Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot, April, 2000


Beware: Comfort Zone Ahead

The other day I had a really weird, seemingly inconsequential, thing happen that taught me something about students, the learning process and life in general.

I was flying a young couple and flew the woman first. After her flight, I was in the process of reconfiguring the cockpit cushions and, without thinking, tossed the inch-thick, rigid foam back-spacer into the back seat intending to put it in the storage rack before I flew. Without looking, I dropped the wedge-shaped parachute in place without realizing the spacer was behind it. The 'chute moves me two inches further forward than my normal position when flying the pattern (which is what I'm usually doing) but the spacer pushed me yet another inch closer to the panel.

As I was taxiing out, I knew something was wrong. With thousands of hours in the same cockpit, the one inch spacer was just too much. Everything in the cockpit was wrong. Switches weren't where they should be, I had to fumble to get the mixture control. My hand position with the stick full back wasn't right. It was as if I was in a totally new cockpit, one of the dangers of becoming too airplane-specific. At the same time, however, it opened my eyes and gave me a suddenly increased insight into how my students must feel the first time they get in the airplane. I had been pushed out of my carefully constructed comfort zone into the strange-zone which is where every student finds themselves at the beginning.

It was a miserable flight. Nothing about it was right. I kept thinking, this wasn't the airplane I knew and loved. These weren't the maneuvers I could fly in my sleep. And did I just skipped it off the mains on landing? I never do that! Never! Wow! My students really do have it rough!

I've thought about that hop a lot because, among other things, it embarrasses me to think that such a minor change could be so discombobulating. I fly dozens of different types of airplane a year. My total type-count is over 250 and climbing. How could a lousy little one inch spacer so screw me up? The explanation was simple: I had been pushed out of a comfort zone that was so cast in concrete that I could handle the weirdness of completely new airplanes but I couldn't tolerate a subtle change in my own, carefully controlled environment. It was like when my in-laws' unruly dog was disrupting life around our house over the holidays; part of my tidy little world was being messed up and I didn't like it. I was becoming a crotchety, set-in-his-ways, old codger well before my time. Whoa! When did this start happening?

There's a perception that when we get older, we lose our ability to see and do things differently and become set in our ways. What's actually happening, however, is that after you've done a lot of things a lot of different ways, you eventually find a behavior-set that fits you. You start doing things basically the same way because it is convenient. Because it fits your way of life. And because we're too damn lazy to look around to see if this is actually the best way to do something. Worse than becoming creatures of habit, we become creatures who are defined by those habits. Our comfort zone is so deep, it would take a pound of C-4 to blast us out of it. In my case, however, a one inch foam spacer did the trick.

Comfort zones can be an intellectual anesthetic. They can also be a narcotic, addicting you and making it difficult to kick old habits and adapt to change. However, there's an old cliché' that says, "If you keep doing what you've been doing, you're going to keep getting what you've been getting." If you're happy with that and will be happy for the rest of your life, then go for it. Nothing wrong with that. But, not me.

Comfort zones, like so many of life's rules, are mean to be, if not broken, at least stretched or mildly fractured. This is true for all of us. So, do yourself a favor. If you're not already doing it, pick some sort of challenge you'd been putting off as being just a bit too much of a stretch and do it. Get a multi-engine rating, do some akro, take up scuba diving or blackpowder shooting. Join the local theater group. Learn a rap song (no, forget I said that). Do something that is totally outside your comfort zone. It'll pay you back by knocking years off your way of thinking and will get the juices flowing again. Life was never meant to be overly comfortable. Life is meant to be lived and every minute you sit watching it drift by the windows of your comfort zone is a minute forever gone. BD