Sunday, October 31, 2010

Who’s upset? The blogger gets an upside down view of decision making.

Gil Monti Chief pilot at ATCA in Phoenix before our flight
     After days of flying with novice pilots, I should have felt completely confident with Gil Monti at the controls of the Beech Bonanza on Friday afternoon. So why was I saying my prayers double-time as we took off from Phoenix Goodyear Airport? Well for starters, both of us were wearing parachutes. 
     Second, Gil had given me graphic instructions about what I was supposed to do once we encountered 2 to 4 times gravity, so that I didn’t lose consciousness during the flight.
     Welcome ladies and gentlemen to my nightmare, uh, my first acrobatic flight.
     Though it was a blast, this flight was not for fun. It was a legitimate part of my observation of the pilot training at the Airline Training Center Phoenix, where Lufthansa German Airlines sends its pilot candidates to teach them how to fly. Before graduation from this school, the students must show they are able to respond appropriately to unusual attitudes and stalls. 
     Illustration of the need for this can be seen most recently in the crash of Colgan Airlines Flight 3407. This disaster occurred on February 12, 2009 when the captain of the plane responded inappropriately to a stall warning on approach to the airport in Buffalo
Ben Liebhaber with students Jakob Auracher & Eric Sammet
     As with all air accidents, a variety of factors contributed, but the event pointed out once again the need for pilots to be familiar with the kinds of changes that threaten flight so that they can respond instinctively and correctly. 
     “The control input that’s required has to be automatic,” Gil told me. “You can’t be thinking about what I’ve got to do with the controls. From practice that becomes routine.”
     What struck me during my time at flight school was how airline pilots are trained to have two nearly opposite behaviors; The instinctive muscle-memory response that is immediate, and the deliberative response in which making a decision is many steps down a path of observation, analysis and assessment.
     Now how this relates to becoming a better person was abundantly clear to me even before Gil took me on the upset training flight.
Katharina Spilles and instructor Roberto Acevedo
     I have been known to act impulsively, to reach decisions without proper forethought. What my stint at ATCA showed me is that making bad decisions isn't something I'm stuck with like not being as tall as want or having my father's nose. I watched and learned along with the students at ATCA, who were being taught how to make better decisions.  
     Aviation practically pioneered the study of decision making and the FAA’s Pilot Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge devotes an entire chapter to the subject.
     In its guidance to pilots the FAA found that in many situations “there is usually time during a flight to analyze any changes that occur, gather information and assess risk before reaching a decision.” 
     The pilots at ATCA are trained to use a mental process called FORDEC which helps them remember to gather facts consider options and risks, make a decision and execute it. The handy acronym is a reminder that decision making isn’t an isolated verb but an ongoing cycle of actions, mental and physical.
     During the brief moments when we were flying straight and level at five-thousand feet, Gil and I talked about this. But then he’d do something and the next thing I knew, I saw the mountains through the glare shield and they were up and the blue sky was down and I was noticing how my cheeks felt like they were trying crawl across my face and join my ears on the side of my head.
Acrobatic pilot Gil Monti on an upset recovery training flight
     Then Gil would point the nose of that airplane skywards and we’d make a head over tail vertical loop and I’d wonder, “Had I practiced good decision making before boarding this airplane?” You be the judge, but first, consider this.
     Life sometimes sends along the unexpected when a quick and practiced response is required. But more often, deliberate decision making, aeronautical-style seems like the wisest course of action.

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