On Parenting and Flying

Prepare for the unknown, unexpected and inconceivable . . . after 50 years of flying I’m still learning every time I fly.” ~ Gene Cernan

I’ve learned a great many lessons as an aviator over the years, all of which have left me a better pilot. What I didn’t expect, however, is that those experiences would also improve my parenting skills.

Here are a few of the lessons I discovered in the air that, properly heeded, can make a you a more capable parent on the ground:

  1. A good pilot doesn’t manhandle the controls. A good many pilots are “Type A” personality and they must learn to resist the temptation to force the aircraft to submit to their will. Most aircraft are inherently stable and as such respond more favorable to a gentle touch. Lesson learned: Just as a thumb and a finger on the yoke are almost always more effective than two clenched fists, finding the least forceful intervention when dealing with children provides for an overall smoother experience for both parent and child.
  2. A good pilot uses all available resources. This is true in both pre-flight planning and during the flight. In small aircraft a pilot may even enlist the help of his passengers to keep an eye out for traffic on a busy day. Lesson learned: children love to participate, long to be helpful and love new challenges. Look to include them creatively in what you are doing, especially around the house. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from others who have more experience than you.
  3. A good pilot stays ahead of the aircraft. Many aviation accidents occur because an inexperienced (in relation to the craft or the mission) pilot gets behind the aircraft in his thinking. This is an uncomfortable and unsafe position that every pilot finds himself in at some point in his flying career. In such critical moments he must take a deep breath and say to himself: “Fly the airplane.” Lesson learned: Your children are going to get out ahead of you every now and again. Don’t sweat it! You’re an adult and there is no better time than this to take a deep breath and bring your experience (both to-do and to-not-do) to bear on the situation.
  4. A good pilot learns not to let distractions consume his focus. Distractions are inevitable. A strange noise, an unfamiliar sensation, an unusual sequence of events can happen when you least expect it (if not during every flight over large bodies of water). Take note, keep it in perspective, but don’t forget to…yes, you guessed it…fly the airplane! Lesson learned: Be willing to be surprised by your children. They will inevitably come to you out of left field, despite your best attempts at making them good little girls and boys. Stick to the basics where you can…there is no replacement for a loving, caring and attentive parent. By the way, don’t be afraid to do the unexpected with your children. They will love it!

As I mentioned previously, parenting is a sacred trust and there are many lessons which can be translated from other activities in your life if you are observant and keen to connect the dots. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

Teamwork: Asking Questions and Keeping your Cool

Imagine yourself in the seat of an Air Traffic Controller, sitting in a darkened room somewhere staring at screens with moving targets and talking with the pilots of those moving targets as they whisk along miles high in an aircraft that is likely moving at several hundred miles per hour. The pilot of a jet who just checked in with you was speaking unusually slowly, saying something about having trouble controlling the airplane.

Something is wrong, very wrong, but you’re not sure what. You move quickly to assess the situation, drawing on your training, your inner calm and your now adrenaline-rich blood to help you diagnose the problem and prescribe a remedy.

This scenario happened to a controller not too long ago and fortunately for us, the conversation between the disoriented pilot and the controller were recorded by ATC. The plane had suffered a decompression, which meant that there was an insufficient concentration of oxygen in the air to sustain normal brain function. The pilot was suffering from hypoxia.

One of the challenges of hypoxia is that the initial symptoms are euphoria and a carefree feeling. If the oxygen starvation continues, the extremities become become less responsive and flying becomes less coordinated. Hence, you’ll note the pilot mentioning that he was having trouble controlling the airplane.

The only way to avoid going unconscious is to breath supplemental oxygen from a tank aboard the airplane or to descend to levels where the air is thick enough to support normal brain and other organ function.

Sit back and listen carefully. You’ll be amazed at how professionally the controller handled the situation.

I always think of that controller when I am flying. It’s comforting to know that there are such capable, confident and intelligent people watching your back when you are in the air. The controller was no doubt trained for such emergencies, but it takes a special person to maintain the emotional control necessary to successfully navigate such a tricky and delicate situation.

We used this clip in a staff training recently as we provide support to doctors who often call in sounding not to different from the pilot of that airplane. Their confused, unsure of themselves and unclear as to what steps they should take to help their patients regain their health.

We cannot do the thinking for them, but we can ask questions in a way that allows them to regain their self-assurance and move forward on sound footing. They, like the pilots, are the experts of their profession and supporting them is a privilege and a delight!

It is easy to get into a panic when the normal approach to something doesn’t work or when it is more complex than you’re used to, but when that happens there is nothing more important than remembering to ask questions. Assess. Reassess. List the knowns and move from there. Keep your cool, remember what you know and look for what you might have missed.

Take the time necessary to do the job right and you will eventually find your destination!


Emergency Upset Recovery

Several years ago I had the privilege of attending an Emergency Upset Recovery Training course presented by APS Training in Arizona. Designed to make pilots safer, this three day advanced training course covers the theory behind and practical handling of unintended and un-commanded loss of control in flight. Boy, is it an eye opener!

Standard flight training prepares you for all but the most extreme, surprising, dangerous and potentially life threatening aspects of piloting an aircraft. My own experience with several instructors over the years provided me with a baseline understanding of all “normal” phases of flight as well as with stalls and incipient spins. I remember my first stall to this day; it is a strange feeling to be in an aircraft that is no longer developing lift aka flying.

What I didn’t know is how much more emotionally taxing a fully aggravated inverted 14 revolution spin would be (imagine being on a merry-go-round, upside-down, holding on to the last few inches of the metal bar by your fingertips, all while plummeting towards the earth). Extreme airborne operational environments require extraordinary emotion management.

Handling these situations effectively requires an uncommon self-control, specialized knowledge and practical experience. The course consisted of both classroom-based theory and in-flight training in a fully aerobatic Extra 300L high performance aircraft. This highly capable and strong aircraft is designed to handle +/- 10 Gs, which, believe me, is more than you ever want to encounter in any phase of flight.

Emotion management is critical to safe piloting. Experience tells us that in times of intense emotion we don’t tend to think the clearest thoughts or make the best moves. If you’ve ever fallen head-over-heels for someone, for instance, or if you’ve worked your way into a fit of rage, you know in hindsight that your ability to deliberately control your thoughts and actions is markedly diminished.

Given these cognitive and behavioral challenges, I wonder if the FAA should require that all pilots wear mood rings, available for inspection by boarding passengers? Just kidding. Fortunately for us, certain psychological techniques and training programs can be used to improve a pilot’s ability to handle the unexpected in ways that greatly improve aeronautical safety.

As I went through the course, relearning the principles of aerodynamics, discovering the outer edges of the performance envelope of the aircraft we were using, and going through the paces while in the air (power on stalls, power off stalls, traffic pattern stalls, spins, wake turbulence, rudder, aileron, elevator, flap failure, aerobatic maneuvers and just about any other unusual attitude you can force an airplane into), I couldn’t help but think to myself, “what would I have done had I encountered this before receiving this specialized training?” While you can only guess at such things, I know that I am a dramatically safer pilot now, having completed the APS course.

How do you perform under great uncertainty or fear? Life is uncertain. The way you react to or handle the uncertainty that comes your way will has a tremendous influence on the outcome. As humans, we tend to react in largely predictable ways and that is especially true when it comes to how we handle surprise and crises. Knowing this, it makes sense to me to consider now, in the cool of the day, those tendencies so that we can better understand them and hopefully mitigate their negative consequences.

As they say, forewarned is forearmed. Here is the short list of tendencies for your consideration:

  • Selective attention – Under stressful situations, most people tend to narrow their focus, limit the number of cues they focus on and therefore perceive, which results in the development of an incomplete or unbalanced picture of what is actually going on. Acting on limited information often exacerbates the situation rather than remedying it.
  • Tunnel vision – Related to selective attention, tunnel vision or fixation occurs when an alarm sounds or an instrument is not reporting correctly. The untrained or careless pilot will naturally tend to obsess about that anomaly rather than continuing to focus on the big picture. Holistic thinking is tremendously valuable, especially in a crisis. And as the old saying goes,
    “where there is no vision, the people perish.”
  • “Hair on fire” reactions – In the absence of forethought or an alert state of mind, people tend to either freeze or panic. If psychological and controlled training environments can improve a pilot’s ability to control or properly channel the energy of his emotions under pressure, I imagine the same could be done in any field of human activity. The military uses this principle as do training organizations like Xe (formerly known as Blackwater). Research shows that we can be taught to react more intelligently and creatively.

With the right training you can come to rest relative to the unknown. Fear of the unknown drives millions of otherwise sane, competent and potentially creative into paralysis and frenzy, both of which are counter-productve in any situation. The first step in receiving this training involves understanding and I hope that our consideration today provides you a few starting points for developing a deeper understanding of what is required to be effective in any and every situation you might face in the days to come.

First Flight

Peering through the ski goggles that kept my eyes from the sting of sub-zero air, I looked down through my feet at the frozen ground, which now stood 2,500 feet below me. It was my first flight in an ultralight, in fact, my first flight in a small aircraft.

I somehow had convinced my parents of the necessity of taking this flight. Feeling invincible as most fifteen year old boys do, I was sandwiched between a cold grey overcast and the flat grey terrain on the precarious perch-of-a-seat that resembled a lawn chair with bicycle pedals. I felt the rush of my life as the pilot sitting behind me weaved a course over the airfield and then handed the controls over to me.

Was I scared? Not one bit. In fact, as soon as my hand wrapped around the control stick, I knew that I had to learn to fly. A childhood dream was born on the impetuous winds of youth! To give the kind reader an idea of what it feels like to be in an ultralight in winter, I found this YouTube video below. It is not of me but of another aviatior.

The smile plastered on my face was set even more permanently by the ice forming on my ski mask around my mouth and nostrils. As we began our descent and I handed the controls over to the pilot, my mind began spinning about how to convince my parents that their first child needed to learn to fly in a homebuilt ultralight.

Wasting no time, I worked on my dad the entire trip home from the airfield. Like any good father, he listened dutifully, noting the points I was making that justified my readiness while he looked at me no doubt thinking, “but he’s just a baby!” That evening, we presented my case to my mother.

Back and forth the conversation went – the pros, the cons, the risks, the rewards – and then came the long overnight wait as the jury deliberated. To my surprise, they came to me in the morning with a counter-proposal.

“We are very excited about your excitement,” my dad began, “but…” My mind started to race, “Oh no, nothing good comes after the conjunction “but” no matter how much PBS tried to brainwash me with the ditty ‘Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?'”

“But…” he continued “we would like you to train in a real airplane and not an ultralight.”

“Real airplane?” Did I hear him correctly? I am going to learn to fly in a real airplane? Woo hoo! I never would have thought I would have a bigger, deeper grin shining on my face than the day before, but out it came.

In retrospect I find myself even more thankful for my understanding and supportive parents than I was then. Some 23 years have gone under the bridge since that first flight and yet their unwavering encouragement and support has not waned. Their support inspires me to assist others to fulfill their dreams and to know happiness.

My parents typically required that I generated and contributed half of the financial requirement of anything new I took on in my youth. It made sense then and it makes sense now. I valued the opportunity so much more because it cost me something!

I’ve found over the years that giving too much to people without a balanced quid pro quo can create a fatal imbalance. The balance of giving and receiving is the basis of mutually respected value. For example, giving children allowance without responsibilities doesn’t help children.

When you invest in others in your world, take care not to overindulge them. If they become spoiled, they will not value what they’re receiving and they ultimately will lose their respect for you and for others. There is a delicate balance, for parsimoniousness is of no help either.

Enjoy the opportunities you have to develop those around you. Be willing to be surprised by their achievements and remember, your fulfillment depends on your ability to assist others to theirs.