An unconscious pilot – and it’s a good thing

It had been a long and fruitful trip. I left Chicago on Monday and returned on Friday with stops in Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and Tampa – not counting pauses for fuel. The business meetings and dinners had gone splendidly.

Disney World from air
Not a sight most pilots get to see these days.

The weather had cooperated almost the entire way with just the normal Florida afternoon thundershowers disrupting the flight to Orlando Executive (KORL). Even those clouds had the silver lining of delaying vectors directly over Disney World at 2000 feet in VFR conditions. I had always wanted to do that.

The last leg from my fuel stop in Tennessee went exceptionally well. Only a single 10 degree heading error as I neared Chicago Class B marred what was otherwise a perfect flight. I caught it long before the controller said anything. With all the recent experience I was flying as well as I ever had, and even though fatigue was at work I was happy.

Then the unexpected happened.

After fitting into a four-plane pattern at home base, on short final I realized the pilot was unconscious!

Relax. I was perfectly alert and awake. My loss of consciousness might even have been a good thing. Allow me to explain.

There are four stages to competence in anything, including piloting.

Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know what to do or how to do it. (What’s Angle of Attack?)

Conscious Incompetence: You kind of know what to do, but aren’t sure how to do it and you need help. (Isn’t Angle of Attack the angle of the relative wind to the chord line of the wing?)

Conscious Competence: You know what to do and how to do it, but it requires a lot of thought and effort and you are spring-loaded to watch for any mistakes. (Angle of Attack is everything! Angle of Attack controls airspeed, descent rate, glideslope! Trim for Angle of Attack! Never exceed the critical Angle of Attack! No More than 30 Degree Bank Base to Final, Keep Your Airspeed Up!)

Unconscious Competence: You know what to do and how to do it and sometimes do it without thinking about it. (Automatically release back pressure when close to the ground as you turn, constantly visualize Angle of Attack through the windscreen or the attitude indicator, estimate Angle of Attack through Turn Coordinator, Power Setting, Airspeed, and Vertical Speed Indicator and mentally see changes in Angle of Attack through the simultaneous position and relative change in each of the six primary instruments.)

Four stages of competence

As I approached the runway at 500 feet, I realized with a start that I had not completed my pre-landing checklist so I prepared for a go around.

Yet when I looked, the gas was on both, the landing gear was down and locked, the mixture and propeller were properly set, the cowl flaps were halfway, my seat belt tight and all my various switches were in the correct configuration. I was at 30 degrees of flaps, ready for the last 10. In other words, everything was perfect.

But for the life of me I could not remember doing any of these things. This bothered me greatly. I landed uneventfully with my stomach in my throat.

I’m the type of pilot who flies every flight at least three times, but only once in the plane. I visualize every flight the night before I leave, and review the flight in great detail the night I arrive. I make notes in my log book on what happened on that trip and enjoy picking a flight at random and reliving it.

Some of my flights have had learning moments and I refly those trips dozens of times in my mind. A few have had moments of such absolute beauty I try never to forget them.

The three that have been truly scary I have reflown hundreds of times. Like when I lost a cylinder on my first solo, let a thunderstorm sneak up on me as a student pilot, or talked myself into VFR into IMC after a radio failure.

I still think about those often, always with a chill up my spine.

pilot passed out
This type of unconsciousness could be bad, but are there other types that aren’t?

After my loss of consciousness, I sat in the cockpit, and really gave myself a tongue lashing. I have often worried that I would someday land gear up and so have always been rigorous about the landing check. Never before have I even been on downwind without knowing for sure the wheels were down and locked. I chastised myself repeatedly.

To try to figure out where I had gone wrong I played back the eight transmissions that my cockpit voice recorder retains to see if I could hear the gear going down in any of them. I could not, but I did hear something else.

As I thought deeply about this flight, I realized that my preoccupation with the other four aircraft in the pattern, as well as being prepared for the tailwind and sun glare as I turned west on the base leg, had taken the conscious part of my brain and everything else I did automatically, unconsciously.

I was able to recall that I had dropped the gear and run the checklist as I did the tear drop to the 45 degree pattern entry after I had overflown the field, right when I always do. But it was only when I heard my voice calling the overflight that I remembered.

Naturally I walked into the FBO and found one of my flight instructors. I told him my tale. He laughed.

“Do you remember opening the fence gate when you came around the building?” he asked. My befuddled expression answered for me so he continued. “How about pressing the brake when you parked your rental car in Tampa?”

I got his point. There are all types of things we do every day without really thinking about them. The lack of conscious thought does not make us automatically unsafe. I just had never had that experience in an airplane before.

I had arrived at that fourth stage of learning in my piloting. I was unconsciously competent.

Still, I fretted: Would being an unconscious pilot come back to bite me some day?

My very next flight my home FBO was out of gas, so I flew six miles to a neighboring airport to fill up before heading out. The ceiling was 1,600 feet and I would normally get a clearance with that weather, but I reasoned I was good for six miles — I wouldn’t be going over 1,000 feet anyway and I could fly an approach procedure in reverse that had a MDA of 550 AGL. No sweat, perfectly safe.

The wind was out of the west at 14 gusting to 20, but the runway is 100 feet wide, so I decided to practice my crosswind technique. Even though it was a quick one, I had plenty to think about on this scud run.

Carb heat knob
How’d that happen?

In 575 hours of flying this airplane, I had seldom used the carb heat. Since it is turbo-normalized, the engine nearly always produces enough warmth to keep the gauge well out of the yellow. I hadn’t considered the risk carb icing could bring on a brief trip this chilly, damp morning and afterwards couldn’t remember the last time I needed heat or even being consciously aware that I kept that particular gauge in my scan.

As I descended to turn base, I glanced at the panel without a thought. Immediately I spotted the carb temperature was slightly in the yellow. On reflex I pulled out the knob, and applied strong throttle to clear the engine. The Lycoming never stuttered, the gauge popped out of the yellow and again the arrival was routine – even though the crosswind landing wasn’t the best.

This is when it hit me: Maybe being an unconscious pilot is not so bad. Maybe, in fact, as long as unconsciousness does not equal complacency, it can be a good thing.

Is unconscious competence another way to describe experience? Does it make us safer pilots or less safe?

What do you think?

12 Comments

  • I personally voice it out.. I talk to myself during gumps and when done I tell myself “checklist complete, now quiet in the cockpit”… Crazy? Yes, but it helps with the process. In the scnario you described I can see how I maybe zipping thru the checklist at 400ft (because I’m not sure it was done or not) rather then focus on the landing.

  • Very interesting post, Mark.

    I’ve been watching a fascinating series on PBS this fall, “The Brain” hosted by Dr. David Eagleman. The PBS web page for this series is at http://www.pbs.org/the-brain-with-david-eagleman/home/. I highly commend this series to everyone, and to aircraft pilots especially.

    One of the episodes in the series focused on how the human brain actually processes sensory information based on our prior perceptions and experiences, essentially by building a model of the real world inside our head. The thesis here is that what we think we are doing most of the time – which is, we think we use our senses to perceive the world around us and then react accordingly in real time – isn’t actually true.

    Instead, most of the time we are reacting to the model inside our heads much more than to actual sensory perceptions.

    Apparently our brains evolved to perform in this manner because it allows us to react much more quickly and efficiently when we follow the model in our heads, which has had positive evolutionary results for our species. This is a sort of “pre-processing” of sensory information that frees our brains to focus on higher order matters of concern, what we might call the “big picture”.

    Otherwise, the incredible volumes of sensory information coming in from organs throughout our body, and communication and processing of this information between the billions of neurons in our brain, would slow down our reactions considerably. What we pilots refer to as the “seat of our pants”, or our “muscle memory” is actually the operation of this model in our heads that we build via our pilot training, flight practice, and experience.

    Of course, a problem arises when we depend too heavily on what the model in our head tells us, such as when our real time perceptions conflict with our expectations per the model in our brain. Defaulting to the model information in such conflicts is often called “confirmation bias”, or what we pilots might call “going on autopilot” or “relying too much on automation”, and of course succumbing to such confirmation bias can have disastrous consequences for pilots flying aircraft in the real world.

    Being able to operate an aircraft mostly subconsciously through this model in our brain is what allows us to “fly the aircraft” and complete the mission and deal with conflicts. Perceiving and properly reacting to changes in exterior conditions and circumstances is what makes complex human actions (like flying an airplane) possible. The trick, however, is to avoid confirmation bias, so that when conditions and circumstances conflict with the model we are able to consciously sift through the information and make informed adjustments.

  • This illustrates why we cannot talk on a cell phone while driving. I saw a driver talking on the phone, driving perfectly well and be totally unconscious of a stop sign. I caught myself once a bit unconscious about surrounding traffic and swore to never again talk and drive. Our brains are mysterious things.

  • Mark,
    Seems to me that you were experiencing a subtle form of fatigue. A five day trip with multiple meetings and strong urge to get home is the perfect set up, yes even with good weather.

    You were right to have an uneasy feeling. That nagging feeling shouldn’t be ignored its usually a precursor to an unpleasant event.

    • Hi Doug:

      Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it.

      Fatigue for sure was a factor. I flew from Tampa to middle Tennessee to Chicago that Friday.

      Is there a better way to spend a trip halfway around the sun? Not many.

      I am convinced it was more than just fatigue, and your point about intuition is another way to look at unconscious competence.

      This flight happened (and this article mostly written) over a year ago and in the 180 hours I have flown since then I have come to appreciate the things I perceive with out consciously thinking about them or looking for them. I am no longer afraid of it and welcome it as you suggest.

      For example, last Tuesday I was flying at night from Tampa to Birmingham toward a nasty storm.

      The trip was serene and without incident until in the pattern I looked at the GPS to read the track and (unconsciously – ha ha) saw my ground speed was 165 knots while the indicated was 105! A 60 knot wind shear was in my immediate future.

      I remembered Mr. Collin’s story about he and his son in Tulsa when they had a 70 knot shear on final.

      Sure enough, at about 400 feet the bottom dropped out. I had to red line the thing. The stall horn didn’t sound but boy oh boy was it a bronco ride to the asphalt.

      I was ready for it because I:

      1.) Saw the ground speed with out looking for it
      2.) Immediately linked it to Mr. Collin’s experience and I was ready to get ‘hot on the throttle’ which were the words he used. Those words immediately came to mind: ‘Be ready to get hot on the throttle’ I remember thinking as I turned base to final.

      I have watched three of the episodes of The Brain that Duane recommended above. Meh, I don’t see the direct link to my flying, but I think I have answered the questions I posed for myself in this article.

      Yes, unconscious competence is another way to describe experience and it makes me a safer pilot.

      I still do not understand how I am seeing the Carb Temp or the groundspeed at times I need it, and ignore it when I don’t. I have accepted it for what it is – a skill to add to the others I have gained.

      I think it might be because I have read and reread and reread again all of Mr. Collins books (and a few other authors) and therefore subconsciously know the dangers of the air and are alert to the symptoms of them below my conscious thought.

      I still remain ever mindful of the possibility that unconscious competence could come back to bite me. Therefore, I use a checklist for every single phase of every single flight.

      Sincerely,

      Mark Fay

  • Cool. I’ve always admired pilots who “wear the airplane”. They seem to innately know what to do and do the right thing at the right time. Call it whatever we want but remember it’s perishable.

    I enjoy your writing please keep it up.

  • Mark,
    Thanks for your insight. Most of what we do in life follows these principals and it is great to have them put in this context. I stress this all the time at work and as a student pilot I’m confident to say I”m at the Competant Comscious stage of my training. A few good book to read in support of this is Habits:The Power of Change and Outliers they will bring even more insight to this theory. Thanks again and isn’t flying a true delightful gift!
    Ed

  • Mark, “second nature.” Comes with more advanced training, and an inherent aversion to forgetting things, when they count. Keep up the good writing

  • I haven’t encountered this while flying but I have encountered it while driving. I sometimes forget to stop at the store on the way home from work because I get lost in thinking about other things. But when I fly or when I handle my personal firearms, I do not allow any other thoughts to distract me. I used to be an IP in the Air Force (T-38 and KC-135R) and now fly simple Cherokee 140s but I find I am just as alert and cautious flying this simple airplane. After roughly 1900 hours total time without an accident or incident, I keep myself alert by noting how lucky I’ve been and that my time might be overdue for having to handle an engine failure or something. I fly a little paranoid! Perhaps fatigue makes one much more susceptible to what you experienced.

    • Thanks, David.

      One of Mr. Collin’s comments in one of his books is that the safest pilot of all is the one that is a little paranoid and constantly looking for trouble. New pilots reading this: it is OK to fly with a touch of fear!

      Before I really understood how pilots make mistakes and crash planes, I always thought that I would WANT to be carefree in the cockpit. Not anymore. Phil Boyer, the former AOPA President changed my attitude. I used to be embarrassed by my constant concern for all risks in the air, and hid them from my fellow pilots and instructors. Then I read his comment that he always flies with a “Yellow streak a mile wide” down his back. Good enough for him, great for me.

      Now, I am inherently suspicious of a pilot who says they are never afraid in the cockpit.

      In the incident described in this article, I remember being worried about the 4 other planes (two of which were in front of me), a 12 knot tailwind out of the east on base (would become a tricky crosswind at this field on final – see Mr. Zimmerman’s recent article about a crash on this field in a light easterly breeze) and the low sun in the west obscuring my view on base. I couldn’t find the plane I was supposed to follow and turned base only because that pilot told me he had me in sight and was past me. I didn’t want to extend my downwind further with two planes behind. I was quite concerned about this and the concern didn’t leave until I turned final and saw the plane in front of me landing.

      Thank you and EVERYONE for their comments on this article.

  • The article reminded me of something… Go to an Army National Guard helicopter unit, and you will probably find a mix of former fixed-wing pilots and all-rotary-wing pilots. Watch he difference when they do a slope landing. It took me hundreds of hours in helicopters before I was comfortable doing slope landings, while the rotary-only guys were never bothered by them. I am sure it has more to do with your brain’s prior programming than anything else.

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