Although we have already delved into a few psychological aspects of gliding, so far we have only scratched the surface. This contribution is specifically tailored for up-and-coming cross country pilots. It deals with the mindset of budding and ambitious novices before they venture beyond the gliding range of their home airfield for the first time.
By Bernard Eckey
Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone
We all love aviation because of its many rewards and countless unforgettable experiences, but there is no denying that it involves a certain element of risk. With lots of experience under your belt, you know that gliding is only as risky as you make it and common sense goes a long way towards minimising or eliminating danger. Newcomers, on the other hand, are often concerned that flying beyond gliding range can be hazardous and are frequently adamant that such endeavours would push their own boundaries a little too far. It is therefore no wonder that most new pilots face a mild case of anxiety or butterflies prior to ‘leaving the nest’.
The reasons are plentiful and understandable. Their butterflies might stem from a lack confidence in their own thermal finding skills or about outlanding concerns. Other reasons might include worries about navigational issues or mental overload situations but all of this is normal and as old as the sport of gliding. Such reservations can’t be surgically repaired. Instead, it must be gradually removed by venturing near the very edge of the gliding range of our home airfield on a regular basis.
Such serious training will gradually provide a reasonable level of comfort, which is absolutely crucial for making quick progress and for becoming an accomplished pilot. However, a large number of glider pilots keep operating within their comfort zone for much too long. Put differently, they are reluctant to do anything that hasn’t previously been done with an instructor or coach on board.
All these timid pilots fail to make real progress and are all too often limiting their soaring to the extended circuit area. As soon as this novelty has worn off, monotony sets in and boredom gains the upper hand. Before long our newcomers look for a more satisfying pastime and, before we know it, we have lost another potential long-term member.
On rarer occasions we meet newcomers with a more adventurous turn of mind. They accept a new challenge on a regular basis and are keen experimenters. After mastering a self-imposed challenge they rightly bathe in their success, they feel recharged and they emerge with an increased level of confidence. No wonder their comfort zone rapidly expands and their progress is obvious and clear to see for everyone. These newcomers are clearly enjoying themselves and are having loads of fun. The thought of quitting never enters their mind.
These two case studies clearly indicate that the individual’s preparedness to go the extra step towards expanding their comfort zone is essential for quick progression and for making the transition to a regular cross country pilot. The most obvious question is, “What can a timid newcomer do to overcome his or her reservations?” The answer is straightforward. First, the newcomer needs to decide whether he or she really wants to become a cross country pilot and, if so, whether he or she is prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. If the decision is yes, the only remaining question is how.
Here are a few suggestions
l Talk to your instructor and request permission to perform a right hand circuit onto a runway that you have so far only used for left hand circuits -- or vice versa.
l Consider a voluntary landing away from the home airfield! Again, talk to your instructor first and get permission for an outlanding only a few kilometres down the road. A nearby airstrip would also be suitable, but either way, it provides a first class chance to get out of that comfort zone again.
l Venture near the edge of the gliding range to your base and practice final glides in headwind and tailwind situations. Take note of the arrival height and fine-tune your approach distance on the next attempt.
l If you are the type of pilot who likes to return to the circuit area with at least 1,000ft to spare, I suggest you make an attempt to get out of this habit and deliberately put yourself into a position where you have to fly accurately, efficiently and cleanly to make it back to the airfield with just enough height for a normal circuit. (Of course, this applies only to airfields with landing options along the approach path.)
Accepting such challenges tends to focus the mind wonderfully and the reward for operating at the limit of your comfort zone is a vastly increased level of proficiency and competency. It also gives you a much better feel for the true performance of your aircraft and you can confidently judge what is safe and what is not – an essential skill for any future cross-country flying. Whatever you do, make sure you never let your aircraft take you to places your brain hasn’t been to a few minutes earlier. In other words, have a ‘Plan B’ and make sure it can always be safely implemented.
Dealing with fear
We have already mentioned that our sport is not entirely free of risks. Yes, we can minimise it but we cannot eliminate it completely. Even a slight exposure to risks can trigger apprehension or even fear in persons with a low stress threshold and limited experience. When humans sense danger they respond with fear that, under control, ensures that they are vigilant and act in a more disciplined way. As such, fear is important and essential as it protects us from injury and potentially even from loss of life. On the other hand, fear can be a real obstacle to learning because in such situations, the brain is no longer capable of absorbing new information. This crucial fact is often not fully understood.
Sports scientists claim, with evidence, that progress can only be expected when participants constantly seek to extend themselves by training outside of their comfort zone. Put differently, to make progress we need to accept new challenges – even if it causes uneasiness or even a bit of discomfort. That may sound absurd, but it is scientifically undisputed. As soon as this uneasiness or discomfort is overcome it ensures rapid progress, which in turn makes our sport far more fulfilling and more interesting.
In her book 'Move Closer – Stay Longer', Dr Stephanie Burns delves deeper into the nature of fear and its effect on learning. She concluded that moving out of their comfort zone gets most humans into an area of increased discomfort. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone but it is exactly in this area of increased discomfort where learning happens quickly and efficiently. Too far out from comfort, however, can arouse fear. Regardless whether this fear is irrational, obsessive, phobic or based on incorrect information, it greatly interferes with learning. All too often it creates panic and useless, counterproductive action or no action at all. As a result we prematurely give up before we have any chance of learning something new.
Not So Scary
My practical experience underlines these findings without reservation. As an example, I can report on some ridge soaring flights with typical flatland pilots on board. My co-pilots were initially very apprehensive and did not like flying in ridge lift relatively close to steep and rather rugged mountains. However, after less than half an hour they were fully relaxed and began to enjoy the beautiful scenery. After another half hour or so they were quite happy to take the controls and copy my flying style. The lesson is clear and obvious to see for all: activities initially seen as scary become far less frightening after prolonged and controlled exposure.
Let’s look at another example. If we have the goal of soaring beyond gliding range of our airfield, we may develop a fear of outlanding at a strange place. This may cause us to avoid the new challenge and invent reason after reason for attempting the flight at some later date. Willingly engaging in an unsettling activity is certainly not easy and the question arises, “What we can do about it?”
Some of the suggestions made earlier might come to mind but concerns about outlanding can also be removed by refresher training with an instructor or coach on board. Fear quickly disappears by practicing outlandings under supervision. A motorglider is a perfect tool for this as it allows repeated outlanding simulations in a relatively short period of time, under different conditions and over different terrain. You are well advised not to pass up such opportunities when they present themselves.
Another efficient method of overcoming nervousness in novice cross-country pilots is to fly in pairs. This enhances the feeling of security, and a possible outlanding seems less daunting with a fellow pilot in the vicinity. This also lessens the uneasiness about perceived navigation problems and, with GPS technology on board, any remaining apprehension disappears even further. Experience is pooled and decision making, including whether to press on with the task or to turn back in the face of difficulties, is shared. In short, the biggest favour an experienced cross-country pilot can do for a novice is to take him or her ‘in tow’ on a few early flights away from the home airfield. The next best approach is to take our more timid friends on a lengthy cross-country flight in a two-seater.
Let’s sum it up: to have fear is human, to overcome it requires a strategy, and to laugh is what we do when the blips on the fear radar gradually disappear. Every action we take, no matter how small, is one step closer to our goal and another step we never have to take again. These steps might be difficult at first but the rewards far outweigh the early sacrifices.
Believe in your ability to succeed
This is perhaps my most important suggestion. You have every reason to believe you’ll succeed. The stronger you are in this belief, the more effort you are likely to expend in shaking off some less desirable habits, and the more you want to persist in the face of an obstacle. Why not dwell on your accomplishments rather than on your failures? Often, our old selves have deep-rooted habits, half-baked ideas, concerns about limitations and perhaps even the fear of failure. A negative frame of mind doesn’t go with gliding. Be your own coach, and remember that every time you work on your soaring skills you are getting one step closer to your goals and ambitions. Let that inspire you!
Adopt a new way of thinking – positive thinking. This is what it all comes down to in the end. Winners face life with a positive attitude and focus on successful outcomes. Winners never quit and quitters most certainly never win.