Believe in yourself

Every student pilot comes across the notorious five hazardous attitudes, Resignation, Anti-Authority, Impulsivity, Invulnerability and Macho. Again and again, these hallmarks of poor aeronautical decision make sad appearances in accident reports, such as the superbly written compilation of “Aftermath” columns by Peter Garrison and J. Mac McClellan, published by the editors of Flying Magazine. This meticulously researched and often hair-raising treasure trove of situations to avoid should be a must-read for every pilot. Instead, it is out of print and it took all my will power not to steal it from my CFI.

In aviation, it seems so much easier to learn from the mistakes of others and what not to do rather than finding studies on what constitutes good day-to-day aeronautical decision making. The latter usually becomes apparent only in extreme situations, where the decision can be causally linked to an outcome. Perfect example: Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s deliberate ditching of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson, rather than attempting to turn around for the airport. It was an extreme decision in an extreme situation where resorting to the conventional, comforting solution would have spelled disaster: they would never have made it.

Sullenberger writes beautifully in his memoir how he believes it took him a lifetime of flying, of making small, carefully thought-through decisions every day to be prepared. Thus, holding himself to the highest standard again and again enabled him to react right when the time for making a decision was tight, and the decision itself necessitated facing an extremely inconvenient fact: the only place to land the Airbus A320 full with passengers was an ice cold river.

So what about these small, everyday decisions that, cumulatively, are so important, what about the “highest standard”, in what kind of attitude do they originate? It’s a complex question, but I believe there is a fundamental basis of good aeronautical decision making and it provides a shield against all the bad attitudes listed above: a firm belief in one’s abilities, enabling an absolute focus on the the issue at hand. Along the lines of 20th century philosopher Karl Popper, who famously stated that “living is problem solving”. Obviously, this is where the notorious 5 get in the way, but what precipitates resignation, feeling invulnerable or acting on impulse? I’d hazard a guess that insecurity and being demoralized and overly self-critical can play a big role in either giving up or being unable to face the facts. Having an absolute trust in onself is exactly the opposite of macho or invulnerability. It frees the mind to focus on the presence and make the most informed decision.

Easy, one might say, the root to believe in one’s abilities lies in careful preparation, in constantly studying and learning as much as possible. “Replacing fear with knowledge”, as scientist and aviator Oliver Smithies put it. However, I believe that this is sometimes not enough. Insecurity can trump solid knowledge, can make us become unaware of what we know and cause us to act way below our abilities.

So then as pilots, we have to be good to ourselves and protect our self-esteem. However, self-confidence is easily eroded by personal, rather than factual criticism. Be it from colleagues, teachers, friends or, most notoriously, parents (Child! Ach!). Toughen up, some might reply. Alas, discouragement and demoralization have a tendency to creep into the rational discourse on possible outcomes – maybe I’m not good enough. Without being aware of it, that subconscious assessment might subtly influence decision making .

One of the principles of Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education is that children should be allowed to discover and develop their own interests and should neither be praised nor criticized. This way, she argues, children can truly develop into strong, independent and kind personalities.  “Are you somebody, who follows the beat of his own drum. Did you make the drum yourself?!” (TV character Leslie Knope on “Parks & Recreation). The human mind is a powerful instrument evolved to problem solve with gusto, poised, focused and unafraid. But it needs the right environment to thrive in. It is our responsibility to help create and protect it.

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