A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 December 2011    

Learning to Fly, The Easy Way


It can be as easy as falling asleep!

When I think back to the time I was learning to fly, memories of instructors who just didn’t share my enthusiasm come to mind. A young person aspiring to be a pilot is anxious to learn the skills, practice the procedures and get on with the process. But it always seemed to me that the instructors dragged their feet, prolonging the learning and most of all, cutting short the lessons just as I was beginning to master the particular item of the day.

Flying circuits is a good example. We would fly for about an hour, round and round the pattern. Every time around, I would mess up on some maneuver. Determined to get it all right, we would do it again. But almost every touch-and-go ended with something less than perfect. I would roll out on final and be lined up wide of the runway, or the speed would be too fast, or the descent rate too high. That was usually the point where the instructor would end the session.

So, with great disappointment, I’d finish up the paperwork and go home. On days when I just couldn’t get it right, quitting seemed the wrong thing to do. Any time we fly, much can go wrong, but if we conclude with a good landing, we feel much better about the entire flight.

Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it was several years before the process of taking small steps, then letting the brain do the rest, finally sunk in. Learning professionals have absolute conclusions that point out how the capacity of the brain is governed by volume and time. You can force a lot of skill and knowledge into your head at once, but what happens with it after that depends on the time you give the brain to sort it all out.

A good example of this can be observed by going back to those one-hour sessions in the circuit. The determined student pilot thinks that the longer he practices, the better his techniques will become. Of course that is true, but when you stop the physical practicing and let the brain then work it out, the learning actually comes much faster. Twenty four hours later, after a rest, the landings are much better. That’s because the brain needs the rest, the time to sort out all the learning it’s been force-fed. Call it digestion if you like, because in basic terms, it is a similar process to what happens to all the food you eat. The processing of knowledge and skill can be compared with the processing of food. Eating doesn’t extract the calories from the food. That procedure is what comes later as the digestive system takes over and it takes time to do it’s work. The brain has a volume capacity, as does the stomach.

It’s a bad example of a similarity, perhaps. But you get my point.

Another example of good learning is experience, which has often been touted as the best teacher you can have. It all starts during the time before the flight tests. Creative instructors devise situations that give the student a few moments of terror, a time when the he must make quick decisions and take the responsibility for them. Some instructors will shut off the fuel supply, pull a circuit breaker that disables the radios, stick a piece of tape over a couple of instruments or put you under the hood in mid flight. You just flew into IMC! There’s no question that situations like this will cause you to learn very fast, and learn the way out much better than sitting in on a lecture about engine failures, radio procedure, partial panels and getting out of the clouds.

Learning is nothing more than a matter of forming memories. And memories come from the brain filing the skills and information in the proper framework. For that to work, the brain needs rest, time to sort the material. Without enough rest, the information doesn’t get properly encoded in the memory, and we haven’t learned anything.

I know a fellow, who happens to be learning to fly at the age when most pilots are retiring or leaving the cockpit. His enthusiasm is remarkable, and he often stays in the cockpit with his instructor for hours at a time. Still, the learning curve is proving to be very steep. If all this information is true, he might be much better off spending less time in the airplane and more time sleeping!

Learning the written information in ground school is similar. Students will frequently attempt to learn the content by reading the text several times. That may help in passing the test where the multiple-choice answers are word for word of what’s in texts books. But all the research points to the technique of reading and comprehending the information to a point where you could actually teach it to someone else in the near future. Good instructors have plenty of real-world experience to draw from, ways to illustrate the points the student must learn. Reading alone can result in the student focusing on extracting facts but failing to link what he learns to retention.

Much of this is my own experience-based observations. It’s what works for me after many years of giving the brain time to work it all out. And if you’ve not figured it out by now, that means a lot of time spent napping, sleeping or just plain and simple relaxing. During the years I spent in broadcasting, I came in contact with the theory that “we LEARN only a small amount of what we read or hear, more of what we see, and a greater amount, maybe half, of what we see and hear together. If we then go on to consider what we experience, the retention is higher yet. And hopefully, we understand and comprehend about 95 percent of what we teach to someone”. I doubt the scientific accuracy in specific cases, but experience shows there’s a lot of truth to it.

Now if I’m learning a new skill, in flying or in anything else, I remember those first instructors who made me practice for an hour, then leave it alone for the rest of the day. When I come back to it, somehow magically it all falls together as it should. It’s also helpful if there’s an opportunity to teach the new knowledge to someone else. That way, I need to have it right.

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