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Old dog, new tricks

Updated: May 21, 2023

man standing in front of aeroplane

For the last 9 years I have been flying an aircraft I built myself. I think I'm pretty reasonable at flying it, I have learned what to do and when, what flight control and throttle settings to use, what speeds to maintain for the various phases of flight. How the engine sounds, how the aircraft behaves and so on. What's this got to do with being alcohol free? Bear with me there is some relevance.

You could say I have formed a lot of neural networks that make it easy for my brain to manage all the "inputs" it receives and all the "outputs" it must perform during flight, especially in the landing phases. A lot is going on when you are landing an aircraft.

I was neatly reminded recently of how hard it is to change those neural networks when the "inputs" and "outputs"don't compute, and you expect to perform the same.

I was doing some transition training in another aircraft type that is quite different from the one I usually fly. For much of the training I was battling with what my brain thought it knew, i.e. how and what to do when coming in for a landing with a crosswind (winds coming from one side of the runway) I was too high... too low.. too slow... too fast.. too far to one side.. !

I almost had a tanty* when my brain decided it just wanted to go home after we had dropped in on the runway the third time. I just couldn't get all the sight pictures and coordination right in the first 6-7 landings. I was continuing to do things the way I had always done on my other aircraft!

We called it quits for the day, I was feeling a bit deflated at my less than stellar performance. Clearly I wasn't Top Gun material! The instructor was patient and understanding and had debriefed me on what he thought I was doing wrong, and what I was doing right.

That night I lay awake in the wee hours ruminating and going over the various phases of the training, what I was doing wrong, why was it so difficult. I was determined to do better the next day.

Is this sounding familiar?

Next day I was back for another round. We briefed on what I wanted to do, simple land the bloody thing properly! We spoke about requiring proper throttle management and maintaining the right setup for a landing and so on. We talked about what he thought I was doing in my current aircraft and what I wasn't doing in this one. I can pretty much set mine up for a landing and not touch the power until just before landing, just maintaining my speed with the controls. My "muscle memory" knows what to do with that aircraft. Not really appropriate for the training aircraft. Then off we went.

This time around I started to get it after one or two gos. I was getting the aircraft setup properly in the circuit and I made the turns at the correct heights and air speed. Approaching the runway I made small adjustments to the throttle and trim, and maintained alignment with the runway. Although I leveled off a little early, the aircraft settled on its wheels without banging it on. Not too bad, around again. Each time was a little better, my confidence grew a little bit and I started to relax. We practised simulated an engine failure in the circuit and landing without touching the power, I managed a good landing.

As we taxied back to the flight school I started to think about how this is kind of relevant for my clients, how difficult it can be to change something like drinking alcohol that has probably been for the most people, an automatic response.

Using alcohol for stress relief, for celebration, commiseration and everything in between. It becomes automatic, like a "muscle memory", but really it's a neural pathway that the brain can rely on for automatic functioning. You don't think about it too much, you just grab that drink when you feel the time, environment and social setting is right.

I mean, it does save brain compute power about making a decision to drink!

Changing a neural pathway takes some work, it is not easy, as I was reminded. Often the key is changing beliefs, performing new actions to "cement"or create a new pathway and getting confident about your action. For changing our relationship with alcohol we need to change our beliefs, change our emotions and take action to be successful in changing neural pathways that can keep us stuck in a particular behaviour. Subconsciously I believed the training aircraft could be flown like mine, I was relying on my automatic responses learned over time with my own aircraft. I just needed the experience to be reminded that is not the case. Once I recognised what was going on I could take the small steps with each practice landing to create those new pathways.

It was a good reminder of what my clients face when they first begin this journey and what encounter they along the way. Each step navigated builds knowledge and resilience. If you drop your bundle on your backside like my heavy landings, its ok, go around again and have another go. You'll get it.

If you have a near tanty like I did, brush yourself off, keep your hands on the controls and go around again. Your brain will be trying to protect you and telling you to go home early.

Recognise it and keep going!

You are building knowledge, experience and confidence and you will be successful.

*Tanty: acting like a two year old lying on the floor screaming and throwing ones arms and legs about. Commonly known as a tantrum.

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