Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Listen Up!

Bull sessions can sometimes impart valuable lessons

THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE. Although actual experience may be the best teacher, paying close attention to people who are in a position to share their knowledge with you is just as important.
All of us will reach a stage in life when we’ve lost or are losing friends (as they slip away physically, mentally or both). Some of my older friends are immensely experienced and talented aviators, designers or engineers. In most cases, they’re all of the above. All of them are outstanding human beings who have lived lives we should admire (some spanning 90 years or more). I can’t help but feel sad knowing what a massive amount of irreplaceable knowledge is stored in their mental hard drives—which they’ll eventually take with them. That’s one of the more frustrating aspects of life: We’re constantly reinventing simple truths that those who came before already knew.

I suppose every field, whether it’s widget counting or nuclear physics, faces the same saw-toothed battle with preserving knowledge: We’re constantly building and then losing it. In aviation, this loss of information may be more tangible and obvious because those aviators we admire most are more than just pilots: Their experiences have equipped them to learn much more about the art and science of airplanes than is represented by their logbooks or by their diplomas (or lack thereof). The amount of pure, indefinable art involved in flying airplanes may be what makes it so difficult to put all that stored-up knowledge into the pages of textbooks (or other easy-to-pass-along packages).

As hard-core as the hardware may be and as scientific as all the aerodynamic theories may be, there are some fundamental aspects (I hesitate to say fundamental facts) about airplanes that exist in gray areas. We often know what’s theoretically supposed to happen in an airplane in a given situation, but it frequently doesn’t. And although there’s, undoubtedly, a scientific explanation in which equations and graphs will reduce a thing to logical facts, in many cases, you’ll have the most learned people on the planet butting heads about what’s actually happening at that moment. And then, one of those people, which includes some of my friends who have been at this for a million years, scratches his or her head, says a few quick sentences and sorts the entire thing out. Or at least is able to reduce the misunderstood theories to thoroughly understandable ways of dealing with the situation in the real world. These people seem to know the answers intuitively. However, what sometimes appears to be intuition is actually a form of unconscious, long-term trend analysis: After you’ve seen the same thing happen enough times, you know what to do the next time it shows up.


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