tricks
First of all, we're going to make the assumption that all efforts to fight brain drain are yours and not your instructor's. It's going to be up to you, the student, to stick a finger in your mental dike. The instructor can only stuff knowledge in. It's up to you to keep it there.
What we're going to give the student is a series of seemingly simple tips, procedures and hints that, if followed, will cut the brain drain tremendously. They should be followed even if taking instruction three times a week. If you're forced into a once a month schedule, you should see some of these as free replacements for flying lessons and make yourself do them once or twice a week. That'll be a part of your commitment which carries no price tag.
This is the best tip we're going to pass along. Follow this one, if no other.
There is no substitute for hearing your own voice asking a question and having it answered by your instructor. Unfortunately, students invariably hold back from asking questions. Worse yet, they often don't think about the question until having left the airport.
The in-cockpit questions brought up while the flight is in progress are super important. Unfortunately, for the first few lessons, students are often overwhelmed by the entire experience and can't frame their thoughts into questions. Sometimes this is a mind-set in which the student subordinates himself to the instructor and programs himself to listen and not talk.
Don't do that. Don't be in listen-only mode. Force yourself to be aware of things that don't make sense. Watch for words or phrases which mean nothing to you or actions that aren't thoroughly explained. No instructor is capable of clairvoyance. They will do their best to explain, but they can't know their words are falling on fallow ground if you don't tell them. Questions are an instructor's best clues as to the best way to approach a given student. Be sensitive to what you don't know or understand and ask the question right then. Don't wait. It'll disappear from your mind, if you do.
The most frustrating form of question is that which frames itself in your mind while you're driving away from the airport. Or in the shower. Or while eating dinner. Here too, the question will absolutely evaporate before you can get to your instructor to ask it. The solution is simple: write it down.
As instructors, we'd like to scream that loud and clear for all students to hear. IF YOU HAVE A QUESTION, WRITE IT DOWN SO YOU CAN ASK IT NEXT LESSON. It's frustrating to instructor and student, alike, to start a lesson with "...you know, I had this question yesterday, but I can't remember what it was..."
Part of your commitment should be to arm yourself to learn and part of that should be a simple little note pad or index card that will live in your pocket for the duration of your life as a student pilot. That, and a pen, will never, as in NEVER, be out of reach.
Coupled with the equipment for note taking must be an iron-clad resolve that no more than five seconds will elapse between the question forming itself in your mind and writing it down. That's why the note pad never leaves your pocket. If you think you can wait a few minutes until a more opportune time to write it down, you are wrong. Dead wrong! Wait that long and you can be absolutely guaranteed it will have fallen out of your head before you can commit it to paper.
Having both the note-taking equipment and the resolve to use it is a fiercely strong weapon against brain drain. Making up your mind to write down questions is also another way of saying you have challenged your mind to come up with questions. This means your mind is constantly working on the problems of learning to fly and that's what the entire process is about anyway.
If you can keep your mind in the cockpit, in any way possible, brain drain will be fought to a near stand-still.
Post Flight Briefing
Far too often instructors are pressed to get on to their next student and they short-change the post flight briefing. This is not good, and, as a student, you should fight it. Insist that the two of you sit in the airplane for a few minutes, you with note book and pencil in hand, and review the flight. Go over every aspect of it start to finish. This is another area where questions will pop into your mind. Maybe you meant to ask something part way through the flight but got distracted. The post flight briefing may bring it back to mind.
Part of the post flight briefing may have to be done in the class room at the black board or sectional. This is as it should be. However, when the instructor is done with you, which should take an absolute minimum of 10 to 15 minutes, you're going to go back out and sit in the airplane, if one is available.
We're going to come back to "mental simulators" time after time as it is free cockpit time and super valuable. In this case, you're going to sit in the airplane, the note book in your lap, and you're going to re-fly part of the flight in your mind. In so doing, it will further ingrain what was taught and is very likely to raise questions or comments you hadn't thought of before.
The final bit of post flight debriefing happens that night just before the lights are turned off for bed. Review your notes from that flight and let those thoughts be the last thing in your mind before going to sleep
Pre-Flight Self Briefing
Certainly one of the biggest mistakes students make is waiting until they climb into the cockpit to get their heads into the game. This is almost guaranteed to waste time in the airplane. Everyone has a certain amount of mental inertia and it takes time to spool-up. If this is done in the airplane, with the instructor, you're paying for your own warm-up period, which is silly.
Start putting your head into the cockpit even before leaving home. Push other thoughts out of your mind and, during the drive out, begin conditioning your mind for airplanes and learning.
Always plan on arriving at the airport at least forty-five minutes ahead of time. This not only gives your brain a chance to change gears from the "normal" world, but allows some private time to do your own pre-flight briefing.
Here, again, we're going to log free cockpit time and do mental simulations. Flight schools never charge for someone just sitting in their airplanes. Yet, that is one of the most valuable training aids they have. You should make liberal use of it before each flight.
Climb into the airplane and do exactly what you did during the last post-flight self-briefing: run through the flight in your mind with your notebook close at hand. Close your eyes and see yourself flying patterns or doing stalls, or what ever it was that was part of the last lesson plan. Move the controls, picture the horizon moving. Think about the sounds and the way your body felt as the airplane moved.
Chances are, since the last time you were in the cockpit, you've jotted down a few questions or comments. Look a them while sitting in the airplane. They may kick off yet other questions.
When you get out of the airplane to go meet your instructor, have all your questions lined up and ready to go. Don't let your instructor get into his briefing for this flight until you've had a chance to ask questions about the last one. If you keep doing this, pretty soon you'll have your instructor conditioned and he'll be ready for you. Part of his pre-flight briefing for a flight should include a review of the last lesson anyway, so your questions will just help that along.
Watching is Cheap
Being able to visualize what you're trying to accomplish is often half the game. That being the case, plan on spending a lot of time sitting at the end of the runway in your car watching airplanes land. Start noticing the subtle changes in the way the good guys break the glide and work at putting the airplane on main gear first. Learn to appreciate the difference between those who are obviously doing it right and those who are just doing it. By having those images in your mind, you'll have less problem visualizing what it is you're trying to accomplish when it comes to fine-tuning your own landings.
Brain Drain Notes for the Financially Challenged
We hope those whose financial situations limit them to one or two flights a month picked up on our liberal mention of cockpit time as being free. We'll repeat that: FREE! Do not underestimate the value of sitting in the cockpit daydreaming. Actually, you could be sitting in the cockpit just reading a comic book and it would do you a lot of good. By just "being" in the cockpit, the environment imprints itself on your mind and that part of the learning curve doesn't have to be constantly re-climbed. Also, just sitting there paints and re-paints a clear image of the airplane's attitude while sitting on the ground. This eliminates the problem of having to re-learn where the ground is each time. Also, the extra hours spend just being part of the airport crowd leaves you with that intangible knowledge that comes only with being around other's who fly. Don't under-estimate the value of that second-hand knowledge. Don't over-estimate the accuracy of it.
There are lots and lots of other ways to combat brain drain but they are all aimed at the same thing; keeping your head connected with the process of learning. Once you've made up your mind that this is what you want to do, then do it. Don't dip a toe in once in a while and then wonder why it isn't taking. Being a pilot means actually "being" a pilot. It is a state of mind. A new world that overlays your existing world. That kind of thing doesn't come easily, but it can at least be helped along by doing everything possible to keep the sand from running out of your mental bucket. BD