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Flight School Companion: The Pilot Mentality

written by: Andrew Jones•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 5/31/2011

Throughout flight training, students gradually learn how to think like a pilot. They learn this skill from the tasks set before them, and from the instructor's example. Unfortunately, the "pilot mentality" is rarely covered during training as an independent subject. Read on for student pilot tips.

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    Flying Habits

    Flight instructors generally place a lot of emphasis on good habit forming. As we learn the skills of flying an airplane, we are taught to be as consistent as possible in the way we do things. For example, we are taught to do the preflight checks in the same order every time. Even though the order might not make any difference from a technical point of view, consistency makes it less likely that we will forget a step.

    While we are also taught to always use checklists, the way we are taught to use them is to first execute the required procedure from memory, and then to use the checklist to double check that it was accomplish correctly. While we might tend to be more spontaneous in other aspects of our lives, a more rigid approach is generally encouraged in the cockpit.

    Pilots are taught to be obsessive about planning and to generally resist the temptation to deviate from a plan without a good reason. Good reasons might include changing weather, instructions from Air Traffic Control, or a problem of some kind on board the airplane.

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    Multi-tasking in the Cockpit

    The cockpit is a busy place. A competent pilot is expected to be able to simultaneously and consistently control airspeed, altitude, and the direction of travel, while at the same time communicating with controllers over the radio, performing navigation duties, and scanning out the window for other aircraft in the area.

    It is no wonder that student pilots are often overwhelmed in the beginning by the amount of multitasking that must be done, and also by the amount of information from different sources that they must process. A particularly common problem for many students is a tendency to focus on one instrument, for example the altimeter, while losing track of another instrument, say airspeed indicator. Another example is the student who tends to keep his eyes inside the plane scanning the instrument panel, and neglecting to look out the widow.

    Problems like these are quite natural, but they must be overcome. Most instructors are trained to instantly notice when a students eyes stop moving, and are quick to bring it to the student's attention each and every time it happens.

    To help students master this skill, flight Instructors teach students to establish a systematic scan, which involves panning the eyes from one side of the cockpit to the other in a set pattern. This forces the eyes to survey all the necessary items without spending too much time looking in any one place.

    It may help students to realize that they do the same thing to a lesser scale when driving a car, where one also must constantly shift attention between the front window, the mirror, and the speedometer. It becomes easier over time, as the student learns to control the airplane more precisely.

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    Emotional Distance

    Flying is a highly demanding activity, in which there is often very little room for error. Your life and the lives of your passengers depend upon your ability to cope with situations that, on occasion, can be extremely stressful. It requires that you compartmentalize your emotions and focus on the task at hand. Therefore, it is necessary that a pilot at the same time be unusually self-aware, know his/her limits, recognize when they are too tired to fly, and when they are seriously distracted by personal matters.

    Some pilots go so far as to consciously force themselves to adopt a different attitude and personality as soon as they set foot in the airport. However, each pilot must find his/her own way of maintaining emotional distance while in the cockpit.

    If you know that you have a short temper or a tendency to panic under pressure, then you need to take this especially seriously to address your issues in one way or another.

    Most instructors have a very low tolerance for emotional outbursts from students. Be aware of this as you learn to fly, and stay cool. Learning to fly can be a tremendous confidence building experience, as well as a lot of fun. The overwhelming feeling of the first few lessons will pass quickly for beginner pilots as they gain piloting experience.