One of the best snippets of advice an instructor once gave me was that, if anything, a pilot must be a creature of habit and routine.
“Snap decisions on the spur of the moment, disconnected work cycles and doing things differently for no reason have no place in my cockpit,” I remember him saying. “Habit and routine…habit and routine…” was mumbled in there somewhere. My mind at the time was trying to decide whether to do the approach checklist, talk on the radio or completely change the approach I had planned to do simply because, as I recall, a student ahead of me had done exactly that. On that day the advice went in one ear and out of the other, and I promptly decided to change the approach, talk on the radio and completely forgot the approach checklist. Will students ever learn?
Now, that advice still rings true every time I prepare for and operate a flight. Habit and routine, what does that mean? Remember, aeroplanes are designed to operate in a pre-determined way. Granted, there are many ways to ‘skin the cat’, but usually there is one accepted and endorsed way, either by the manufacturer or your aircraft operator/company standard operating procedures. Therefore it is incumbent on the pilot to know and follow those standard operating procedures. Often I have heard pilots say “but there is a better way to do this.” My response here is usually along the lines of “well that may be so, but until the procedure is changed let’s stick to how it is currently done. We can approach the chief pilot later with the suggestion.” Procedures are created to enforce habit and routine into pilots and by achieving this, the operations become safer.
The creation of habit is the result of routine. Doing things the same way over and over again not only ensures that the procedure is done correctly, but also that the procedure over time becomes ingrained in the individual as a habit. For example, this is the basis for accepted procedures such as the cockpit set-up ‘flow.’ By doing the flow in the same sequence every occasion, there is less chance that steps will be forgotten or missed. Take it a step further than the mandated flow however. Here, personal habits such as doing things in the same way every time you first sit in the cockpit will ensure that you don’t forget to grab your headset out of your bag, place your charts in easy reach, and adjust the seat to the correct position. Jump in and attack the preflight differently every time and I guarantee one day you will depart with your charts laying out of reach behind the back seat. Don’t laugh, it has happened and will again.
During the preparation for an approach, if I had stuck to my broad routine of briefs, checks, then radio call I would not have found myself time compressed and grabbing at any opportunity to seemingly make my life easier by switching to a visual approach at the last minute. No preparation, no thought and no routine guaranteed my approach would turn into a shambles. Believe me, it did. If, however, I had previously thought about switching to a visual, and went back to a personal work cycle for approach changes then I may have taken a step back and began the process from the beginning and taken it one step at a time.
Don’t get me wrong here, I am not advocating pilots turn into blind robots mindlessly doing the same thing over and over again; we have autopilots for that. But simply for new pilots to think about habit and routine and the effect these two words may have on your operations. Believe me, once you are in an airliner cockpit on a busy short turnaround with lots of interruptions, distractions and time pressures, being able to fall back on habit and routine will often ensure things are not missed. And if they are, that they are hopefully picked up.
As a pilot you are allowed to change your mind. In fact some of the most indecisive people I know are pilots! However, once in a cockpit, their operations are methodical and precise: a creature of habit and routine. Make it a goal to become one. Happy flying!