Flying and concentration

When I was up practicing holds today, I realized something important: it’s not concentration, but lack of concentration that makes a good pilot.

Sure, on the ground concentration can be a good thing: you check weather and NOTAMs, plan your flight, preflight the plane, etc. giving your full concentration to each task, one after the other. But once you’re in the air, concentration is the last thing you want.

Hollywood wants us to think of pilots as alpha-wolf masters of concentration, flying the plane by sheer will power, but that doesn’t have much to do with being in a real cockpit during a real flight. Remember that wierd kid in your elementary school choir who could never focus on the song or conductor, but was always glancing up at the ceiling, down at the floor, at the kids beside him/her, at the door, out the window, etc.? That’s a future pilot.

The thing is, when you’re flying, there are lots of things happening at once, and every one seems to need your attention all the time. You simply can’t focus on a single task and finish it. Concentrating on tuning the radio? Guess what, your altitude just changed by 200 ft. Trying to get the gyro compass set correctly? Looks like you just blew through your next checkpoint. Trying to figure out where you are on the map? Maybe you should recover from this incipient spiral, first. It’s like driving a car, but with more speed, (sometimes) nothing visible out the window, and an extra dimension and two extra axes of rotation thrown in.

When a plane has two pilots, I imagine that they can divide up the work to some extent so that one can concentrate on something while the other flies, and certainly, an autopilot can help a lot, but I imagine that even on the flight deck of the most sophisticated airliner pilots have to keep their focus moving, all the time.

When you go to the other end of the spectrum — say, a private pilot (like me) flying single-pilot IFR in turbulence with no autopilot — it’s all about lack of concentration. Need to retune the radio? I can’t just look at the dial and keep turning until the right frequency, or the turbulence will have knocked me 20 degrees off course. Instead, I turn it two or three numbers, then back to the AI, ASI, AI, HI, TC, ALT, AI, turn it two or three numbers then back to the AI, ASI, AI, HI, TC, ALT, AI, check the oil pressure and temperature then back to the AI, ASI, AI, HI, TC, ALT, AI, turn the radio dial two or three numbers then back to the AI, ASI, AI, HI, TC, ALT, AI — that’s not necessarily the exact order of my scan, but you get the picture. If I have to look up an approach plate or a frequency in the CFS, it’s the same thing: two or three page turns at once, then back to the scan, then two or three more page turns, etc.

I once did 9 hours of that in a single day in IMC for a Hope Air flight, and I wanted to sleep for a week afterwards. I don’t know how commercial pilots like Aviatrix can do it day after day (I know she often flies without an autopilot, too).

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About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
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3 Responses to Flying and concentration

  1. John C says:

    So true! How incredible that I came across your post today, and thank you for reaffirmation and encouragement. I was practicing holds, procedure turns and approaches today and was having trouble staying un-concentrated. It really is imperative to do so and I’ve become less vigilant about my scan over the past two weeks. I’ll get that fixed before my instrument check- and before I get out there with no instructor to remind me. Thanks!

  2. viennatech says:

    David, you should have called. I could have at least dialed in a radio for ya, saving you that 0.00004% of bandwidth! What are friends for? :) Seriously though, glad to hear you managed to get up there. I somehow managed to lose my 30 day currency. Gotta get back at it!

  3. Pingback: Its the lack of concentration that counts | Golf Hotel Whiskey

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