The “basics” have saved my life, more than once.

The “basics” are a critical foundation to learning any new subject.  They’ve saved my life on more than one occasion.

For four years of my life, I professionally taught people how to fly airplanes.

L-29 Delfin
The L-29 Delfin was the Soviet jet-trainer of choice during the early Cold War period.

It’s something I’m surprisingly good at.  The regional FAA examiner used to refer to me as “Ace”*, not because of my flying skills, but rather, because of the quality students I sent to him for evaluation.  During those four years, not a single one of my students failed: a nearly unheard of statistic.

* [Simply “Brandon” would have been more to my liking, but it’s not something you get to choose in that line of work.]

While immensely proud of the hard work my students put in to achive that pass-rate, it’s not what I’m most proud of during that period of my life. The high point of me is that two students (and myself) are still alive today because my instructors took the time and care that was needed to ensure I had the best understanding and practice of the “basics” when I was learning how to fly. I’m proud of them — my mentors. I’m a difficult student. It took a lot to put up with me.

Without that I most assuredly would not be around today to write this post.

Some background: Pilots, as a matter of their basic flight worthiness, train for emergencies. One such emergency that is often practiced is the event of an in-flight engine failure. The public is most likely familiar with this idea from the wet landing of US Airways Flight 1549:

(C) NY Daily News / Maria Bailey
(C) NY Daily News / Maria Bailey

One of the most deadly times an in-flight engine failure can occur is immediately after take off when no suitable locations for ditching the airplane (like the middle of the Hudson River) exist directly ahead of the plane.  In this scenario,  the pilot has only one option: attempt a u-turn back towards the airport.

This is such a difficult maneuver that it has earned the nickname “the impossible turn” in piloting circles.  Statistics show that somewhere between 80% and 90% of aircraft that are forced into this maneuver of last resort crash — typically with fatal results for everyone aboard.

Here is a video of a successful attempt:

While acting as a flight instructor — coaching students when they were flying — this happened to me twice.

And I say “me” because even though the student was the one in control of the airplane during the start of the failure, and there’s a lot to be gained by letting students work through problems without help,  I took over as soon as I recognized the issue was life threatening.

For those of you that my already have some aversion to flying, I should stress  that this is an extremely rare event. It occurs in a statistical sense to general aviation type aircraft (“small planes”) once every 50,000 hours of flight.  In both cases the engine failure was a result of easily avoidable, poor maintenance practices — but that’s a story for another time.

On to the basics…. To execute this turn, the pilot must possess a  solid foundational knowledge of the aerodynamics involved and an even better “feel” for the aircraft — after all, this is a kinesthetic exercise. It’s a high standard to begin with, but as an added complication, the pilot must be able to recall these things in a split second and act on them under the stress of an incipient fatal crash.

The positioning, speed, and orientation of the aircraft in its takeoff configuration give a window of only a few seconds to react successfully to an engine failure. The execution of the maneuver that follows must be near-perfect. For this to work, the pilot has to push the aircraft to the very edge of its operational envelope and hold it there. Any deviation will  result in one of two things happening:

  • The plane will stall and crash, or
  • The plane will run out of altitude (energy) before making it back to the airport (and crash)

For me, I only was able to perform at this this level thanks to practicing the fundamental skill set that makes up pilotage… the boring stuff… the “rote” movements of flying an airplane… the basics… over and over and over again. And doing so while in the presence of an experienced instructor that cared enough to provide an honest critique of my performance (over and over and over again).  It was frustrating and (at the time) it didn’t seem to have much of a purpose, but looking back on it, I’m grateful my instructors had the wisdom to hold me to a higher standard than most do. I would imagine my two students are grateful as well.

Some activities in life require training to a standard of “right and wrong”. Getting too creative, too early, can be dangerous.  That’s not to say we can’t develop or grow past this point with experience, wisdom, and creativity, but as instructors, it’s our duty to know where and when this is advisable for a student. When it is, sometimes we must push them to grow. In other cases, we have to advise them to slow down and refocus on the the necessary and sufficient aspects that span the discipline: the basics.



4 Replies to “The “basics” have saved my life, more than once.”

  1. Hi Brandon, your post was great… Usually I tend to skip lengthy posts, however the title of yours, the quick intro and the picture told me to read it… I agree with you about knowing the basics being crucial in some circumstances, and well definitely in emergency situations…and I am really glad that your instructors and you delivered them with such conciousness….At the same time, you pointed out to the importance of “feeling” the aircraft, and that took me to the ideal combination of really knowing the basics, but also being mindful about the moment and with all your senses open… without that, even knowing the basics could have resulted in not a happy story…now to put a context, I think is also important to differentiate the “basics” and how these basics are thought…under fixed environment they could be useless, but if thought thinking in changing environments, like all the variables and uncertainties pilots face in an emergency, then that makes all the difference.

  2. Hi Brandon, you have made a good point about the basics. It makes me rethink what are the basics. When the lack of a solid foundation of certain knowledge, skills, and ability has very bad consequences, it means these are the basics. The basics form an initial conceptual framework, without which the mind has nothing to work with or to be mindful.

  3. Appreciated your post Brandon. I am not a bad driver (some people may disagree) but I have driven enough that some thing just become second nature. I cannot describe how difficult it was to re-learn to drive when I came to the US…I had to mirror image everything…but I had strong basic knowledge of driving safety that was second nature by the time I got here. Similarly, there are times, like you’ve described above that, our basics prove to be the most useful…in both situations of driving and flying we don’t want to get too creative because when it comes to life safety it is imperative that we save our life and of those around us. I don’t think that the premise of mindful teaching is asking us to sacrifice that. You made a good observation in your post “as instructors, it’s our duty to know where and when this is advisable for a student”…so I am wondering when you think as an educator, would it be advisable to be creative? Definitely not up in the air when the engine is failing…but what about in the safety of the educational environment…?!

  4. Brandon – I’m going to agree with you on this one. I believe students should have the basics (within their own field of study) stored in their brains, ready to be used at any given time. Every university and department has their own way of conducting preliminary exams. Even within the Food Science department, committees may do things a bit differently, however there are typically two types of obstacles each PhD student must go through; one being a written exam, the other being an oral exam. In the written exam, the student is allowed to use whatever materials they need (i.e. textbooks, publications, the Internet, etc.). However, the oral exams are completely closed and the student is forced to use information off of the top of their heads. I think it is because as you said, the basics are important. Although we sometimes have to solve complex problems within a processing facility or for designing a food safety plan, most of the issues come down to entry-level food science concepts like factors affecting microbiological growth or basic chemical reactions. Although these decisions are not nearly as vital as those made in the experiences you described, sometimes decisions related to food are the difference between someone consuming a safe food product or falling very ill, so it is essential that we get it right.

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