Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Flying Lessons - In Which the Blogger Attends Flight School - Episode One

Lufthansa student pilot Katharina Spilles
practices in the flight simulator

A half dozen beaming faces greeted me as I entered the dormitory at Lufthansa’s flight school at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona last night. This was a warm welcome from these heart-breakingly young student pilots.
Now that I'm on the scene consider what they will have to put up with. A woman old enough to be their mother will now be hangin’ with them in the student lounge, peering over their shoulders in the simulator, and saying a fervent prayer as I join them in the school's single-engine Bonanzas. Them bein’ pilots and all, I’m not expecting to have to tell any of them to pipe down upon returning to quarters at three in the morning after a late night of carousing but who knows?
The most gracious welcome though, has to be from Lufthansa German Airlines, the carrier that has agreed to let me spend time here, learning how their pilots are selected and trained as part of the new book I’m writing, FLYING LESSONS.
Loyal readers, you know I’ve been touting the idea that aviation is so far advanced in its understanding of human factors, that many concepts could be used to improve how people perform in other industries. And it seems to me even more important in these days of distraction as everyone juggles more and more streams of information on a myriad of devices.
Over dinner in the academy cafeteria last night with Matthias Kippenberg, president of the Airline Training Center Arizona, we talked about the swell of digital interruptions and the different ways we deal with them.
When he is in the middle of a project, Matthias, a former Lufthansa captain and himself a graduate of the training center says does not stop to take a phone call, or open a newly arrived email.These things can wait as he concentrates on the work at hand.
By contrast, my behavior is more like Alice in Wonderland’s trip down the rabbit hole, as I repeatedly interrupt work on writing assignments to check my email, conduct Google searches, consult my to-do list, and take phone calls. I’m not alone. I see this kind of behavior all over the place, drivers on the phone, movie goers sending text messages. Heck, at my son’s school, students are allowed to listen to their iPods while taking tests.
Is this a problem? I suspect it is. Is complaining about it worthwhile? It isn't. It is what it is.
Which takes me back to the disciplined Capt. Kippenberg. Training and practice have instilled in him a habit of sustained focus in spite of the fact that the typical airplane cockpit is awash in distractions.
In hiring student pilots, Lufthansa looks for applicants who have an ability to multi-task. Workflow management, whatever you call it,  it all adds up to the same thing, performance depends on the ability to triage multiple streams of information setting aside the peripheral and ignoring the irrelevant.
Gathered with a group of five young men in the common area of the dorm Tuesday night, I learned something that gave this easily-distracted matron new hope. These kids are special, sure. But they weren't necessarily born that way. A number said they rely on newly-learned techniques that help them manage incoming information.
Well that means I can learn it too.
So while I may not leave here with the ability to fly solo on any of the little planes with the fetching blue and orange livery, I'm already getting useful life lessons at flight school.


David Pardo said...

"you know I’ve been touting the idea that aviation is so far advanced in its understanding of human factors, that many concepts could be used to improve how people perform in other industries."

This is very true. One thing that's constantly drilled into you as a student pilot is Always Have A Plan B.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Christine:

You are such a tease! The title of this post had me fooled. I still think you need to wrap yourself in a real airplane and fly!

Ah well, someday...

A thought, tho', on your FLYING LESSONS topic. There is a great deal of aviation lore, wisdom and lessons-learned encapsulated in those little adages that all pilots carry around in their heads. You know, like "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate - in that order," and "The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire," and "It's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than the other way round." Some of them seem a bit glib but they're full of really important nuggets of truth.

My question is, are we pilots unusual in packing so much received wisdom into these little informational parcels? Or does every profession have a similar accumulation? Maybe you could check with your favorite lawyer, surgeon, or nuclear reactor operator. If we are unique...well, we shouldn't be.

Warm regards,


Airline Pilots said...

Hi Christine,

There was a time long ago, when all of us had a dream, probably like these student pilots. Whether we came through the military ranks or general aviation ranks, we all had a dream.

Unfortunately, times have changed, we fly the B-777s, B-747s, A340s and a countless of different jets but "Living the Dream" has become endless furloughs, starting over at poverty wages through collective bargaining, endless salary concessions and countless BS with the TSA on a daily basis.

Would we do it again to be airline pilots? Probably not. Would I tell my kids to become an airline pilot... "Never".

Yet, they keep coming and coming. Only to find out that being an airline pilot isn't all it's cut out to be. But it's nice to dream!

The Airline Pilots at

Unknown said...

That would have been really cool if you had gotten the chance to be trained for flying helicopters or planes. I know that I really would love to soar in one of those, but we'll see if I ever get the chance.

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