When I first got my Mooney I traveled a lot from my Oregon home in the Columbia River Gorge to my parents’ home in the Gold Country of California. And although I had flown in a Mooney for a few decades (my Father’s M20C/D) I hadn’t owned my Mooney, Maggie, but a couple of months.
I was flying home to Oregon from California. I planned a fuel stop at Red Bluff, California (KRBL), a small nontowered airport where the fuel prices were good. The winds were gusty, but pretty much right down the runway. I flew a full pattern versus a straight in. I carried a little extra speed to compensate for the gusts. On my first landing approach I was going too fast and I bounced. Being pretty new at the Mooney it only took one hop and I went around. “Red Bluff traffic red and white Mooney is going around.” Okay, I told myself, just fly the numbers and you will do fine. It was hot and windy but I was determined to land safely, fill my tanks, use the facilities and get homeward bound. I will cut to the chase… two more landing attempts, two more bounces and two more go arounds. I felt embarrassed and making those radio calls was making me feel like a loser. The last time I just announced I was leaving the traffic pattern to the North.
I had flown the route numerous times. I knew that there was no fuel in between me and Mount Shasta and that I didn’t have enough fuel to make it to my home base, Hood River, Oregon. As I climbed up I stopped listening to myself: “People on the ground at Red Bluff were probably shaking their heads at the girl Mooney pilot that couldn’t land.” “Just leave, leave the area, get the heck out of here.” “Maybe you have enough fuel to go in to Dunsmuir.” What I chose to do instead was start talking to myself: “Redding airport is right there.” “Stop at Redding which has a longer and wider runway.” “Saving a few bucks on fuel isn’t worth the risk of an incident.”
Learning to fly in rural Oregon meant that I had real-life experience flying in winter weather, mountain flying, and backcountry airstrips. What I didn’t have was a ton of experience flying in to towered airports. I asked myself a question that I remember to this day, “What are you going to do Sis? Fly until you run out of fuel? Or fly the airplane?” I decided to fly above the Class Delta airspace, listen to the tower frequency, and ascertain the traffic flow. I flew to the area where I could fly left traffic, which I was more familiar with. I contacted the tower, told them my intentions to land, and also said I was unfamiliar with the airport. I had a spectacular landing and was off at the first taxiway.
You might wonder what I mean about stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself. In the next three blogs I focus on the materials I developed for my 2020 presentation series, “Nail your Check ride.” These concepts can help you to pass any checkride you have in your future, but can, as well, be applied to every day life.
You cannot control your first thought,
but you can control your second thought
In stressful situations our first thought is typically processed through a primitive part of our brain, the amygdala. This almond shaped part of the brain is highly emotionally reactive but only gives us three or four choices. Three of these choices are: Fight, Flight, And Freeze. In many ways the amygdala is like a restaurant in which there are only four items on the menu.
We cannot control our first stressful thought, but we can control our second thought. We need to make decisions in the higher part of the brain, not in the part of the brain we share with dogs or cats. This front part of the high brain gives us endless choices, the ability synthesize information and make decisions that are not merely reactions. I call this part of our brain the Board Room. We have to be cognitively active in the Board Room.
Stressful First Thought:
- Flight: You need to run
- Fight: You need to fight
- Freeze: Brain is offline, like a DVD on pause
- Take it to the Board Room. The high brain has the ability to consider a situation more objectively, analyze risk, assess potential courses of action, and make a decision based on wisdom versus fear.
In the example of my flight to Red Bluff you can see that after the first bounce I was able to use my high brain to come up with a calming, reassuring thought, “Fly your numbers.” It wasn’t until the stress of the second and third attempts overrode Board Room, and fear crept in. First I had “flight”= leave the traffic pattern, the perceived judgment and stress. Then came “freeze”= climb out and circle, a bit in a daze. It was only when I recognized these two fear-based reactions that I could have the insight and judgment based on wisdom that would help get me to Redding Airport safely.
In the airplane, or in a checkride/test situation, we don’t want the ancient part of our brain that we share with animals, making our decisions. We need to take it to the high, front part of our brain that gives us access to a decision-making tree. If you act on your first thought, there is a high likelihood that decision is based on fear. If, however you are in control of your second thought, chances are your decision will be based on wisdom.
If you are headed to Sun ‘n Fun at the end of the month, please consider joining me for the full workshop on April 4th at 2:00 p.m. at the AOPA Pavilion. I have generous door prizes from: Lift Aviation, Flying Eyes Optics, and King Schools. Come and learn the psychological and physical ways to nail your checkride. As a practicing psychotherapist for 28 years, I have come to understand and appreciate the confluence of the psychology of life and the psychology of flight. In our next installment “Act the Way you Want to Feel,” we will cover techniques you can apply to feel calmer and more prepared. I look forward to your comments and seeing many of you at Sun ‘n Fun, AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, EAA Oshkosh Airventure, and beyond.