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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The gorilla in the cockpit

Selective attention/blindness isn't just something husbands and teenagers have. Check out this video that demonstrates in only one minute why fixation in the cockpit is a bad thing:

Multitasking was/is a popular buzzword beginning in the 1990s as people began to convince themselves that they really could do more than one thing at a time. As the video shows, this isn't really the case: you can really only do one thing well at one time. You can either count the passes or notice the guest, but you can't do both at once.

Many—in fact, probably most people—will disagree with this statement, which is why they're usually shocked by the reveal at the end of the video. Most people think they're good multitaskers because they're so bad at it that they don't know they're bad at it. This inability to recognize that one is bad at something has been known to science since the late 1990s, and even has its own name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of people who think they can text, watch TV, surf the web on their tablet, and do homework all at the same time. After all, they do it all the time, so it must be possible.

I'm not saying it's not possible, I'm saying that it's not possible to do all of them well. Afterward, if you did all of the above, you wouldn't have had a decent text conversation, couldn't remember anything substantive about the TV program, couldn't pass a 3 question quiz on what you read on the internet, and turned in a substandard homework assignment—all while thinking you had no problem!

One of the reasons people don't realize how bad they are at multitasking is because there is no real-time feedback on any of the things they're doing. If they drop out of the show they're watching to type a text message, they don't notice it. There is no pack of gauges to show how badly one thing is suffering at the expense of another thing.

However, you can't fool physics, and the cockpit is a continuous, real-time demonstrator of an actual multitasking environment. That is precisely why so many beginning students are totally overwhelmed the first several hours. And that's with the instructor handling the navigation, radios, and collision avoidance tasks!

Have you ever held altitude perfectly only to discover you were way off heading? Of course you have. Everyone has. An old joke goes something like this:

Flight instructor: "OK, let's do some straight and level."

Student pilot: "Which one do you want first?"

A main cause of this early difficulty is selective attention. We can only give the majority of our attention to one thing at a time, with a smaller chunk left over for everything else. If we get fixated on one thing (and we are wired to fixate), the other horses stray out of the barn. While we fix those horses, the other ones we had under control wander away. It's why your instructor probably warned (or will warn) you more than once not to let your eyes get fixated on any one instrument.

It would be nice to be able to keep the horses in the barn and in the field in check at the same time, but that's not how our brain is built. Asking it to devote a lot of processing power to more than one thing at a time is like asking your legs to swim and do hurdles at the same time: it's just not going to happen.

If we're bad at multitasking, and the cockpit is a highly multitasking environment, how does anyone learn to fly? The answer is, like all skills, practice.

Practice is what takes the 100 things that are going on at the same time and makes them automatic. As they become more automatic, they require less conscious effort, which frees up your brainpower for other things. As you get better at holding an altitude, your brain doesn't have to work as hard. This means you have more mental reserve left over to hold your heading. As you become better at holding a heading, that frees up processing power to add another task, and so on.

Your first few lessons, you probably won't know where you are, how you got there, or how long you've been there. King Kong himself could be in the back seat with a boatload of bananas and you probably wouldn't notice, since all your brainpower is devoted to trying not to fall too far behind the airplane. Don't worry: this is a perfectly normal part of the learning process. Everyone who has a pilot certificate today went through that same feeling you're going through.

The good news is that as you get better, that overwhelming feeling goes away. The bad news is that it comes back when you start working in the pattern toward solo. The good news? It goes away again as you get better at that.

There is a feeling that never goes away: the feeling of your first solo. So keep it up and don't let any gorilla get in your way!

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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