Flight instructors know this: the cockpit of an aircraft in flight is a horrible classroom. Conditions are changing by the milisecond, and through it all you are moving, most of the time in three dimensions. With so much to pay attention to, student pilots are easily befuddled, leaving them paralyzed, and unable to decide what to do next. It takes a lot of training to prevent that kind of paralysis in human pilots. Why?
Confusion is easy to create. Lion tamer Clyde Beatty lived to a ripe old age by simply bringing a perfectly symetrical four legged chair into the ring with him when he met his big cats. When he held a chair in front of the lion’s face, the lion tried to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time. With its focus divided, the lion became confused and was unsure about what to do next. When faced with so many options, the lion’s basal instinct was to freeze and wait, instead of attacking.
Humans, being mammals, have brains that work the same way when innundated with conflicting information. Imagine how that plays out in the clouds when your panel lights up with a caution light, or a series of cascading failures. How about when that beautiful Garmin 1000 multifunction screen goes blank? Ach! Can you cope quickly to save the flight?
You can if you’ve got a mind practiced in focusing. The key word here is practice.
Researchers have pinned down four different types of concentration: Broad-external attention is good for assessing the total environment. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to miss things because you’re being distracted or paying attention to something that’s irrelevant. Broad-internal attention is good for developing a game plan or strategy. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to think too much, causing “paralysis by analysis.” Narrow-external attention is good for focusing on a single, primary target and blocking out distractions. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to be so focused on one thing that you miss something else that’s important. Finally, there is narrow-internal attention, which is good for focusing your thoughts on several mental skills, such as body awareness, energy management, or imagery. When used inappropriately it can, however, cause you to “choke.”
Harnessing these four types of concentration, and tapping into the one you want in the moment is an art both studied and practiced extensively by elite atheletes, and we can learn from them. To practice concentration it is best to start in a quiet place, then work your way into practicing where there are lots of distractions (best for learning how to tune them out, and discovering when to tune them in, too).
Start by working in a flight simulator (a pc sim is fine). Fly an approach to land as slowly as you can, all the while paying attention to all the details in the movements you make handling the controls, setting the instruments and running the checklist. Do it again closing your eyes at points during the approach and note how your body feels. Pay attention to all the physical sensations throughout your body.
Next, step away from the sim and go for the Grid exercise. Take a 10” X 10” block grid on a piece of paper and randomly placed the numbers 00 through 99 in each block. While timing one minute, find and put a slash through as many numbers as possible, in sequence, starting with 00. Start at different numbers, do only odd or even numbers, or go backwards from 99 to 00 to mix things up. After you get better at this, go back to practicing in the sim with distractions such as loud noises or distracting spouse in the room.
Finally, learn to shift your attention. This is a little bit like taking the camera lense and focusing in the foreground or the background. You want to do this with both your eyes and your ears. It can be practiced in the flight sim, or at your local coffee shop on a busy morning. Concentrate on what you hear. Identify each sound in the room separately and label it. Next, broaden your focus and simultaneously listen to all the sounds together without labeling them. Then concentrate on your body. Pay attention to your bodily sensations, such as the way you feel against the chair. Label each sensation as you notice it. Next, try to experience all the physical sensations together without labeling any particular one. Lastly, concentrate on your mind. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Let each thought and feeling appear by itself. Next try to empty your mind, let go of your thoughts and feelings, and relax.
Now, take the attention-shift exercise into the flight sim with you and alternate your focus between each instrument in the virtual panel in front of you. Then shift your attention to whole systems (radios, EFIS, engine, hydraulic, pressurization or oxygen). Finally pull back and absorb the complete picture, including your situational awareness of where the aircraft is in its virtual space.
It works. You’ll notice subtle differences that could be the beginning of a big problem much more rapidly, and, if you’ve studied up, you can correct a myriad of problems in-flight, or get your machine safely on the ground before a little fault becomes a game-ender.