Monday, September 26, 2005

The Value of Practice

Back in my aviation years, I found one of my biggest challenges to be the spin recovery training required for my instructor certification. Unlike some of the others, I didn’t find the maneuver at all disconcerting, nor did it cause the kind of stomach-turning spatial disorientation I’d somewhat anticipated. For me, the trouble was more that I had difficulty at first keeping track of the number of times we’d gone around so that I’d know when it was time to pull out.

The theory behind teaching instructors-in-training how to recover from spins is that sooner or later you’re likely to have a student inadvertently put you into one. When that happens, it’d be a good idea to know not only how that tends to happen (so you can try to prevent it) but also how to get out of it if that proves necessary. There are lots of other interesting ways that flight students try to kill themselves and their instructors and I’ve been taught or taught myself on the job how to deal with quite a few of them. The spin training still sticks in my mind as the one most worthy of the time I spent practicing it even though I’ve yet to actually use the knowledge outside of a training environment.

Here’s the thing – at first, the ground just seemed to go by so fast. How in the world are you supposed to count to two turns when that’s happening? So – we practiced. My instructor put us into a spin, counted a half, one, one and a half, two, and recovered. I had to take his word for it on the counting; it seemed rhythmical enough to be accurate but I couldn’t have said one way or the other. Then he had me put us into a spin while he counted and he walked me through the recovery. The next few times, I tried counting myself and while I could do the entry and the recovery just fine, I still needed help with the counting part.

Finally, after practicing the maneuver several more times over the course of a couple of different flights, the ground miraculously seemed to slow and I could actually see the landmarks go by that I was using to mark the turns and half-turns. Counting to two became easier and it all clicked.

As much as I enjoy playing the fighter pilot video games (the ‘realer’ the better – my favorites are the ones that actually feel like sim’s), I rarely do well at them the first couple of times. Okay, let’s make it the first ten times. There’s simply too much information. My current strategy is to focus on one form of input that makes sense and try to stay alive long enough to figure out how to use it. Then I invest in a few more games, paying attention to more and more of the game each time until I’m finally able to comprehend a large enough chunk of what’s going on to begin to do well.

Needless to say, the arcade definitely makes money on me when I decide to sit down with one of the flying games. If I’m not prepared to spend that many quarters, I don’t bother because it’s simply too frustrating. Time and time again, however, I find that where things had been nothing but a confusing mass of too much going on, I suddenly am able to make sense of it as a whole. It takes repeated exposure and repeated practice to make use of the information but eventually it all comes together.

I’ve flown 747 and other “heavy jet” simulators a handful of times. Only once was it for a job interview. Applicants were expected to make three approaches in a DC-10 sim and on the third one, they wanted to see how you did with all the alarms going. The first two times were all I needed to get comfortable with it so that by the time they had the horns blaring and lights flashing, I was able to deal with the added distractions just fine.

Fast forward to last week with the Airbus landing at LAX with its sideways-jammed nose gear. I’m not at all surprised the landing went as well as it did. As with the spin training, this particular kind of incident tracks well with what we were always taught about gear-up landings – “There are two kinds of pilots, those that have and those who will.”

These pilots were trained for this kind of landing with the full expectation that one day they’d have to use that expertise. The fact that some never do is irrelevant; the fact that this is not just a hypothetical scenario – not an empty exercise – remains true and everyone knows it. This is rather one of those things that simply happens sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, and so you’d better know how to handle it.

It should be no surprise, then, when that repeated practice of a skill you know you’ll one day have to use pays off – for the pilots of Flight 292, the landing probably felt in many ways rather run-of-the-mill if perhaps a bit more ‘interesting’ than most.

What's worth practicing in your life?