“In instrument training, if you’re not doing something, you’re missing something,” Chris said.
Chris was my new instructor, assigned to me for my instrument training. I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, until one quiet night we were flying along, and the instructions from the air traffic controller, who called out numbers like an auctioneer, punctured the silence in my headset:
“Maintain 2,000 feet until crossing the VOR, then, proceeding outbound, descend and maintain 1,700 feet, report your procedure turn inbound, and cleared for the VOR 36 at Ocala. Switch to Ocala’s tower at 119.25. Goodnight.”
I didn’t even have my approach plate out yet, so naturally—or frantically—my head turned to Chris, in a glance that all instructors recognize as a “please help” wince from an unprepared student.
Sure enough, he tried to explain this to me on the ground, and I clearly passed it off as nothing.
Later, during our debrief, Chris suggested that if I wanted to stay ahead of the airplane during our flights, I should talk to myself. There was no time for me to be Charlie Chaplin. I knew what he meant. In another instance when I flew with another instructor during my private pilot training, we got caught out in bad weather, and the instructor correctly opted to do an instrument approach back in. Each step of the way, she spoke out loud, reciting steps ahead of what she anticipated from ATC, and how she would react.
“Remember to put flaps 10 … now when the flaps go in, anticipate the balloon…okay, nose forward … roll the trim … nice and easy…”
I found this amusing at first, but then I realized that along the entire way, she was ahead of the airplane. She knew what was coming and anticipated all the changes that were to happen, inside the airplane, as well as directions from ATC, ensuring the airplane was configured for the next phase of flight.
My uninitiated brain couldn’t comprehend how she was doing this, but I saw that it worked, reassuring me that what Chris meant by talking to myself wasn’t a psychiatric experiment or Shakespearean soliloquy.
But why does it work?
The Routine ATC System
As complicated as it may seem—especially when it’s busy—the ATC system might be one of the most comprehensive and well-thought-out traffic networks across all modes of transportation. It follows a structured and logical framework that simply works.
If you grasp the layout well, you generally know what you’re going to get. Based on the phase of flight you’re in, there should be little to no surprise unless someone else gets out of line.
Therefore, the work that pilots do on their end is designed to complement the work that ATC has to do on its end, which makes the whole experience either incredibly routined or something to ooh and ahh at like synchronized swimming.
Known Performance Profiles
One of the fundamental principles of flying, especially by instruments, is that there are “known pitch and power settings.” Put another way, “the right inputs guarantee the right results.” This means that there’s also less room for guessing on how an airplane should perform in certain situations or configuration changes.
When you put these two things together, the whole event of flying becomes a standard exercise.
The Art and Science of Self-Talk
In the initial stages of learning to fly, or even learning a new airplane, the brain has a lot of work to do to familiarize itself with this new environment, such as learning checklists or steps in a maneuver. Until it becomes muscle memory, like driving a car, our brains have to encode new information to their working memory.
Talking aloud to yourself is a form of psychological distancing that allows you to guide yourself through this process, like giving advice to a friend. Beyond aviation, psychologists Gary Lupyan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel Swingley of the University of Pennsylvania outlined the cognitive benefits of talking to yourself in their 2011 study on “Self-Directed Speech.”
They reasoned that “self-talk” encouraged our abilities as human beings to stay on task, stay focused, improve perception, and recall items. There is an objective perspective we gain when we talk to ourselves.
There’s more to the science (e.g. instructional talk, i.e. “Do this,” versus motivational “You can do this!”), but simply put, the more you talk, the more natural new tasks become, like thinking and breathing.
We Need to Talk
Going back to Chris, I took his words to heart, and because I now understood that the ATC system was standard, and I also knew the configurations my airplane needed to be in for each phase, I could confidently “chair fly” my next flight at home.
I promised to be prepared for the next flight. I sat in front of my poster and went through the mental exercise of flying the whole flight on the ground, playing both ATC and myself, being sure not to skip steps.
The more I practiced out loud, the more I understood what was going on, and it made the rest of my training a more enjoyable experience. In fact, This framework of talking has followed me as I moved to more complex airplanes, and missions because it forces me to be specific and methodical about the next steps. Now, when I fly with a new student, I have them rehearse, out loud, the steps they’re going to do for a maneuver before we do them, and the only thing I have to say is, “And what else?”
Plus, there are a lot fewer surprises, or room for startle when things go wrong.
Michael Wildes is an aviation professional with an appreciation for all things aviation, media, business, and philanthropy. A 2016 Embry-Riddle graduate, Wildes has his bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, and currently works at the university’s flight department as a flight check airman. He’s also served as an assistant training manager and quality assurance mentor. He holds MEI, CFI, and CFII ratings. You can e-mail Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org