Letting your thoughts drift when you’re flying can be very dangerous.
Have you ever been comfortable at cruise, sitting snuggly in your seat, warm and cozy, in smooth air? You probably begin to wonder what you will; be having for dinner on your overnight. In aviation, if our mind is somewhere other than in the cockpit, it can cause us a bit of grief. Even worse, it could lead to tragedy.
Mindfulness and its benefits
How do you keep your mind where it is supposed to be, in the “here and now”? the ability to stay within this present state is often referred to as “mindfulness”. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mindfulness can be defined as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. What benefits can be reaped from mindfulness? Plenty. Practitioners of mindfulness have lower levels of “rumination”, essentially fretting over life, individuals had “significantly better working capacity and were better sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group. Reduced stress is betterment.
Staying focused in the cockpit
In a study performed by Meland, Fonne, Wagstaff, and Pensgaard on pilots – Norwegian combat pilots specifically – after 24 months of mindfulness training it was found that the pilots had less performance angst, were able to stay focused and did not let their wits get away from them. How does mindfulness practically play out in day-to-day operations?
How many times have you driven home from work and not remembered much if any of the drive? That is your “mental autopilot” at work. At some point, while operating on “mental autopilot,” a crew member entered V speeds for a different configuration. The departure wasn’t pretty, but at least no one could have turned out differently.
Mission completion bias
Another example of missing mindfulness is when pilots get trapped in “mission completion bias,” or what is less affectionately known as “get -there-it is.” Why is it that so many pilots run out of gas so close to the destination? Or why so many scud running pilots end up in trees or mountain? It’s because they cannot recognize that they are allowing themselves be fooled by “but I am so close” or “I have to get there right now.” If pilots can slow down and examine their motives, they can examine their relative sanity.
Lack of being present – mindful of what should be versus of what is – can make all the difference in aviation.
Similarly, not recognizing when your mind is pulling the wool over your eyes is asking for trouble. Take for example the infamous Tenerife collision. The captain of the Boeing 747 that decided to take off prematurely was likely in a hurry.
How do pilots become more mindful?
Although there is no correct answer, the traditional way of developing mindfulness is through meditation. By taking time to practice noticing thoughts and staying present, usually by focusing on one’s breath or a specific object, is a formal way to become more in tune with the way your mind works.
Mindfulness is simply a pause in action or thought that is running amok. The simple act of noticing thoughts that distract us from what is going on in the moment can be a valuable tool for any pilot. So next time you notice your mind drifting from the present, respect it by hurried” or “I am thinking of something relevant” and return to the task at hand. You can slow down or realize that you can plan your dinner for next Tuesday, next Tuesday.
Article by – David Ison (PhD/ 32 years of experience flying aircraft ranging from light singles to widebody jets. Currently he is an associate professor for the College of Aeronautics at ERAU-WW.)