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Aviation Safety

AVIATION SAFETY

Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor dgfry@aol.com

 

The Plateau and Landing

 

From time to time, everyone gets frustrated, especially in the learning process.  I recall frequently wanting to bat my head against a wall during my undergraduate (and graduate) days as I tried to wrest a particularly abstruse bit of knowledge from its lair with the frustrating feeling that I’d NEVER get it. My learning had reached a plateau that extended as far as I could see.

 

At the time, my motivation for pursuing those bits of arcane knowledge had less to do with my fundamental need to understand something, than it was about the certain knowledge that those arcane facts, relationships, and equations were going to be on the next exam.  Later, while working on my MBA, I wanted to learn for more mature reasons, but knowledge was just as elusive, recondite, and occasionally fathomless.  And the plateau extended every bit as far.

 

And that frustration may leak over into flight training.  OK, scratch the “may”.  I’ve seen, as any flight instructor has, the frustration that students experience when learning to fly (actually, I recall that feeling a couple of times myself). Take learning to land, for example. This usually takes more lessons, more hours, more effort, and generates more frustration and feelings of “I’m NEVER going to get this!” than any other maneuver.  With the possible exception of the Lazy Eight, or most anything involving a helicopter.

 

HOWEVER, I think there is a difference here.

 

It seems to me that the “I can’t land this bleepin’ thing” plateau is less a matter of a learning plateau (since the student already knows all the necessary facts and theory) than it is a performance plateau.

 

It seems to me that there are five factors involved here:

1.  Up to this point, the student has succeeded in learning each maneuver quickly, often on the first or second attempt.  NOBODY gets landings on the first or second try, and since the instructor makes it look as easy as he or she made the other maneuvers look, the student tends to get frustrated.

 

2.  The maneuvers the student has learned have wider tolerances than the landing has.  Students hold the plane within plus or minus 100 feet during a turn very quickly, but plus or minus 100 INCHES isn't good enough on a landing.  A perfect landing is the equivalent of flying a 360 degree turn without the altimeter needle moving, and a BONK landing is so much more ego damaging than exceeding the tolerance on one of the other maneuvers.

 

3.  The student is learning something that no amount of direct effort, trying harder, or focusing more intently will result in success (excluding the luck factor).  So, when the student tries harder without success, it can be followed by frustration and the feeling that, "I'm NEVER going to get this".  I particularly love the student that, after a BONK under which I could have driven a semi, says, “I’ve got this.  The next one is going to be GREAT.”  How, I wonder, is that going to happen?  It CAN happen the next time if one goes on the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” theory.    But remember whence that quote comes. 

 

4.  The difference between what the student is doing and what the instructor is doing is small, so step function improvements are unlikely, and progress is seemingly slow and difficult to see.

 

5.  Often there is learning that occurs during the performance plateau.  Flying, to a great extent is a process of correcting from what you have to what you want.  In order to improve, the student needs to see that difference.  Landings require the student to see in finer resolution than the other maneuvers do.  When the instructor first demonstrates landings, the student sees the demonstration in very coarse resolution, and therefore misses many of the finer but completely necessary points of what the instructor is doing.  Although students simply can't see the difference between what they are doing and what the instructor is doing, they see the difference in the result – BONK vs. squeak.  The instructor's job during this phase is to help the student develop that finer resolution by asking the student to critique various aspects of the previous approach and landing.  When students begin to recognize that they are seeing in finer resolution and are able to initiate their own corrections, there is less of a feeling plateau, and more of a feeling of progress - though not necessarily an immediate increase in performance.   Just because you can see the difference between what you have and what you want doesn’t mean you can make the required adjustment – BONK!  As I know from embarrassing personal experience.

 

And that’s the performance plateau – you will get it; the plateau actually isn’t flat (whatever it seems) but it starts to get into the entire topic of muscle memory – more about that later.

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