Safety Briefings

Habit

by Charlie Marais
2014-10-01

During the last input I referred to our exposure to Choice, but this input is actually to the contrary.  Habit actually leaves you no choice. Many will now have their hands up and say that this is not true.  Well, let us explore this fundamental human design feature.

The first human behaviour to explore is how our learning process works.  The aspirant pilots, SPL and young qualified pilots must especially pay attention now.

The first time we enter into a new area of learning, we have to firstly attain knowledge and then the skills to apply this knowledge. Think back to when you first had the urge to get involved in flying.  I grew up in Stellenbosh and the only aircraft I ever saw were those that passed on the horizon.  When I became interested in becoming a pilot, I was literally consciously and subconsciously unaware.  In plain English, I was so uninformed that I did not even know that which I did not know! When I started communicating my desire to a person with knowledge about the flying game, he informed me, much to my distress, that which I did not know. It was a lot, in fact it was everything. This is the 'making aware of the conscious mind' and as we read subject information, hear the SOP's and study; we are enlightening the conscious mind.

Through the learning and practice of new information (for example the difficult sums involved in navigation, radio aids etc. for mock exams), we build longer term memory through repetition.  This has an influence on the conscious as well as subconscious mind.  When we especially repeatedly exercise to hone our skills, such as landings, lookout, applying SOPs diligently and practice good processes, we are forming good habits.  This resides in the subconscious.  Thus, a habit is something that we do without a rational conscious process in order to decide what to do, prior to actually doing it.  Habit means we just do it.
 
Here's the thing; the subconscious mind cannot discriminate between right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable and unacceptable.  The subconscious can only form referencing to the inputs it receives.  So, when practicing an SOP in a non-efficient way or for that matter any skill not according to best practice, the continual reinforcement of this wrong behaviour will be habit forming.

I believe that when you do the "wrong" thing for more than three times, that habit forming has begun.  Let me give you an example.  Through all the airplane and helicopter tests that I conduct, the one thing that is common to most tests is the non-existence of 'lookout'.  "Perform a 360° hover, or spot turn to the left" I would say.  Immediately and without hesitation the candidate would commence with the turn.  I then stop and repeat the request and by the third time the candidate is completely annoyed, frustrated and thinks me to be senile and confused, or just a pain in the butt. I then remind the person that lookout precedes all flying manoeuvres, and is crucial to safety, especially as the tail and main rotor strike makes out up to 60% of helicopter accidents.  Pilots who taxi aircraft into something, fly into other aircraft and so on, contribute to many unhappy endings, which makes 'lookout' a fundamental requirement for the safe application of any air vehicle, whether on the ground or in the air. 

"Ok, maybe you are one of those people who do not look out before you turn your car.", I would say, and the response would normally be the test candidate questioning whether I am out of my mind. Naturally they look out; it is inconceivable that one would not lookout before turning a car.  Really? "But, Uncle Charlie, the airport is clear, the air is clear, I cannot hear anyone else talking...", is the normal response.  For this I have the following question; "So when will you then do a 'lookout'?" One response I received about a year ago shocked me; "When it is necessary!" Wow! Now how does this one compute?  The trigger to the necessity of anything you need to do if not through habit, is to get information through your senses.  So, the necessity to 'lookout' is preceded by the actual function of looking out!  Awareness is not a natural state of mind, it is an achieved result.

This is the reason why 'lookout' must be a habitual function and not a conscious decision (when or where to do it.  Just DO it.)  If you learn this habit, you will never ever have to spend time pondering, whether you just did this or that. No not the habit to say the rhyme, but habit to DO the rhyme.

This applies to everything we as pilots do.  Start to shortcut the pre-flight and nothing bad happens, and before you know, you have adapted to the new, shorter version, fully suckered into the false belief that there will be no consequence as there have been none in the past...until now.
 
We build habits over the course of years and the only truth is this:  When you do what is wrong, it is not a question of "if" this will lead to a less desirable outcome, it is rather "when".  We do scud running and always get away with it.  We do VFR on top and always find a hole to descend at destination to stay VFR as we are not Instrument Rated or CURRENT.  We always push on below the bad weather and we always know or find out where the gap in the mountain or valley is where we can go through to our destination.  In other words, we always consult the clever negotiator of fate; the one who does it "my way" and sells it as the gospel, the one who is a good cheater.  We got away with stopping the tachometer, with doing an inferior servicing, inferior planning, inferior, inferior and inferior!

Now for the bad part; the professional pilots amongst us dare not comment on the above mentioned.  In fact, we will not, as it is none of our business and we do not want to be known as 'a pain in the ass'. We do not want to make enemies, but we are happy to have a friend die a friend, but not live as an enemy. And the inevitable happens... that which we all predicted (as we all had foreknowledge of the worst case scenario), as we have had so many examples and blood that preceded the 'pain in the butt' SOPs. 

Of course they were nice guys.  Of course we are all going to say that they were very "professional" pilots.  Sorry guys, but being nice added to the use of flattery does not cut it.  Remember, when you are gone, it is no more your concern, but the loved ones who are left behind. It is (and always must be) about and for them that we look after ourselves, anything else is selfish. 

Don't get me wrong, I am not the one who has never done wrong, not even close.  I probably have more t-shirts than the average guy when it comes to those t-shirts that you do not want.  That I am alive to tell the truth, is grace or luck, but not because I have outperformed the odds.  So I am not preaching here, I am merely confessing and pleading that one should just stop and look in the mirror. Ask that person you see in the mirror to be honest with you, just for this one time, and acknowledge the skeletons in your cupboard.  Once acknowledged, the corrective action of weaning yourself off of the old bad habits and developing new good habits can begin.

Correcting the wrong is never easy, but once you acknowledge the correct way and practice it to habit level, it is easy to follow through. No, the outcome is never guaranteed, but good habits will always give you a better chance at a successful outcome.  That my friend, you can never dispute!

Till next time, happy landings and chopper pilots...keep the revs up!