It’s often said that habits get started early in life and stick with us. Unfortunately, that’s true for habits both good and bad. So it’s important to develop good habits early and nurture them while learning how to keep from picking up bad habits along the way.
If you’re a pilot, you understand how fundamental it is to develop good habits and how critical it is to undo the bad ones. I understood all of this in my teens, even if I wasn’t good at executing on the plan. It wasn’t until I started my primary flight training that I started to really get it, that I understood that to become a good and safe pilot I needed to develop good habits more effectively than I could in the rest of my life. I just needed to learn how to do that.
As it turned out, nobody ever showed me how. And the more I’ve researched this story, the more convinced I am of the fact that almost no one in the flight instruction game gives much thought to the dynamics of developing good habits and breaking bad ones. Don’t get me wrong: They teach what things to do habitually, and they do that really well. What they don’t teach you is how to build good habits and break bad ones.
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I remember the flight very clearly, probably because it was one of my very first flights and because I did many of the landings on it. I was good at landing. It was on one of those first flights that Sam Hall, the only instructor I’d ever known in my short hours in the cockpit, demonstrated just how to use the “GUMPS” pre-landing checklist while on a slightly bumpy desert afternoon on an atypically long final to Runway 18.
The GUMPS mnemonics-based pre-landing checklist is surely the most-used memory checklist in pilots’ bag of tricks, though it’s hardly the only one. There are cute memory checklists for when you take the runway for takeoff—“Lights, Cameras, Action”—and there are checklists for when you do your pre-takeoff checklist—CIGARS (controls, instruments, gas, attitude, runup and safety). These quick and easy-to-remember guides help pilots run through a quick check of critical systems without having to get out a paper checklist and look down at it while in a critical phase of flight.
I’m guessing that GUMPS and CIGARS were introduced to me around the same time, but what I remember is my first encounter with GUMPS in flight. As all pilots know, “GUMPS” stands for “GAS, UNDERCARRIAGE, MIXTURE, PROP,” and the catchall, “SECURITY,” every step of which is designed to help ensure a smooth arrival with no loud and expensive surprises. While there are other important letters on the GUMPS list, the “U” is the most pressing. You’re likely to survive missing any of the other four important steps, but if you forget to extend the gear, it’ll be an expensive and embarrassing mistake. Though you’ll most likely survive that, too.
Even though I was a new student pilot, GUMPS was familiar. Unlike some kids new to the left seat, I’d been around airplanes enough to know what GUMPS meant and what the idea behind it was.
I didn’t know enough, however, not to ask Sam why we bothered with the “U” part of it when we were flying a Piper Warrior, a plane with fixed landing gear. Checking that the gear was down seemed silly and redundant.
Sam, a 40-something retired Air Force master sergeant and ever the cool character and, I suspect, a secret coffee-drinking, Camel-smoking Zen master, said simply, “It’s not for the airplane you’re flying now. It’s for all the ones with retractable gear that you’re going to be flying.” This knowledge is not rare. In fact, pilots have enshrined this notion in a joke. When the call on the checklist is GEAR, the response is “down and welded.” The joke is that we run the list anyway. That’s exactly its power, to get us in the habit of not forgetting to check even when things are fine so we don’t forget to check that one time in a thousand when they might not be.
Habit is unavoidable in life, and in this regard, pilots are like everyone else. The longer we do things, the more likely we are to fall into habits. It’s just the way human brains work. Whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing is debatable depending on the circumstances, but there’s no denying we’re creatures of habit.
We often think of habit as it pertains to negative behavior, everything from procrastination to addiction, and bad habits can be fiendishly difficult to break. The supposedly dire threat that someone will drop a friend “like a bad habit” really shouldn’t sound all that threatening. The odds of our returning to the negative patterns of our past are staggeringly high.
With most things in life, bad habits are not life or death issues, though the long-term consequences of not getting to the gym regularly or continuing to smoke long after we know just how bad it is for us or habitually grabbing that snack before bedtime can be dire.
Still, when it comes to our aviation behaviors, bad habits can be deadly, and not in a slow, cumulative way. They can be so deadly, in fact, that we should have a sense of urgency in spotting them and cutting them out of our flying patterns of behavior.
How to undo the power of habit, however, is a vexing problem, one that powers multi-billion-dollar industries for helping people drop every imaginable kind of habit, from puffing on cigarettes to letting their bedrooms get messy. The business models associated with those patches, pills and self-help books are solid, as the support they offer clients works only well enough to be tantalizing and keep people coming back for more after their initial attempts to turn away from temptation have fizzled.
There is hope. In his must-read book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” author Charles Duhigg dissects these instinctual, repetitive behaviors and draws upon the best, most recent science to describe what the nature of a habit is exactly while looking at the good (and bad) they do, and, finally, why it’s so hard to form positive ones and so easy to give into negative ones. And he dispenses some simple advice on how people can use the power of habit to make their lives better.
The most important step, according to behavioral experts, is admitting you have bad habits—we all do—and then identifying those habits, figuring out how to combat them, and deciding upon a plan to replace them with good ones.
Go ahead: Ask yourself if you have any bad flying habits. The answer is almost certainly “yes,” and if that’s the case, how can you break those bad habits? Perhaps even more importantly, how can you create new, good habits? If the answer is “no,” then you really need to make sure to get rid of those bad habits you’re not even admitting you have.
Some habits, like failing to check the weather before going on a short flight to a different airport, are bad and can get you into trouble in a hundred different ways. Why do pilots fail to check the conditions before they rotate? Because flying is a lot more fun than checking the weather, at least for most of us, and the less checking you do, the sooner you get to go flying.
Turning it around, some habits, like draining the fuel sumps as part of your preflight checks, are really good. Bad fuel doesn’t cause many accidents, but if you’re above a solid deck when the engine starts sucking an unholy mixture of air, fuel and H2O, you’ve got a problem. Despite this risk being no secret, lots of pilots still fail to check their fuel before they go flying. Why? Again, it’s because it’s not nearly as much fun as going flying. It can be messy and smelly, in fact. And after all, when’s the last time you found water in your fuel?
I’ve been flying for a good long time, and I’ve found H2O in my sample bottle maybe three or four times, so a little more than once a decade. So I’ve turned it into a game. Whenever the plane’s been outside for a while, if it’s been washed, if it has supposedly fresh fuel in it, I’ll drain the sumps. My reward is finding water. If I do, then I know I prevented a bad experience. Good job, me! If there’s no water, I have that feeling of confidence that comes with being pretty darn sure your fuel is blue, smells like avgas and isn’t hiding part of last week’s thundershower.
Habits are so important to safety that they have been incorporated into standard operating procedures on all commercial flights. Checklists, carefully delineated duties between the captain and first officer, thorough record-keeping and regular, enforced routine all add up to a great level of safety in commercial flying. All of this is just another way to bring good habits into the cockpit and keep bad ones from creeping in.
A friend and veteran flight instructor, Jessica Koss, who also happens to work for Garmin, says that she uses checklists and “memory joggers” extensively to help her students develop good habits.
“To help my students develop and maintain good habits in-flight, I employ memory techniques and ingrain them into their day-to-day flight training so they become natural. Perhaps more importantly, I do these same checklist items out loud on every flight—whether I am solo, with a student or with my family.” She adds that, “Other memory items I like to use include ‘red over white, you’re all right’ as it relates to landing with a VASI and the A-B-C emergency flow checklist (airspeed, best place to land, checklist). I also have some really silly memory joggers that are not suitable for printing but, hey, if it helps students remember specific items in-flight and develops good habits as a result, then that’s a win.”
Regular Plane & Pilot columnist and CFI Jason Blair thinks that instructors in general aren’t very good at teaching how to develop good habits, and he thinks the problem is just getting worse. Thinking in terms of habit, Blair says, “is an approach that has taken years of instruction for me to gain as an instructor, but this is something that younger instructors don't get enough experience in the 7 to 10 months they do the job before moving on to an airline gig, and it definitely isn't something that they get training about beyond the basic testing in the FOI knowledge test and the short portion on their initial CFI practical test.” Instead, he says, “they are left pretty much to figure this out on their own from there.”
Are there ways to beat the odds and develop good habits as pilots while getting rid of the bad ones? There are, but like everything else having to do with habits, it can be hard work. In his book, Duhigg says that the key to establishing good habits is to, of course, figure out what, ideally, you want to be doing, make it part of a routine, and then reward yourself for doing it. Sounds easy, but this process is fiendishly difficult.
First, few of us want to admit we have bad habits. Ego and wishful thinking work hand in hand to motivate us to believe we’re one of those pilots who moves through life in the air like an angel, always making the right call effortlessly. It’s not true. We all screw up. We all tend toward shortcuts and easy fixes, and it’s easier for us to believe that we’re perfect than that we’re flawed. But if safety is the goal, we all need to admit the flaws and work to fix them.
Still, the process can be tricky. One of the toughest tasks is to come up with good rewards for stuff that’s no fun and hardly ever matters. For instance, why should you double-check that your tail isn’t still tied down? Duhigg suggests you experiment. My pre-flight routine has a special step in it that I invented myself. At the tail of the airplane, I crouch low and check the belly for excess oil, the inflation of the tires (as best I can see from there) and whether the tie down ropes and chocks are removed. My reward for this is easy. I feel smart for doing this one simple step that accomplishes three or four good things.
Another good strategy is to incorporate fear of embarrassment into the routine. I know a person, who shall remain nameless, who had to apply quite a bit of power to the Skylane he was attempting to taxi in order to get it rolling from the parking spot on the ramp in Florida it had previously been tied down on. I was, I mean, he was running a little late and wanted to get back home before it got too late. The reason it was so hard to get rolling was, of course, that the plane wouldn’t move much until it broke the tiedown rope still attached to the tail. The guy on the Unicom very nicely advised over frequency that it looked as though I was trailing something from the tail. Of course, he knew what it was and was just being nice. And I would have been okay had I flown off with that rope trailing behind me. But that’s not always the case. Preparing to go out on a photo shoot one time, I noticed just as we were getting started that the subject plane across the ramp from our photo ship still had the tow bar attached to the nose. I got on the radio right away and alerted them. They shut down, no damage done. We all joked about it later, and it did look funny, but it wasn’t. Tow bars forgotten in place can and have caused catastrophic mishaps. Had it not been a photo shoot, who knows if anyone would have given them a heads up.
Longtime CFI Joy Finnegan focuses her instructional attention on really critical matters to help her students develop good habits where they matter most. “As a CFI,” she says, “I was a stickler for fuel management, since so many GA accidents are the result of fuel starvation. From the very first flights with a brand new student, before the checklist for start, I would cover the fuel gauges with my hand and ask them to tell me exactly how much fuel is onboard. Then, throughout the flight, I would do the same thing, forcing them to actively know how much fuel is onboard the entire flight.”
Another suggestion Duhigg has is to incorporate your desired habit into existing routines. In the case of checking the weather, if you’re planning your flight, make the weather check a part of that same routine. Maybe incorporate a cup of coffee into the routine, something pleasurable. It really seems to work.
One habit I have yet to form is consistent checklist following. I will often use a flow in lieu of a written checklist. It works, but I think it would be more reliable to use a written one or one on an iPad or the MFD, if so equipped. Why don’t I? It’s because I’m lazy and impatient, and running hard-copy checklists takes time. And many checklists seem too long or cover too many steps. Some have what seem to be too many steps, each one of them taking a certain amount of time. While it only takes a few minutes in most planes to run the lists, a few minutes can seem like 20 when all you really want to do is go flying.
Why worry so much about building good habits? What are the perks? In other areas of life, that part is usually pretty self-evident. In exercise, it’s getting in shape. In writing, it’s getting words down on paper. But in flying, it’s not that easy. The reward often is what doesn’t happen, like leaving a smoking hole in the earth. But things that don’t happen don’t feel like rewards, so we need to get creative sometimes.
I’m planning to leave some licorice treats in my flight bag to reward myself for doing really well with my checklists. Only problem is, I’ll have to develop the habit of not eating them all before I get to my first destination.