A Pilot’s Brain Can Play Mind Games

When the impulsive part of our brain endeavors to take over from the deliberative and more thoughtful part, it can lead to incredibly bad decisions. Pixabay

What does it mean to gain experience as a pilot? Some say it’s about “filling the experience bucket before you empty the luck bucket.”

There’s a lot of truth to that old saw, but becoming a safe pilot surely means more than just racking up hours. After all, 10,000-hour ATPs are not immune to having accidents.

Some authors have even argued that increasing flight experience might lead to more accidents — at least until pilots reach about 1,000 hours. This so-called “killing zone” traps pilots who have enough experience to be confident but not enough experience to be truly safe.

Like many pilots, I spent some time in that zone, trying to balance my improving skills and my occasional complacency. A wise flight instructor helped me immensely one day when he suggested that becoming a safe pilot had more to do with learning how to think than learning how to fly. He had a point. While I could easily manage a crosswind landing to a short runway, I struggled with mental tasks: making the go/no-go decision, planning the right fuel load or simply staying ahead of the airplane. Some things seemed so automatic, but others were as challenging at 200 hours as they were at 20 hours.

About 15 years later, I read Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and suddenly, the struggle made sense. Kahneman describes the two contradictory ways the human brain works: "System 1" is fast-moving and emotional, while "System 2" is more deliberative and thoughtful. System 1 causes us to swerve the car when we see oncoming lights; System 2 takes over when we're faced with a difficult math problem. While System 2 often makes better decisions, it doesn't contribute unless we actively engage our critical-thinking skills.

That dichotomy accurately describes the mind of a student pilot. When we are starting out, we can’t help but use System 2 because everything is new and everything takes effort. Even keeping the airplane on the centerline as we taxi requires concentration and focus, which is why a one-hour lesson can be so exhausting. Eventually, though, things become more automatic and we can take on additional workload, perhaps talking on the radio and turning the airplane at the same time. By this point, System 1 is doing more and more work and flying starts to feel easier.

In essence, primary flight training is all about this process of teaching our System 1 brain to fly, developing habits along the way so that it has the ability to move the controls instinctively. This is hardly a bad thing; in fact, it’s impossible to imagine flying single-pilot IFR without System 1 taking on a huge workload.

But this isn’t the end of the story. As the theory about the killing zone suggests, we aren’t home free when we pass a certain number of hours and System 1 is all trained up. The second phase of becoming a proficient pilot involves training System 2 to wake up and watch System 1, which is easier said than done.

Go back to that single-pilot IFR flight. Your eyes will probably move from instrument to instrument automatically while your hand makes tiny adjustments to keep the airplane descending smoothly on the arrival. When you notice the airspeed is about 15 knots too fast for a normal descent, System 1 might very well jump to the conclusion that you need to reduce power — simple, satisfying and potentially wrong.

One effective way to combat this sloppy thinking is to consider the opposite scenario. You might think it’s crazy, but force yourself to play devil’s advocate: What if the problem isn’t with your power setting? The simple act of asking the question might not solve the problem, but it will probably jolt System 2 into action and bring a more rigorous approach to your troubleshooting process. If it’s not the engine, could it be a clogged static port?

Another good strategy is to ask for advice from someone else, whether it’s a copilot, an air traffic controller or a friend. The point is not necessarily that someone else will have a better answer, but rather that the mere act of getting an outside perspective can help you think more logically. I find this particularly helpful when dealing with difficult weather decisions, when emotion often comes into play. Just be careful not to offload the pilot-in-command duties onto another person.

Making a go/no-go decision is especially hard because we often fall victim to a mental trap: motivated reasoning. This describes a situation when we have a desired outcome in mind, so instead of impartially evaluating the evidence we simply mold facts to support that outcome. Motivated reasoning leads to incredibly bad thinking, which you know if you’ve ever discussed politics with your crazy uncle. In the aviation context, it’s easy to see how dangerous this mindset can be: If you’re feeling pressure to get home on a Sunday night, you won’t think dispassionately about the weather conditions and make a nuanced decision. System 1 will jump to a comforting “go” conclusion before System 2 has time to enter the conversation. Again, hitting the stop button can lead to better decisions.

Kahneman’s book has one final lesson for pilots, and it relates to how we learn from our experiences. He talks about the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” The former is the mind that actually lives through an event, whether good or bad. The latter is the mind that integrates the event into our personal history and stores the take-aways. When there’s a mismatch between the two selves (and there often is — the way an event ends is usually what we remember), it can mean we learn the wrong lesson. So if you land with 10 minutes of fuel left, the remembering self might conclude that you made it safely; the experiencing self, which was terrified during the actual event, is ignored. This is why it’s a good habit to conduct some type of structured debrief after each flight. Did you learn any lessons? Did you learn the right lessons?

All this points to a key insight for our development as pilots: Thinking about thinking is important. We need to be aware that there are really two pilots in our heads, and they are competing to be PIC. Make sure System 1 and System 2 exercise good crew resource management, or you might find yourself depending too much on that luck bucket.

John Zimmerman grew up in the back of small airplanes and moved to the front at age 16. He flies a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44.

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