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The pilot’s inner voice: Be sure to pay attention


A recent edition of Callback, NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System newsletter entitled “Sound Advice - Listen to the Little Voice,” reminded me of several personal instances during flight when my own inner voice was speaking to me; and I wasn’t listening! I thought this would be a good opportunity to share these experiences.

Conceptually, our “inner voice” may be nothing more than our subconscious telling us that something is wrong, or perhaps a subliminal message to do something differently. The article referred to this voice as possibly a “vocalization of a gut feeling.” I like that explanation as well.

The amazing part of experiencing the inner voice is that it seems to be right more times than wrong. However, in terms of that accuracy, I do question whether that inner voice is truly clairvoyant (seeing into the future for example) or that it relies more heavily on hindsight, which is of course 20/20.

Either way, if you’re truly lucky enough to hear that inner voice, its usually wise to listen to what it has to say.

Case#1: What am I doing out here? Has your inner voice ever said that during flight? Mine has, and boy was it an eye opener! I’ll recall that on at least two occasions, both weather related, the situation was not good and getting worse.

My get-there-itis motivation was close to exceeding my get there safely flying skills. Of course both times this happened to me I was well aware of the bad weather prior to takeoff, but for some unknown reason I still decided to go.

So when the inner voice talked to me, was it a premonition of bad things to come or hindsight? I suspect it was a weak premonition, initially overpowered by desire to get to the destination, and that only became strong enough to be heard once the scariness factor of the flight reached its apex.

Case #2: Wind your watch. I’ve had more than one flight instructor (included my dad and brother) tell me to take enough time to think about what’s going on in lieu of acting rashly in the face of in-flight problems and emergencies.

The “wind your watch” phrase invokes images of someone, in the face of impending calamity, taking a break to do something totally unnecessary, but the real intent of this particular inner voice is to remind the pilot to slow down and act with a purpose.

It’s true that very few emergency situations require instantaneous action on the part of the pilot. It’s also true that you can’t wait around to see if things will turn out ok without any pilot intervention. So somewhere in between those two extremes is the right amount of time to devote to solving the problem.

In psychology we look to the generic concept of the speed vs. accuracy tradeoff for gauging how fast a reaction would be desirable in a given situation. This theory promotes the notion that if accuracy is what you need most, you’ll need to slowdown; if errors are acceptable, then you can speed up.

Each emergency scenario has a different (and best) speedaccuracy tradeoff that will result in a safe outcome, but I suppose the point to drive home is to be sure and approach each flight situation at the right speed so the desired accuracy is achieved. More times then not, that means slowing down and thinking actions through more carefully.

Case #3: Something’s wrong. When the inner voice says “something’s wrong,” whether or not there’s really something wrong, something is wrong. By that I mean that simply thinking something is wrong is a distraction all by itself, and sure enough, even if nothing is actually wrong, if you dwell on the possibility too long something else will likely go wrong in short order.

Usually it’s a loss of control, as simple as a heading, altitude, or airspeed deviation, or as bad as controlled flight into the ground that occurs as a result of such a distraction. Sometimes just flying solo leads to a slight paranoia, and any little unfamiliar sound gets the adrenalin pumping and the mind a-wandering towards thoughts of “what am I going to do now?”

I notice this in my own flying. I seem to be far more attentive to things I’ve never before noticed when I’m flying by myself as opposed to when I fly with another pilot.

Worrying about what might go wrong is sometimes a healthy thing. It helps us think about the possible problems in flight and what might be done to solve these problems. But too much of this sort of thinking while airborne is distracting.

If your inner voice says something’s wrong, pay attention to that voice, but not at the cost of losing control of the aircraft.

Our little inner voice is perhaps, at best, a defense mechanism that helps us gauge what’s good to do and what’s not so good. At worst, it might be a distraction or might even lead to indecision at a critical moment during flight.

That “gut” feeling, vocalized as the inner voice, isn’t always right, but we should give it a fair hearing (pun unintentional). After all, even if no one else listens to us pilots, we can at least say we listen to ourselves. That has to be worth something!

Pilot’s Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor and Researcher at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 200 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.