Budd Davisson

Flight Training, August 2003

"When your head's in a funk, don't put your butt in an airplane."

Are you having a good day today? No? We’re sorry to hear that. Well, maybe it’s not too late to save it.

Whether we mean to or not, we all look at each day of our lives and assign a plus or negative sign to it. Even when we’re in the middle of it, we’ll pick our head up from the particular ditch our life says must be dug and alternately say, “This isn’t too bad,” or “Oh, man, how much more of this can I take?” The point is that very few of us live the same day two days in a row and almost none of us is the same person two days in a row. Between the pressures of life and our constantly varying personal characteristics, some days we can do no wrong and other days our brain is so screwed up we can’t find our backside with both hands. The vernacular short hand for that is: we’re having a good, or a bad, day.

Good and bad days don’t go away just because we close the cockpit door. Sometimes they do, but more often they hang right in there to haunt us. The really serious part about all of this is that we often don’t stop to think about what kind of shape we’re in, both physically and mentally, until the engine is running and we’re hurtling down the runway. When we’re in that situation, don’t you agree that it’s always better to have your head in the game?

Whether you’re mentally fit to fly or not isn’t necessarily a function of how much BS life has been handing you lately. Regardless of what’s been happening, the important question is how you handled the pressure. In other words, has a really bad day at the office, for instance, done semi-permanent brain damage that you’re going to bring with you into the cockpit or did you leave your problems in the parking lot?

For a lot of folks, flying an escape. You fire it up and in a matter of seconds all of your cares go away. You’ve left “that” life behind and are happily entering the one that really counts. But, that’s not always the way it works. In fact, it’s even more important for those folks who use an airplane as an emotional upper to recognize that flying can’t be guaranteed to set your mind straight. If flying lifted all of your emotional/mental burdens off your shoulders every single time, psychiatrists would try to outlaw airplanes because they would put shrinks out of business.

In broad terms, there are two aspects of life that can cause problems in the cockpit: pressures brought about by simply living life (office, financial, kids, marriage, ad nauseum) and the normal physiological ups and down we all go through day to day regardless of what else is going on. The world may be coming down around you, but because your mind is having one of those good days, you plow through it and come out tired but with your brain intact and cookin’. Conversely, you could be having a day, where absolutely nothing is going wrong, but because your brain is funky your thought processes and judgment are still below par. Obviously, the worse case scenarios are when the curves cross— in one day your check to the IRS bounced, your car was stolen, you got laid off AND on top of that, your brain was having an off day to begin with. Some days it’s better to just stay in bed.

The real fun is determining where your head is at before you commit to flying. This is important because you can make the decision not to fly at any time before the airplane leaves the ground. So, you have a huge period of time, beginning when you leave the house/office for the airport and ending when the airspeed reaches takeoff speed, to evaluate yourself and determine whether you really are ready for the cockpit.

Incidentally, don’t think that just because you’ve told yourself to go flying that you have to go. Many of us can point at times when we were actually in the cockpit with the engine running and we pulled the mixture and got out—something about the way we were handling things told us our thoughts were anywhere but in the cockpit.

Often we can predict when we’re going to be too distracted to fly because civilization has a nasty habit of becoming very uncivilized and the process is often quite obvious. In fact, because of the expense involved, those who can most easily afford to fly are also those who most often live lives that bear a close resemblance to a pressure cooker. Flying isn’t cheap and a job that generates a lot of money usually means it is a job loaded with built-in distractions.

We all know the tales about V-tailed Bonanzas and doctor/lawyers. This is a classic case of an airplane getting a bum rap primarily because of the way this particular buying population makes their living. It goes this way— Fact: Bonanzas are not difficult to fly. Fact: Bonanzas are among the most expensive single engine airplanes you can buy. Fact: that kind of discretionary income doesn’t come from bagging groceries. Fact: doctors/lawyers deal with a lot of highly emotional, financially important stuff on an hourly basis. Fact: their calendars are purposely kept full which means their brains are always clogged with important stuff. Conclusion: regardless of how good they are in the office/courtroom, they are often distracted by that life and can’t keep it out of the cockpit. Result: the Bonanza’s reputation pays for it. If they bought Mooneys, the Mooney would have the same rep. Also, doctors and lawyers aren’t the only people who fit that description. Look around and see how much your own career intrudes on your thought processes. You might be surprised.

One of the first clues that you’re likely to be too distracted to fly is having some major, life-altering event happen to you. The death of a loved one or the loss of a job, can do major, unseen damage, and it’s tempting to seek solace in the cockpit. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends very much on your ability to “compartmentalize.” Are you able to erect a wall between you and the emotions and thoughts that can cause you to loose focus? Better yet, how can you tell if you have breaches in your defense and bad stuff is leaking over into your flying?

Some of the best indications your performance is lacking can be seen before you leave the house/office. For instance, did you have a hard time finding your car keys because you absent-mindedly put them where they weren’t supposed to be? More important, did you just resign yourself to the search for them or did you get irritated, maybe even angry. A good indication you probably shouldn’t be flying is dropkicking your dog across the living room because you can’t find your keys.

Your entire performance prior to getting to the airport can easily be analyzed to show how you are likely to do once you get in the airplane. No big red warning flags will pop up (unless you actually did drop-kick your dog), but there will be subtle indications something is leeching some of your brainpower away. For instance, did you have to think a second before putting the car key in the ignition? Did you almost miss a stop sign? A sure indication your brain has gone bye-bye is missing the turn to the airport. And don’t tell us you haven’t done something similar. We’ve all looked up and suddenly realized we’re a block past where we’re supposed to be. Is that any condition to be in when you’re getting ready to fly?

Watch yourself when you get to the airport. Mentally separate your mind from your physical being and look at yourself from the outside as if you are someone else. Especially watch what you do with your hands when you get around the airplane. For instance, even though you’ve pre-flighted the airplane a thousand times, is there a slight hesitation while you try to decide what to do first?

If you pop the cowling, check the oil and then, after buttoning it up again, can’t remember whether you tightened the dip stick or not, maybe you’d better step back and take a deep breath. Sometimes we’ve done certain procedures so many times, e.g. checking the gas that our hands make the motions, but, if we’re distracted, we’re doing everything on autopilot and our brain isn’t attaching any importance to what we do: we pull the dip stick, it says 6 quarts, but we don’t ask ourselves whether that’s right or not. We stick the tank and a few seconds later; we can’t visualize where the fuel level actually sat.

If you find yourself thinking about financial problems, a love affair gone wrong, etc., while you’re supposed to be getting an airplane ready to fly, maybe this trip isn’t absolutely necessary. When you’re pre-flighting an airplane, you can’t afford a shift in focus. Being distracted while doing a pre-flight may not be as traumatic as thinking about your tax return while you’re on short final, but even on the ground, we need to do things right.

The most common indication your head may not be totally in the game is when you get in the cockpit. If you are a low-time pilot or new to this particular cockpit, it is to be expect that you have to spend a minute or so figuring out where everything is. If, however, you’ve been flying this airplane for some time and you have to force yourself to think of the next move, it’s not good. If during the run-up you find your hand on the mixture rather than the prop control, this also isn’t good. Keep an eye open for your hands starting to do something before your brain is engaged.

Any hesitation when you’re making a move that should be automatic and driven by a checklist is grounds to seriously evaluate yourself before taking off.

A good habit to get into, whether you’re high or low time, is to consciously work at preparing yourself to fly even before you leave home. The goal is to spend the entire trip to the airport thinking about nothing but the upcoming trip. Right from the minute you pet your dog good-by you should be mentally cleansing your mind and shifting your focus into av-mode.

The final mental check comes after you have pre-flighted the airplane and get strapped in. For just a second drop your hands into your lap, close your eyes and listen to yourself. Try to relax and just let your mind float. This should take only a few seconds during which you should be monitoring what thoughts are going through your mind at that moment. Ideally, every thought should have something to do with the airplane and this particular flight. If you try to think airplane but money, or girlfriends or something else keeps interrupting, it’s obvious you won’t be flying with all four burners lit.

The process of forcing your mind to focus on the airplane applies to students as much as it does to licensed pilots. Even though the student will have someone looking over his shoulder, it won’t always be that way. Besides, it’s damn difficult to listen to an instructor and correctly use his input when a billion outside influences keep vying for your attention.

A licensed pilot has already built up a level of experience that will, to a certain extent, help make up for less-than-perfect brain function. A student, however, is in the process of absorbing information and, if it’s absorbed wrong it can cause long-term difficulties. Also, the act of learning means the student has to try to put the instructor’s words into action and, if he or she is having a terrible time and keeps making mistakes it’ll breed frustration. The frustration of trying but continually failing is one of the worse things that can happen to a student. If you’re having one of “those” days and the instructor doesn’t see it, just tell him or her that your head isn’t into it and terminate the lesson. No reason to spend money and time doing something that is actually having a negative effect.

Regardless of what has generated a bad day, be it an external force or an internal black mood, there simply is no excuse to go flying with half a brain. If it’s not all there, call it a day. There will always be tomorrow.