When I attended Long Beach City College in pursuit of my degree in Aviation, Professional Pilot, the department chair, Steven King, once said to me, “You’re going to make it to the airlines. You’ve got the right mindset.” I didn’t know what he meant. I just knew I would do whatever needed to be done to achieve that goal.
“Mindset.” What a great word. Straightforward and direct.
One definition of mindset, taken from a Psychology Today article by Dr. Gary Klein, suggests that a mindset is “a belief that orients the way we handle situations — the way we sort out what is going on and what we should do.”
Pilots quickly move from the relatively static, safe environment of land life into the dynamic, relatively dangerous flight deck environment once we step inside an aircraft. When it comes to mindset, we must possess a fixed mindset, but be able to adapt when needed.
One general aviation pilot discovered this during a SNAFU that precipitated filing a report to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.
He arrived at the field and did a modified preflight flow. He readied his airplane, jotted down the ATIS, obtained his clearance, and taxied out to the run-up area. Everything was a bit faster than normal because he’d called ahead to the FBO and requested they preflight his plane. The short flight had been scheduled as his transportation to a business meeting, and he was already running behind schedule. He put pressure on himself to make the meeting on time.
“Upon completion of my checklist and takeoff preparations, I happened to glance at my iPhone. I saw an urgent message from my daughter,” he wrote.
What followed next was him pulling out of takeoff sequence and a text exchange with her. Once that was sorted out, he picked up where he thought he’d left off — that is, he taxied to the active runway and departed.
“At about 600 AGL, I received a call from the Tower rightfully informing me that I had not called them as ready for takeoff, and they had not cleared me to take off.”
In his report he admitted failure to maintain the correct mindset.
“I was not appropriately relaxed and focused to begin with, and the text message that I happened to see before takeoff added to my distraction.”
Interestingly, he cited his lack of a relaxed state as a contributing factor in his inability to remain focused. Aviation studies have shown that a stressed person is more prone to become fixated, get tunnel vision, and fail to respond to environmental cues. His daughter’s texts exacerbated his stressed condition and caused him to fixate on completing the mission, making him blind to environmental clues, like the checklist sitting in his lap.
“I lost track of where I was in the sequence of my checklist, and I didn’t stop to verify where I was and get back in it,” he wrote.
Having lost track, but determined to make up for lost time, he assumed he was good to go and proceeded to take off.
Some of the corrective actions he vowed to take included turning off his phone and stowing it in his flight bag; writing down all his future clearances, from taxi to takeoff; and doing whatever it takes to get himself focused on the flight before he steps into the plane.
We are taught the flight environment is dynamic, so we learn the mission mindset: Plan for obstacles and prepare to defeat them to accomplish the mission. A Pilatus PC-12 pilot had to file a NASA report because his mission mindset pushed him to continue a takeoff despite trims being out of range.
During his taxi checks, he tested the autopilot. The yaw trim remained in a full right deflection while the stabilizer trim remained in a “half down” position.
“I missed seeing them out of trim even though I looked,” he wrote.
Once airborne he adjusted the trim and continued the flight.
“I could have caught it either at the checklist or aborted takeoff point of the flight, but didn’t,” he admitted.
He also acknowledged that his mission mindset overrode his “abort unless everything is okay” mindset. The Pilatus PC-12 is a single engine turboprop that produces a tremendous amount of P-factor on takeoff, which requires a large rudder input during takeoff and rotation. His secondary flight controls out of range could have put him in an unrecoverable position during these critical first phases of flight.
The pilot wrote in his report he realized he’d never taken into consideration the real dangers of taking off with his yaw trim and stabilizers fully deflected. He concluded that playing out worst case scenarios in his head might broaden his mission mindset on future flights.
A CFI filed a NASA report after he let his “passenger mindset” result in a near mid-air collision. He and a fellow pilot had flown over to Bob Maxwell Memorial Airfield (KOKB) in Oceanside, California. He’d flown down and it was the other pilot’s turn to fly back.
“I was relaxing and mentally disengaged with more of a passenger mindset,” he wrote.
The two ran through the takeoff procedures after the run-up, and the PIC verbally noted the “fly friendly” noise abatement sign at the departure end of the runway.
They waited while a C-172 took off in front of them. Shortly afterward, his friend took the runway and departed. Initially the two planes flew in trail. Eventually the lead C-172’s path diverged to the left as it followed the river. The flight instructor verbally noted where the traffic was. He received an acknowledgement, but the pilot flying the plane took no corrective action.
“There was a scattered layer above us, which momentarily caused a level-off. On my next glance I noticed the 172 had turned northbound and our courses were nearly perpendicular,” he wrote.
The level-off to avoid clouds put the two airplanes at the same altitude. The pilot flying acknowledged the other plane’s position, but again failed to take any action. When the flight instructor realized a NMAC was about to occur, he warned the flying pilot, with no resulting action.
“I immediately looked inside and saw the PIC with his head down at the iPad. At that point I assumed the controls and initiated a pitch-up and climbed the aircraft through a break in the clouds,” he wrote.
The Cessna passed below and behind at an estimated range of 400′ diagonally.
During the debrief of the event with his fellow pilot, the flight instructor attributed the NMAC to poor communication and poor crew resource management. His passenger mindset kept him from performing a proper takeoff departure briefing and from paying attention to the mental and psychological condition of the pilot flying.
“Had I personally looked at weather and seen the marine layer approaching, I would have filed for an IFR departure,” he wrote. “We would have been able to climb above the traffic in front of us, and ATC would’ve been there acting as a third set of eyes for safe separation.”
To prevent himself from adopting the passenger mindset, the flight instructor decided in the future he would remain engaged in the flight’s progression and be ready to offer assistance regardless of who was pilot in command.
“I had made the trip to relax and get away for an afternoon, and my decision to disengage from the planning and execution of the return flight proved detrimental and was a missed opportunity to act as a mentor to a fellow aviator,” he concluded.
In contrast, another pilot was totally focused on the task at hand, situationally aware and mentally flexible.
A Cessna 152 flight instructor conducted a flight to practice air work in a local practice area. When done, he decided to head back to his home field. During a shallow descent, he noticed a smell and then saw smoke coming out of his instrument panel.
“I immediately turned all electricals and the master switch off. At this point of time, I wanted to land as soon as possible,” he wrote.
He spotted a field northeast of his position and chose that as his precautionary landing site. He headed to the field and prepared for an off-airport landing. Even though he was high and fast on final approach, he managed to land the plane successfully undamaged.
In his NASA report, he concluded that he saw the incident as an opportunity to teach his students how to mentally prepare for emergency situations in a better way. He had emphasized emergency memory item training as a way to prepare for critical situations. His own off-airport landing showed him that was not enough. He would now equally emphasize the importance of having a mindset focused on situational awareness.
Of all the mindsets I researched for this column, perhaps the best is the “growth mindset.” It’s all about knowing when to stick to one’s beliefs and when to adjust to reality. And all the safest pilots possess it.